The term Berber refers both to a group of people and to the language spoken by these people. When attempting to understand the Berber languages, it may be helpful to first understand the people by whom these languages are spoken. The Berber are a collection of tribes spread across Northern Africa, the Mediterranean Coast, the Sahara, and the Sahel. There are numerous tribes who consider themselves Berber, and each tribe assigns one or more names to their chosen regional dialect, making it difficult to delimit the Berber languages. For this reason, we will consider the Berber languages to be a group of related languages spoken by the Berber people.
The Berber languages belong to the Afro-Asiatic language family and are widely known as Tamazight. The largest populations of Berber language speakers reside in Morocco and Algeria. Numerous variations of Berber are also spoken in Tunisia, Sudan, Libya, Chad, Egypt, Mauritania, Niger, Mali, Burkina Faso, Nigeria, Ceuta, Melilla, France, and Israel. Due to a large nomadic population of Berbers, and to the absence of language data in the censuses recorded by many of the aforementioned countries, the exact population of Berber speakers can only be estimated at roughly 15 to 25 million.
In terms of regional dialects, Tarifit, Kabyle, and Tashelhiyt are spoken in certain areas of Morocco and Algeria. One ethnological schematic sub-classifies the Berber languages as follows:
Eastern Berber languages
- Awjila-Sokna languages
Northern Berber languages
- Zenati languages
- Kabyle language
- Chenoua language
- Moroccan Atlas languages
- Northern Tamasheq languages
- Southern Tamasheq languages
The Berbers themselves, however, may refer to their languages as Tamazight, Thamazight, Tamajeq, Tamahaq, Taznatit, Thaqvaylith, Tasiwit, Tuddhungiya, or Zenatia, to name a few! Tamazight remains the most popular term referring to the Berber languages, and many Berbers desire a unification of the many closely related Berber languages into one standard language under the name Tamazight.
Of all Berber languages, Tamazight has been used as a written language since about 200 BC. The Tifinagh alphabet, Arabic alphabet, and Latin alphabet, have each been used at one time to write the Berber languages. Certain countries have chosen to designate one or another of these alphabets as the official alphabet for written Berber, yet the other alphabets continue to be used within the same country. Many Berbers also speak French and Arabic, though etymologically and linguistically, these languages are not considered Berber languages.