Proto-Berber language

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Proto-Berber is the reconstructed proto-language from which the modern Berber languages stem. Proto-Berber was an Afroasiatic language, and its descendants (the Berber languages) are sisters to the Egyptian language, Cushitic languages, Semitic languages, Chadic languages, and the Omotic languages.[1]


Proto-Berber shows features which clearly distinguish it from all other branches of Afroasiatic, but modern Berber languages are relatively homogeneous, suggesting that whereas the split from the other known Afroasiatic branches was very ancient, on the order of 10000~9000 BP, according to glottochronological studies,[2] Proto-Berber might be as recent as 3000 BP. Louali & Philippson (2003) propose, on the basis of the lexical reconstruction of livestock-herding, a Proto-Berber 1 (PB1) stage around 7000 BP and a Proto-Berber 2 (PB2) stage as the direct ancestor of contemporary Berber languages.[3]

In the third millennium BC, proto-Berber speakers spread across the area from the central North Africa to Egypt. In the last millennium BC, another Berber expansion created the Berber peoples noted in Roman records. The final spread occurred in the first millennium BC, when the Tuareg moved into the central Sahara, by then possessing camels;[4] in the past, the northern parts of the Sahara were much more inhabitable than they are now.[5]

The fact that there are reconstructions for all major species of domestic ruminant except for the camel in Proto-Berber implies that its speakers produced livestock and were pastoralists.[6]


Some earlier attempts to derive the phonemic inventory of proto-Berber were very Tuareg-influenced, due to the perception of it being particularly archaic.[7]


Karl G. Prasse and Maarten Kossmann reconstruct three short vowels /a/, /i/, /u/ and four long vowels /aa/, /ii/, /uu/ and /ee/.[7][8] Their main reflexes in modern Berber languages are shown in the following table:

Reflexes of PB vowels in modern Berber languages[9]
*PB Zenaga Tuareg /
and others
*a a ӑ ə
*i i ə ə
*u u ə ə
*aa a a a
*ii i i i
*ee i e i
*uu u u u

Tuareg and Ghadames also have /o/, which seems to have evolved from /u/ by vowel harmony in Tuareg[8] and from *aʔ in Ghadames.[10]

Allati gives /a/ /i/ /u/ /e/ and /o/.[11] Alexander Militarev reconstructs the vowels /a/, /i/, /u/ in his proto-forms.[12]


Maarten Kossmann reconstructs the following consonantal phonemes for Proto-Berber:

Consonant phonemes[7][10]
Labial Dental Post-al./
Velar Uvular Glottal
Plain Pha. Plain Lab.
Nasal m n̪ː




Fricative f


Trill r̪ː

As in modern Berber languages,[13] most Proto-Berber consonants had a homorganic tense counterpart, with some exceptions such as w~ggw, γ~qq.[7]

The consonants *ɟ and *g have remained distinct in some Zenati languages:[7]

PB Tam. Ghad. Riff Chen.
g ɟ ʒ ʒ
*g g ɟ y g

Similarly, Proto-Berber *c, corresponding to k in non-Zenati varieties, become š in Zenati (although a fair number of irregular correspondences for this are found).[7] For example, căm "you (f. sg.)" becomes šəm. (This change also occurs in Nafusi and Siwi.)

Eastern Berber languages:

Proto-Berber *-əβ has become -i in Zenati.[14] For example, *arəβ "write" becomes ari. (This change also occurs in varieties including the Central Atlas Tamazight dialect of the Izayan, Nafusi, and Siwi.)

Ghadamès and Awjila are the only Berber languages to preserve proto-Berber *β as β;[15] elsewhere in Berber it becomes h or disappears.


