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date: 22 May 2017

Berber-Arabic Language Contact

Summary and Keywords

Since the start of the Islamic conquest of the Maghreb in the 7th century ce, Berber and Arabic have been in continual contact. This has led to large-scale mutual influence. The sociolinguistic setting of this influence is not the same, though; Arabic influence on Berber is found in a situation of language maintenance with widespread bilingualism, while Berber influence on Arabic is no doubt to a large degree due to language shift by Berber speakers to Arabic.

Linguistic influence is found on all levels: phonology, morphology, syntax, and lexicon. In those cases where only innovative patterns are shared between the two language groups, it is often difficult to make out where the innovation started; thus the great similarities in syllable structure between Maghrebian Arabic and northern Berber are the result of innovations within both language families, and it is difficult to tell where it started. Morphological influence seems to be mediated exclusively by lexical borrowing. Especially in Berber, this has led to parallel systems in the morphology, where native words always have native morphology, while loans either have nativized morphology or retain Arabic-like patterns. In the lexicon, it is especially Berber that takes over scores of loanwords from Arabic, amounting in one case to over one-third of the basic lexicon as defined by 100-word lists.

Keywords: language contact, loanwords, Arabic, Berber, Morocco, Algeria, Maghreb

1. Background

The present chapter presents an overview of contact phenomena between Berber and Arabic,1 languages that have been in contact since Arabic conquerors entered the Maghreb over 1,300 years ago. It will focus on contact within the Maghreb proper, that is Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, and western Egypt, but excluding contact with Tuareg and Mauritanian Berber. For the latter, see Souag (2016).

Berber is a close-knit group of languages, mainly spoken in the northern part of Africa, from the Atlantic coast to western Egypt. Subclassification of Berber languages proves to be extremely difficult (for recent approaches, see Souag, 2013, pp. 17–26; Kossmann, forthcoming), and is of little importance to this chapter; the range of linguistic differentiation within Berber reminds one of the Romance language family. Typologically, one may distinguish three major groups: Tuareg, mainly in Niger, Mali, and southern Algeria; Zenaga, spoken in Mauritania; and northern+eastern Berber, including all the varieties of the Atlas mountains, the southern Mediterranean, and the northern Sahara.

When considering Arabic, it is important to keep in mind that there is a huge difference between the written variety, Classical Arabic, which evolved into Modern Standard Arabic in the course of the last two centuries, and a myriad of spoken varieties. Although these spoken varieties are conventionally called dialects, the difference between them and the written standard is no less than that between Latin and modern Italian. While the written standard is more or less the same all over the Arab world, there are considerable differences between the various Arabic dialects, even within northern Africa.

All countries in northern Africa are characterized by the phenomenon of diglossia (Ferguson, 1959; Hudson, 2002; Sayahi, 2014). On the one hand, there is a language taught at school, and basically used when communicating in monologues: Modern Standard Arabic. This includes all written communication with the exception of rapid-interaction forms such as internet chat. It also includes spoken monologues, such as news bulletins, speeches, and the formal parts of sermons. In the formerly French colonized countries, the colonial language also plays an important role in these realms, to a large degree competing with Standard Arabic, for example by having news bulletins in both languages. On the other side of the spectrum, communication in dialogues is typically achieved by using dialectal Arabic or Berber. The monologue/dialogue dichotomy is not perfect, of course, and there are quite a number of monologal genres which are carried out in Arabic dialect or Berber (e.g., folk tales), while a specific blend of Standard and dialectal Arabic occurs in high-profile mass-media dialogues as found in talk shows and, sometimes, interviews (Boussofara-Omar, 2006). Moreover, while Standard Arabic has hardly any function outside the monologal domain, French is regularly used in conversations (Bentahila & Davies, 1992). Within Northern Africa, Standard Arabic and Berber therefore are found in different functional domains, and there is not much competition between them. This is the reason that the following presentation will focus on the interaction between Berber and Maghrebian Arabic and leave the role of Standard Arabic out of consideration.

Berber and dialectal Arabic in northern Africa have a long history of contact, leading to a degree of convergence that has lead scholars to propose a Maghrebian Sprachbund (Maas, 2002), or even to consider Maghrebian Arabic as relexified Berber (Elmedlaoui, 2000). While the latter is certainly exaggerated, it is worthwhile describing Arabic > Berber and Berber > Arabic influence in tandem. One has to realize, however, that the sociolinguistic settings of the two directions of influence are very different. Arabic influence on Berber is the result of a long history of coexistence, with high degrees of bilingualism on the part of Berber speakers. Except for some very local cases (notably Siwa/B|EG, Souag, 2009; Souag, 2013, pp. 28–34), language shift of Arabic speakers to Berber does not seem to have played much of a role. Moreover, because of the predominant endogamy within North African societies, mixed marriages are quite rare and seem to have been of less relevance to the history of language contact than in some other high-contact situations. On the other side of the coin, Berber influence on Arabic is no doubt to a large degree due to language shift from Berber to Arabic (on which see, among others, Lévy, 1998), as minoritary Arabic-speaking groups gradually assimilated more and more Berber speakers and groups.

