Thursday, June 24, 2010

Why they thought the Berbers came from Yemen

A long-standing tradition in North Africa, convincingly rejected by Ibn Khaldūn but perpetuated by poets and curricula alike, claims that some major Berber tribes descend from Yemeni Arabs through semi-mythical pre-Islamic kings and their wholly mythical vast conquests. This idea has little to support it, and probably became popular because it allowed these tribes to claim prestigious connections in the context of a high culture dominated by Arab ideas; but why should the connection be specifically Yemeni, rather than, say, North Arabian or perhaps Persian? Linguistics suggests a possible answer.

In southern Arabia live several groups, most famously the Mehri tribe, whose languages, though Semitic, are only distantly related to Arabic, and quite incomprehensible to other Arabs. (You can hear recordings of it at SemArch.) Recently I borrowed a copy of the recently published Mehri Language of Oman, by Aaron Rubin; looking through it, I could see several points where Mehri resembles Berber but not Arabic that a traveller might seize on, notably:
  • -s ـس "her", -sən ـسن "their (f.)"; compare Siwi -nn-əs ـنّس "his/her", -n-sən ـنسن "their (m/f)". A 3rd person in -s was found in proto-Semitic, as shown by Akkadian, but was replaced in Arabic.
  • əl ال "not" (preverbal first element of negative); compare Tumzabt ul أُل. Again, this is found in Akkadian and hence must be proto-Semitic.
  • -ət ـت feminine singular; compare Siwi -ət ـت (feminine singular in Arabic borrowings.) Again, the connection is real, but dates back to proto-Semitic rather than indicating any special relationship between the two.
  • -tən ـتن feminine plural; compare Berber -tən ـتن (plural of some masculine nouns)
  • a- أَ used as a definite article for some nouns; compare Berber a- أَ(masculine singular noun prefix). A striking case is Mehri a-məsge:d أَمسجيد vs. Siwi a-məzdəg أمزدج "the mosque". However, in Mehri this indicates definiteness, and does not depend on gender; this is probably a coincidence.
  • tə-...-əm تـ...ـم second person plural imperfective, eg təkə́tbəm تكتبم "you (pl.) write"; compare Berber t-...-m تـ...ـم. The t- is cognate; not sure about the history of the -m offhand.
  • 'ār آر "except, but"; compare Tuareg ar.
  • ā آ "oh" (vocative); compare pan-Berber a أ. (This is actually found in Classical Arabic as well, أ, but is not widely used.)
None of these similarities in fact imply any close relationship between Berber and Mehri, of course; some are coincidental, while others can be traced back to proto-Semitic, and hence constitute evidence connecting Berber with Semitic, not specifically with Mehri. However, a medieval traveller between Yemen and North Africa would not have known that, and could easily have observed similarities like these and leapt to the seemingly plausible conclusion that Berber was connected to the language of these Yemeni tribes, who, like many Berbers, seemed to live just like Arabs yet speak totally differently.


Anonymous said...

Hi Lameen,
Interesting points. However, it would be interesting to compare linguistic nature between other tribes/ civilizations in Yemen. I myself notice that in Yemen they say ghodwa (for tomorrow) as Algerians do, which is interesting. Also you guys eat zalabya not common in other middleeastern countries...that is common in yemen too. Look at the archrticture in some morrocan villages,....very similar to Old Sanaani (and north yemeni) architecture. Certianly worth looking into. Good luck.

Cemmust said...

What you say makes sense by me.

Although from a political and general point of view I don't find it a problem at all that my ancestors might have been Yemenites, Mehris, Mesopotamians, Phoenesians, or even (how counter-historical that is) Arabs from the Arabian peninsula!!

The hypothesis of the Yemeni or Arab origin of the Berbers is panned and dismissed by linguists and historians becuase it is so mediocre and ill-formulated, without proof, except for unreliable folk superstitions and myths fueled by religious and Arab-bloodline flavors.

(The concept of sacred or noble bloodlines is totally absent in the Berber culture).

