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]

Another dating system is based on examining the differences that characterize ancient stages of Semitic and Egyptian in the third millennium BC. Many researchers[7] have estimated these differences to have taken four millennia to evolve, resulting in breaking this language family in six distinct groups (Semitic, Egyptian, Berber, Cushitic, Chadic and Omotic) in the eighth millennium BC. Proto-Afro-Asiatic is thus ten millennia B.C. prior, since it took at least two millennia before it reached the stage where these different branches of this language family evolved.

From this perspective, Proto-Berber was the first Berber stage to depart from Proto-Afro-Asiatic in the eighth millennium B.C. It was restructured several times during the almost ten millennia that separated it from its modern shape that has preserved few relics[8]

Berber reconstructions[edit]

Having projected the structural features of ancient Semitic onto Proto-Afro-Asiatic : “the known stage of Semitic is also the stage of Hamito-Semitic”[9] Afro-Asiatic diachronic studies have transferred the problems characterizing this type of reconstruction to the different groups of this language family, including Berber. The reconstructions of the ancient stages of this language are based, thus, on comparisons with Semitic in the first place, in order to reconstruct the part common with the afro-Asiatic core that it had lost (guttural sounds, trilateral roots, derivation type …). They are also based on the inter-dialectal comparisons who take the part common to the modern Berber varieties for Proto-Berber which these would be developed,[10] or on Touareg, considered by some authors like Prasse[11] (cf. Prasse, 1972-1974) as the variety that preserved proto-Berber

These reconstructions remained, thus, within Semetic, which constitutes their starting and ending points, and between the modern Berber elements that evolved from each other. The reconstructed Proto-Berber phonological systems – the only level in the whole system where we have reconstruction proposals – are very close to those of modern Berber varieties (cf. also Prasse, idem) from which we have extracted a common part that was projected onto proto-Berber stage. The historical evolution of Berber is thus reduced to the transposition of dialectal variations on the diachronic level.


Some earlier attempts to derive the phonemic inventory of proto-Berber were very Tuareg-influenced, due to the perception of it being particularly archaic.[12]


Karl G. Prasse and Maarten Kossmann reconstruct three short vowels /a/, /i/, /u/ and four long vowels /aa/, /ii/, /uu/ and /ee/.[12][13] Their main reflexes in modern Berber languages are shown in the following table:

Reflexes of PB vowels in modern Berber languages[14]
*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[13] and from *aʔ in Ghadames.[15] The influence of the Semitic vocalic system (three short vowels /i/, /u/, /a/ and three corresponding long vowels (/i:/, /u:/, /a:/) is evident in the proposed reconstruction model.

Allati has reconstructed a Proto-Berber vocalic system made of six vowels: i, u, e, o, a[16] If we put aside the long vowels that are not proto-Afroasiatic (cf. Diakonoff, 1965 : 31, 40 ; Bomhard et Kerns, 1994 : 107, among others) and that evolved in some modern Berber varieties (Toureg, Ghadames …) this system is preserved in the south-oriental Berber varieties including Touareg. It is equally close to the proposed proto-Afroasiatic vocalic system (cf. Diakonoff, 1965, 1988 among others). Alexander Militarev reconstructs the vowels /a/, /i/, /u/ in his proto-forms.[17]


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

Consonant phonemes[12][15]
Labial Dental Post-al./
Velar Uvular Glottal
Plain Pha. Plain Lab.
Nasal m n̪ː




Fricative f


Trill r̪ː

As in modern Berber languages,[18] most Proto-Berber consonants had a homorganic tense counterpart, with some exceptions such as w~ggw, γ~qq.[12]

The consonants *ɟ and *g have remained distinct in some Zenati languages:[12]

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).[12] 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.[19] 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;[20] elsewhere in Berber it becomes h or disappears.

The Proto-Berber consonantal system reconstructed by Allati (cf. Allati, 2002, 2011) is based on remains from the ancient stages of this language preserved in the ancient toponymical stratas, in Libyan inscriptions and in the modern Berber varieties. Stops :b, t, d, k, g; Fricative:s, nasal : n; liquid: l, r (cf. Allati, 2002, 2011)

The stops of this phonological system have evolved, since the proto-Berber stage and during following stages, into variants from which other consonants have been progressively formed (idem).


Karl G. Prasse has produced a comprehensive reconstruction of Proto-Berber morphology based on Tuareg.[21] Additional work on the reconstruction of Proto-Berber morphology was done by Maarten Kossmann.[22] 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).[23]

Independent personal pronouns[edit]



father *ʔab(b)-

The relics of the ancient morphological segments preserved in the modern varieties, in the Libyan inscriptions and in the ancient toponymical stratas show that the basis of word formation is a monosyllabic lexical unit (vc, cvc) whose vowels and consonants are part of the root.[25]

Its forms and its characteristics are similar to those of the base of word formation postulated for proto-Afroasiatic.[26] The composition and the reduplication/doubling process whose traces are preserved in all the Afroasiatic branches, including Semitic where they are fossilized in the quadrilaterals and quintiliterals, constitute the type of word formation at that stage of Berber.[27]

These remains also show that agglutination is the Proto-Berber mode of the grammatical adjunction of morphemes whose placement was not fixed in relation to the elements that they determine (cf. Allati, 2002, 2011b/c, 2012, 2013, 2014). The relations between the predicate of existence, the core of the utterance in the proto-Berber stage, and its determinants[28] ordered around it without a pre-established order, are indicated with affixes (cf. idem).

