Inventing the Berbers.

Our old pal Lameen Souag is back to posting at Jabal al-Lughat; his review of Ramzi Rouighi’s Inventing the Berbers is typically interesting and sensible:

The book is primarily the history of a name: how did certain people in North Africa come to be called “Berbers”, and how did the reference and connotations of this label change over time? Viewed as such, it has a good deal of useful material. He argues that, rather than being derived directly from Latin or Greek “barbari”, the label was transferred from East Africa to Northwest Africa as the Arabs moved west; its original associations would be with slavery rather than with barbarism as such. (Traces of the original usage persist: in Nubia, as I first learned on a trip to Aswan, “Berber” is still understood to mean “Nubian”!) In the early medieval period, it was used primarily for rebels and enemies on the fringes; groups with a closer involvement tended to be referred to by more specific terms. Ibn Khaldun’s usage is more complex, reflecting Andalusi practice as it emerged in the context of elite competition between Berber and Arab noble families, but shows clear traces of the older tendency to reserve it for “outsiders” to the ruling elite. The modern European usage of the term comes essentially from Ibn Khaldun as filtered through De Slane’s essentialism (which turned Berbers into a “race”) and subsequent academic and ideological debates, largely in the context of the French colonization of Algeria.

He talks about Rouighi’s “unacceptably simplistic” discussion of the term “Amazigh,” concluding:

Reading as a linguist, I can appreciate the attention given to semantic shifts and to the arbitrariness not only of the sign but of the signified. But as a historical linguist, it feels rather at cross-purposes to the questions of interest to me. Fundamentally, I don’t much care which ethnic label people identify or are identified with: for me, “Berber”, like “Arabic”, is primarily useful as a linguistic category. And its referent has a history starting far earlier than the earliest attestation of “Berber”, “Tamazight”, or any other label one might choose to apply to it. It is necessary and appropriate to historicize such labels – to be aware that Masinissa or Dihya or Fatma n’Soumer were not acting in the name of some kind of Amazigh nationalism, and may not even have been familiar with “Amazigh” as a name, let alone as an identity. But how this relatively close-knit language family spread, and retreated, remains a historical question, of interest to archeologists and population geneticists as well as linguists, which an exclusive focus on ethnic labels erases.

It should, however, help to provoke reflection on the appropriate choice of label for this language family. “Berber”, neutral though it undoubtedly is in English or French, does have a problematic history; the derivation from “barbarian” may be inaccurate, but this book really underscores the extent to which its usage in Arabic has been overwhelmingly negative and “othering” for most of the region’s history. “Amazigh” does not have this problem, but is strongly associated with a projection of shared ethnicity into the past which risks distorting our picture of language spread. In an ideal world, one might prefer a purely geographical label (“Northwest African”?), or, better yet, a purely linguistic one (iles-languages, after the usual word for “tongue”?) In practice, however – here as elsewhere – it seems preferable to live with the occasional misunderstandings caused by the use of a well-known “ethnic” term than to confuse the public with a completely novel one.

Sounds about right.


  1. David Eddyshaw says:

    For all that Lameen is obviously right, it is an interesting phenomenon that Rouighi is pointing to: the spreading of the modern Western idea that the legitimacy of a modern state is crucially bound up with ethnicity.

    Some of this spreading is surely merely a viral part of Western cultural hegemony, but I don’t think it’s paranoid to see it as having had its uses to ex-colonial powers as a divide-and-disempower strategy. Unfortunately the response of states on the receiving end seems typically to be, not to dispute the false premise, but to try to make themselves into “proper” states by eliminating internal diversity (following the lead of the colonial powers themselves, of course.) Examples, alas, are all too easy to point to.

    Jeffrey Heath’s Tamashek grammar says that in that language the stem -mɑ:šæɣ- has the core sense “Tuareg warrior”, like the Hassaniya Arabic ta:rgi, plural twa:rəg from which we get “Tuareg”; if he’s right about that, even the use of that Tamashek stem as an endonym for “Tuareg” is already an extension of the original sense (there are, or were, several castes besides warriors: vassals, marabouts, artisans and slaves.) The Tuareg may very well not be at all representative of Berber cultures in general, of course (this reminds me of our recent discussion about nomadic societies.)

  2. I would really love to read a good history of the term.

    And preferably one that is not politicized.