But I understand that many Berber and European linguists and historians do take the hypothesized eastern origin of the Berbers (Levantine, Mesopotamian ... etc) with some seriousness, based on 2 main reasons, I brlieve:

1- They rely on the fact that "writing" and "massive human civilization and agriculture" are attested to be born in Mesopotamia, along the 2 major rivers of modern day Iraq, (where also all the fundamental East Asian folklore and religious myths were probably born and developed).

2- The striking resemblence and closeness of North Africans to the Egyptian, Levantine, and Mesopotamian people, in terms of physical appearence, lifestyle, and some shared verbal roots. It is also the easy way of explaining why isn't North Africa black like the rest of Africa!

Other than these 2 indicators (which don't rise up to evidence), I am not aware of any hard evidence that places the ancestory of the Berber language and people in Eastern Asia.

Are you?

Jim said...

Moubarik, I agree that those notions are behind this tendency to look for eastern origins of Berbers. I think those notions are also pretty well outdated. Agriculture arose in lots of places almost simultaneously about 10,000 years ago, basically anywhere the previous climate hasd supported a large population and then sudenly didn't. This happened in ethiopia, in the area around northern Nigeria, in the Huanh he valley, in the Jiang valley and coastal regions of China, in New get the picture.

As for pastoralism, that probably arose not in Mesopotamia but in the Sahara itself when it started to dry out, and in fact it probably was the engine for spreading Afro-Asiaitic languages inot Mesopotamia and surrounding areas.

As for Berebers' physical characteristics, I don't se what is so Mesopotamian about them. Berebers look a lot more like Western Europeans, down to red hair in the case of some Kabyles. Round heads - how is that Mesoptamian? The most parsimonious explanantion is that western Europe was settled from North Afric during the last glaciation. The rest is ex orient lux nonsense.

Lameen Souag الأمين سواق said...

An Eastern origin for Berber seems extremely probable. Even if you put the ancestors of the Berbers as early as the Capsian culture, archeological evidence suggests that that spread from east to west; and if you take it to have spread with the Neolithic Revolution, well, the key crops and animals of the Berber world (all reconstructible for proto-Berber) mostly originate in the Middle East (including sheep, goats, camels, dates, wheat, barley, peas...) Agriculture may or may not have originated independently, but you can't domesticate animals or plants that you haven't got, and the ancestors of all these plants are not native to North Africa. It's also clear that Afroasiatic is far more diverse in east Africa than in the Maghreb, again suggesting an expansion from the east. As for traditions: before the Yemeni myth began, there was the story (found in pre-Islamic Byzantine sources as well as Arab ones) that they descended from Goliath; before that, Sallust reports stories that they came from Persia. So all the origin traditions, unreliable as they are, point the same direction: east.

But the big question is: how far east? Are we talking just about Libya, or Egypt/Sudan as Ehret would suggest, or Palestine as Militarev prefers? Or does every one of these factors merely reflect some invasion that affected Berber culture without significantly impacting their ancestry or identity?

Lameen Souag الأمين سواق said...


"The concept of sacred or noble bloodlines is totally absent in the Berber culture"

This seems unlikely. We know the rule of the Numidian kingdom stayed in the hands of a particular family, just as in later Berber states. And the characteristic pattern of certain families claiming a "sacred" ancestry and not using weapons is found all over the Berber world (Kabylie, southern Morocco, Mauritania, the Tuareg...) and may well be ancient; the southern Moroccan term for it, "agurram", can't easily be derived from Arabic.

pep said...

This is absolutely off-topic Lameen, I hope you don´t mind:
I can speak Basque and there´s a word that has become well-known among linguists: aizkora ("axe"). To some, it is the proof of basque´s antiquity; acording to others, it´s just a latin derived word (from asciola). Reading a kabylian grammar I´ve found the word acaqur. Do you (or any of the other posting here) know the etymology of this berber word?
Thanks ;-)

Lameen Souag الأمين سواق said...

Kabyle acaqur (ie ašaqur) is a loan from Latin securis "axe", via colloquial western Arabic šāqūṛ. It probably entered specifically via Andalusi Arabic, in which s is often rendered as š and e as ā.

Cemmust said...

Lameen:"the key crops and animals of the Berber world (all reconstructible for proto-Berber) mostly originate in the Middle East"

Moubarik: But where in the Middle East? Which language(s)? Is this settled science?


