A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Friday, March 11, 2011

An Aside on Tifinagh

Yesterday was unusual given the current high level of politics and revolution in that two of the posts — one on Morocco and one on Libya — touched on Tamazight ("Berber") language issues. In the second of these I reproduced the flag used by some Tamazight-speakers as an international flag of the Amazigh (pl., Imazighen) people, and noted simply that "The character is in the ancient Tifinagh script." (It's actually the letter "Z" in Tifinagh.)

Now it says here (actually it says it up there under the masthead) that I'm supposedly "Putting Middle Eastern events in cultural and historical context." I'm reasonably well aware that for many of my readers who aren't specialists in things North African, "the ancient Tifinagh script" may not mean very much. (As a test case I asked my wife, who has an MA from the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, and she was unfamiliar with the term.) So let's take a brief break from ongoing revolutions and talk Tifinagh for a bit.

Now I've never studied any of the "Berber" languages (these days a somewhat politically incorrect term, since it comes from the same Greek root as "barbarian"), and therefore everything I say here is derivative of other people's expertise. The Wikipedia article isn't bad as an introduction.

Tifinagh (ⵜⵉⴼⵉⵏⴰⵖ in Tifinagh: don't blame me if the font doesn't display properly on your browser) is the name used in modern North African languages to refer to an ancient script known to classical historians as "Libyco-Berber" script. It is an alphabetic writing system seemingly ultimately derived from Phoenician, and presumably adapted by Berber-speaking peoples from the script of their Carthaginian neighbors. In fact, and this is one of the most intriguing things about it, "Tifinagh" is apparently formed from the Berber feminine prefix with the root "Punic," from the Latin word for Carthaginians, itself of course derived from the Greek name for the Phoenicians. (But it must have come through the Latin: the Carthaginians, like the Phoenicians and the early Hebrews as well, all referred to their own language as kan‘ani, "Canaanite.") So the name may mean "Punic characters" or "Phoenician characters," though the derivations are not always obvious. As with the Greek and Roman alphabets, both derived ultimately from the Phoenician, the shapes have changed noticeably. (There are other theories of origin; there's rarely unanimity on these kinds of issues.)

The original "proto-Tifinagh" or Libyco-Berber script was used in North Africa from roughly the 3rd century BC to the 3rd century AD. Variants were used as far afield as the Canary islands, where ancient inscriptions have been found and the indigenous language of the pre-colonial people known as Guanches shows affinities to Berber.

A form of Tifinagh survived the ancient world and the disappearance of other writing systems such as Punic. The Tuaregs of the Sahara, who speak a Berber language, retained a form of Tifinagh as their own writing system.

In recent decades, "Neo-Tifinagh" was adapted for the writing of other Tamazight languages besides Tuareg. Most publications in Tamazight, however, appear in Latin script, or sometimes in Arabic. In 2003, however, Morocco began to favor Neo-Tifinagh over either Latin or Arabic character, and the number of publications are increasing. In Algeria, I understand Latin script is most common in the Kabyle areas, Arabic among the Shawi (Chaoui), and Tifinagh in the deep Sahara. Many Imazighen see it as a "native" script (even if Punic was an import from the east a long time ago), an alternative to either copying the colonial powers by using Latin script, or adaptimg to the Arabic-speakers who have long suppressed Tamazight by using Arabic script for Tamazight.

For the truly interested, here's a French introduction to the pan-Berber alphabet in both Tifinagh and Latin from YouTube via a website devoted to the Shawi language (spoken in eastern Algeria), that via a website devoted to all things Shawi, and ultimately via Lameen Souag:

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