Tuareg languages

The Tuareg (English: /ˈtwɑːrɛɡ/) languages constitute a group of closely related Berber languages and dialects. They are spoken by the Tuareg Berbers in large parts of Mali, Niger, Algeria, Libya and Burkina Faso, with a few speakers, the Kinnin, in Chad.[1]

Sahara and Sahel
Linguistic classificationAfro-Asiatic
ISO 639-2 / 5tmh
ISO 639-3tmh


Tuareg dialects belong to the South Berber group and are sometimes regarded as a single language (as for instance by Karl-Gottfried Prasse). They are distinguished mainly by a few sound shifts (notably affecting the pronunciation of original z and h). The Tuareg varieties are unusually conservative in some respects; they retain two short vowels where Northern-Berber languages have one or none, and have a much lower proportion of Arabic loanwords than most Berber languages.

The Tuareg languages are traditionally written in the indigenous Tifinagh alphabet. However, the Arabic script is commonly used in some areas (and has been since medieval times), while the Latin script is official in Mali and Niger.


  • Northern
    • Tamahaq – language of the Kel Ahaggar, and Kel Ajjer spoken in Algeria, western Libya and in the north of Niger by around 77,000 people. Also known as Tahaggart.
  • Southern
    • Tamasheq – language of the Kel Adrar (also known as Adrar des Ifoghas), spoken in Mali by approximately 500,000 people.
    • Air Tamajaq – language of the Kel Ayer (sometimes spelled Aïr), spoken in Niger by approximately 250,000 people.[2]
    • Tawellemet – language of the Iwellemmeden, spoken in Mali and Niger by approximately 800,000 people. The term Iwellemmeden (the name of the people) is sometimes used to denote the language.
    • Tamashaq language of Kal Asakan.

Blench (ms, 2006) lists the following as separate languages, with dialects in parentheses:[3]

Speakers of Tin Sert (Tetserret) identify as Tuareg, but the language is Western Berber.


The Tuareg languages may be written using the ancient Tifinagh (Libyco-Berber) script, the Latin script or the Arabic script. The Malian national literacy program DNAFLA has established a standard for the Latin alphabet, which is used with modifications in Prasse's Lexique and the government literacy program in Burkina, while in Niger a different system was used. There is also some variation in Tifinagh and in the Arabic script.[4]

Early uses of the Tifinagh script have been found on rock art and in various sepulchres. Among these are the 1,500 year old monumental tomb of the Tuareg matriarch Tin Hinan, where vestiges of a Tifinagh inscription have been found on one of its walls.[5]

Tifinagh usage is now restricted mainly to writing magical formulae, writing on palms when silence is required, and in letter-writing.[6] The Arabic script is mostly in use by tribes more involved in Islamic learning, and little is known about its conventions.[7]

Traditional Tifinagh, including various ligatures of t and n. Gemination is not indicated. Most of the letters have more than one common form. When the letters l and n are adjacent to themselves or to each other, the second one is inclined: || l, |/ nn, ||/ ln, |// nl, ||// ll, |/| nnn.
Representative alphabets for Tuareg[8][9][10][11]
ggگ ݣ
qq ق
š (ʃ)šش
yy ي
zz ز
ž (ʒ)ǧج

The DNAFLA system is a somewhat morphophonemic orthography, not indicating initial vowel shortening, always writing the directional particle as < dd⟩, and not indicating all assimilations (e.g. Tămašăɣt for [tămašăq]).[14]

In Burkina Faso the emphatics are denoted by "hooked" letters, as in Fula, e.g. ɗ ƭ.[15]



The vowel system includes 5 long vowels, /a, e, i, o, u/, "emphatic" versions of /e, o/, and two short vowels, /ə, ă/.[16] Karl Prasse argued that /e/ goes back to Proto-Berber, while /o/ is derived from /u/.[17] Comparative evidence shows that /ə/ derives from a merger of Proto-Berber */ĭ/ and */ŭ/.

