“Meat” and “drink” in Libyan Berber

The previously mentioned Facebook group has been continuing its activity – particular credit should go to Sami Halasa and Faycel Marir, for asking many dialectologically interesting questions.  Two recent ones seem interesting enough to share, and illustrate slightly different isogloss patterns – as usual, the Jebel Nefusa minus Yefren+Al-Qalaa and Wazzin stands out, but this time it shows significant internal divisions too, in a different place each time.

Meat“: aksum in dark green, aysum in green, usəm in yellowish-green, isan in white.


Aksum/aysum is pretty well universal in Berber along the Mediterranean – showing the usual Nefusi vowel shift in usəm – while isan is more associated with Tuareg.  It’s possible that isan is related to aksum/aysum/usəm: in Ghadames, it appears that isan is actually the irregularly formed plural of aksəm.  If so, however, I don’t understand the relationship well: was -um a singulative? or perhaps just -w, with -un-w > -um?

Also interesting is “he drinks“: isəss in green, itəssu/isəssu in yellowish green, yəssaw in white:


Of these, isəss, as the most irregular form, is presumably original (cf. Kossmann 2008); the other two have been partially regularised to fit better with more common conjugations.  The Nalut form looks exactly like Siwi, but that may be coincidence.  Sokna shows a combination of both innovations: itəssaw.


Umberto Paradisi is known best for the work he did on the several understudied dialects of Awjila and El-Foqaha. However, he has also published one text on Zwara Berber. I have rerecorded this story and discussed it with a native speaker, below you find the translation.

My informant told me that this ritual is still celebrated today.

tə́lt iyyám n uwə́ssu á ytəmm di-s əlmizán g užənná.

“During the three days of Awəssu, Libra will appear fully in the sky.”

  • tə́lt iyyám ‘three days’
  • n ‘of’, Paradisi records an m here as an assimlation of the n plus a following u. When I recorded this story, my informant would consistently pronounce it without the assimilation, despite the original text that I showed him having a translation. This seems to be an indication that for the speaker this rule is not active, or at least not in this context.
  • uwəssu ‘A summer ritual’, in the Etat d’Annexion (EL awəssu)
  • a Marker of the future
  • y-təmm aor.3sg.m. ‘to finish, complete’, in this context ‘appear fully’
  • di-s ‘in’ in the pre-prepositional form + 3sg. prepositional pronoun ending.
  • əlmizán ‘Libra’, a constellation that consists of three starts.
  • g ‘in’
  • užənná ‘sky’, in the État d’Annexion

íḍ aməzwár a yə́ffəɣ ítri, táni a yə́ffəɣ táni n itrán, əttálət a yə́ffəɣ ttálət n itrán. Baʕdén əlmizán.

“On the first night a star will come out, the second (night) the second of the stars will come out, on the third (night) the third of the stars will come out. After that: Libra.”

  • íḍ ‘night’
  • aməzwár ‘first’
  • y-ə́ffəɣ aor.3sg.m. ‘to come out’
  • ítri ‘star’
  • táni ‘second’
  • itrán ‘stars’, should be in the État d’Annexion, but is apparently not distinguished form the État Libre in Zwara.
  • (ə)ttálət ‘third’
  • baʕdén ‘then, after that’

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Towards a Libyan/Tunisian Berber dialect atlas

The polls on the previously mentioned Libyan Berber site are a wonderful data source, notwithstanding occasional difficulties caused by inexact transcription.  Here are a few more, selected from the minority of posts that include Wazzin:

Sun“: tufut in white, tfuyt/tfwit in green, təfuṯ in dark green:


Son“: təṛwa in white, məmmi in green:


Year“: suggəs/sukkəs in white, asəggas/asəggʷas in green, asəkkʷas in dark green, and (Arabic) əlʕam in yellow.


Note that, each time, the eastern and western extremes of the Berber-speaking area of Nefusa – Wazzin, Yefren, and Al-Qalaa – group outside of the core Nefusi area and with more Zenati-like dialects of the region.  One gets the same impression from other posts which sadly exclude Wazzin, eg:

Donkey” (حاشاكم:) ziṭ/aziṭ in white, aɣyul in green, aɣɣul in dark green:


Dog“: yudi in white, aydi / ayəddi in green, ayḏi in dark green, aɣərzul in blue:


That’s not to say, of course, that the central Nefusi dialect area is always homogeneous; there seems to be a certain number of isoglosses separating the Jadu area from the Nalut area.  Consider, for instance:

Figs“: iməṭkən in white, iməṭšan/iməṭšən in green, ifərgas in blue.  (I’ve ignored a few attestations of the Arabic loan kəṛmus, since they are inconsistent.  The form iməṭšən is attested only in the Nalut area, but some speakers from the same areas are writing iməṭšan.)


