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“Respecting Identity: Amazigh Versus Berber”

By Adeli Block

I have found that scholars and non-scholars alike still continue to refer to the indigenous peoples and languages of North Africa as “Berber.” For example, when speaking about my research interests, I say, “I’m studying Tamazight, a dialect of the indigenous language of Morocco,” and people tend to respond with “Oh, you mean Berber” or “Oh, is that Berber?”

Traditionally, the term “Berber” has been used to refer to the indigenous peoples of North Africa. This term, inherently discriminatory, was coined by Arab conquerors and also used by European colonizers. Barbari, in Arabic, means gibberish, babble, etc., and also means barbaric. Before the Arab conquest, barbaroi, or barbarians, was a term given to peoples who did not speak Greek and therefore, their language was unintelligible. Various other terms had also been used to refer to these groups historically such as “Africans,” “Numidians,” and “Moors.” Bruce Maddy-Weitzman discussed this in his 2011 book.

To combat discrimination and to reclaim their identity, the indigenous peoples use the terms: Amazigh (singular), Imazighen (plural), and Tamazight (feminine) to refer to themselves. Furthermore, some Imazighen use the term Tamazgha to refer to the land stretching from the Canary Islands to the Siwa Oasis in Egypt, the lands inhabited by Imazighen. The term “Amazigh” in the Tamazight language means “the free man” and yet, we still continue to subjugate Imazighen by referring to them by the name of their Arab conquerors. We have an obligation to call Imazighen by the name that they want to be called. In the Tamazight language, one would never ask someone “Are you Berber?” Instead, one would say, “Are you Amazigh/Tamazight?” or “Do you know Tamazight?” This is also the case in Arabic.

In Morocco, for example, there are five primary languages that vie for prestige and space (Arabic, English, French, Spanish, and Tamazight). In all five of these languages, there is a term that has been developed to correspond with Amazigh (Arabic = Amazighi, English = Amazigh, French = Amazir/Amazigh/Amazighité, Spanish = Amazigh). I am perplexed by those who know both terms “Amazigh” and “Berber” and continue to use Berber and even those who use them interchangeably. These people tend to be tourists and scholars outside of North Africa. It seems as though they view both terms as legitimate or one term indexes a more political affiliation with the other term being more neutral. Another plausible reason to account for using Berber is the user’s assumption that the wider audience does not know the term Amazigh. In this case, the person employing the word Berber should use the opportunity to bring awareness of the term Amazigh, rather than preserve the more understood term. Berber maintains and reinforces ideas of “otherness” and “savagery” which perpetuates the cultural hegemony of Arab and Arabic superiority and Amazigh and Tamazight inferiority. This is not an issue of “Berber” being the English equivalent of “Amazigh” which is the case for Arab and ‘arabi. Moreover, several scholars have referred to the study of sociocultural and linguistic issues related to the Imazighen as “Berber studies.” Again, this is another case where we should refer to this area of study as “Amazigh studies.” The ubiquity of the term Berber is an example of the reproduction of a linguistic hierarchy and we must no longer be complacent in our use of an exonym, a name created by a group of people for another group of people, that is intrinsically pejorative.

In 2011, Morocco’s constitution declared Tamazight an official language, and in 2016, Algeria also amended its constitution to recognize Tamazight. More recently, Algerian citizens ousted their authoritarian dictator. During protests afterward, the Amazigh flag was banned from being waved because the military viewed it as a threat to Algerian nationalism. The Amazigh Movement is in full force and our continued use of the term Berber degrades the progress that Imazighen activists have achieved.

A word that has been accepted into common usage does not mean that it is a term free of bias. We must acknowledge the complicated history embedded in language and recognize that words matter. Therefore, we have an ethical responsibility to refer to all ethnic groups by the names that they choose to be called. In order to fulfil this ethical responsibility, we must ask people the name(s) they would like us to use because for some, not all, these terms are non-negotiable, and we must respect that. This discussion leads me to pose the broader question, what are other common names of ethnic groups we are continuing to employ of which we have not carefully considered the implications?

Adeli Block is a doctoral student at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor

From JLA:

The Co-Editors of JLA would like to bring to your attention three articles focusing on the politics of ethnonyms in the study of language and culture. Anita Puckett considers the politics of the revitalized ethnonym Melungeon in Appalachia; Michael Silverstein demonstrates the importance of distinguishing the notions of speech community and language community in accounting for histories of language contact; and Andrea Smith and Anna Eisenstein consider the folk model of race and class that underpins the use of ethnonyms in Easton, Pennsylvania.

-Puckett, Anita. 2001. The Melungeon Identity Movement and the Construction of Appalachian Whiteness. JLA 11 (1): 131-146. Click here
-Silverstein, Michael. 1997. Encountering Language and Languages of Encounter in North American Ethnohistory. JLA 6 (2): 126-144. Click here
-Smith, Andrea L. and Anna Eisenstein. 2013. Thoroughly Mixed yet Thoroughly Ethnic: Indexing Class with Ethnonyms. JLA 23 (2). Click here