    Ibn Khaldun’s usage is more complex, reflecting Andalusi practice as it emerged in the context of elite competition between Berber and Arab noble families, but shows clear traces of the older tendency to reserve it for “outsiders” to the ruling elite.

    I will supplement this with a quote from elsewhere (honestly, the first book with the words I needed that Google offered to me):

    A unique feature of the Kitāb al-ʿIbar is the large space devoted in it to the origin, genealogy, and history of the Berbers, more so than in any other surviving work from the medieval period. Shatzmiller argues convincingly that the “History of the Berbers” contained in the Kitāb al-ʿIbar is not an anomaly; rather it is the culmination of a local North African school of historiography that was concerned with recording traditions about the Berbers.[34] Traces of this school are to be found in the surviving fragments embedded in various works entitled Mafākhir al-Barbar (Great Deeds of the Berbers) and Faḍāʾil al-Barbar (Virtues of the Berbers). Collectively these fragments constituted what Shatzmiller calls the Berber Kitāb al-Ansāb (Book of Genealogies).

    *34 Maya Shatzmiller, “Ibn Khaldūn et la question berbère: Quelques réflexions sur la clé du Kitāb al-ʿIbar,” Proceedings of the Conference on Ibn Khaldūn (Granada, 2007): 59.

  3. Reminds me of several other Arab ethnic fictions – Turks (which in medieval usage could include every northern nomad from Magyars to Mongols), Sakaliba (Slavs and everyone else who in Arab opinion looked like Slav) and, of course, Franks (everyone in Western Europe).

  4. Sakaliba

    Farther afield:

    The Sakalava denominate a number of smaller ethnic groups that once comprised an empire, rather than an ethnic group in its own right. The origin of the word Sakalava itself is still subject to controversy, as well as its actual meaning. The most common explanation is the modern Malagasy translation of Sakalava meaning long ravines, denoting the relatively flat nature of the land in western Madagascar. Another theory is that the word is possibly from the Arabic saqaliba, which is in turn derived from Late Latin sclavus, meaning slave.

  5. David Eddyshaw says:

    Late Latin sclavus, meaning slave.

    … itself from Greek, in turn from Slavonic. The Slavs of Madagascar …

  6. David Eddyshaw says:

    We get in everywhere. Same as Hungarians.