For all of these varieties, available grammatical descriptions are at best inadequate; practically nothing has been published on the dialects of Yefren, Wazzin, or even the Nalut region.

“Hand” in NW Libyan/S Tunisian Berber

“Hand”, probably to be reconstructed as *a-fuʔs, is one of the best-conserved words across Berber – I don’t think I’ve come across any variety that has replaced it, much less borrowed it.  Its phonetic form, however, varies significantly, and nowhere more than along the Libyan-Tunisian borderlands.  Recently, a Facebook group for Libyan Amazigh asked its readers how they say “hand”; the results give a pretty good picture of variation across northwestern Libya, which can easily be filled out from published sources for the Tunisian side of the border (notably Gabsi 2003).  I’ve mapped the results below, using the following system:

  • white: ufəs
  • green: afus / əfus (it’s impossible to distinguish the two without better-transcribed data)
  • blue: fus

The most widespread forms across Berber are Zenati fus (eg Rif, Chaoui, Chenoua, Siwi…) and non-Zenati afus (eg Shilha, Kabyle, Awjila…), although in this region the latter comes with a twist not seen elsewhere: at least in Djerba and Zuwara, the a-/ə- disappears if a suffix is added, eg Djerba afus “hand” > fus-iw “my hand” (Brugnatelli 1998:120). The form ufəs is far more restricted: the only region it has been reported in, apart from Nefusa, is Ghadames, a couple of hundred kilometres to the southwest.  And, as the map below shows, even within this region it seems to be limited to a well-defined core area.  The differences between Yefren+Al-Qalaa and the rest of Nefusa are easily explained by the presence of a relatively populous Arabophone region in between, around Zintan (and even a cursory look at the same Facebook group suggests that Berber speakers in this region aren’t getting along too well with people from Zintan.)  For Wazzin, comparison with Douiret suggests that it might represent a continuation of the dialect that used to be spoken in the extreme south of Tunisia.  Yet on this point, even close neighbours like Cheninni and Douiret differ, suggesting a more complex history than one might have expected…

"Hand" in Berber varieties near the Libyan-Tunisian border

“Hand” in Berber varieties near the Libyan-Tunisian border

Ammud əglimǝn – the mosque of the leathered ones

Ibrahim Sultan, a member of the Awjila Berber community and resident of Awjila, recently posted an interesting story pertaining to local history on his Facebook. The story is about one of the older mosques of the oasis (see here for a short video showing such extremely old mosques there) given in Arabic, but the most important part is a few phrases in Berber, which provide a compelling climax to the tale. The Berber is of course written in Arabic script, and provides an interesting glimpse at how a semi-native speaker would write Awjila Berber. Ibrahim seems to have heard the story from an older, probably fluent, Awjila speaker and then written it down in somewhat summarized form using his own words. The fact that he does not speak Awjili fluently probably explains some of the oddities in verbal morphology, agreement, and syntax. Indeed, there are a number of interesting features of  Ibrahim’s idiolect, though I’ll only mention a few here (but there is a comments section for a reason!).

We’ve obtained Ibrahim’s permission to re-post and translate; the original Arabic is given first, as Ibrahim wrote it, followed by a translation, and rough transcription of the Berber based on the standards of Marijn’s new book. A line by line parse is after the jump.

‫امود اقلیمن …. یحکی ان غزاه جاءو لیغزو اوجله قبل عدة اعوام مضت .لباسهم من الجلد .. وعندما جاء المؤذن لرفع اذان الفجر تعرضو له لکی یوضح لهم الاغنیا فی البلاد والقاده لیبداء الغزاه منهم .. فقال لهم المؤذن .. دعونی ارفع الاذان اولا لکی اسهل علیکم الامر .. فالناس ستاتی لتصلی بلا سلاح وانتم یا غزاه اختبو تحت هذا الجدار .. ولا تتحرکو حتی تقام الصلاه .. فوافق الغزاه .. .. فاذن المؤذن الاذان التالی .. بالامازیغیه .

“ammud əglimǝn … It is said that some raiders came to raid Awjila a number of years ago. They wore leather clothes. When the muezzin came to call the dawn prayer, they presented themselves to him so that he could tell them who the leaders and rich people in the town were so that they could start with them. So the muezzin told them ‘Allow me to call the prayer first, that way it will be easier to show you. The people will come to prayer with no weapons, and you should all hide under this wall. Don’t move until the prayer starts.’ The raiders agreed, and so the muezzin called the prayer with the following words, in Berber:”

الله اکبر ..تقلیمن اوشندا . یغلینی کا غارکم حاجت یغلین یوغنتت سغارکیم . الله اکبر الله اکبر … وان غارص تان افیو ایقیدادس، ایاغید دتکم تان ابدار ابزالیم .. وناغارص کا وان افیو یتادت اید افیر الفلانی ..یصفصفین ‬

