The name "Berber" derives from variants of the root "barbar," which exist in most Indo-European
sub-languages and Arabic. The Greek word "Βαρβαρος" (or the English transliteration, "barbaros")
was initially used to refer to non-native speakers (also as non-citizens) in a manner quite similar to the definition of
the Sanskrit word "barbara," which also means stammering.
Greek writers, Isocrates (436 - 338 BC) and Xenophon (430 - 354 BC) frequently used "barbaros" when referring to Persians (and other Asians), and
the ancient Romans used the word "barbarus" (feminine: barbara) to refer to foreigners, such as Huns, Gauls, and Africans. The Romans
expanded its definition to a more negative connotation (e.g. savage and uncivilized), and from the Roman use of the word, we get our present use
of "barbarian" in modern English, as well as variants in other European languages.
However, neither ancient Greek nor Roman writers used the term to specifically refer
to northwest Africa (Greeks commonly called this area "Libya" and to Romans, it was Mauretania).
The term "Berber," as it relates to Africans, was first used by medieval Arabic-speaking Muslim writers (from the Arabic word, "al-barbar") in a similar manner to
the original meaning of barbar--to refer to speakers of foreign languages. Arabic-speaking Muslim writers did not use it to refer to any particular
African region, culture, or ethnicity. Instead, the term referred to non-Arabic speaking Muslims who were also indigenous Africans (i.e., "black"). It was not until much later in history that Europeans began calling
the northwest African coast, "Barbary," and even later before they began referring to certain northwest Africans as Berbers.
History of the So-called "Berbers"
The city of Berbera in Somaliland
Medieval Muslim writers originally used "Al-Barbar" (variants of English transliterations include: Berber, Berberi, Berbera, Barbara, Barbari, etc.),
when referring to the non-Arabic speaking Muslims in Africa--not only in Northwest Africa, but in East and Central Africa as well.
For example, Ibn Battuta (1304-1368 AD), an Arabic-speaking Muslim traveler and writer, frequently used variations of the term during
his travels in East and Central Africa. Upon visiting the Somalian city of Zaila or Zeila, which lies just east
of a city aptly named Berbera, Battuta said:
"I travelled from Adan by sea for four days and arrived at the city of Zaila, the city of the Barbara, who
are a people of the blacks...the inhabitants of Zaila are black in colour, a majority of them Rafidi [Rafidi refers to Shiites or rejectors of the first caliphs]."
In Mogadishu, Battuta noted,
"The Sultan is as we have mentioned, called only by the title of
the Sheikh. His name is Abu-Bakr, son of the Sheikh Omar; he is
by the origin of the Berbers, and he speaks in Maqdishi, but now
the Arabic language."
Battuta also referred to the non-Arabic speaking Muslim leaders as Berbers while in Takadda, a city in Eastern Mali:
"...the qadi Abu Ibrahim and preacher Muhammed and the teacher Abu Hafs and the shaikh Sa'id ibn Ali set out
to call upon the sultan of Takadda who was a Berber named Izar. A dispute had occurred between him and the Takarkuri who
is also a sultan of the Berbers..."
Sultan of Sennar (c. 1821 AD), who reigned at the same time Pasha referred to Sennar as Berber
Even as late as the 19th century, we see that Turkish and Arab Muslims continued using "Berber" (or variants) to refer to people in areas outside Northwest Africa. In his Narrative of the expedition to Dongola and Sennar
ali Pasha, Turkish (Albanian ancestry) military leader of Egypt (1805-1848 AD) referred to Sennar or the Islamic kingdom south of Ottoman Egypt as Berber (there is even a city named Berber in Central Sudan):
On the 17th, the courier carrying the information to Cairo of this
expedition and its results, embarked in a canja
to descend the river as far as Berber, from whence he would proceed by
the desert to Egypt...We arrived at Nousreddin in
Berber in five days and nights...We stopped, during the night, for an
hour at Shendi...the river Nile, below the point of
junction with the great Bahar el Abiud, presents a truly magnificent spectacle.
Ortelius' Map of "Barbariae" in 1580s AD
It was actually Europeans who made the modern term "Berber" synonymous with Northwest Africans.
