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Numidian language

Old Libyan
Numidian stela with Libyc text in the Bardo National Museum
Native toancient Numidia
RegionMainly modern day Algeria, parts of Tunisia and parts of west Libya (as result of Numidian expansion but with Libyan Berber languages)
ExtinctDeveloped into, or replaced with various modern Berber languages in the 3rd-4th century AD
Early form
  • East-Numidian †
  • West-Numidian †
  • ? Mauretanian
  • ? Gaetulian
Libyco-Berber alphabet (Proto-Tifinagh)
Language codes
ISO 639-3nxm

Numidian[needs IPA] was a language spoken in ancient Numidia. The script in which it was written, the Libyco-Berber alphabet (from which Tifinagh descended), has been almost fully deciphered and most characters (apart from a few exceptions restricted to specific areas) have known values. Despite this, the language has barely been deciphered and only a few words are known. Libyco-Berber inscriptions are attested from the 3rd century BC to the 3rd century AD. The language is scarcely attested and can be confidently identified only as belonging to the Afroasiatic family, although it was most likely part of the Berber languages, spoken at the start of the breakup of the Proto-Berber language.[1][2][3]

Dialects and relation to other ancient languages

Dialects and foreign influences

It is known that there was an orthographical difference between the western and eastern Numidian language. Starting at Kabylia, which was a kind of mixed region, the regions to the east all the way to what is east of modern day Tunisia and western parts of Libya used the east Libyan writing system, while the regions to the west all the way to approximately the Moulouya river spoke the western Numidian dialect and used the larger and still undecoded west Libyan writing system.[4] The East-Numidian dialect was much more influenced by the Punic language than the West-Numidian, and West-Numidian is thought to be more ancient than East-Numidian.[5] Numidian was influenced mostly by Punic and then Roman, although Numidian and even some modern Berber vocabulary seem to have been also slightly influenced by the Paleohispanic languages and possibly by other Pre-Indo-European languages.[6][7]

Other ancient Berber or Berber-like languages

Not much is known about the variations of the old Libyc language(s) as none of them have been fully deciphered, and outside of some east-Numidian steles none of the various Old Libyc writings have been interpreted. It may be possible that the language of the neighbouring Mauri people of modern-day Morocco may have been a dialect of the larger Numidian, although there are little to no sources or researches into the language.[8] If Numidian was a Berber language then it is known that by that stage the breakup of Proto-Berber into various Berber languages was still not fully complete, and thus the ancient Berber languages of the time were very similar to each other, even more so than the modern ones.[9] In circa 500 B.C various nomadic Berber groups penetrated the Sahara from the north, corresponding the area of the later Gaetulians.[10] Although the area where these nomads lived yielded no writing and thus is incomparable to Numidian, it is known that Pliny the Elder described the Saharan Gaetulian language as very similar or the same as the Numidian one, implying that the Gaetulian language may have been a dialect of Numidian.[11]

Not much is known of the Numidian language, and even less of Berber or Proto-Berber languages and dialects at this time, although it is known that for example the language of the native Berbers of Cyrenaica contained many Greek loanwords according to Herodotus.[12] It is also unknown whether the Mauretanian language of the neighbouring Kingdom of Mauretania in what is approximately modern day Morocco formed a part of the Numidian language, or was a separate language from it, as there has been as of yet no major efforts into decoding it, and there are no known sources describing it.[8]

Categorization and reconstruction

As the Massylii, who spoke the language, were ethnically Berber,[13][14] it is supposed that Numidian was therefore a Berber language.[15] The Berber branch of Afro-Asiatic is sometimes called Libyco-Berber since it is not certain whether Numidian would fall within the modern Berber languages or form a sister branch to them. Some theorize that it constituted a group of its own, as there is no trace of the noun-case system shared by the modern Berber languages.[16] However, Proto-Berber is theorized to have no grammatical case either, which would also imply a later addition of the system. The Lybico-Berber tifinagh and the Phoenician alphabet being abjads without vowels complicates the matter even more.[17]