  7. If nosyνῆσοςynys is anything to go by, the connection must go pretty far back.

  8. Off topic, parallelomania, a word not in OED:
    “Parallelomania” is the title of an article by Samuel Sandmel in Journal of Biblical Literature 81.1 (March 1962) 1-13, from a December 27, 1961 lecture, which is influential but may not be entirely reliable. Sandmel began: “I encountered the term parallelomania, as I recall, in a French book of about 1830, whose title and author I have forgotten….” Here I assume familiarity with the article, paraphrasing and omitting footnotes. He tells of someone imagining that Paul, while writing the Epistle to the Romans had open on his desk a copy of the Wisdom of Solomon, and used parallels from it, repeatedly—an imagined view he ridicules. A post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy.
    I searched for that circa French book, but did not find it, even though searching in 2021 is a different world than in 1961, given hathitrust, google books, gallica, and other searches, and the extremely extensive bibliography in Joseph A. Fitzmyer’s 1993 Anchor Bible Commentary on Romans (eg. 1819 anon., Geneva; 1838 Mynas; 1843 Oltramare).
    Here are (only) selected tentative findings, chronologically. None French circa 1830.
    1841 10 Mai, Moravia [Brünn] article on Theatre (Google Books) p. 147/2
    mich seine von jeher so gründlich angewidert , als die eben Theater jeßt grassirende Parallelomanie
    [Is this mere coincidence, or an explanation why Menzel, writing in German, used a French word?]
    1873 Biographie e cose varie {Palermo] GB p. 124, comparing music.
    Ma quando finirà questa epidemica parallel-mania ?
    1879 see 1909
    1888/1889 Der griechische Einfluss auf Prediger und Weisheit Salomos von Paul Menzel. Parallelomanie on pages 22, 40 (2x), 57, 62, 67. Too much to type (from, HT; 1888 dissertation then 1889 book), but on p. 40 (book)
    In unserer Zeit ist auber auch diese Method bis zu einer solchen Parallelomanie (sit venia verbo!) vorgeschritten, dass man gegenwärtig bereits ein und fast ein halbes Hundert philo- sophischer loci herzuzählen weiss, die entweder Anklänge oder zum Teil Entlehnungs-Stellen zu gewissen Stellen der Sophia sein sollen.
    1889 Alphonse Serre, parallélomanie attributed to Menzel. HT Ditto 1890 and 1891 authors HT
    1909 C. Clemen. Parallomanie attributed to a1879 London lecture. Probably: Religious parallelisms and symbolisms, ancient & modern.
    A lecture delivered before the Sunday Lecture Society … by Matthew Macfie 1879 HT
    1911 Acta Academicae Velehradensis v. 7. Review of Nicolaus Globkovskiij, Evangelium St. Pauli…1910. In materia hac tratanda saepe directe conspicitur, quaedam ,parallelomania’, accurata vero analysis ostendit, omnes illas analogias exaggeratas esse [p. 239]
    1913 R.H. Charles, Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha…vol. 1 (noted by Sandmel)P. Menzel [author guessed at, but with a different book title, by Sandmel] Der griech. Einfluss auf Prediger und Weisheit Salomons, 1889, pp. 39-70. Menzel gives a useful table of passages—which Professor Margoliouth says ‘might be considerably reduced without disadvantage’—where connection between Wisdom and greek philosophy has been pointd out by Grimm and Pfliederer. He has coined a somewhat question-begging epitet in the word ‘parallelomania’ which shows his attitude towards those who would trace the ideas of the author to their source. He admits, however, some of Pfieiderer’s positions. Menzel is severely criticized by Heinisch, pp. 9 ff. Cheyne (Orjgin of Psalter, p. 423) calls the work ‘a painstaking dissertation…[p. 533—an early recognition that the word can be misused dismissively]
    1913 (noted by Sandmel) A.T.S. Goodrick, The Book of Wisdom.
    Parallelomania can hardly excel Gregg’s suggestion (Introd., liii.) that ‘Lk. 2″ recalls Wisd. 7, where the homely detail of the royal child being wrapped in swaddling clothes is recorded.’ He rightly adds that ‘these similarities may be purely accidental.’ [p. 184]
    Avoiding the “parallelomania” which, according to Menzel [De Graecis in libris Koheleth et Sophiae vestigis], p. 40, has enabled some critics to adduce some one hundred and fifty passages of Greek writers to illustrate a single passage of Wisdom, we may set ourselves to inquire systematically what the traces of heathen philosophy in our author…. Some of the passages relied on to prove their connection are mere instances of “parallelomania.” In 7.8…. [p. 405]

  9. John Emerson says:

    So what peripheral: in a book I have on “the Greeks and the barbarians” (can’t remember title or author) the highly civilized but slavish Persians, while I always had thought that it was the (also Iranian ) Scythian nomads and later steppe peoples.

    I’m relying on the standard translation, but when Ibn Battuta speaks of “Arabs” it’s always (in my memory) Bedouins looming on the horizon. As I have been told, urban Arabs identified themselves with their city-state.

    As I understand, the term Tajik also floats.

  10. John Emerson says:


  11. David Eddyshaw says:

    In the field of vaguely-applied exonyms, I’ve always liked the Hausa Bature “European”, which is said to be ultimately derived (via Arabic) from the Iranian Turan.

    Wiktionary claims that “Turan” comes from “the Land of Tur”

    but the “Tur” in question looks rather as if he’s been retconned into existence to explain the placename.
    I read somewhere that “Turan” is etymologically “not-Iran”, but if so, I can’t substantiate this. Moreover, there actually is, if not a place, at least a state of being called “Aniran” (UnIran):

  12. Some time ago I considered whether the bedu (nomads) gave the current name to Khirbet Qumran, as an unexpected place to find a settlement, but was informed that ʿumrān (beginning with ‘ayin) is different than the mid-19th century and following reported (first, as far as I know, via French) pronunciations of, variously-spelled Goumran, Oumran, Gumran, Ghomran, Ghoumran, Kumran, Qoumran, (Khoumran?) Qumran, Qoumran. Ibn Khaldun had got me thinking of a nomad/settled dichotomy.

  13. In the field of vaguely-applied exonyms, I’ve always liked the Hausa Bature “European”, which is said to be ultimately derived (via Arabic) from the Iranian Turan.