Karl G. Prasse has produced a comprehensive reconstruction of Proto-Berber morphology based on Tuareg.[16] Additional work on the reconstruction of Proto-Berber morphology was done by Maarten Kossmann.[17] Proto-Berber had no grammatical case. Its descendants developed marked nominative which is still present in Northern Berber and Southern Berber / Tuareg. In some cases Proto-Berber lost it thereafter, recently in Eastern Berber and Western Berber (Zenaga).[18]

Independent personal pronouns[edit]



father *ʔab(b)-


  1. ^ Allati (2002:3)
  2. ^ Militarev, A. (1984), "Sovremennoe sravnitel'no-istoricheskoe afrazijskoe jazykoznanie: chto ono mozhet dat' istoricheskoj nauke?", Lingvisticheskaja rekonstrukcija i drevnejshaja istorija Vostoka 3, Moscow, pp. 3–26, 44–50 
  3. ^ Louali & Philippson 2003, "Les Protoméditerranéens Capsiens sont-ils des protoberbères ? Interrogations de linguiste.", GALF (Groupement des Anthropologues de Langue Française), Marrakech, 22-25 septembre 2003.
  4. ^ Heine 2000, p. 292.
  5. ^ Heath 2005, pp. 4-5.
  6. ^ Blench 2006, p. 81.
  7. ^ a b c d e f Kossmann, M.G. (1999): "Essai sur la phonologie du proto-berbère", Rüdiger Köppe Verlag, ISBN 978-3-89645-035-7
  8. ^ a b K.-G. Prasse (1990), New Light on the Origin of the Tuareg Vowels E and O, in: H. G. Mukarovsky (ed), Proceedings of the Fifth International Hamito-Semitic Congress, Vienna, I 163-170. In earlier publications, Prasse had argued that /e/ and /o/ did not go back to Proto-Berber.
  9. ^ Kossmann (2001a)
  10. ^ a b Kossmann (2001b)
  11. ^ Allati (2002:42)
  12. ^ Berber etymology
  13. ^ Kossmann, M.G.; Stroomer, H.J.: "Berber Phonology", in Phonologies of Asia and Africa, 461 - 475 (1997)
  14. ^ See also Maarten Kossmann, "Les verbes à i finale en zénète", Etudes et Documents Berbères 13, 1995, pp. 99-104.
  15. ^ Kossmann 1999:61.
  16. ^ Prasse (1972-1974)
  17. ^ See Publications of Maarten Kossmann
  18. ^ König 2008, p. 288.
  19. ^ Dolgopolsky, Aron (1999). From Proto-Semitic to Hebrew. Milan: Centro Studi Camito-Semitici di Milano. p. 11. 


  • Allati, Abdelaziz (2002). Diachronie tamazighte ou berbere (in French). Publications de L'Universite Abdelmalek Essaâdi. p. 296. ISBN 9981-61-015-1. 
  • Blench, R. (2006). Archaeology, language, and the African past. Rowman Altamira. p. 361. ISBN 0-7591-0466-2. 
  • Boukouss, Ahmed (2009). Phonologie de l'amazigh. Institut Royal de la Culture Amazigh. p. 445. ISBN 9954-28-019-7. 
  • Ehret, Christopher (1995). Reconstructing Proto-Afroasiatic (Proto-Afrasian): vowels, tone, consonants, and vocabulary. University of California Press. p. 557. ISBN 0-520-09799-8. 
  • Heath, Jeffrey (2005). A grammar of Tamashek (Tuareg of Mali). Walter de Gruyter. p. 745. ISBN 3-11-018484-2. 
  • Heine, Bernd; Derek Nurse (2000). African languages: an introduction. Cambridge University Press. p. 396. ISBN 0-521-66629-5. 
  • Kossmann, Maarten (2001a), "L'origine du vocalisme en zénaga de Mauritanie", in Ibriszimow, Dymitr; Vossen, Rainer, Etudes berbères, pp. 89–95 
  • Kossmann, Maarten (2001b), Afrika und Übersee 84: 61–100  |chapter= ignored (help)
  • König, Christa (2008). Case in Africa. Oxford University Press. p. 343. ISBN 0-19-923282-2. 
  • Prasse, Karl G. (1972–1974). Manuel de grammaire touarègue (tăhăggart) 3. Copenhagen. 

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