Work on deciphering the language has not been decisive, although especially recently some tried to reconstruct words by comparing Numidian script to proto and modern Berber languages. Most remaining scripts are funerary, and follow the formula of "X w-Y" (X son of Y). BNS is also an often returning words in this script, which probably meant "tomb of". Many words had an H at the end of them, the function of which is unclear. A few gravestones show a different word between the two personal names, plausibly interpreted as a kinship term based on Berber comparisons: wlt "daughter (of)" (modern Berber wəlt), and, more rarely, mt "mother (of)" (modern Tuareg ma). Similar to the modern berber languages, the ta-...-t circumfix signified feminine version of the word with a silent h added to the end.[18] In the Dougga inscriptions some political positions are mentioned, such as "gld" (lord) which based on this technique, can be translated into the modern berber word "agellid"[19] which originates from the proto-berber word "*a-gəllid". A few verbs have been unambiguously identified in the various inscriptions. Comparison with modern Berber suggests that ṣkn, probably read as "eṣ(ə)k-n based on modern berber comparison which means"built" is to be analysed as ṣk "build" plus -n, marking 3pl subject agreement (-ən).[20][21]

An example of translation using this method can be demonstrated on a part of a Numidian inscription which is read as "Msnsn. gldt. w-gjj."[22] "Msnsn" is the name of king Massinissa while "gldt" is the word for king. Finally, "w-gjj" means "son of Gaia". Thus by attempting to translate the Numidian text through modern and proto-Berber the inscription would read "Massinissa the king, son of Gaia".[23][21]

Numidian also featured and shared most or all of its prepositions "n" (of) and "d" (and) with modern Berber, along with various prefixes, such as "ta...-t", "m-" etc. with modern Berber.[24]

These facts would strongly suggest that Numidian is a now extinct branch of the Berber languages, although some linguists believe that Numidian is not an ancestor but an extinct sister branch to the modern surviving Berber languages.[16]

If the translations of "SBS" (asebbas) in the Thugga inscription as "year" is correct then that would mean the Proto-Berber form "ww" which evolved into "gg" or "gʷ" in most modern Berber languages was "bb" or "bʷ" in Numidian. This is only found in the Zenaga language of Mauritania in modern times. As Zenaga was one of the first Berber languages to split off from the Proto-Berber group and thus still possesses many ancient characteristics, along with the Numidian usage of this form, could suggest that in the evolution of Berber languages "ww" turned into "bʷ" and then into "gʷ".

Naming conventions

Numidian names generally often followed a complicated, but well documented naming convention of Berber antiquity and medieval times. While this wasn't always the case, this was especially true for nobles or higher leaders. The way it worked was simple: Verb in the 3rd person + personal pronouns as an affix (direct or indirect) in 3rd person plural form (he/she-X-they/of them).[25]

For example, the actual name of Jughurta most likely sounded as "y-uger-ten" (he who surpasses them), while the name of king Massinissa (MSNSN in Libyco-Berber)[26] was "mas-nsen" (their seignor). Much of the onomastic work on the Numidian language was done by Salem Chaker, who through his work also help in decoding a few words in the language through dissecting known names.[27]

Known words

Here is a comparison of the few known Numidian words to modern Northern Berber languages and the Tamashek language. Normalized words with vowels added are written in the brackets. Underlined words are based on etymologic or onomastic reconstructions from Numidian names.