While Arabic–Berber contact has been recognized and commented upon ever since scientific interest in northern African spoken languages emerged, there are relatively few in-depth studies of the phenomenon. The most developed study on one single variety is Souag (2013), who analyzes the impact of Arabic on the easternmost Berber language, Siwa/B|EG. On a more general scale, Kossmann (2013) provides an overview of Arabic influence on all Berber languages except Tuareg and Zenaga. As far as I know there exists no extensive analytical study of Berber influence on Maghrebian Arabic, but remarks and analyses are scattered over the literature (e.g., Diem, 1979; Marçais, 1956).

In the following, an overview of contact-induced change in Arabic and in Berber will be provided. Sound systems and syntax will be treated first, as they are in general less lexically bound, while morphology and lexicon will be treated afterwards.

2. Sound Systems

Berber and Arabic sound systems have converged at some points on a spectacular scale, while they have remained different on other points. The most salient point of convergence is found in syllable structure, which is related to the development of short vowels. Pre-contact Arabic and early reconstructible phases of Berber had vowel systems with two or three short vowels and three or more long vowels (known as “plain” vowels in Berber linguistics). The short vowels appeared in any position except word-finally in Berber, and the situation in the immediate ancestor of Maghrebian Arabic was probably similar. In neither of the language groups was there a strict relation of vowel distribution to syllable structure. Such systems are well preserved in varieties outside or on the margins of the Berber–Arabic contact zone, such as much of eastern Arabic and Tuareg Berber. In the Maghreb, on the other hand, this system underwent major changes. Taking Moroccan Arabic and Moroccan Berber as the two most evolved varieties, one can show the parallels, both in the evolution and in its results. Table 1 contains additional detail.

Table 1. Parallel changes in the vocalic and syllabic systems of Moroccan Arabic and Berber

Moroccan Arabic

Moroccan Berber

Vowel merger

The two original unrounded short vowels /ă/ and /ĭ/ have merged into one single vowel phoneme /ə/2; most instances of ancient */ŭ/ have merged with this phoneme too.

The (at least) two original short vowels have merged to one single element that can be represented as [ə]. In southern Moroccan Berber, this segment has no phonemic value, in other Berber languages the phonemic value is (at best) marginal (Kossmann, 1995).

/ŭ/ tends to be preserved in the vicinity of velar and uvular consonants. In some varieties, all short vowels have coalesced without any trace of rounding (cf. the difference between the Muslim and the Jewish dialects of Fes/A|MA, Lévy, 2009, p. 219).

Constraints on syllable structure

/ə/ and /ŭ/ are disallowed in open syllables. If, due to affixation or otherwise, a short vowel comes to stand in an open syllable, it is deleted; depending on the dialect, ensuing three-consonant clusters are broken by the insertion of a new schwa, or maintained as such.

Schwa is disallowed in open syllables. If, due to affixation or otherwise, a short vowel comes to stand in an open syllable, it is deleted; ensuing three-consonant clusters are broken by the insertion of a new schwa. In southern Moroccan Berber, syllable structure is entirely predictable from the inherent sonority of the segments (Dell & Elmedlaoui, 1985).


In some varieties, /ŭ/ can only stand in the vicinity of velars and uvulars. Such systems can alternatively be interpreted as containing only one single short vowel and labialized consonants.

Labialization of velars and uvulars is paramount in a large number of northern Berber varieties. Kossmann (1999, pp. 42–59) has argued that labialized consonants in Berber go back to a third original short vowel, *ŭ.

Phonetic realization

The “short vowels” are in many situations not realized segmentally. Their presence is visible, however, in the temporal organization of the consonant clusters (cf. Shaw, Gafos, Hoole, & Zeroual, 2009).

“Schwa” is in many situations not realized segmentally. Its presence is visible, however, in the temporal organization of the consonant clusters (Ridouane, Hermes, & Hallé, 2014).


*daxal(a) ‘he entered’

*azgăr ‘bull’

> dxəl

> azgər (/azgr/)

*yădxŭl ‘may he enter’

*izŭgran ‘bulls’

> yədxŭl (or /yədxʷəl/) ~ yədxəl

> izəgʷran (/izgʷran/) [Tashelhiyt/B|MA]

Dialectally, the details are different, and especially eastern Maghrebian varieties of Arabic and Berber have undergone different developments, or have only undergone part of the described evolution.

As a result of these developments, the syllabic/vocalic systems of Maghrebian Arabic and northern Berber are quite similar. They are not identical, however. Thus, for most Arabic varieties there is good evidence for a two-vowel contrast /ə/ vs. /ŭ/, while there is no reason to posit this for any Berber language, synchronically. Moreover, schwa is not phonemic, or only marginally so, in Berber (Kossmann, 1995), while it is used to express a number of important contrasts in Maghrebian Arabic, for example Moroccan Arabic məṛḍ ‘sickness’ vs. mṛəḍ ‘he fell sick’ (Maas, 2011, p. 43).