Sudlow classes the "semivowels" /w, j/ with the vowels, and notes the following possible diphthongs: /əw/ (> [u]), /ăw/, /aw/, /ew/, /iw/, /ow/, /uw/, /əj/ (> [i]), /ăj/, /aj/, /ej/, /ij/, /oj/, /uj/.[18]

Before emphatics, vowels lower, turning /ə/ into [ă], /e, i/ into "emphatic" [e], and /u, o/ into "emphatic" [o], with some dialectal variation (with the realizations of /i, u/ "less open" than /e, o/).[19]


Tamasheq consonants[20]
Nasal mnŋ
Stop bt dtˤ dˤɟ[21]k ɡq(ʔ)
Fricative fs z(sˤ) zˤ ʃ ʒx ɣ[22](ħ ʕ)h
Lateral l(lˤ)

The consonant inventory largely resembles Arabic: differentiated voicing; uvulars, pharyngeals (traditionally referred to as emphatics) /tˤ/, /lˤ/, /sˤ/, /dˤ/, /zˤ/; requiring the pharynx muscles to contract and influencing the pronunciation of the following vowel (although /lˤ, sˤ/ only occur in Arabic loans and /ɫ/ only in the name of Allah).[23]

/ŋ/ is rare, /ʒ/ is rare in Tadraq, and /ħ, ʕ/ are only used in Arabic words in the Tanəsləmt dialect (most Tamasheq replace them with /x, ɣ/ respectively).[20]

The glottal stop is non-phonemic. It occurs at the beginning of vowel-initial words to fill the place of the initial consonant in the syllable structure (see below), although if the words is preceded by a word ending in a consonant, it makes a liaison instead. Phrase-final /a/ is also followed by a phonetic glottal stop.[19]

Gemination is contrastive.[24] Normally /ɣɣ/ becomes [qː], /ww/ becomes [ɡː], and /dˤdˤ/ becomes [tˤː].[24] /q/ and /tˤ/ are predominantly geminate. In addition, in Tadraq /ɡ/ is usually geminate, but in Tudalt singleton /ɡ/ may occur.[24]

Voicing assimilation occurs, with the first consonant taking the voicing of the second (e.g. /edˤkăr/ > [etˤkăr]).[25]

Cluster reduction turns word/morpheme-final /-ɣt, -ɣk/ into [-qː] and /-kt, -ɟt, -ɡt/ into [-kː] (e.g. /tămaʃăɣt/ > [tămaʃăq] 'Tamasheq'[26]).[27]


Syllable structure is CV(C)(C), including glottal stops (see above).[19]


Contrastive stress may occur in the stative aspect of verbs.[16]

Dialectal differences

Different dialects have slightly different consonant inventories. Some of these differences can be diachronically accounted for. For example, Proto-Berber *h is mostly lost in Ayer Tuareg, while it is maintained in almost every position in Mali Tuareg. The Iwellemmeden and Ahaggar Tuareg dialects are midway between these positions.[28] The Proto-Berber consonant *z comes out differently in different dialects, a development that is to some degree reflected in the dialect names. It is realized as h in Tamahaq (Tahaggart), as š in Tamasheq and as simple z in the Tamajaq dialects Tawallammat and Tayart. In the latter two, *z is realised as ž before palatal vowels, explaining the form Tamajaq. In Tawallammat and especially Tayart, this kind of palatalization actually does not confine itself to z. In these dialects, dentals in general are palatalized before /i/ and /j/. For example, tidət is pronounced [tidʲət] in Tayart.[29]

Other differences can easily be traced back to borrowing. For example, the Arabic pharyngeals ħ and ʻ have been borrowed along with Arabic loanwords by dialects specialized in Islamic (Maraboutic) learning. Other dialects substitute ħ and ʻ respectively with x and ɣ.


The basic word order in Tuareg is verb–subject–object. Verbs can be grouped into 19 morphological classes; some of these classes can be defined semantically. Verbs carry information on the subject of the sentence in the form of pronominal marking. No simple adjectives exist in the Tuareg languages; adjectival concepts are expressed using a relative verb form traditionally called 'participle'. The Tuareg languages have very heavily influenced Northern Songhay languages such as Sawaq, whose speakers are culturally Tuareg but speak Songhay; this influence includes points of phonology and sometimes grammar as well as extensive loanwords.