    Discussed here in 2008 (with a helpful 2019 comment by DE).

  14. John Emerson says:

    Even more peripheral: the Malagasy were mentioned above, and I’d like to see more about them. Not only because of their Malay ancestry, but also because I’ve seen them discussed as a place where people delight in having foreigners in their family tree. One person who was especially amazed at this was a Kenyan, and Kenya (per David Reich) is a place where language groups / tribes are caste-like.

  15. David Eddyshaw says:

    The Malagasy seem to have come from southern Borneo:

  16. John Emerson says:

    The Amish call everyone else in these parts the equivalent of “The English”.

  17. David Marjanović says:

    [Is this mere coincidence, or an explanation why Menzel, writing in German, used a French word?]

    It’s not recognizable as a French word; Manie is current, stressed -ie for Latin -ia is too (ultimately for French reasons, yes, but since Middle High German), so Menzel could even have made it up himself for the occasion.

  18. John Cowan says:

    The Malagasy seem to have come from southern Borneo

    The language, certainly: we are even able to specify which language it split from, a feat of philology-as-exact-science matched only by our ability to pinpoint the author of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight to within 100 yards of UK National Grid reference 393364!

  19. Thanks for linking!

    I love the idea of Sakalava < Saqaliba, but it seems kind of unlikely a priori…

    JE: "when Ibn Battuta speaks of “Arabs” it’s always (in my memory) Bedouins looming on the horizon"

    Whenever he speaks of them as politically meaningful groups, yes; in such contexts, he speaks of Arabs in much the same way as he speaks of Berbers, as dangerous outsiders with potential. he boasts of his own Arab ancestry, yet insists that urban life makes distant genealogical ties irrelevant.

  20. I love the idea of Sakalava < Saqaliba, but it seems kind of unlikely a priori…

    For one thing, the stress on Sakalava is on the penult (though I don’t know anything about the history of Malagasy stress).

  21. I was wondering how Arabic accounts of the region referred to the Sakalava and learned of the existence of the ‮كوكب الدرية لاخبار افريقية‬‎ Kawkab al-durriya li-akhbār Ifrīqiya, an Arabic-language account of early modern East African history written by a local administrator named Fāḍil bin ʿUmar al-Bawrī in the late 19th or early 20th century. As far I can tell, it has not yet been edited, but an English translation has been published. To judge from this translation, the spelling Ṣaqāliba is apparently used for Sakalava. I hope you can see an excerpt of a translation of his account of raiders from Madagascar attacking Jūlī (Mafia Island) on p. 152 here, in James McL. Ritchie and Sigvard von Sicard (2019), An Azanian Trio: Three East African Arabic Historical Documents.

    I don’t know whether that spelling is a folk-etymology refashioning of a Malagasy word (which would not be unsurprising given the etymological speculations this author seems to indulge in), or actually represents the real etymon of Sakalava.

    For the curious, here is an older paper on the etymology of Sakalava advocating the Arabic etymology by the ethnologist Louis Molet, “Orìgine et sens du nom des Sakalava de Madagascar”.

  22. David Marjanović says:

    Mafia Island


  23. Mafia (lateinisch: Menuthras, römische Bezeichnung der Insel in der Antike)[1] ist eine tansanische Insel…


  24. I would have assumed it had the stress on the penult, but my M-W Geographical Dictionary has antepenult, just like the honorable society.

  25. La Isola Nostra

  26. David Marjanović says:

    And there’s a Mafia-Kanal where you can swim with the fishes!

    That’s not mentioned in the English article, which does, however, have these two tidbits that are missing from the German one:

    In the mid-1820s, the town of Kua on Juani Island was attacked by Sakalava cannibals arriving from Madagascar with 80 canoes, who ate many of the locals and took the rest into slavery.[4]

    The name “Mafia” derives from the Arabic morfiyeh, meaning “group” or “archipelago”[citation needed], or from the Swahili mahali pa afya, meaning “a healthy dwelling-place”.

  27. David Eddyshaw says:

    Mahali pa afya is an interesting expression linguistically, inasmuch as both mahali and afya are from Arabic (“place” and “health”* respectively); the sole Bantu component, pa, is what Ashton calls the “-a of relationship”, inflected to agree with the locative gender/noun class (of which mahali is the sole member.

