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The Etymology of the Word “Berber”

By: Djaafar Messaoudi

For some people, the origin of the word “Berber” would be Greek; their argument rely on
the fact that the Greeks called people who spoke a language other than Greek “the
Barbarians”. For the Arabs, the above word would be borrowed from Arabic, since in this
language there is the verb “Barbara” (to roar) and “Al-barbarah” (“roar” and by
extension, incomprehensible language – the equivalent of “baragouin”, meaning
gibberish, the name given to the Breton language by the French).

But, in my opinion, these hypotheses rely on no logic, because in that period, the
Berbers were not the only ones with whom the Romans or the Arabs had contacts. Why
therefore other people as the Copts, the Kurds, the Sudanese, the Iranians, the
Basques, etc, who spoke languages completely different from Latin and Arabic, had not
been called “barbarians / Berbers”?

This incites us to search the origin of the above-mentioned appellation elsewhere, and
more precisely in Berber language itself.

Our research in different Amazigh dialects led to the discovery of a group of terms and
expressions with which we can associate the term “Berber”:

* Iber-iber: nomad in Touareg

* Sberber: be covered with clouds, when speaking about the sky in Kabyle, or to protect
somebody or something by covering it with one’s body.
* Sbur: to cover one’s head in Kabyle
* Ibeṛbaṛen: a village located in Mcheddala, Bouira
* Tizi-n-Beṛbeṛ: another village in Kabylia.
* bbeṛbeṛ: very wet, in Kabyle.

My first assumption is that the term “Berber” would be a distortion or perhaps an evolved
form of the word attested in Touareg, i.e. “Iberiber”. We know that the Berbers were
called “Imazighen”, but maybe the appellation “iberiber”, which became then “Berber”,
indicated only a particular grouping of Berbers, as the Touareg which were always big
nomads. It would be then the Northern Berbers that would have created this nickname
to indicate the Saharan, and the foreigners generalized it then to all Berbers.

My second assumption is that the term “Berber” would have a lexical relation with the
words “sbur” and “Sberber”, which are both created on the basis of the same root: “BR”.
In fact, if we refer to the dress habits of the North Africans, we will realize that the
Berbers, since immemorial times, prefer broad clothing which cover them completely:
Kabyle abernus, Shleuh tajellabit, Targui tagelmust, etc., are some examples. Even the
Berber women wear long “tiqendyar” and “timḥermin” or else “asburru” to protect their
heads. It would be therefore the reason for which the Berbers were called, besides
Imazighen, “Iberbaren”, which became then “Berber” in foreign languages.