For a very interesting look at the linguistic situation in Libya, check out Lameen Souag’s latest post. He focuses on the Berber minority:

A very large majority of Libyans have Arabic as their mother tongue — in fact, Western Libya was described by the colonial anthropologist Evans-Pritchard as the most Arab place on earth outside Arabia itself. However, the country also has a noteworthy Berber-speaking minority (about 5%, if you dare to trust Ethnologue; it’s not as though anyone’s ever counted them in the past several decades). Most speakers are concentrated in the northwest, where they (traditionally, for once) call themselves Imazighen: the port of Zuwara, along with many towns of the Nafusa mountains, such as Yefren and Nalut. … A quite distinctive Berber language is spoken in the desert oasis of Ghadames on the Algerian border. There is a Tuareg community in the southwest, around Ghat and Ubari. The isolated Berber-speaking communities of Awjila in the southwest and Sokna near the middle are shifting to Arabic (this process is almost complete in Sokna) — their languages are of extreme historical interest and are very inadequately documented.

But he also mentions fascinating nuggets like the Muslim Greek community (whose Greek is almost gone)—what a complicated world we inhabit (and how misguided are the people who want to forcibly simplify it)!


  1. It’s too bad this hasn’t been covered at all by the newspapers. By the way there was a 20 min. BBC interview by Jeremy Paxman of Chomsky that I liked, but he could mention a bit more of this kind of thing, surely?

  2. I wonder what Evans-Pritchard meant (“the most Arab place on earth outside Arabia itself”). Is he saying that Libyan Arabic is closer to Classical or Standard Arabic?
    My wife, a native Cairene speaker, says she has difficulty understanding the Libyan dialect. She would understand Standard Arabic with no difficulty.

  3. He wasn’t saying either, he was pointing out that unlike most of North Africa, it was overwhelmingly settled by Arabs (as opposed to Berbers and other indigenous peoples).

  4. Also, how does your wife do with the Arabic spoken by Bedouins in Saudi Arabia?

  5. LH: “Also, how does your wife do with the Arabic spoken by Bedouins in Saudi Arabia?”
    Good question. She says she had quite a bit of difficulty at first (she worked as a physician there for several years and had a number of bedu patients). Her biggest problem was lexical and to a lesser degree phonological.

  6. Not sure how you would measure overall closeness, but Western Libyan Arabic is closer to Classical than Egyptian is in some very conspicuous ways – they still distinguish feminine from masculine plural agreement, for example (even for verbs and pronouns), and use the verb -rīd- for “want” rather than biddi, and distinguish length in unstressed syllables… However, that’s not what Evans-Pritchard had in mind, as far as I know.

  7. Oops: for biddi in my previous comment, read ʕāyiz / ʕāwiz.

  8. Lameen: Yes, Egyptian Arabic is quite different from CA and MSA. However, educated Egyptians have studied them and are exposed on a regular basis in the media, religion, etc. So, a dialect using many CA or MSA forms should not present great difficulty.
    Caveat: MSA in Egypt is usually spoken with local phonology (geem for jeem, glottal stop for /q/, no dental fricatives, somewhat different word stress, etc.)

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