The practice originates in the late 1400s AD, when Sevillian historians such as Antonio de Nebrija (1441-1522) vowed to return
Andalusia from the "barbaric state" (i.e., "Barbaria") or the absence of Latin-based study due
to the previous invasions from Northwest Africa. Nebrija once stated,
I defeated Barbaria and succeed in expelling her from our land. She was well entrenched in Spain and
had illustrious captains in her army. Eager to destroy such a plague, I was, however, warned by Minerva...and told that this was not the way of
waging war. Attack, she said, Barbaria herself...In this manner you will succeed in expelling the monster and driving
her to the lands of the Sarmatians and remote Garamantes.
- Introductiones (1482)
Just as Nebrija suggested attacking "Barbaria herself," Spain went on the offensive in 1501, and by 1509 it captured Oran, a city on the modern-day Algerian
coast. Thereafter, variations of "Barbaria" in specific reference to the Northwest African coast suddenly appeared in literature and on
maps throughout Western Europe (Biledulgerid referred to the inland region of North Africa). One of the earliest examples was in Flemish cartographer, Abraham Ortelius' map of "Barbariae" which denoted the Northwest African coast
including present day Morocco, and the northernmost portions of Algeria, Tunisia and Libya. From that point until (and perhaps after) the 19th century AD, European cartographers largely used variants of "Barbaria,"
such as the Anglicized "Barbary Coast" or "Barbary States" to refer to this particular region (as well as the Ottoman corsaires or Turkish pirates
who operated the port cities), which is precisely when it was completely
under the control of the Ottoman Empire (starting with Emperors Selim I and Suleiman the Magnificent).
The French derivative of "Barbariae" was used on world maps after
they took control over Northwest Africa in 1830 AD. They called the region "Berbérie"
and eventually, they distinguished the Turkish and Arabic speaking people
who mainly lived along the coasts from the Tamazight speaking people who mainly lived inland whom the French began calling "Berbères." This quickly led to
the broader use of "Berber" to refer to all Tamazight speakers of inland Northwest Africa. In the 1830s, English historians began
referring to these people and their language as Beber, and English dictionaires began
defining Berber accordingly. In The Imperial Dictionary of the English Language
by John Olgive (1885), it was defined as "a person
belonging to a group of tribes inhabiting the mountainous parts of Barbary and portions of the Sahara; the language spoken by the Berbers,
and having affinities with the Semitic languages."
Ancient Tifinagh inscription in Essouk, Mali (c. 200 BC; c. Tagelmoust)
Tamazight, an ancient African language group, includes several sub-languages spoken by
various groups of Northwest African "Berbers" who have very different physical
characteristics and histories, but have united in recent years under their common
language and the ancient Tifinagh or "Lybico-Berber" script, which dates to 3000 BC. Although recently
accepted by the broader "Berber" community, roughly 5 million dark-skinned natives who live in present-day
Algeria, Libya, Morocco, Tunisia, Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso -- most of whom are called "Tuaregs" --
have continuously used this ancient African script. Their continued
use of the same ancient written and spoken language makes them a trustworthy source for insight on so-called
A Tuareg "Berber" in Algeria (c. Garrondo)
The so-called "Tuaregs" refer to themselves neither as "Tuaregs," nor "Berbers," rather "Amajegh,"
(or "Amazigh") which means "noble." This is most likely the origin of "Amazigh," the
accepted term collectively used by non-Tuareg "Berbers" -- contrary to popular beliefs
linking "Amazigh" to Mazigh (a son of Ham) or Leo Africanus' definition, "free man."
Although many Westerners mistakenly believe that all so-called "Berbers" are light-skinned people with stereotypical European facial
features, a simple examination of the history of the Amajegh (Tuareg) people, most of whom are dark-skinned, would easily refute such notions.
Even by the 19th century, Europeans who had personally encountered so-called Berbers thoroughly described their dark skin and stereotypical
"The people of Wadreag [in present-day central Algeria], or the Aith-Eregaiah and the Aith-Wurgelah, are black, and have woolly hair, flat noses, and
thick lips. When Mr. Hodgson first saw a native of Wadreag, he was quite surprised to hear him speak Berber [Tamazight]."
- James Crowles Prichard (1837)
"The color of the population of Tuggurt [capital of Wadreag] is black, and they are called Erwagha."
"Ghadames [in present-day western Libya] is a large town...the inhabitants speak the Berber language...Their complexion is black..."
- W.B. Hodgson (1831)