Tamasheq prefers VSO order; however it contains topic–comment structure (like in American Sign Language, Modern Hebrew, Japanese and Russian), allowing the emphasized concept to be placed first, be it the subject or object, the latter giving an effect somewhat like the English passive.[30] Sudlow uses the following examples, all expressing the concept “Men don’t cook porridge” (e denotes Sudlow's schwa):

meddăn wăr sekediwăn ăsink SVO
wăr sekediwăn meddăn ăsink VSO
ăsinkwăr ti-sekediwăn meddăn ‘Porridge, men don’t cook it.’
wădde meddăn a isakădawăn ăsink ‘It isn’t men who cook porridge.’
meddăn a wăren isekediw ăsink ‘Men are not those who cook porridge.’

Again like Japanese, the “pronoun/particle ‘a’ is used with a following relative clause to bring a noun in a phrase to the beginning for emphasis,” a structure which can be used to emphasize even objects of prepositions.[31] Sudlow’s example (s denotes voiceless palato-alveolar fricative):

essensăɣ enăle ‘I bought millet.’
enăle a essensăɣ ‘It was millet that I bought.’

The indirect object marker takes the form i/y in Tudalt and e/y in Tadraq.[32]


As a root-and-pattern, or templatic language, triliteral roots (three-consonant bases) are the most common in Tamasheq. Niels and Regula Christiansen use the root k-t-b (to write) to demonstrate past completed aspect conjugation:

Tamasheq subject affixes[33]
s 1 ...-ăɣ
2 t-...-ăd
3 m y-...
f t-...
part.[34] m y-...-ăn
f t-...-ăt
pl 1 n-...
2 m t-...-ăm
f t-...-măt
3 m ...-ăn
f ...-năt
part.[34] ...-nen
Conjugation of k-t-b 'write'[35]
Person Singular Plural
1st ektabaɣ ‘I wrote’ nektab ‘We wrote’
2nd (m) tektabad ‘You (2s) wrote’ tektabam ‘You (2p/m) wrote’
(f) tektabmat ‘You (2p/f) wrote’
3rd (m) iktab ‘He wrote’ ektaban ‘They (3p/m) wrote’
(f) tektab ‘She wrote’ ektabnat ‘They (3/p/f) wrote’

The verbal correspondence with the use of aspect; Tamasheq uses four, as delineated by Sudlow:

  1. Perfective: complete actions
  2. Stative: "lasting states as the ongoing results of a completed action."
  3. Imperfective: future or possible actions, "often used following a verb expressing emotion, decision or thought," it can be marked with "'ad'" (shortened to "'a-'" with prepositions).
  4. Cursive: ongoing actions, often habitual ones.
Verb Perfective/simple perfect Stative/intensive perfect Imperfective/simple perfect Cursive/intensive imperfect
z-g-r izgăr izgăr
'He went out' 'He has gone out'
b-d-d ibdăd ibdăd
'He stood up' 'He stood up (and so he is standing up)'
ekkeɣ hebu ekkêɣ hebu
'I went to market' 'I am going to market'
l-m-d ad elmedăɣ Tămasăq lammădăɣ Tămasăq
'I will learn Tamasheq' 'I am learning Tamasheq'
a-dd-as asekka
'He will arrive (here) tomorrow'
iwan tattănăt alemmoZ
'Cows eat straw'
ăru tasăɣalăɣ siha
'I used to work over there'

Commands are expressed in the imperative mood, which tends to be a form of the imperfective aspect, unless the action is to be repeated or continued, in which case the cursive aspect is preferred.[36]

Further reading


  • Bougchiche, Lamara. (1997) Langues et litteratures berberes des origines a nos jours. Bibliographie internationale et systematique. Paris: Ibis Press.
  • Chaker, Salem, ed. (1988) Etudes touaregues. Bilan des recherches en sciences sociales. Travaux et Documents de i.R.E.M.A.M. no. 5. Aix-en-Provence: IREMAM / LAPMO.
  • Leupen, A.H.A. (1978) Bibliographie des populations touaregues: Sahara et Soudan centraux. Leiden: Afrika Studiecentrum.


