Names of the Berber people

The ethnonym Berber dates to the 19th century, derived from Barbary, the term for the Maghreb coast used during the early modern period, itself from Greek barbaria "land of barbarians". The contemporary self-designation current mostly in Morocco is Imazighen (singular Amazigh). This term is common in Morocco, especially among Central Atlas, Rifian and Shilah speakers in 1980,[1] but elsewhere within the Berber homeland sometimes a local, more particular term, such as Kabyle (Kabyle comes from Arabic: tribal confederation) or Chaoui, is more often used instead in Algeria.[2]

The Berber tribal populations of antiquity are known as Numidians and later as Mauri in classical antiquity. These are umbrella terms that would include populations whose self-designation was a variety of tribal names, although Strabo asserts that Mauri was also used indigenously. The Libu of ancient Egyptian sources, eponymous of the name Libya may also have been an early Berber or Proto-Berber population.


The term Berber is a variation of the Greek word barbaros (barbarian), which had, earlier in history, been applied by the Romans, specifically to their northern hostile neighbours from Germania and the Celts, Iberians, Gauls, Goths and Thracians. The variation is French when it is spelled Berbère and English when it is spelled Berber. The term started to appear in the 4th century in the religious conflicts between Saint Augustine, a Numidian Berber-Roman bishop of the Catholic faith, and the Berber Donatists, who were allied with 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).

Derived terms include the toponym Barbary and the animals Barb horse and Barbary duck.

The Greek term "βάρβαρος / βάρβαροι" was originally a term for all non-Greek speakers and was not necessarily used derogatively. 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." (Compare the widespread belief that the Dutch term Hottentot, a term for the Khoikhoi people that came generally to mean 'barbarian', originated as an onomatopoetic term.[3]) The term did in origin refer to any people of "incomprehensible speech" (cf. names for Germans), including Persia and Egypt; its connotation of uncivilized rudeness (cf. Philistine and Vandal), now the primary meaning of the term "barbarian", appears to have emerged in the Roman era or with the Migration period.

Because the Berbers were called Al-Barbar by the Arabs, the early modern Barbary seems to be a re-adoption of the name from Arabic.[citation needed]Muslim historiography has an eponymous Barbar as the ancestor of the Berbers: "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 successively called Berbers by medieval Arab, ancient Greek and ancient Egyptian geographers 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).[4][5][6]


The Egyptians, Greeks, Romans and Byzantines mentioned various tribes with similar names living in Greater Libya (North Africa) in the areas in which Berbers were later found. Later tribal names differ from the classical sources but are probably still related to the modern Amazigh. The Meshwesh tribe represents the first thus identified from the field. Scholars believe it would be the same tribe called a few centuries after in Greek Mazyes by Hektaios and Maxyes by Herodotus, and it was then called the Mazices in Latin sources and related to the later Massylii and Masaesyli. All of those names are similar and perhaps foreign renditions to the name used by the Berbers in general for themselves, Imazighen.

Laredo (1954)[7] proposed that Amazigh could be derived from the name of the ancestor Mezeg, the translation of biblical ancestor Dedan son of Sheba in the Targum. According to Leo Africanus, Amazigh meant "free man".[citation needed] Etymologically, the name may be related to the well attested "aze" (strong), "Tizzit" (braver) or "jeghegh"[8] to be brave/courageous. It also has a cognate in the Tuareg word "Amajegh", meaning "noble".[9][10]

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ "INALCO report on Central Morocco Tamazight: maps, extension, dialectology, name" (in French). Archived from the original on July 27, 2010. Retrieved October 2, 2012.
  2. ^ Mohand Akli Haddadou (2000). Le guide de la culture berbère. Paris Méditerranée. pp. 13–14.
  3. ^ "Hottentot, n. and adj." OED Online, Oxford University Press, March 2018, Accessed 13 May 2018.
  4. ^ 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
  5. ^ F.R.C. Bagley et al., The Last Great Muslim Empires, (Brill: 1997), p.174
  6. ^ James Hastings, Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics Part 12: V. 12, (Kessinger Publishing, LLC: 2003), p.490
  7. ^ Abraham Isaac Laredo, Bereberos y Hebreos en Marruecos. Madrid: Instituto de Estudios Africanos. 1954.
  8. ^ Alojali (1980). : 83. Cite journal requires |journal= (help); Missing or empty |title= (help)
  9. ^ Brett, M.; Fentress, E.W.B. (1996), The Berbers, Blackwell Publishing, pp. 5–6
  10. ^ Maddy-weitzman, B. (2006), "Ethno-politics and globalisation in North Africa: The berber culture movement*" (PDF), The Journal of North African Studies, 11 (1): 71–84, doi:10.1080/13629380500409917, retrieved 17 July 2007