Names of the Berber people  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

The ethnonym Berber dates to the 19th century, derived from Barbary the term for the Maghreb coast used during the early modern period, itself from Greek barbaria "land of barbarians". The contemporary self-designation current mostly in Morocco is Imazighen (singular Amazigh). This term is common in Morocco, especially among Central Atlas, Rifian and Shilah speakers in 1980, but elsewhere within the Berber homeland sometimes a local, more particular term, such as Kabyle (Kabyle comes from Arabic: tribal confederation) or Chaoui, is more often used instead in Algeria.

The Berber tribal populations of antiquity are known as Numidians and later as Mauri in classical antiquity. These are umbrella terms that would include populations whose self-designation was a variety of tribal names, although Strabo asserts that Mauri was also used indigenously. The Libu of ancient Egyptian sources, eponymous of the name Libya may also have been an early Berber or Proto-Berber population.


The term Berber is a variation of the Greek original word barbaros ("barbarian"), earlier in history applied by Romans specifically to their northern hostile neighbors from Germania (modern Germany) and Celts, Iberians, Gauls, Goths and Thracians. The variation is a French one when spelled Berbère and English when spelled Berber. The term appeared first in the 4th century in the religious conflicts between Saint Augustine, a Numidian Berber-Roman bishop of the Catholic faith, and the Berber Donatists of the Donatism faith who were allies of the Barbarian Vandals. The Vandals migrated from Iberia (modern Spain and Portugal) where they were assailed by the Gauls allied to the Romans, and settled west of the Roman city of Carthage (in modern Tunisia) in the highlands (in modern Algeria).

Derived terms include the toponym Barbary and the animals Barb horse and Barbary duck.

The Greek term "βάρβαρος / βάρβαροι" was originally a term for all non-Greek speakers, not necessarily used derogatively. The nonsense syllables "bar-bar" have no meaning in Greek; the term implied that all languages other than Greek were a collection of nonsense syllables (cf. the Dutch onomatopoetic term Hottentot). The term has been variously translated as "stutterers," "stammerers," or "babblers." The term did in origin refer to any people of "incomprehensible speech" (cf. names for Germans), including Persia and Egypt; its connotation of uncivilized rudeness (cf. Philistine and Vandal), now the primary meaning of the term "barbarian", appears to have emerged in the Roman era or with the Migration period.

Because the Berbers were called Al-Barbar by the Arabs, the early modern Barbary seems to be a re-adoption of the name from Arabic.

Muslim historiography has an eponymous Barbar as the ancestor of the Berbers, "the Berbers were the descendants of Barbar, the son of Tamalla, the son of Mazigh, the son of Canaan, the son of Ham, the son of Noah" (Ibn Khaldun, The History of Ibn Khaldun, Chapter 3).

Another people called Berbers by medieval Arab and ancient Greek geographers, respectively, were the ancestors of the Somalilanders. Barbara, an ancient region on the northern coast of Somaliland was referred to as Bilad al-Barbar (Land of the Berbers).


The modern self-designation Imazighen (singular Amazigh) apparently derives from the name of the Mazikes mentioned in Byzantine sources. The Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, and Byzantines mentioned various tribes with similar names living in Greater Libya (North Africa) in the areas where Berbers were later found. Later tribal names differ from the classical sources, but are probably still related to the modern Amazigh. The Meshwesh tribe among them represents the first thus identified from the field. Scholars believe it would be the same tribe called a few centuries after in Greek Mazyes by Hektaios and Maxyes by Herodotus, while it was called after that the "Mazaces" and "Mazax" in Latin sources, and related to the later Massylii and Masaesyli. All those names are similar and perhaps foreign renditions to the name used by the Berbers in general for themselves, Imazighen.

Laredo (1954) proposed that the name Amazigh could be derived from the name of the ancestor Mezeg which is the translation of biblical ancestor Dedan son of Sheba in the Targum. According to Leo Africanus, Amazigh meant "free man". Etymologically, the name may be related to the well attested "aze" strong, "Tizzit" bravery, or "jeghegh" to be brave/courageous. Further it also has a cognate in the Tuareg word "Amajegh", meaning "noble".

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