Spreading the Word: Libya's Berber Language Revival
May 21, 2016
The revolution will not be subtitled. Since the fall of Muammar el-Qaddafi, Libya’s Berber minority has labored to bring its languages, a set of dialects called Tamazight, out of the shadows after decades of suppression. Many Libyan Berbers—or Amazigh, as some prefer to call themselves—view language revival as the first step towards getting their due in a new national compact. Getting there will take lots of help.
Libya’s Amazigh were among the first to rebel against Qaddafi, who banned the use of Berber languages in the name of Arabization. When Qaddafi fell, language revival was a priority. Activists in Amazigh hubs like the Nafusa Mountains and the port city of Zuwara have created Tamazight textbooks, dictionaries, magazines, and radio stations. One group sends mass “word-of-the-day” style text messages. Advocates are working to mainstream Tamazight into schools in Amazigh-populated areas and last year a Libyan university introduced Tamazight courses for the first time.
Yet teachers are in short supply as nearly two generations of repression. To get the university program off the ground, professors were hired from Morocco and Algeria, where other Tamazight dialects have won status after an official language in recent years.
With only 10 percent of the Libyan population, Amazigh community leaders have struggled to find a place on the agenda of the various governments jockeying for control of Libya. They hope that a Tamazight language revival—a living process across the region—will build solidarity and ensure that the Amazigh are silenced no more.
This piece is a part of Mezze, a monthly short article series spotlighting societal trends across the region. It originally appeared in the Middle East Program's monthly newsletter, Middle East Notes and Comment. For more information and to receive our mailings, please contact the Middle East Program.