‫اید افیر ادفعات فلسین .الله اکبر الله اکبر

allahu akbar təglimən uša-n=da. yə-ġǝlliy-ǝn=a ka ġar-kim ḥažət yə-ġǝlliy-ǝn y-uġ-ən=tǝt sġar-kim. allahu akbar allahu akbar. wan ġaṛ-ǝs tan afiw iqidadǝs, a=yaġi=d dit-kim tan abdar əbẓalim…u na ġaṛ-ǝs ka wan afiw yǝ-tadǝt ayǝd afir alflani .. yǝṣǝfṣǝfin ayǝd afir adfǝʕat fǝll-ǝssin. allahu akbar allahu akbar.

Allahu akbar. Leathered-ones(?) came. They do not want you to have anything, they want to take it from you. Allahu akbar, allahu akbar. He who has a gun should bring it, and with you gunpowder. He who does not have a gun should come to such-and-such a wall. They should set themselves up in rows and push this wall over on them!”

الترجمه … وصف المؤذن ما یبغی الغزاه لناس وقال لناس ان غزاه لابسین جلود قادمین لسلبکم و من عنده بندقیه او بارود یحضرها معه للمسجد .. والاخرین یاتی لکی ندفع علیهم الحائط المختبیین تحته ..ووصف لهم الطریق التی یسلکونها بحث لا یشعر الغزاه بحضورهم وعدد الاهلی داخل المسجد .. فاستجاب الناس .. واسقطوا الحائط علی روس الغزاه.. ومن نجاء اطلقوا علیه النار وقتل الغزاه بالکامل .. وتم انقاد المنطقه من شرهم .. بقت هذه القصه سر من اسرار اوجله لکی لا تتعرض المنطقه تدعیات الانتقام .. … .. فکتیرین یستهین باللغة وفوائد اللغه .. … من قصص الاجداد..‬

The muezzin described what the raiders wanted from the people, and told them that raiders wearing leather were coming to rob them, so whoever had a rifle or ammunition should bring it to the mosque. And others should come to push down the wall the raiders were hiding under. And he described the way they should come so that the raiders would not sense their presence, or that of the number of families inside the mosque. So the people responded, toppled the wall on the heads of the raiders, and opened fire on whoever survived that. In this way they killed all the raiders, and the area was saved from that evil. This story has become one of Awjila’s secrets, so that it (Awjila) wouldn’t fall prey to revenge. Many people trivialize the language and interest in the language… but well, this is one of our ancestors’ stories.”

Ibrahim told me that the mosque (known these days as مسجد تونيت masjid tunit) has been abandoned for about 10 years now, and that its eastern wall is still of mud brick, while the western one (perhaps the one toppled on the invaders?) is now made of cement.

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Two new publications on Eastern Berber

Recently two authors of this blog, Marijn van Putten and Lameen Souag, have both released publications on Eastern Berber languages in the Berber Studies series of Rüdiger Köppe Verlag.

Lameen Souag has released Berber and Arabic in Siwa (Egypt) describing the contact between Siwa Berber and Arabic as well as providing a very useful insight into the grammar and structure of Siwa itself. Besides the main body of the work, there is a large portion dedicated to a fully glossed and translated text, which also has marked accent throughout. For those interested in the accent in Siwa Berber and the Eastern Berber languages in general, this fantastic material.

Marijn van Putten has released A Grammar of Awjila Berber (Libya). A descriptive grammar of the Awjila language based on all the available written sources, most prominently Umberto Paradisi’s work. It includes all Awjila Berber texts fully glossed and translated and a large root based lexicon in the back.

Awjila Berber – MVP

Siwa Berber – LS














Together with the also fairly recently published grammar of Ghadames Berber by Maarten Kossmann (also in the Berber Studies), there certainly is a lot more to read on Eastern Berber than there ever was!

Further evidence for the linguistic heritage of Sokna

I recently came upon an essay (linked here) by a certain al-Mukhtār ‘Uthmān al-‘Afīf entitled العادات الاجتماعية و الدينية و الموسمية في مدينة سوكنة الليبية (“Social, Religious, and Seasonal Customs of the Libyan City of Sokna”), who is also the author of a book about 19th/20th-century Sokna. In his discussion of the different holidays celebrated in Sokna, al-‘Afīf cites some particular songs and phrases used on those holidays. Even better, some of those phrases are entirely in, or include words from, languages other than Arabic. ‘Berber!’, you’re thinking. Yes, indeed, but there also seem to be some other languages represented.

al-‘Afīf doesn’t say much about the use of Berber in Sokna. In his book on the history of Sokna, his section on the “local dialect” (cf. 2002: 172-175) is completely derivative of Lyon, with no new information. This essay is much more informative, if only unintentionally, since the author’s aim here is only to discuss holidays, not linguistics. al-‘Afīf also does not even mention any other possible languages of Sokna (i.e. Hausa, Kanuri, Songhay; see Kossmann’s post on the languages formerly spoken in the Fezzan).  What we can glean from this is that, for some traditions, a few non-Arabic words and phrases survive, frozen, in the Arabic dialect of Sokna. But the author clearly knows exactly what they mean, which is a great help. He also comments that the last two phrases, which are sung during the holiday of Ashoura, originally come from the ‘people of Sudan’.

