Country Listing

Algeria Table of Contents


Languages: Arabic and Berber

Except for Europeans, ethnic communities in Algeria were distinguished primarily by language. Before the arrival of Arabic-speaking invaders, Berber was the language of the indigenous population. Arabic encroached gradually, spreading through the areas most accessible to migrants and conquerors. Berber remained the mother tongue in many rural areas.

Arabic, the language of the majority and the official language of the country, is a Semitic tongue related to Hebrew, Aramaic, and Amharic. The dominant language throughout North Africa and the Middle East, Arabic was introduced to the coastal regions by the Arab conquerors of the seventh and eighth centuries A.D. (see Islam and the Arabs, 642-1830 , ch. 1). Arabic language and culture had an even greater impact under the influence of the beduin Arabs, who arrived in greater numbers from the eleventh century onward.

Written Arabic is psychologically and sociologically important as the vehicle of Islam and Arab culture and as the link with other Arab countries. Two forms are used: the classical Arabic of the Quran and Algerian dialectical Arabic. Classical Arabic is the essential base of written Arabic and formal speech throughout the Arab world. It is the vehicle of a vast religious, scientific, historical, and literary heritage. Arabic scholars or individuals with a good classical education from any country can converse with one another.

In classical Arabic as in other Semitic scripts, only the consonants are written; vowel signs and other diacritical marks to aid in pronunciation are employed occasionally in printed texts. The script is cursive, lending itself to use as decoration.

There has been considerable borrowing of words between Berber and Arabic. In some Arabic-speaking areas, the words for various flora and fauna are still in Berber, and Berber place-names are numerous throughout the country, some of them borrowed. Examples of Berber place-names are Illizi, Skikda, Tamanrasset, Tipasa, and Tizi Ouzou.

Berber is primarily a spoken language, although an ancient Berber script called tifinagh survives among the Tuareg of the Algerian Sahara, where the characters are used more for special purposes than for communication. Several Berber dialect groups are recognized in modern Algeria, but only Kabyle and Chaouia are spoken by any considerable number. The Chaouia dialect, which is distinguishable from but related to Kabyle, bears the mark and influence of Arabic. Separate dialects, however, are spoken by the Tuareg and by the Mzab.

Data as of December 1993