The Proto-Berber relics preserved at the lexico-semantic and syntactic levels show that the proto-Berber syntactic construction is of the ergative type (cf. idem). The proto-Berber statement core is a predicate of existence, a lexical base[29] which posits the existence of a fact, of a situation…i.e. it expresses a state, a quality (cf. Allati, 2002, 2011b/c, 2013 below) having the value of a stative (cf. idem et Allati, 2008). It is not oriented in relation to its determinants (agentive subject, object…) whose syntactic functions are insured by casual elements including the casual affix (ergative) that indicates, as needed, the agent or the subject. Similar elements attested in Cushitic, Chadic and Omotic, and remains preserved in Semitic drove Diakonoff to postulate the same type of syntactic construction for proto-Semitic et proto-Afroasiatic (cf. Diakonoff, 1988, 101 ; cf. equally Allati, 2008, 2011a, 2012). Many elements equally show that proto-Berber did not have the noun-verb contrast, the rection contrasts, diathesis and person (cf. idem).


  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. ^ Bomhard, A.R & Kerns, J.C., 1994, The Nostratic Macrofamily. A study in Distant Linguistic Relationship, Berlin - New-York, Mouton. among others)
  8. ^ Allati, A. 2002. Diachronie tamazight ou berbère, Tanger, Publications de l’Université Abdelmalek Essaâdi ; 2011c. “De l’ergativité dans le berbère moderne”, in Studi Africanistici, Quaderna di Studi berberi e Libico-berberi, I, Napoli, 13-25. 2013. La réorganisation de l’ergativité proto-berbère : de l’état à l’état / procès, in Sounds and Words through the Ages : Afroasiatic Studies from Turin, ed. by Mengozzi, A et Tausco, M., Alessandria, Edizioni dell’Orsa, 177-190.
  9. ^ Cohen, M. 1947. Essai comparatif sur le vocabulaire et la phonétique chamito-sémitique. Paris, Champion 59),
  10. ^ Galand, L. 1988, "Le berbère" in, Les langues dans le monde ancien et moderne, III, les langues chamito- sémitiques, ed. by Jean Pierrot & David Cohen, Paris, éditions CNRS, 207-242.
  11. ^ Prasse, Karl-G. 1973-74. Manuel de grammaire touarègue (tahaggart). Copenhague: Akademisk forlag.
  12. ^ 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
  13. ^ 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.
  14. ^ Kossmann (2001a)
  15. ^ a b Kossmann (2001b)
  16. ^ Allati, 2002, 2011, Histoire du berbère, I. Phonologie, Tanger, PUAEFL.
  17. ^ Berber etymology
  18. ^ Kossmann, M.G.; Stroomer, H.J.: "Berber Phonology", in Phonologies of Asia and Africa, 461 - 475 (1997)
  19. ^ See also Maarten Kossmann, "Les verbes à i finale en zénète", Etudes et Documents Berbères 13, 1995, pp. 99-104.
  20. ^ Kossmann 1999:61.
  21. ^ Prasse (1972-1974)
  22. ^ See Publications of Maarten Kossmann
  23. ^ König 2008, p. 288.
  24. ^ Dolgopolsky, Aron (1999). From Proto-Semitic to Hebrew. Milan: Centro Studi Camito-Semitici di Milano. p. 11. 
  25. ^ Allati,A. 2002, 2011b. “Sur les reconstructions berbères et afro-asiatiques”, in Parcours berbères, Mélanges offerts à P. Galand et L. Galand, ed. by Amina Mettouchi, Köln, Köppe, 65-74. 2011c. “De l’ergativité dans le berbère moderne”, in Studi Africanistici, Quaderna di Studi berberi e Libico-berberi, I, Napoli, 13-25. 2012. “From proto-Berber to proto-Afroasiatic,” in Burning Issues in Afro-Asiatic Linguistics, ed. by Ghil‘ad Zuckermann, Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 62-74. 2013. La réorganisation de l’ergativité proto-berbère : de l’état à l’état / procès, in Sounds and Words through the Ages : Afroasiatic Studies from Turin, ed. by Mengozzi, A et Tausco, M., Alessandria, Edizioni dell’Orsa, 177-190.
  26. ^ Diakonoff, I. M. 1988. Afrasian languages. Moscou: Nauka, 42-56.
  27. ^ Allati, 2008. “Proto-berbère et proto-afro-asiatique : l’aspect”, in: Semito-Hamitic (Afroasiatic) Festschrift for A.B. Dolgopolsky and H. Jungraithmayr, ed. by Gábor Takács, Berlin, Dietrich Reimer, 19-26. 2009. “Sur le classement du lexique berbère”, in Etudes berbères IV, Essais lexicologiques et lexicographiques et autres articles. ed. by Rainer Vossen, Dymitr Ibriszimow, and Harry Stroomer, 9-24. Köln : Köppe, 9-24. 2015. La dérivation dans la morphologie berbère, forthcoming in Mélanges offerts à M. Peyron.
  28. ^ Including its privileged determinant which is a patient not an agent.
  29. ^ That has the role of the verb and the noun in systems where the noun-verb contrast exists.


  • 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 (PDF). 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), "The Origin of the Glottal Stop in Zenaga and its Reflexes in the other Berber Languages", Afrika und Übersee 84: 61–100 
  • 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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