The development of the vowel system is often taken as evidence for a Berber substratum in Arabic (Chtatou, 1997; Elmedlaoui, 2000). The scenario is simple and logical: when Berber speakers shifted to Arabic, they imposed their specific syllable and vowel patterns on the newly acquired language. The argument is not watertight, however. In the first place, there are eastern Arabic varieties, especially in Syria and Lebanon, that show similar developments, such as partial merger of the short vowels and prohibition of short vowels in unstressed open syllables. While the developments in these varieties are less pervasive than in the Maghreb, they certainly could have provided a basis for further developments. In the second place, the Berber system is as innovative as the Arabic system. As there is no way to date the changes in Berber, any scenario is in principle possible; the change could have spread from Arabic, or it might be a parallel development in which it is impossible to make out who was first. Of course, a scenario with a Berber substratum is also still feasible.

In the consonant system, one remarks on the one hand large-scale takeover of individual phonemes, and on the other hand the maintenance of the distinction between Berber and Arabic structures (on which see Kossmann, 2013, 178ff.). Almost all Berber languages took from Arabic the pharyngeal fricatives /ʕ/ and /ħ/, the (nongeminated) uvular stop /q/, and the voiceless pharyngealized consonant /ṣ/. This takeover has been mediated by loanwords, but, by expressive extensions, is now also found in native words (Kossmann, 2013, pp. 199–201). On the other side, Maghrebian Arabic has acquired a number of phonemes that were probably absent in its immediate ancestor and that are found in Berber, especially /g/ and /ẓ/. To what extent this is an effect of Berber influence or just an independent development is difficult to establish, as lexical borrowing from Berber does not seem to have been a major factor in the emergence of these phonemes. On a local level, Maghrebian Arabic has undergone some major changes in the consonantal system that are without any doubt induced by Berber. Thus in Jbala/A|MA, there is pervasive lenition of oral plosives in a number of contexts (Colin, 1921; Behnstedt & Woidich, 2005, p. 177). The contexts of this lenition have an exact parallel in the adjacent Berber variety, Ghomara/B|MA (Mourigh, forthcoming), while (somewhat differently conditioned) lenition is general in the entire northern part of northern Berber.

One remarks that otherwise Arabic loans are integrated into Berber phonology wherever needed, and the other way round. Thus, Kabyle/B|AL applies consonant lenition to loans from Algerian Arabic, for example əçθəβ‎ ‘to write’ (used next to native aru; Dallet, 1982, p. 427) < Maghrebian Arabic əktəb. On the other hand, Jijel/A|AL (Marçais, 1956), while otherwise strongly influenced by Kabyle, takes over most lenited consonants as plosives, for example awtul ‘hare’ < Kabyle awθ‎ul.

3. Syntax

When it comes to syntax, there are many similarities between Maghrebian Arabic and Northern Berber structures (Ennaji, 1985). In view of the lack of historical studies on many aspects of Berber syntax and the difficulties in establishing the system of the immediate ancestor of Maghrebian Arabic, it proves very difficult to distinguish contact effects from parallel independent developments, and from continuations of pre-contact structures that coincidentally (or because of very old heritage) were similar in Berber and Arabic. Thus, one remarks the shared preference for finite-verb constructions in complement clauses, for example with the verb ‘to want’:

Berber-Arabic Language Contact

Only an extensive study of the history of complementation in both languages could shed light on the origin of such similarities.

When looking on a more detailed level, some syntactic crossover is evident. Thus, in many varieties of Maghrebian Arabic the inherited structure of the comparative, involving a special form of the adjective and the ablative preposition mən ‘from,’ has been substituted by a construction with the neutral form of the adjective and a locative preposition ʕla ‘on.’ This closely parallels the Berber construction (Aguadé & Vicente, 1997). In a more complicated way, Jijel/A|AL took over the Berber predicative particle d as a focus marker (Marçais, 1956; Kossmann, 2014b).

On the other side, in quite a number of Berber languages the ancient system of coordination, which has a comitative preposition in NP-coordination and no marker in clausal coordination, has developed in a way that resembles the Arabic situation, where both NP-coordination and clausal coordination are marked. As shown in Kossmann (2013, pp. 337–345), the exact development is different in each variety, and the results are rarely exact calques on Arabic.

On the level of the noun phrase, some Maghrebian Arabic varieties have a Berber-inspired construction in making possessor phrases to kinship terms. In Berber, most kinship terms are inherently possessed, and a possessor phrase is only admitted in combination with a possessive pronoun, for example gʷma-s ‘his/her brother’; gʷma-s n Kltum ‘Keltouma’s sister,’ lit. ‘her sister of Keltouma’ (Tashelhiyt/B|MA; Galand, 2010, p. 139). In a number of Maghrebian Arabic varieties, this construction has been taken over, and one finds phrases such as xt-u ‘his sister,’ xt-u ddə mḥəmməd ‘Mohammed’s sister,’ lit. ‘his sister of Mohammed’ (Jijel/A|AL; Marçais, 1956, p. 611, for discussion of similar constructions in some Moroccan varieties, see Fischer, 1907; Heath, 2002, pp. 463–464).

