The Berbers (also called Amazigh people or Imazighen, “free men”, singular Amazigh) are an ethnic group indigenous to Northwest Africa, speaking the Berber languages of the Afroasiatic family. In actuality, Berber is a generic name given to numerous heterogeneous ethnic groups that share similar cultural, political, and economic practices. It is not a term originated by the group itself, and indeed the word may have been derived from the Greek ‘βαρβαρως’, the forerunner of the English word ‘barbarian’.
Amazigh & Berber
Historically, it is not clear how the name “Berber” evolved supposedly from the word “barbarian”. Contrary to some sources, the “Berber/Imazighen” were not called “barbarians” by the Greeks or Romans. The Berbers were known as “Libyans” to the ancient Greeks, and they were known under many names, like “Numidians” and “Moors”, to the Romans.
Due to the fact that the Berbers were called as “El-Barbar” by the Arabs, it is very probable that the modern European languages and the other ones adopted it from the Arabic language. The Arabs didn’t use the name “El-Barbar” as a negative name, because the ancient Arab historians were not aware of the origin of that name; so, they supposedly created some myths or stories about the name. The most notorious myth considers “Barbar” as an ancestor of the Berbers. According to that myth, the Berbers were the descendants of Ham, the son of Noah, the son of Barbar, the son of Tamalla, the son of Mazigh, the son of Canon… [Ibn Khaldun/ The History of Ibn Khaldun – Chapter III].
The fact that the name “Berber” is a strange name to the Berbers led to confusion. Some sources claimed that the Berbers are several ethnic groups who are not related to each others. That is not accurate, because the Berbers refer to themselves as “Imazighen” in Morocco, as well as Libya, Egypt (Siwa) and other parts in North Africa.
Not only the origin of the name “Berber” is unclear, but also the name “Amazigh”. The most common explanation is that the name goes back to the Egyptian period when the Ancient Egyptians mentioned an ancient Libyan tribe called Meshwesh. Those Meshwesh are supposed by some scholars to be the same ancient Libyan tribe that was mentioned as “Maxyans” by the Greek Historian Herodotus.
Libyans & Numidians
Both names, “Amazigh” and “Berber”, are relatively recent names in historical sources, since the name “Berber” appeared first in Arab-islamic sources, and the name “Amazigh” was never used in ancient sources. It is no less important to keep in mind that the Berbers were known by various names in different periods.
The first reference to the Ancient Berbers goes back to a very ancient Egyptian period. They were mentioned in the pre-dynastic period, on the so-called ” Stele of Tehenou” which is still preserved in the Cairo museum in Egypt. That tablet is considered to be the oldest source wherein the Berbers have been mentioned. The second source is known as The Stele of king Narmer. This tablet is newer than the first source, and it depicted the Tehenou as captives.
The second oldest name is Tamahou. This name was mentioned for the first time in the period of the first king of the “Sixth Dynasty” and was referred to in other sources after that period. According to Oric Bates, those people were white-skinned, blondish and with blue eyes.
Another important tribe was The Libou. This tribe was confusing for some scholars, because the name of this tribe emerges with the appearance of the so-called Sea People between the sixth and the fourth century BC. Nevertheless, the Libou were not considered as “Sea People” but as indegenous people, and the emigrating people collaborated with them. The name “Libou” would later be used, by the Greeks, to refer to all the Berbers, and not only the modern North African country of Libya. [Mohammed Mustapha Bazma/ Libya: this name in the roots of the history]
The Sea People and the Libyan tribes attacked Egypt but were defeated by the ancient Egyptians. Some Libyan/Berber tribes continued to emigrate into the Nile Delta where they served in the Egyptian army until a Libyan leader from the Meshwesh tribe could become a pharaoh. After that, his family served gradually in more important functions in Egypt.
In the Greek period the Berbers were mainly known as “The Libyans” and their lands as “Libya” that extended from modern Morocco to the western borders of ancient Egypt [Modern Egypt contains Siwa, part of historical Libya, that still speaks the Berber language].
During the Roman period, the Berbers would become known as Numidians, Maures and Getulians, according to their tribes or kingdoms. The Numidians founded complicated and organized tribes, and thereafter they began to build a stronger kingdom. Most scholars believe that “Alyamas” was the first king of the Numidian kingdom [Mohammed Chafik/ Highlights of thirty-three centuries of the history of Imazighen]. Massinissa was the most famous Numidian king, who made Numidia a strong and civilized kingdom.
The Berbers and their languages
There are between 14 and 25 million speakers of Berber languages in North Africa (see population estimation), principally concentrated in Morocco and Algeria but with smaller communities as far east as Egypt and as far south as Burkina Faso.
Their languages, the Amazigh languages / Berber languages, form a branch of the Afroasiatic linguistic family comprising many closely related varieties, including Tarifit, Taqbaylit and Tashelhiyt, with a total of roughly 14-25 million speakers. A frequently used generic name for all Berber languages is Tamazight, not to be confused with the language found in the High and Middle Atlas or Rif.