Zenati languages

The Zenati languages are a branch of the Northern Berber language family of North Africa. They were named after the medieval Zenata Berber tribal confederation. They were first proposed in the works of French linguist Edmond Destaing (1915)[1] (1920–23).[2] Zenata dialects are distributed across the central Maghreb, from northeastern Morocco to just west of Algiers, and the northern Sahara, from southwestern Algeria around Bechar to Zuwara in Libya. In much of this range, they are limited to discontinuous pockets in a predominantly Arabic-speaking landscape. The most widely spoken Zenati languages are Riffian in northeastern Morocco and Shawiya in eastern Algeria, each of which have over 2 million speakers.

North Africa
Linguistic classificationAfro-Asiatic


Kossmann (2013)

According to Kossmann (2013: 2124),[3] Zenati is a rather arbitrary grouping, in which he includes the following varieties:

Blench & Dendo (2006)

Blench & Dendo (ms, 2006) considers Zenati to consist of just three distinct languages, with the rest (in parentheses) dialects:[4]

  • Riff cluster (Shawiya, Tidikelt, Tuat, Tariifit/Riff, Ghmara, Tlemcen, Sheliff Basin)
  • Mzab–Wargla (Gurara, Mzab, Wargla, Ghardaia, Tugurt, Seghrušen, Figuig, Senhaja, Iznacen)
  • East Zenati (Tmagurt, Sened, Jerba, Tamezret, Taujjut, Nefusi, Zrawa)

Shenwa and Zuwara are not addressed.


According to Kossmann (1999:31-32, 86, 172),[5] common innovations defining the Zenati languages include:

  • The vowel a- in nominal prefixes is dropped in a number of words when it precedes CV, where C is a single consonant and V is a full (non-schwa) vowel. For example, afus "hand" is replaced with fus. (A similar development is found in some Eastern Berber languages, but not Nafusi.)
  • Verbs whose original aorist forms end in -u while their perfect forms end in -a end up with -a in the aorist as well, leaving the aorist / perfect distinction unmarked for these verbs. For example, *ktu "forget", Siwi ttu, becomes Ouargli tta. (This also affects Nafusi.)
  • Verbs consisting (in the aorist) of two consonants with no vowel other than schwa fall into two classes elsewhere in Berber:[6][7] one where a variable final vowel appears in the perfect form, and one which continues to lack a final vowel in the perfect. In Zenati, the latter class has been entirely merged into the former in the perfect, with the single exception of the negative perfect of *əɣ s "want". For example, Kabyle (non-Zenati) gər "throw", pf. -gər (int. -ggar), corresponds to Ouargli (Zenati) gər, pf. -gru. (This change too also affects Nafusi; Basset (1929:9) gives examples where it appears not to occur in Chenoua.)
  • Proto-Berber *-əβ has become -i in Zenati.[8] For example, *arəβ "write" becomes ari. (This change also occurs in varieties including the Central Atlas Tamazight dialect of the Izayan, Nafusi, and Siwi.)
  • Proto-Berber palatalised and , corresponding to k and g in non-Zenati varieties, become š and ž in Zenati (although a fair number of irregular correspondences for this are found.) For example, k´ăm "you (f. sg.)" becomes šəm. (This change also occurs in Nafusi and Siwi.)

In addition to the correspondence of k and g to š and ž, Chaker (1972),[9] while expressing uncertainty about the linguistic coherence of Zenati, notes as shared Zenati traits:

  • A proximal demonstrative suffix "this" -u, rather than -a
  • A final -u in the perfect of two-consonant verbs, rather than -a (e.g. yə-nsu "he slept" rather than yə-nsa elsewhere)

These characteristics identify a more restricted subset of Berber than those previously mentioned, mainly northern Saharan varieties; they exclude, for example, Chaoui[10] and all but the easternmost Riff dialects.[11]


  1. Edmond Destaing, "Essai de classification des dialectes berbères du Maroc Archived September 4, 2011, at the Wayback Machine", Etudes et Documents Berbères 19-20, 2001-2002 (1915)
  2. Edmond Destaing, "Note sur la conjugaison des verbes de forme C1eC2", Mémoires de la Société Linguistique de Paris, 22 (1920/3), pp. 139-148
  3. Maarten Kossmann (2013) The Arabic Influence on Northern Berber
  4. AA list, Blench & Dendo, ms, 2006
  5. Maarten Kossmann, Essai sur la phonologie du proto-berbère, Rüdiger Köppe:Köln
  6. Maarten Kossmann, "Note sur la conjugaison des verbes CC à voyelle alternante en berbère", Etudes et Documents Berbères 12, 1994, pp. 17-33
  7. André Basset, La langue berbère. Morphologie. Le verbe.-Étude de thèmes. Paris 1929, pp. 9, 58
  8. See also Maarten Kossmann, "Les verbes à i finale en zénète Archived July 18, 2011, at the Wayback Machine", Etudes et Documents Berbères 13, 1995, pp. 99-104.
  9. Salem Chaker, 1972, "La langue berbère au Sahara", Revue de l'Occident musulman et de la Méditerranée 11:11, pp. 163-167
    1. Penchoen, Th.G., 1973, Etude syntaxique d'un parler berbère (Ait Frah de l'Aurès), Napoli, Istituto Universitario Orientale (= Studi magrebini V). p. 14
  10. Lafkioui, Mena. 2007. Atlas linguistique des variétés berbères du Rif. Köln: Rüdiger Köppe. pp. 207, 178.
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