Relative clauses also show a number of possibly contact-induced developments in both language groups. Originally, the two systems were quite different. Reconstructible Berber probably had a system where the relative clause was put after its head without any further linker, and in which there was little pronominal reference to the head in the relative clause (Kossmann, 2013, pp. 369–407). Arabic, on the other hand, has resumptive pronouns in relative clauses. Moreover, it makes a difference between indefinite-head relative clauses, which have no linker, and definite-head relative clauses, which have a linker. There has been some mutual influence in northern Africa. Unlike many other Arabic dialects, some Maghrebian Arabic varieties allow for direct object relatives without pronominal resumption (Brustad, 2000); as such constructions are also possible in Classical Arabic, this is not necessarily an innovation. Many Berber varieties, on the other hand, have developed a syntactic difference between indefinite-head and definite-head relative clauses. Moreover, especially in eastern varieties of Berber, pronominal resumption in relative clauses has become obligatory in some or all types of relative clause.

4. Morphology

Morphological influence comes in two types: morphology that concerns both native and nonnative lexicon, and morphology that only concerns borrowed terms. In the second situation, there exists no doubt that the morphology has been transmitted through the medium of lexical borrowing. In the first situation, it is quite conceivable that the morphological borrowing was perpetrated by lexical borrowing first and then spread to native elements, but this cannot always be proven beyond doubt.

Morphological borrowing that concerns both native and nonnative lexicon is relatively rare, both in Arabic and in Berber. In Maghrebian Arabic, the only well-attested case is the introduction of the Berber feminine pattern ta-…-t in order to express abstractions of human behavior. In Berber, the feminine marker ta-…-t is used extensively for many different functions, including marking natural gender and diminutives. Among these, abstractions of human behavior represent a relatively marginal case, cf. aryaz ‘man,’ taryazt ‘behavior fitting for a man, courage’ (Middle Atlas/B|MA, Taïfi, 1991, p. 573). In Maghrebian Arabic, the pattern is exclusively used in this specific meaning (Marçais, 1977, p. 111). In Algeria, it often adds a negative evaluation to the habit, while in Moroccan Arabic, ta-…-t is the normal way of expressing names of professions, for example nəʒʒaṛ ‘carpenter,’ tanəʒʒaṛt ‘the craft of carpentry’ (Harrell, 1966, p. 162). One can easily imagine a scenario in which this pattern was generalized from Berber abstract nouns. However, one remarks that the pattern is hardly ever used with nouns borrowed from Berber, which makes such a scenario at best unsubstantiated.

Arabic patterns in Berber lexicon are also quite rare. The clearest examples are found in two varieties on opposite ends of the Berber-speaking world. The first case is the introduction of comparative forms of adjectives in Siwa/B|EG (Souag, 2013, pp. 101–105). As mentioned above, many Arabic varieties have a special form of the adjective for making a comparative, while Berber does not. In Siwa, most adjectives are borrowings from Arabic, and apparently the morphological pattern of the comparative was borrowed with them. This pattern has spread to the relatively small number of Berber adjectives that are maintained in this language, for example:

Berber-Arabic Language Contact

The second case is found in Ghomara/B|MA. In this language, the Arabic diminutive pattern has been extended to Berber nouns (Mourigh, 2017, p. 99ff.). As in the case of the Siwa comparative, this involves the introduction of highly complicated patterns of stem changes, for example:

Berber-Arabic Language Contact

In both cases, Arabic expresses categories that in Berber are not morphologically expressed, or only partly so. There is no morphological equivalent to the Arabic comparative. As for the diminutive, Berber normally uses productive gender switch in order to express differences in size. Diminutives are marked by feminine gender, and can therefore only be distinguished when the neutrally sized expression is masculine; with feminine nouns, the diminutive cannot be expressed. Ghomara circumvents this asymmetry by employing the Arabic diminutive pattern for its nouns.

Otherwise, morphological borrowing is concomitant to lexical borrowing. The same lexeme is borrowed in several inflectional forms that preserve their original differences. As a result, the morphology of the donor language is replicated in the recipient language. In most cases, this leads to a system where the borrowed inflections coexist with the native system (Parallel System Borrowing, in the terminology of Kossmann, 2010). The divide between the two is of an etymological nature, borrowed inflections being used with borrowed items only, while the native system is used with all native items.

In Berber/Arabic contact, there are both borrowings that take native morphology and borrowings that preserve (part of) their original morphology. The lexical distribution of the two options, integration and nonintegration, has been studied for Arabic loans in Tarifiyt/B|MA in Kossmann (2013, pp. 230–233). In general, the choice seems to be lexical; however, in some semantic classes integration or nonintegration is strongly dominant. Thus, borrowings describing human qualities and occupations almost always receive Berber morphology, while nouns describing noncountable entities have a strong tendency to keep Arabic morphology.

