Guanche language

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Native to Formerly,Spain (Canary Islands)
Region Canary Islands
Ethnicity Guanches
Extinct 17th century[1]
  • Berber
    • Guanche languages
      • Guanche
Language codes
ISO 639-3 gnc
Glottolog guan1277[2]

The Guanche language, also known as Amazigh, is an extinct Berber language that was spoken by the Guanches of the Canary Islands until the 17th century or possibly later. It died out after the conquest of the Canary Islands as the Guanche ethnic group was assimilated into the dominant Spanish culture. The Guanche language is known today through sentences and individual words that were recorded by early geographers, as well as through several place-names and Guanche words that were retained in the Canary Islanders' Spanish.


Guanche has been classified by modern linguists as a Berber language.[3][4][5] Recognizable Berber words and numerous Berber grammatical inflections have been identified.[1]


The name Guanche originally meant "man from Tenerife",[6] and only later did it come to refer to all native inhabitants of the Canary Islands. Although different dialects were spoken across the archipelago.

Ancient Guanche Libyco-Berber engravings found in Fuerteventura

Archaeological finds on the Canaries include both Libyco-Berber and Punic inscriptions in rock carvings, although early accounts stated the Guanches themselves did not possess a system of writing.

The first reliable account of Guanche language was provided by Genovese explorer Nicoloso da Recco in 1341, with a list of the numbers 1–16, possibly from Fuerteventura. Recco's account reveals a base-10 counting system with strong similarities to Berber numbers.

Silbo, originally a whistled form of Guanche speech used for communicating over long distances, was used on La Gomera, El Hierro, Tenerife, and Gran Canaria. As the Guanche language became extinct, a Spanish version of Silbo was adopted by some inhabitants of the Canary Islands.


Guanche numerals are attested from several sources, not always in good agreement (Barrios 1997). Some of the discrepancies may be due to copy errors, some to gender distinctions, and other to Arabic borrowings in later elicitations.

Numeral Recco
(song, 1582)
(c. 1685)
Marín de Cubas
(1687, 1694)
(copy of 1678)
(attrib. to 1632)
(1995 reconstruction)
1 vait* *be ben, ven-ir- becen~been, ben-ir- ben, ben-ir- been (ben?), ben-i- *wên *yiwan
2 smetti, smatta- *smi liin, lin-ir- liin, sin-ir-~lin-ir- lini (sijn) lini, lini- *sîn *sin
3 amelotti, amierat- *amat amiet amiet~amiat, am-ir- amiat (amiet) amiat *amiat *karad
4 acodetti, acodat- *aco arba arba arba arba *akod *hakkuz
5 simusetti, simusat- *somus canza~canse canza cansa canza *sumus *sammus
6 sesetti, sesatti- ? sumus sumui~sumus sumus smmous *sed *sadis
7 satti *set sat sat sat (sá) sat *sa *sah
8 tamatti *tamo set set set set *tam *tam
9 alda-marava,


? acet~acot acot acot acot *aldamoraw *tizah~tuzah
10 marava *marago marago marago marago marago *maraw~maragʷ *maraw

* Also nait, an apparent copy error. Similarly with alda-morana for expected *alda-marava.

Later attestations of 11–19 were formed by linking the digit and ten with -ir: benirmarago, linirmarago, etc. 20–90 were similar, but contracted: linago, amiago, etc. 100 was maraguin, apparently 10 with the Berber plural -en. Recco only recorded 1–16; the combining forms for 11–16, which did not have this -ir-, are included as the hyphenated forms in the table above.

Spanish does not distinguish [b] and [v], so been is consistent with *veen. The Berber feminine ends in -t, as in Shilha 1: yan (m), yat (f); 2: sin (m), snat (f), and this may explain discrepancies such as been and vait for 'one'.

Cairasco is a misparsed counting song, besmia mat acosomuset tamobenir marago. Ses '6' may have got lost in the middle of somuset ( ← *somussesset).

Starting with Cedeño, new roots for '2' and '9' appear ('9' perhaps the old root for '4'), new roots for '4' and '5' (arba, kansa) appear to be Arabic borrowings, and old '5', '6', '7' offset to '6', '7', '8'.


  1. ^ a b Maarten Kossmann, Berber subclassification (preliminary version), Leiden (2011)
  2. ^ Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds. (2017). "Guanche". Glottolog 3.0. Jena, Germany: Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History. 
  3. ^ Richard Hayward, 2000, "Afroasiatic", in Heine & Nurse eds, African Languages, Cambridge University Press
  4. ^ Andrew Dalby, Dictionary of Languages, 1998, p. 88 "Guanche, indigenous language of the Canary Islands, is generally thought to have been a Berber language."
  5. ^ Bynon J., "The contribution of linguistics to history in the field of Berber studies." In: Dalby D, (editor) Language and history in Africa New York: Africana Publishing Corporation, 1970, p 64-77.
  6. ^ "Section 14". The Encyclopædia Britannica: A Dictionary of Arts, Sciences, Literature and General Information. Encyclopædia Britannica. 1910. p. 650. 

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