Page 247 of the 1951 Dictionnaire Touareg–Français, showcasing De Foucauld's meticulous handwriting accompanied by detailed illustrations of tasdest 'tent-pole' and other tent-building terms of the Kel Ahaggar.
  • Charles de Foucauld (1951–1952) Dictionnaire touareg–francais. 4 vol. Paris: Imprimerie Nationale de France. [posthumous facsimile publication (author dec. 1916); dialect of Hoggar, southern Algeria]
  • Jeffrey Heath (2006) Dictionnaire tamachek–anglais–français. Paris: Karthala. [covers dialects of northern Mali]
  • Motylinski, A. (1908). Grammaire, dialogues et dictionnaire touaregs. Alger: P. Fontana.
  • Karl-G Prasse, Ghoubeid Alojaly and Ghabdouane Mohamed, (2003) Dictionnaire touareg–francais (Niger). 2nd edition revised; 2 vol. Copenhagen: Museum Tusculanum Press, University of Copenhagen. [1st edition 1998; covers two dialects of the northern Republic of Niger]


  • Christiansen, Niels, and Regula. "Some verb morphology features of Tadaksahak ." SIL Electronic Working Papers. 2002. SIL International. 2 December 2007 <http://www.sil.org/silewp/yearindex.asp?year=2002>.
  • Hanoteau, A. (1896) Essai de grammaire de la langue tamachek' : renfermant les principes du langage parlé par les Imouchar' ou Touareg. Alger: A. Jourdan.
  • Galand, Lionel. (1974) 'Introduction grammaticale'. In: Petites Soeurs de Jesus, Contes touaregs de l'Air (Paris: SELAF), pp. 15–41.
  • Heath, Jeffrey. 2005. Grammar of Tamashek (Tuareg of Mali). (Mouton Grammar Series.) the Hague: Mouton de Gruyter.
  • Kossmann, Maarten G. (2011), A Grammar of Ayer Tuareg (Niger), Berber Studies, 30, Köln: Rüdiger Köppe
  • Prasse, Karl G. (1973) Manuel de grammaire touaregue (tahaggart). 4 vol. Copenhagen.
  • Sudlow, David. (2001). The Tamasheq of North-East Burkina Faso. Köln: Rüdiger Köppe Verlag.


  • Ag Erless, Mohamed (1999) "Il ný a qu'un soleil sur terre". Contes, proverbes et devinettes des Touaregs Kel-Adagh. Aix-en-Provence: IREMAM.
  • Aghali-Zakara, Mohamed & Jeannine Drouin (1979) Traditions touarègues nigériennes. Paris: L'Harmattan.
  • Albaka, Moussa & Dominique Casajus (1992) Poésies et chant touaregs de l'Ayr. Tandis qu'ils dorment tous, je dis mon chant d'amour. Paris: L'Harmattan.
  • Alojaly, Ghoubeïd (1975) Ǎttarikh ən-Kəl-Dənnəg – Histoire des Kel-Denneg. Copenhagen: Akademisk Forlag.
  • Casajus, Dominique (1985) Peau d'Âne et autres contes touaregs. Paris: L'Harmattan.
  • Chaker, Salem & Hélène Claudot & Marceau Gast, eds. (1984) Textes touaregs en prose de Charles de Foucauld et. A. de Calassanto-Motylinski. Aix-en-Provence: Édisud.
  • Chants touaregs. Recueillis et traduits par Charles de Foucauld. Paris, Albin Michel, 1997
  • Foucauld, Charles de (1925) Poésies touarègues. Dialecte de l'Ahaggar. Paris: Leroux.
  • Lettres au marabout. Messages touaregs au Père de Foucauld. Paris, Belin, 1999
  • Heath, Jeffrey (2005) Tamashek Texts from Timbuktu and Kidal. Berber Linguistics Series. Cologne: Koeppe Verlag
  • Louali-Raynal, Naïma & Nadine Decourt & Ramada Elghamis (1997) Littérature orale touarègue. Contes et proverbes. Paris: L'Harmattan.
  • Mohamed, Ghabdouane & Karl-G. Prasse (1989) Poèmes touaréges de l'Ayr. 2 vol. Copenhagen: Akademisk Forlag.
  • Mohamed, Ghabdouane & Karl-G. Prasse (2003) əlqissǎt ən-təməddurt-in – Le récit de ma vie. Copenhagen: Museum Tusculanum Press.
  • Nicolaisen, Johannes, and Ida Nicolaisen. The Pastoral Tuareg: Ecology, Culture, and Society. Vol. 1,2. New York: Thames and Hudson, Inc, 1997. 2 vols.
  • Nicolas, Francis (1944) Folklore Twareg. Poésies et Chansons de l'Azawarh. BIFAN VI, 1–4, p. 1-463.