Nonintegrated Arabic nouns in Berber are characterized by a number of properties, not all of which correspond neatly to their Arabic originals. In the first place, the Arabic definite article (l- or assimilated forms) has become an inextricable part of the noun; instead of marking definiteness, its only function is to flag a word as a noun. In the second place, Arabic plurals are taken over as such. Thus one has ssuq ‘the/a market’ (< Arabic s-suq ‘the market’) and ləswaq ‘(the) markets’ (< Arabic l-əswaq ‘the markets’). In the third place, the Arabic F:SG suffix -a is substituted by a suffix -ət (except in Kabyle/B|AL and Ghomara/B|MA, which mostly simply have -a), for example lbəlɣət ‘type of shoe’ (Figuig/B|MA; Benamara, 2013, p. 289) < Ar. l-bəlɣa. The history of this -ət is not clear (Kossmann, 2013, pp. 212–214; Souag, 2013, p. 54, and others). It is similar to the Berber F:SG ending -t; however, its behavior in syllabification is different. It is identical to the Arabic pre-genitive (Status Constructus) allomorph of ‑a, but this is a form that cannot be combined in Arabic with the definite article. It has been proposed that -ət was introduced from a type of Arabic that had *-at in all positions, and that it continued to be employed as a scheme for inserting borrowings once this Arabic variety was superseded by other forms of Arabic (Turner, 2015). The main problem with this solution is that there are no other indications for such a dialect of Arabic in the Maghreb.

As a result, the overall structure of Arabic-morphology nouns is similar to that of nouns with Berber morphology, cf.

Berber-Arabic Language Contact

This similarity in structure is exploited by some Berber languages in the formation of collectives and unity nouns. Both in Berber and in Arabic, collectives are masculine while unity nouns are feminine. In some languages, for example Ayt Seghrushen/B|MA and Beni Iznasen/B|MA, this system has been modified in the sense that an Arabic-morphology masculine collectives almost always correspond to Berber-morphology feminine unity nouns, for example (Beni Iznasen/B|MA; Kossmann, 2000, p. 50):

Berber-Arabic Language Contact

Something similar is found with Arabic-morphology borrowings that have Berber-morphology diminutives and augmentatives (Kossmann, 2008, 2014a).

Berber nouns that were borrowed into Maghrebian Arabic can also be integrated or nonintegrated. In this case, an important distinguishing feature is the fate of the Berber prefix. In integrated borrowings, the prefix is absent, and the noun functions morphologically and morphosyntactically just like any other Arabic noun, for example lus, PL lwas ‘a brother-in-law (brother of the husband)’; l-lus, PL l-lwas ‘the brother-in-law’; lusa ‘a sister in-law,’ PL lusat (Harrell, 1966, p. 73) vs. its Berber source alwəs, PL iləwsan ‘a/the brother-in-law’; talwəst, PL tiləwsin ‘a/the sister-in-law’ (Figuig/B|MA, Benamara, 2013, p. 65).

In nonintegrated borrowings, the prefix is often maintained. In such cases, there are some major morphological and morphosyntactic issues. The most salient among these is the fact that such nouns are incompatible with the Arabic definite article; thus the Berber loans akbal ‘corncob’ and tata ‘chameleon’ in Moroccan Arabic can have both definite and indefinite interpretation, and it is impossible to have **l-akbal or **t-tata (Maas, 2011, p. 162). It should be noted that this is not only the case for Berber loans with a prefix. In a number of cases, nouns lacking the prefix—both in Berber and in Moroccan Arabic—are also incompatible with the Arabic definite article, for example xizzu ‘carrots’; muka ‘owl.’

The incompatibility of Berber borrowings with the Arabic article is quite general, both geographically and lexically, and extends to relatively recent loans such as atay ‘tea’ (possibly a 17th-century loan from Dutch, Stroomer, 2002, p. 17). When it comes to plural formations, things are less clear. Sources tend to remain unclear about the plurals of most Berber borrowings taken over with the prefix, which may point to a certain reticence by the speakers to use such forms. The varieties for which there is enough data on this specific topic never show full takeover of Berber plurals. Instead, the plural is marked by a dedicated suffix that goes back to Berber but seems to be regularized. In the countryside of Jijel/A|AL, this suffix is ‑ən (Marçais, 1956, p. 367; in town, Arabic-type plurals correspond to Berber-type singulars, Marçais, 1956, p. 313), in Tangier/A|MA and in some Jbala/A|MA varieties it is -an (Marçais, 1911; Colin, 1921), while in other Jbala/A|MA varieties it is -awən (Colin, 1921, p. 59). All three forms are suffixes that are attested in Berber with different nouns, and there is no immediate correlation between the suffix used in the specific word in Berber and the suffix used in Arabic. Apparently the Arabic dialects have chosen arbitrarily one plural suffix and generalized it to all unintegrated nouns of Berber background. The Berber prefix is either maintained in the form it has in the singular or it is lost in the plural. Both strategies are foreign to Berber, which rather substitutes the singular prefix (t)a- by (t)i-. Examples (Marçais, 1956, p. 367; Marçais, 1911, p. 223; Colin, 1921, p. 59): Jijel/A|AL: awrəz, PL awərzən ‘heel’; agməz, PL agəmzən ‘thumb’; Tangier/A|MA amdar, PL amdran ‘branch’; Jbala (Tsoul)/A|MA aɣbər ‘pile of sacred stones,’ PL ɣŭbrawən; askəl ‘double bag for transporting grain,’ PL səklawən.