The following are the passages of interest from that essay, with a necessarily hypothetical transcription, Arabic translation (as given by the author), English translation, and glosses with discussion. Comments are welcome.

I. قيو بيه .. راكو شايدنه .. قيو هيه .. قيو تغرنه
qayu baya .. rākū šāyid-ennu .. qayu haya qayu taġra-nnu

al-‘Afīf gives the following translation:
انني احمل جهاز سيدي، على مشهد من الناس، الى منزل سيدتي، و انا عبدهم مدى الحياة
“I am carrying my master’s goods(?) in public, to the home of my mistress, and I am their slave for life.”

  • qayu baya – related to Hausa(?) kayar uba “goods of master”? qayu alone means ‘servant’ (cf. qâyu in Sarnelli, Fog. qāyu, Awj. aqǝyùn ‘black slave’), perhaps from a non-Berber language.
  • rākū – perhaps related to Hausa(?) rako “escort hither on journey”?
  • šāyid-ennu is perhaps ‘my master’:  Arabic  sayyid > šāyid with unconditioned palatalization?, with Sokna 1sg. possessive suffix -ennu. But if it is a loanword, why is there no Arabic definite article?

II. سلمها دادا يزه .. من البرطيل انخ وزه
sǝllǝm-hā dādā yǝzza(?) .. min ǝlbǝrṭīl-ennax wǝzza

al-‘Afīf comments:
و يقصد بهذا البيت ان قفتها (برطيلها) احضرت لها وزة
“And this verse means that her basket (bǝrṭīl-ha) delivered to her a goose…”

  • sǝllǝm-hā is Arabic ‘he/it delivered (to) her’. If the following noun is the verbal subject, then it is understood as grammatically masculine; if it is the verbal object (which I assume), then the suffix – refers to it.
  • dādā yǝzza is presumably the name of a nanny (probably of sub-Saharan African origin). dādā is Libyan Arabic word for ‘nanny’, which may have actually been derived from Berber anyway. I assume that the following word is to be transcribed as yǝzza in order to rhyme with wǝzza ‘goose’.
  • ǝlbǝrṭīl-ennax ‘our basket’, Arabic loanword with attached def. article, with the Sokna 1pl. possessive suffix -ennax. Borrowing the word together with the definite article al- is normal for Berber. al-‘Afīf seems to misunderstand the possession as 3sg.f.

The translation would thus be: “Dāda Yǝzza, it brought her; from our basket a goose.”

Maarten Kossmann, in an email, writes that the character Dāda Yǝzza may be well-known:

“There is a song in Figuig that kind of reminds me of the Ramadan song. I don’t know its Sitz im Leben, but it is quite well-known (I quote it from memory):

a mama yzza / wš-axdd aziza / a ss-nawy i baba / baba u da ylli / illa i tmuṛawin / timuṛawin bǝ’dǝnt (I forgot the last few lines)

o Miss Izza / give us aziza (a type of high-quality dates) / we’ll give it to daddy / daddy isn’t there / he is away (lit. in the countries) / the countries are far away.”

III. بابا كيري … قم قاجي … بابا كيري … فيه لحمة … بابا كيري …فيه خبزة
bābā kīrī … qǝm qājī … bābā kīrī … fīh laḥma … bābā kīrī … fīh xubza
“Baba Kiri, ? ?, Baba Kiri, here’s (some) meat, Baba Kiri, here’s (some) bread.”

  • Baba Kīrī is a character during Ashoura, one covers oneself with white mud and goes house to house followed by young children who ask for some bread and meat for him (according to al-‘Afīf).
  • qǝm qājī – the first is perhaps qqim impv. ‘stay’ (Marijn)?

IV. قجرنبي … تاتا لارمبي
qǝjrǝmbī … tātā lārǝmbī

  • qǝjrǝmbī is explained by al-‘Afīf as being the equivalent of ام جرمبي ‘the mother of jǝrǝmbī(?)’, whoever that is.
  • tātā lārǝmbī is likewise unknown to me.

And lastly, from a footnote at the end of the essay: كركدو kǝrkǝdu? means خشن “to toughen, roughen”. Possibly Kanuri? Compare: kə́r-gada “they plaited/braided”; kər-gada “they thickened” (thanks to Lameen).

-A. Benkato