Linguistic topics

  • Cohen, David (1993) 'Racines'. In: Drouin & Roth, eds. À la croisée des études libyco-berbères. Mélanges offerts à Paulette Galand-Pernet et Lionel Galand (Paris: Geuthner), 161–175.
  • Kossmann, Maarten (1999) Essai sur la phonologie du proto-berbère. Köln: Rüdiger Köppe.
  • Prasse, Karl G. (1969) A propos de l'origine de h touareg (tahaggart). Copenhagen.


  1. Monique Jay, “Quelques éléments sur les Kinnin d’Abbéché (Tchad)". Études et Documents Berbères 14 (1996), 199-212 (ISSN 0295-5245 ISBN 2-85744-972-0).
  2. "Ethnologue report for language code: thz". Ethnologue: Languages of the World, Sixteenth edition. Retrieved August 17, 2012.
  3. AA list, Blench, ms, 2006
  4. Sudlow (2001:33–36)
  5. Briggs, L. Cabot (February 1957). "A Review of the Physical Anthropology of the Sahara and Its Prehistoric Implications". Man. 56: 20–23. JSTOR 2793877.
  6. Penchoen, Thomas G. (1973). Tamazight of the Ayt Ndhir. Los Angeles: Undena Publications. p. 3.
  7. Project: Orthography in a plurigraphic society: the case of Tuareg in Niger
  8. Sudlow (2001:28,35–36)
  9. Ridouane Ziri, Rachid. "Les différents systèmes d'écriture amazighe" (in French). Retrieved August 19, 2012.
  10. Bizari, Brahim. "Ecriture amazigh" (in French). Archived from the original on April 5, 2001. Retrieved August 19, 2012.
  11. Fukui, Yusuf Yoshinori; Walett Mahmoud, Khadijatou. "Alphabets of Tamashek in Mali: Alphabetization and Tifinagh". Archived from the original on February 1, 2004. Retrieved August 18, 2012.
  12. Osborn, Don (2002). "Base extended-Latin characters and combinations for languages of Mali". Retrieved August 18, 2012.
  13. Enguehard, Chantal (2007). "alphabet tamajaq (arrété 214-99 de la République du Niger)" (in French). Retrieved August 19, 2012.
  14. Sudlow (2001:34)
  15. Sudlow (2001:33)
  16. Sudlow (2001:25)
  17. K.-G. Prasse (1990), New Light on the Origin of the Tuareg Vowels E and O, in: H. G. Mukarovsky (ed), Proceedings of the Fifth International Hamito-Semitic Congress, Vienna, I 163-170.
  18. Sudlow (2001:25–26)
  19. Sudlow (2001:27)
  20. Sudlow (2001:26–28)
  21. Sudlow (2001:26) does not make it clear whether this is a true palatal stop or something else, possibly a front velar stop or some sort of affricate.
  22. Sudlow (2001:26) doesn't specify whether these are velar or uvular.
  23. Sudlow (2001:26–7)
  24. Sudlow (2001:28)
  25. Sudlow (2001:28–29)
  26. Note that the geminate is dropped if not followed by a vowel.
  27. Sudlow (2001:29)
  28. Prasse 1969, Kossmann 1999
  29. Prasse e.a. 2003:xiv
  30. Sudlow, (2001:46)
  31. Sudlow (2001:48)
  32. Sudlow & 2001, 1.1.
  33. Sudlow (2001:118)
  34. Participle form, i.e. "who ..."
  35. Christiansen 2002, p. 5.
  36. Sudlow (2001:57)


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