In Arabic loans in Berber, parallel systems also occur outside the domain of the noun. Most spectacular in this respect is Ghomara/B|MA in northwestern Morocco, which has parallel systems with bound pronouns attached to borrowed particles (Mourigh, 2017, p. 200ff.); with adjectives (Mourigh, 2017, p. 179ff.); and with inflected verbs (Mourigh, 2017, p. 165ff.). In the latter case, about one-third of verbs borrowed from Arabic retain their Arabic morphology, including pronominal clitics. While similar to code-switching in form, the Ghomara situation has clearly been conventionalized, the parallel system being obligatory with some borrowed verbs and considered an error with others. The verbs with the Arabic system include such basic meanings as ‘to meet’ and ‘to fish’ (the language is spoken in a fishermen’s village), meanings that have no Berber-etymology expression in this language.

Ghomara is also special for another reason, the presence of systematic suppletion by borrowed forms. There are two cases where this is found. In the first place, Ghomara has lost the ancient Berber passive derivation. Instead, it uses passive forms borrowed from Moroccan Arabic, which has a productive passive derivation. With verbs that are themselves borrowed from Arabic, this leads to a replication of Arabic passive derivational oppositions, for example ḥəkk ‘scratch’ vs. tḥəkk ‘be scratched.’ However, with verbs that are inherited from Berber, no passive counterpart is readily available. In these cases the passive form of the equivalent Arabic verb is used (Mourigh, 2017, p. 272), for example çrəz ‘plow’ (< Berber) vs. ttəḥrət ‘be plowed’ (< Arabic).

The second major case of suppletive borrowing is found in the active participle. In Moroccan Arabic, the active participle is in function and morphology somewhere in between a noun and a verb, as it plays an important role in the marking of aspect but is also used in attributive phrases. In the majority of Berber languages, there is no immediate equivalent to this category, its functions being fulfilled as subfunctions of other categories. In Ghomara, some (not all) of the functions and the forms of the active participle have been borrowed, thus causing a major change in the aspectual system. As with the passive derivation, in the case of verbs that were borrowed from Arabic, this means a replication of Arabic morphological patterns, for example kṛəh ‘hate,’ kaṛəh (active participle). In the case of verbs with a Berber background, the gap is filled by the active participle of the corresponding Arabic verb, for example qqim ‘sit’ (< Berber), galəs (active participle) (< Arabic) (Mourigh, 2017, p. 191).

5. Lexicon

There is a major discrepancy in the impact of lexical borrowing on Berber and on Arabic. In most Berber languages, Arabic influence is massive, even within basic lexicon. Thus, among standard word lists such as the Swadesh–100 list and the Leizig-Jakarta–100 list (Tadmor, 2009), most Moroccan and Algerian Berber varieties have between 7% and 17% of borrowings from Arabic. Siwa/B|EG reaches 26% in the Leipzig-Jakarta list, while Ghomara Berber/B|MA has a staggering 37% of borrowings in this list (Kossmann, 2013, pp. 107–113). Arabic varieties, in comparison, have relatively little Berber influence on their lexicon, most of which concerns local natural and cultural terms such as plant names and terms concerning details of agriculture (cf. Shafīq, 1999, pp. 41–179 for a somewhat inclusive overview). There is one major exception to this, the Hassaniya Arabic variety as spoken in Mauritania, which has undergone massive lexical influence from Berber (cf. Souag, 2016).

Borrowings in northern Berber are found in all realms of the lexicon. Different from most languages in the world, verbs are as easily borrowed as nouns, and there are also many borrowings among function words of different kinds. Numerals have been borrowed on a large scale, and most Berber languages have Arabic loans for lower numerals except the lowest few (Souag, 2007); in Tarifiyt/B|MA only the numeral ‘one’ has preserved its Berber form. For an extensive overview of lexical borrowing in northern Berber, the reader is referred to Kossmann (2013, pp. 87–167).

Within Arabic borrowings into Berber, there is disappointingly little to go on for a chronology. Only the earliest stratum of loanwords stands out. This stratum concerns major concepts of Islam, such as ‘fast,’ ‘pray,’ and ‘mosque.’ These words have been integrated into Berber phonology and morphology in ways that are not found within other terminological domains, and have been so all over the Berber-speaking world. Thus, for example, the verbs ‘fast’ and ‘pray,’ which have voiceless in Arabic, are taken over with in Berber (ṣām > (a)ẓum; ṣallā > ẓall), while otherwise Arabic is maintained in Berber (excepting Siwa, Souag, 2013, p. 37). Similarly, the word ‘mosque,’ which in the current Maghrebian pronunciation of Classical Arabic is masʒid, was taken over as tamə‎zgida, showing a correspondence of Arabic ʒ to g, and an unexpected ending -a (ta- is the regular Berber nominal prefix for feminine singular). This may very well reflect an old form of the word that is no more preserved in modern pronunciations of Arabic (cf. early Greek transcriptions of Arabic that have Μασγιδα‎, probably reflecting Aramaic pronunciation, Al-Jallad, forthcoming). Van den Boogert and Kossmann (1997) have proposed to consider these terms, as well as a number of neologisms, a deliberate construction by early missionaries in need of new religious vocabulary (also Kossmann, 2013, pp. 76–85). This puts them in a very early period in the Islamization of the Maghreb; in view of the general usage of these terms, both among both Sunni and Ibadhi Muslims, a dating before the Kharijite revolt of 740 ce would certainly make sense.

