Since the start of the Islamic conquest of the Maghreb in the 7th century ce, Berber and Arabic have been in continual contact. This has led to large-scale mutual influence. The sociolinguistic setting of this influence is not the same, though; Arabic influence on Berber is found in a situation of language maintenance with widespread bilingualism, while Berber influence on Arabic is no doubt to a large degree due to language shift by Berber speakers to Arabic. Linguistic influence is found on all levels: phonology, morphology, syntax, and lexicon. In those cases where only innovative patterns are shared between the two language groups, it is often difficult to make out where the innovation started; thus the great similarities in syllable structure between Maghrebian Arabic and northern Berber are the result of innovations within both language families, and it is difficult to tell where it started. Morphological influence seems to be mediated exclusively by lexical borrowing. Especially in Berber, this has led to parallel systems in the morphology, where native words always have native morphology, while loans either have nativized morphology or retain Arabic-like patterns. In the lexicon, it is especially Berber that takes over scores of loanwords from Arabic, amounting in one case to over one-third of the basic lexicon as defined by 100-word lists.
Afroasiatic languages are the fourth largest linguistic phylum, spoken by some 350 million people in North, West, Central, and East Africa, in the Middle East, and in scattered communities in Europe, the United States, and the Caucasus. Some Afroasiatic languages, such as Arabic, Hausa, Amharic, Somali, and Oromo, are spoken by millions of people, while others are endangered with extinction. As of the early 21st century, the phylum is composed of six families: Egyptian (extinct), Semitic, Cushitic, Omotic, Berber, and Chadic. There are some typological features shared by all families, particularly in the domain of phonology. Languages are also typologically quite distinct with respect to syntax and functions encoded in the grammatical systems. Some Afroasiatic languages, such as Egyptian, Akkadian, Phoenician, Hebrew, Arabic, and Ge’ez, have a longtime written tradition, but for many languages no writing system has yet been proposed or adopted. The Old Semitic writing system gave rise to the modern alphabets used in thousands of unrelated contemporary languages. Two Semitic languages, Hebrew (with some Aramaic) and Arabic, were used to write the Old Testament and the Koran, the holy books of Judaism and Islam.
Throughout history, North Africa’s native Berber-speaking populations have been central to the mix of political, social, cultural, and linguistic attributes that rendered the region distinct. At the dawn of the 20th century, Berbers still constituted a substantial majority of sharifian Morocco’s population, and a significant minority of French Algeria’s Muslim populace; their numbers were smaller in Ottoman Libya and smaller still in France’s Tunisian protectorate. Nationalism began to spread in North Africa during the first decades of the 20th century. Each nationalist movement was shaped by a particular combination of factors; all of them, however, foregrounded the Arab and Islamic components of their collective identities, downplaying or ignoring the Berber ones. Berbers actively participated in the struggles for independence in both Algeria and Morocco, often in leadership roles. This pattern would continue during the decades after independence, even as both the Algerian and Moroccan states placed supreme value on the Arabization of the educational system, and of public life in general. The state’s overall view of Berber identity was that it should be consigned to the realm of folklore. However, even as the number of Berber speakers continued to decline, there arose a modern Berber (Amazigh) identity movement that demanded a reexamination of the underlying premises of their countries’ collective identities, one that would bring the Berber language and culture to center stage. It also demanded genuine amelioration of the dire conditions of poverty that characterized much of the rural Berber world. As ruling regimes struggled to maintain their legitimacy after a half century of independence, the Berber “question” now took on a new salience in North Africa’s increasingly contested political space.
Between 1510–1822, Morocco went through significant changes that laid the foundation for its modern nation state. Most noteworthy among these changes was a shift from the Berber dynasties that had dominated the country for almost five hundred years to governments headed by shurafā’, Arab leaders who claimed lineal descent from the Prophet Muhammad. A combination of external threats (e.g., colonization from Portugal and Spain, and the threat of Ottoman expansion) and internal developments (e.g., the rising influence of murābitūn and shurafā’ within the country), along with the perceived inability of the Berber Wattasids to meet the Portuguese challenge, contributed to this dynastic change. In the five hundred years leading up to the early 21st century, two separate sharifian dynasties have governed Morocco, and the country has vacillated between periods of strong central rule and times of unrest (fitna) and weak central government. However, since the rise of the ʿAlawi dynasty in the late 17th century, ʿAlawi supremacy has not been seriously challenged, even during extensive periods of fitna or foreign colonization. Although Morocco developed a flexible system of government that helped unify the country during this period, it still fell behind European states in terms of technology, science, economy, and military strength. A degree of intellectual and social stagnation set in, such that European visitors in the 19th century perceived Morocco to be a country stuck in its medieval past. This weakness vis-à-vis its near neighbors to the north (particularly England and France) eventually set the stage for the direct colonization of Morocco by Europeans in the early 20th century.
The history of North Africa from the coming of Islam to the rise of the Almoravid Empire in the 11th century is a crucial period in the making of the Islamic Maghrib. From 600 ce to 1060 ce Berbers and Arabs interacted in a variety of ways and through a process of acculturation. This interaction created a distinctive cultural and historical zone called the “Maghrib” or the “land of the setting sun,” a zone that would be recognized throughout the Islamic world. While many questions remain unanswered or yet to be explored from this period due to issues with sources, the first centuries after the coming of Islam to the Maghrib (7th—11th centuries) set the stage for the rise of the great Berber and Muslim empires: the Almoravid and Almohads. This period is crucial for understanding the development and history of Maghribi Islam.
As might be expected from the difficulty of traversing it, the Sahara Desert has been a fairly effective barrier to direct contact between its two edges; trans-Saharan language contact is limited to the borrowing of non-core vocabulary, minimal from south to north and mostly mediated by education from north to south. Its own inhabitants, however, are necessarily accustomed to travelling desert spaces, and contact between languages within the Sahara has often accordingly had a much greater impact. Several peripheral Arabic varieties of the Sahara retain morphology as well as vocabulary from the languages spoken by their speakers’ ancestors, in particular Berber in the southwest and Beja in the southeast; the same is true of at least one Saharan Hausa variety. The Berber languages of the northern Sahara have in turn been deeply affected by centuries of bilingualism in Arabic, borrowing core vocabulary and some aspects of morphology and syntax. The Northern Songhay languages of the central Sahara have been even more profoundly affected by a history of multilingualism and language shift involving Tuareg, Songhay, Arabic, and other Berber languages, much of which remains to be unraveled. These languages have borrowed so extensively that they retain barely a few hundred core words of Songhay vocabulary; those loans have not only introduced new morphology but in some cases replaced old morphology entirely. In the southeast, the spread of Arabic westward from the Nile Valley has created a spectrum of varieties with varying degrees of local influence; the Saharan ones remain almost entirely undescribed. Much work remains to be done throughout the region, not only on identifying and analyzing contact effects but even simply on describing the languages its inhabitants speak.