Lameen:"This seems unlikely. We know the rule of the Numidian kingdom stayed in the hands of a particular family, just as in later Berber states."

Moubarik: Don't you think that this royal heridity was limited to kingship?
And that it was probably imported from Rome or Egypt? and later certainly from Arabs?

I meant actually the wide religious-tribal element of sacred bloodlines "nasab shareef".

The majority of Berber tribes are named after geographical places and other things than race and family, not after the first grand-fathers.

I don't think that Berber mythology had ever connected holiness with race or with some chosen people, the way Arabs and Jews did it with Islam and Judaism.


Jim, the Berbers are racially diverse and there are certainly blond/fair, black-haired, and dark Berbers. The European-Berbers hypothesis looks too unlikely to me because Europeans are supposed to be Caucasians right?

Lameen Souag الأمين سواق said...

The origin of these is pretty clear. The species from which goats descend is found only in the Middle East, while all wild sheep and camel species are Asian. "Date" seems to be an ancient Egyptian loanword into Berber. The botanists all seem to agree that these plants are Asian (sometimes also European), and the archeologists confirm that they were being grown in the Middle East before anywhere else. Of course, that's not unique to the Berbers; the same applies to most European food plants and animals as well. It doesn't mean the language or culture necessarily spread with the agricultural know-how. But it does mean that some things spread from the Middle East. Some resources on that:, .

As for nasab shareef: I don't know any direct evidence one way or the other, but it seems unlikely that the same system independently got copied in so many different parts of the Berber world. People don't need external encouragement to try to pass on their privileges to their children.

Cemmust said...

Well, thanks a lot, Lameen, for bothering with this and for the info.

Jim said...

"An Eastern origin for Berber seems extremely probable."

The language or the population(s)?

Moubarik, That's right, there are Berbers ranging from quite "Caucasian" to quite West African in that senegalese-Malian kind iof look. Caucasian is pretty vague; it covers Berebers to Wetsern Europeans to Central and Eastern Europeans to Iraninas and north Indians, and even Tamils if you stretch it just a littel. And Berbers look a lot more like Western Europeans to em that Russians or even some Scandinavians do. But these are al superficial impressiojns. i don't knw what the DNA says about various populations' proximity. besides, poulations don't branch like trees. How much Berber DNA is in Southern and western Europe from raiding and trading?

Anonymous said...

Friendly Neighborhood Romance scholar here. Hmmm.

For your hypothesis to be true, Lameen, it must be assumed that some individuals had a decently good command of both Berber and a South Arabian language. You would strengthen your case considerably if you could point to historical evidence indicating that there were such individuals.

I wonder, though, whether there might not be simpler explanation: this is a subjective impression, of course, but I find that Berber and South Arabian sound very much alike: if some travellers had heard both languages they might well have sought to explain this similarity through an Eastern origin of the Berbers. I mention this possibility because it only requires that a few people heard both languages, without having to learn a word of either.

Incidentally, it has been argued that a claim ("myth" would be a better term) that the Mandan language of North America has Welsh roots is due to the coincidence that both languages have a voiceless /l/ phoneme, hence making them sound somewhat alike.

So I'd like to ask you, Lameen, as well as readers of this blog: is my impression accurate? Do Berber and South Arabian languages share any phonological features (phonemes, phonotactics, both?) that set them off from Arabic and are liable to create the illusion that they are related/especially close to one another?

Lameen Souag الأمين سواق said...

I certainly don't get that impression - if anything, the unusual characteristic of both is how much they sound like Arabic. But for this scenario to work, we don't need a fluent bilingual, just someone who's learned a few words and phrases; and all that would take is a Berber traveller meeting a few south Arabians, or vice versa, in an era when we know merchants (not to speak of pilgrims) routinely travelled similar distances.

Anonymous said...


Friendly neighborhood Romance scholar again. I'm tempted to reverse your argument: perhaps the common denominator between South Arabian and Berber speakers was that both were perceived as being culturally Arab-like and yet *in both instances* speaking an incomprehensible, *but Arabic-sounding*, language.

And learning a few words and phrases wouldn't be enough for several of the the South Arabian/similarities you listed to be perceived. You'd need a good command of the language to "parse" the similar bound morphemes.