Otherwise, there is little to provide a chronology of borrowings on a linguistic basis. The difference between borrowings (especially nouns) that take Berber morphology and those that retain Arabic morphological patterns does not seem to directly reflect the chronology of borrowing. The idea formulated by Basset (1906) that Berber-morphology nouns represent an earlier stratum than nonintegrated nouns is easily refuted (Galand, 2010, p. 144) by the fact that sometimes evidently recent loans have Berber morphology, including such that were borrowed from colonial languages, for example Beni Iznasen/B|MA dandu ‘turkey’ (< French dinde), PL idunda (Kossmann, 2000, p. 41). The inverse hypothesis that nonintegration would constitute the earliest stratum and that integration into Berber only started at a later period is not only counterintuitive, but also contradicted by the many Arabic-morphology borrowings that date from the colonial period. Apparently the dynamics behind the choice of one or the other morphological system have been similar enough throughout time to obliterate chronological differences. Phonological integration does not provide many clues to chronology either, except on a local level.

The situation with borrowings from Berber into Maghrebian Arabic is somewhat more promising. Unfortunately, there exists little work on this question, the literature mostly lumping together borrowings of different shapes and localities without any further analysis. The following paragraph is therefore no more than a tentative approach that is in need of detailed substantiation.

When studying Berber loans in Arabic, one has to differentiate between those that have a larger spread over the Maghreb and those that are restricted to a few adjacent localities. For strictly local forms, borrowing may have taken place at any time in history as long as there was contact with Berber speakers. Thus the local eastern Moroccan word azaɣ ‘time of the year when one plows the dessiccated soil’ (Zaïo/A|MA) (Sabia & Najji, 2000, p. 192) (related to Berber azəɣ ‘to be dry’), could have been borrowed at any point of time until the most recent period.

The situation is different for terms with a broad attestation over (parts of) the Maghreb. Especially when they designate concepts that are not immediately related to the environment, there is a good chance that they were borrowed early and then spread further when the region was Arabicized. There are a couple of such words denoting clothing and bedding that are used all over Morocco and sometimes also in Algeria, for example səlham ‘type of woolen robe with a hood’ and hiḍuṛa ‘rug made from an unshaven sheep hide.’ One also remarks terms for smaller wild animals and insects that are rather consistently taken over from Berber, for example ʒṛan ‘frogs’; fəkrun ‘turtle’ (cf. Berber ifkər ‘turtle’); zərmumiya ‘gecko’ (cf. Berber tazərmuməyt). Even more unexpected are the general Moroccan Arabic terms sarut ‘key’ (from Berber tasarut, which is an instrumental derivation from either the verb ‘to open’ or the verb ‘to close’) and the verb ṣifəṭ ‘to send’ (Heath, 2000). In addition to such generally attested terms, one wonders whether the presence of shared borrowings from Berber between Jbala/A|MA and Jijel/A|AL is coincidental, for example, awrəz ‘heel’ and agməz ‘thumb’ (Marçais, 1956, p. 367; Colin, 1921). The Jbala region and the town of Jijel are over 1,000 km apart, and their common borrowing cannot be due to recent contact. On the other hand, both regions have varieties that reflect the earliest stratum of Arabic in the Maghreb, and their relative isolation vis-à-vis other Arabic-speaking regions may have helped to conserve items that were later replaced by etymologically Arabic terms elsewhere.

The phonological shape of these borrowings from Berber sometimes gives us clues as to the period they were introduced into Arabic. Thus, some of the generally attested loans seem to preserve consonants that are lost in modern Berber. This is the case of səlham ‘type of woolen robe with a hood’ and hərkus ‘shoe,’ which have the consonant h. While the term səlham is not attested in Berber except in a form that is probably a reborrowing from Arabic, hərkus appears without h in a number of Berber varieties, which seems to represent the regular Berber development, for example, Kabyle arkas ‘mocassin’ (Dallet, 1982, p. 723). The loss of *h in these positions must have taken place before the 14th century ce. This dating is based on the name of one of the major tribal confederations in the medieval Maghreb, known as ṣanha:ʒa in (Classical) Arabic and as iẓnagən in modern Berber. As there is no reason why Arabic would add a consonant h after the second consonant in this name, one may safely assume that it reflects an ancient Berber pronunciation. However, the 14th-century historian Ibn Khaldûn already describes the Berber pronunciation of the name as not containing h (Kossmann, 2013, p. 198). This puts the loss of *h in a time prior to Ibn Khaldûn, and thus the introduction of terms such as səlham must have occurred before that time as well.

