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The term Berber is a variation of the Latin original word Barbarian, earlier in history applied by Romans specifically to their northern hostile neighbors from Germania (modern Germany) and Celts, Iberians, Gauls, Goths and Thracians. The variation is a French one when spelled Berbere and English when spelled Berber. The term appeared first in the 4th century in the religious conflicts between Saint Augustine, a Numidian Berber-Roman bishop of the Catholic faith, and the Berber Donatists of the Donatism faith who were allies of the Barbarian Vandals. The Vandals migrated from Iberia (modern Spain and Portugal) where they were assailed by the Gauls allied to the Romans, and settled west of the Roman city of Carthage (in modern Tunisia) in the highlands (in modern Algeria).
Amazigh and Berber
The Greek term "βάρβαρος / βάρβαροι" was originally a derogatory term for all non-Greek speakers. The nonsense syllables "bar-bar" have no meaning in Greek; the term implied that all languages other than Greek were a collection of nonsense syllables. The term has been variously translated as "stutterers," "stammerers," or "babblers." But the term did include, from the beginning, a connotation of being non-civilized or "barbaric" that later became primary in cognate terms like "barbarian."
Contrary to ancient sources, the Amazigh/Imazighen (the Berber people) were not called barbarians by the Greeks and Romans. The Berbers were known as Libyans (Λίβυες or Λίβυοι) or Mazyes (Μάζυες or Μάξυες; Mazaces in Latin) to the ancient Greeks derived from Mazigh the ancestor of the Berbers. They were known under many other names to the Romans as Numidians, Mauri and Moors. The Egyptians called their western neighbors the Meshwesh and Libu.
Because the Berbers were called Al-Barbar by the Arabs, the modern European languages and other ones adopted it from the Arabic language. The Arabs probably did not use the name Al-Barbar mainly as a derogatory name. The ancient Arab-Muslim historians were not aware of the origin of that name, they cited some myths or stories about the name. The most notorious myth considers an eponymous Barbar as the ancestor of the Berbers. According to that myth, "the Berbers were the descendants of Barbar, the son of Tamalla, the son of Mazigh, the son of Canaan, the son of Ham, the son of Noah" (Ibn Khaldun, The History of Ibn Khaldun, Chapter 3). Another people called Berbers by medieval Arab and ancient Greek geographers, respectively, were the ancestors of the Somalis. Barbara, an ancient region on the northern coast of Somalia was referred to as Bilad al-Barbar (Land of the Berbers).
The fact that the name Berber is a strange name to the Berbers led to confusion. Some sources claim that the Berbers are several ethnic groups who are not related to each other. That is not accurate, because the Berbers refer to themselves as Imazighen singular: Amazigh, throughout all of North Africa from Morocco to Algeria, Tunisia and Libya including the Egyptian oasis of Siwa and about half of the Sahara Desert. In addition, genetic studies suggest a strong genetic bond between all the inhabitants of modern-day North Africa west of the Nile river.
The origins of both the names Berber and Amazigh is ambiguous. The oldest cited reference to "Amazigh" goes back to the neighboring ancient Egyptians when they mentioned an ancient Libyan tribe called Meshwesh. Those Meshwesh are supposed by some scholars to be the same ancient Libyan tribe that was mentioned as Maxyans by the Greek historian Herodotus.
- Jarret, Fitzloff (1996). Provinciae Imperii Romani. A Project by Students of Roman History University of South Dakota.
- Pierre, Benoît (1920). p.135 Atlantida: (L'Atlantide) (1920). Duffield and Company. p. 686.
- Raunig, Walter (2005). Afrikas Horn: Akten der Ersten Internationalen Littmann-Konferenz 2. bis 5. Mai 2002 in München. Otto Harrassowitz Verlag. p. 130. ISBN 3-447-05175-2. "ancient Arabic geography had quite a fixed pattern in listing the countries from the Red Sea to the Indian Ocean: These are al-Misr (Egypt) -- al-Muqurra (or other designations for Nubian kingdoms) -- al-Habasha (Abyssinia) -- Barbara (Berber, i.e. the Somali coast) -- Zanj (Azania, i.e. the country of the "blacks"). Correspondingly almost all these terms (or as I believe: all of them!) also appear in ancient and medieval Chinese geography"
- F.R.C. Bagley et al., The Last Great Muslim Empires, (Brill: 1997), p.174
- James Hastings, Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics Part 12: V. 12, (Kessinger Publishing, LLC: 2003), p.490