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The etymology of the word “Amazigh”

By: D. Messaoudi

This is an article that can be an answer to the Libyan leader Al-Kadhafi, who once declared that the
word “Amazigh” is created by the colonialists to divide the North African people who, according to
him, are Arabs.

The term “Amazigh” is not a creation of the French colonialism as it is said or written by many Arab
’intellectuals ’ known for their Pan-Arabist opinions [1], but it is definitely the appellation of the
inhabitants of North Africa from immemorial times. This term is found in the texts / inscriptions of the
Pharaonic Egypt of the period of Ramsis III, under the form of Macwc [2], in ancient Greek and Latin
in which it appears under various forms: Mazyes (Hécatée-6th century A.C.), Maxyes (Hérodote-5th
century A.C.), Mazax, Mazaces, Mazikes (Ref. Latin dictionary: 956), and in the Arab texts of Medium
Age, as those written by Ibn-Khaldoun. It is nowadays the name which identifies Tamazight speakers
in several regions of Tamazgha (Berber Land), as in Sened (Tunisia), in Djebel Nefoussa (Libya), in
Touat (Algeria), in the Medium Atlas (Morocco), and in Sahara (Algeria, Mali, Niger).

There are several hypotheses about the ethnonym “Amazigh”, but all of them are devoid of
convincing proofs, except one which is worth being mentioned here and even supported by our own
argument: it is the one put forward by F. Nicolas in 1950 and taken up again by K. Prasse in 1972
and by S. Chaker in 1991.

According to these authors, “amaziү / amajeү” would come from the Berber verb “jjeү” which means
in the Iwelmiden’s idiom (Touareg group of dialects), “to walk boastfully”. However, as S. Chaker
(see. Chaker, 1996:131) put it, an agent with the structure aMaCiC / aMaCeC is unlikely to be derived
from a verb with a long initial radical phoneme, because this type of verbs gives normally agents of
aMaCCaC structure, e.g: “ṭṭes - amaṭṭas (K.)”. It is then necessary to search a verbal lexeme with a
short initial radical phoneme. The lexeme being discussed is that mentioned by Chaker, i.e. “jeүeү”
which means « to be brave / courageous » (see. Alojali, on 1980:83); it is in fact this form which, by
progressive assimilation, gave the variant “jjeү” [3] .

At first glance, the terms, “amaziү / amajeү” are unlikely to be related to the verb “jeүeү”, because this
lexeme will rather give “Amajeүeү” which is not certified in any existing Amazigh idiom. However, we
are practically sure that it is from this agent, synchronically abnormal, that the over-mentioned
ethnonym is derived. Our hypothesis is founded on a very common phenomenon in Amazigh
language: the apocope. The apocope, which affects weak radicals within words (see. Taïfi, in Awal,
1990:228), can be described as the cutting off of the last sound or syllable of a word. This
phenomenon is observed in a lot of pairs as in: “ḍfut / taḍfi; iүzif / teүzi; tukerḍa / aker”; etc.

“(A) majeүeү”, both at the level of its constituting radicals and its schema, would be therefore the
primitive form. We can explain the evolution of this form into “Amajeү” and “amaziү”, synchronically
observed in Touareg and northern Berber, in the following way: at the beginning, that is to say after
the fourth division when the afro-Asiatic group broke up, the Berbers became more individual and
identified themselves with the name “(a) Majeүeү”, then some tribes went up northward and some
others downward to Sahara. This separation had favoured the evolution of the Berber language on
both sides, but in different ways, leading the original ethnonym to give birth to four variants: in the
south “(a) Majeү, (a) maheү, (a) Maceү” and in the north “(a) Maziү”.


[1] I remember having read in an Algerian newspaper, just after October 89, an article written by an
obscure doctor named Abdelkrime El-Djazaïri, in which the latter argued that the word “Amazigh” was
nothing but an invention of the Frenchmen who tried then to divide the Algerian people in order to rule
them. The same ideas have since then been published, in some Arabic-speaking newspapers known
for their hatred towards the Amazigh, by another even more obscure doctor whose name is Othmane
Saadi. And recently, we heard the same speech from the Libyan leader Al-Kadhafi.

[2] Given that the phonological system of the ancient Egyptian is devoid of phonemes / z, ү/, these
were therefore replaced with their close correspondents / c, x / then, by a distant progressive
assimilation, these became / c, c/; as for the letter “w” used also to transcribe vowels / u, o/, it would
correspond to the Berber vowel / ə / which becomes close to / o / especially in contact with velar
sounds. “Macwc” would be pronounced therefore [macoc] very close to the Touareg “Amaceү”.

[3] The root JГ is attested in the Kabyle idiom spoken in Takerboust in the word “ajaүiү”, meaning the
jay, perhaps so named for its nobility or its braveness in contrast with certain fearful or less attractive
birds. The variant of this root is ZX also certified in the same idiom in the verb “zux”, to strut, which
gave the noun “azuxzux”, the turkey, very known for its ostentatious movement.