An interesting case of mutual borrowing is found with kinship terms. Berber languages have extensively borrowed from Arabic when it comes to terms for more distant blood relatives. As Berber kinship terms are inherently possessed, the Arabic first person singular suffix is interpreted as part of the stem, for example ʕəmmi ‘my paternal uncle’ (< Arabic ʕəmm-i), ʕəmmi-s ‘his/her paternal uncle’; xali ‘my maternal uncle’ (< Arabic xal-i), xali-s ‘his/her maternal uncle.’ On the other hand, several Moroccan and Algerian Arabic varieties have borrowed Berber terms designating in-laws, lus ‘brother of the husband’ (< Berber alwəs ‘id.’), nuṭa ‘wife of the brother of the husband’ (< Berber θ‎anuṭ ‘id.’) (Jijel/A|AL, Marçais, 1956, pp. 254, 256; Kabyle/B|AL, Dallet, 1982, pp. 467, 581; identical forms are employed in Moroccan varieties of Arabic and Berber).

6. Berber and Arabic Nowadays

Almost all existing data on Berber date from the late 19th to the early 21st century. This is a period of enormous social changes that dramatically changed the fabric of urban and rural life: the advent of colonialism, the rise of modern independent states, and the ongoing nationalization and globalization of Maghrebian society. Still, when comparing the impact of Arabic in the Berber as reflected in pre-colonial and early colonial sources with that shown in recent descriptions, one notes some ongoing lexical borrowing, but hardly any deep changes in the Arabic impact on grammatical structures and basic lexicon (Kossmann, 2013, pp. 48–50; Souag, 2013, p. 34). Apparently, the way Arabic influenced Berber is not the result of colonial and post-colonial language politics and societal change, but dates back to earlier times. The large-scale Arabicization politics of Morocco and Algeria (Grandguillaume, 1983), which aimed at the generalization of Standard Arabic in educational and administrative contexts, seem to have had little impact on the spoken varieties. This is less unexpected than one might think: Arabicization targeted domains where Maghrebian Arabic and Berber play only a marginal role, and, within its domain of usage, Standard Arabic competes with French rather than with the spoken indigenous languages.

French and Standard Arabic influence on spoken language use is strongest through code-switching styles. Thus, styles in which French and Maghrebian Arabic or Berber are mixed in almost equal quantities are common in educated circles anywhere in the Maghreb outside Libya and Egypt (cf. among many others Bentahila & Davies, 1983, 1995; Mettouchi, 2008). Similarly, the style sometimes called “Intermediate Arabic,” often found in mediatized dialogues such as talk shows, can be analyzed as a discourse consisting of continual code-switching between Maghrebian Arabic and Standard Arabic (Boussofara-Omar, 2006). In both constellations, the grammatical core normally remains Maghrebian Arabic or Berber.

The situation of Berber and Maghrebian Arabic has been one of stable coexistence for a long time. There are only small differences between maps of the Berber-speaking areas in Northern Africa from the early colonial period and the present-day distribution. However, the situation may be changing. At least in Morocco, one is witnessing an ever-increasing impact of Moroccan Arabic on all levels. In mass media, it is encroaching on the domains of Standard Arabic and, especially, French. Through the influence of the media and as a result of increasing mobility, Moroccan Arabic is also encroaching on the traditional domains of Berber, being a symbol of modernity and of chances to build up a better life.

Within the “High” domain, the opposite is happening. Nowadays, Berber is a national language both in Algeria and Morocco. Especially in Morocco, this has led to practical implementation: Berber, written in the “traditional” script Tifinagh—a typical case of invented tradition—is highly visible on official buildings and documents and is taught at schools. The Berber used for these official purposes is a blend of the three major Berber languages of Morocco, and its lexicon has been “purified” through the substitution of Arabic lexicon by “genuine” Berber words taken from one of the Moroccan varieties, from other Berber varieties, or constructed by the language board. These amounts to a diglossia parallel to that of Arabic: Standard Berber cannot be understood without formal schooling, and it has no place in interactive communication. It is difficult to say what the future of this standard variety of Berber will be, especially as there is hardly any literature in it beyond educational materials.


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(1.) Transcriptions follow IPA, except that pharyngealization is written with a dot underneath the consonant. For example, here corresponds to IPA [zˁ]. Maghrebian Arabic vowels have been transcribed according to Berber norms, in the sense that “long” (phonetically mostly half-long) vowels are written without diacritics, while short vowels are distinguished from them, where necessary, by a breve sign. The transcription of the sources has been adapted to these conventions. Language varieties are presented in the following way: Name of the variety/LANGUAGE|COUNTRY. In the LANGUAGE field, A refers to Arabic and B to Berber. In the COUNTRY field the following abbreviations are used: AL = Algeria; EG = Egypt; LI = Libya; MA = Morocco.

(2.) I use the sign ə as a matter of convention, designating a syllable peak not conveyed by any of the (other) vowels. In reality, this element has many different realizations, and is often not realized at all, syllabicity being expressed on the consonant.