    *It gets all over the place, this word. The Kusaal reply to all enquiries after health, for example, is Alaafʋ bɛ “Health exists”, ultimately from the same Arabic ʿāfiyah. Evidently health came to West Africa with Islam.

  28. David Eddyshaw says:

    Now I think of it, ordinary Kusaal greetings involve not only Arabic loanwords but what are probably distinctly Muslim concepts; several, for example, are formally prayers to God, despite the fact that prayers to the Creator are not actually a feature of Kusaasi traditional culture. This, despite the fact that the Kusaasi are overwhelmingly not Muslims, and that (as far as I can see) there is not much sign of Muslim cultural influence in general.

    I suppose greetings are quite liable to be Wanderwörter. Wandercalques. Wanderphrases. Whatever.

  29. our ability to pinpoint the author of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight to within 100 yards of UK National Grid reference 393364

    This would seem to place him somewhere off the Scilly Islands, as Ordnance Survey grid references default to the southwesternmost grid square if no square is named.

  30. David Eddyshaw says:

    I can’t make much of morfiyeh “archipelago”; maybe marfaʼ “harbour” (plural marāfiʼ)? Lameen would know better …

  31. wanderever

  32. John Cowan says:

    This would seem to place him somewhere off the Scilly Islands

    What Shippey actually says is this:

    […] in the valley of the River Dane, on the boundary between Cheshire and Staffordshire […] The poet was probably connected with Dieulacres Abbey near Leek in Staffordshire [….] He may have imagined the castle of Sir Bertilak as being located at Knight’s Low in Swythamley Park, and most relevantly for Tolkien that — writing in a local dialect for a local audience — he encouraged his hearers to imagine his Arthurian romance as set in a landscape they knew, and which they could name.

    Thus, as the huntsmen set out to hunt the wild boar (perhaps at Wildboarclough, just above the Dane), the poet says:

    Þenne such a glauer ande glam of gedered rachcheȝ
    Ros, þat þe rochereȝ rungen aboute (II.1426-7)

    Tolkien and Gordon in 1925 gloss “rocher” as “rock [Old
    French roch(i)er]” — one of the strong points of their edition
    was that it showed immediately which language words in the
    poem were derived from, Old English, Old Norse or Old
    French — and Tolkien’s translation of 1975 accordingly

    Then such a baying and babel of bloodhounds together
    arose, that the rock-wall rang all about them.

    But if one is gathering hounds at Swythamley or Wildboarclough in the Dane valley, the rock-wall that is likely to be resounding is not “the rocheres”, but “the Roaches” — the steep jagged hills overlooking the valley, still called “the Roaches”, and with a name which derives from the Old French root rocher just as certainly as Tolkien and Gordon’s proposed reading. [….] Tolkien would have been delighted to see the Gawain-poet […] turning “the Roaches” into “þe rochere3”, the Flash brook three lines later into “a flasche” – but in the secure knowledge that his local audience would very probably as it were insert their own capital letters once more, and feel sure that they were living (as Tolkien thought we all do) on the site of ancient legend and romance.

  33. The name “Mafia” derives from the Arabic morfiyeh, meaning “group” or “archipelago”[citation needed], or from the Swahili mahali pa afya, meaning “a healthy dwelling-place”.

    In this article, there is discussion of early forms (Manisa, Manfisa, Manfia) of the name of Mafia, in relation to the account of the region given by the 12th-century Arab geographer al-Idrisi. (JSTOR offers 100 articles a month with free registration, so the article should be available to all LH readers.) See paragraph iii on page 135 of the article, and also footnote 1 on page 129 for consideration of whether the medieval Arabic names are possibly alterations of an inheritance from antiquity. (Μενουθιάς can be found here in the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea, §15, page 52-53.)

    This Portuguese text from 1552 offers an early European account of the history of the sultanate of Kilwa, which dominated the region in the period. In it we can find a mention of Monfia.

    (For the curious, here is an old modern edition of a late manuscript of an Arabic version of the history of Kilwa, Kitāb al-sulwa fī ʾaḫbār Kulwa. On page 399 of this edition, the editor offers offers some discussion of the name Manfisa in Arabic sources, but he takes it to be Mombasa rather than Mafia.)

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