Incidentally, such parsing wouldn't be an inevitable result of such fluency. We who read and comment here are very interested in language(s): but polyglots uninterested in language often fail to perceive similarites and differences in the languages they know.

Slightly off-topic: you say Berber is as old a language family as Romance. Okay: in that case where do you think Proto-Berber was spoken in the days of the Roman Empire? Because while I don't know where it was spoken, I'm sure it was NOT spoken in coastal North Africa.

Lameen Souag الأمين سواق said...

I don't imagine them necessarily parsing the morphemes - rather, being struck by combinations of similar vocabulary (normally loans) with similar morphology, as in the "mosque" case above. But the mere fact of being Arab-like with an incomprehensible language, as you suggest, could well have been enough.

As for Berber's age, I would say it's about as diverse as Romance - age and diversity are correlated, but not perfectly, and proto-Berber could easily be a fair bit older or a little younger. Still, an obvious candidate would be the language of the Gaetulian nomads to the south of the limes. Of course we know that the Numidians spoke a Berber language, but we don't know whether it was directly ancestral to any surviving ones.

Alexander said...

Good post, very interesting

Anonymous said...

I'm from a Yemeni family. What really struck me when visiting Agadir was how strikingly yemeni the amazigh looked. In body shape, bone structure, complexion,hair type they looked like people from the village in Yemen. When Yemeni friends have visited Morocco, people assume they are locls until they get chatting. Why this similarity? Couldn't it be possible that a wave of people migrated in prehistoric times. It wouldn't necessarily have had to be a semetic race- Arabia's a vast place occupied in ancient times by numerous races? My agenda is not to promote Arab nationalism- I'm a passionate supporter of Amazigh identity.

Anonymous said...

guys you should know the europeans came to north africa give me a break! the berbers of egpyt many are not looking white?

Unknown said...

There is no a pure berber, when tha arab invaded north africa many of them mixed with the berbers

Unknown said...

قرابة اللغات الامازيغية الى الصنغاي

هل نسيتهم 98 بالمئة من افعال لغة الصنغاي تتحول الى افعال امازيغية في الخالة التبادلية و المبني للمجهول و في الحالة السبببية

فهل الصنغاي اصابهم شرود ذهني يغيرون صيغة الفعل في الحالات التصرفيىة الاخرى أم انه انه حقيقة لامعة اصل مشترك بين لغة الأمازيغ و الصنغاي

Lameen Souag الأمين سواق said...

لا يقع ذلك في الصنغاي عامة بل في كلام إداكصهك وإجدالن فقط. أما الصنغاي عامة فيضيفون "اندي" إلى الفعل في الحالة السبببية، وذلك هو الأصل.

وما العلاقة بين تلك المسألة و"Why they thought the Berbers came from Yemen"؟

Unknown said...

سلام مرحبا

و الله كتبنا كلامنناالسابق بسبب تبييان للناس الحقيقة الأبدية القاطعة أصل مشترك بين لغة الأمازيغ و الصنغاي

و يجب التنبيه دائما أن لهجات أدكصهك و أجدالن و تسواقت.... هي لهجات أمازيغية طارقية اي

تنوعات أمازيغية طارقية وليس لها اي علاقة بلغات زنوج الصنغاي

و لكن بسبب الأصل المشترك بين لغة الامازيغ و الصنغاي نجد هذه اللهجات الاخيرة شديدة القرب الى اللهجات الأمازيغية الأخرى و في نفس الوقت شديدة القرب الى لغات زنوج الصنغاي

تتميز التنوعات الأمازيغية الطارقية ( أدكصهك و إجدالن ) أنها في الحالة العادية غالبية أفعالها نجدها عند لغات زنوج الصنغاي

و لكن هذه الافعال تتحول كليا في الحالة السببية و في حالةالمبني للمجهول و في الحالة التبادلية

أي تتحول الى افعال أخرى متطابقة حرفيا مع افعال لهجات أمازيغية أخرى

سبحان الله أدلة أبدية قاطعة لامعة ساطعة على الأصل المشترك بين لغة الأمازيغ و بين لغة زنوج الصنغاي