Numidian Northern Berber languages Tamasheq language English
Political positions and jobs
GLD (a-gəllid) agellid or a-žellid æ-mænókɑl chief or king
TGLT(H) (Ta-gəllit) Tagellidt or Tagellit Timnokalt queen
MNKD(H) (amenkad) amenkad amenkaḍ emperor
MSWH (amsiweɣ?) aserdas əssærdɑ́si Possibly soldier or guard based on linguistic reconstruction
GLDMṢK (a-gellid ameṣka) agellid imeska æ-mænókɑl ælbǽnnɑ Unknown, corresponds with Punic "chief of fifty", may be reconstructed as "chief of the builders/masons"
NBBN (inababen?) imahalen, yixeddamen i-mə̀s-ɡuyyɑ workers
MWSN(H) (amawsan) amussnaw amûssen sage or wise man
GẒB (agẓab) Unknown, possibly "inspector of construction"
MṢṢKW (amṣeṣkaw) amasgad, ameṣkad possibly architect
MS (mass) mass mass honorary title for men. May be translated as "sir" or "seignor",
MSTN (amastan) amastan amastan defender/protector
RN (rna or erna) ernu, erna, or erni ernu achieve victory, inflict defeat upon someone
ṢK (eṣk) eṣk or bnu kɑ́nn or dæ̀y build
YS (yusa) yusa or as-d ə̀qqæl come or came
DR (idir) idir to live
BDD (bded) bded to stand
FL (afel?) zger to cross
ZLH (uzzal) uzzal tă-zoli iron[6]
Š?RH (a-šɣarh?) a-sɣar e-săɣer wood
Affixes and prepositions
NS (-ennes) -nnes, -is or -es -ənnes its
N (n) n n of (pertaining to something)
D (d) d d and
-TN (-ten) -ten -san them
-NSN (-nsen) -nsen -nesən their
y- y- y- he (third person masculine singular verb subject affix)
t- t- t- she (third person feminine singular verb subject affix)
WR (war) ur war not
Kinship terms
W (u- or w-) u- ăw- son of
WLT (wəlt-) wəlt wəlt daughter of
MT (mat?) yimma, yemma ma mother of
SBS (asəbbas) assewas, assegwas or asseggas Awetai, Iwitian Possibly year, although Numidian translation is unsure
ẒK (aẓekka) aẓekka ì-z̩əkw-ɑn tomb
ugər or agər uger or agar ager to surpass
yif or if if or af uf to be superior
MSKR or MSKRH (ameskar or miskiri) Unsure, either cognate to Kabyle and Tuareg word ameskar,[Note 1] or denoting the Misciri tribe

This comparison suggests that Numidian may be closest to the modern Northern Berber languages such as the Zenati languages, Shilha language, and the Kabyle language although the modern northern Berber languages have gone through grammatical changes, and they have also taken loanwords from Arabic, Latin, and French. Kabyle may be the closest to Numidian, but has absorbed loanwords and phrases from the other languages mentioned.[28]

According to many linguists the H at the end of many numidian words were either silent or disappeared by modern times,[29] or that in many cases such as MSWH or MWSNH was possibly used as a replacement for, or possibly was the ancestor of the modern berber ɣ sound.[24]

Thugga inscription

The Thugga inscription is the longest known Numidian inscription as of yet, and has served with the most clues regarding the language.

Numidian script









Normalization and adding of known or possible vowels

əṣk(ə)-n Tubgag BNYFŠ[?] Masnsen a-gəllidṯ u-Gayya a-gəllidṯ u-Zelalsen šufeṭ

Asəbbas NDH a-gəllidṯ(?) s-yusa a-gəllid Mikiwsan[29]

Translation from Punic

The people of Thugga built this temple for Masinissa the King son of Gaia the King son of Zilalsan the Judge, in the tenth year since Micipsa ruled, in the year of Shufet the King son of Afshan the King, The Centurion: Shanok son of Banay and Shufet son of Magon son of Tanaku. The ms s kwy Magon son of Yirashtan son of Sadyalan, and gzby: Magon son of Shufet the Centurion son of Abdeshmun the King. Erectors of this property: Ashyan son of Ankikan son of Patash and Arash son of Shufet son of Shanok.

Example texts

These texts are examples of bilingual inscriptions with known meanings, most of which are funerary texts

The first published sketch of the Ateban inscription

Bilingual texts

Cenotaph inscription


[mn]ṣbt š'ṭbn bn ypmṭt bn plw

hbnm š'bnm ʕb'rš bn ʕbdštrt

zmr bn 'ṭbn bn ypmṭt bn plw

mngy bn wrsbn

wb'zrt šl' **t* zzy wṭmn wwrskn

hḥršm šyr msdl bn nnpsn w'nkn b[n] 'šy

hnskm šbrzl špṭ bll wppy bn bby

Punic to English translation

The monument of 'ṭbn son of Ypmṭt son of Plw. 

Builders of the stones: ʕb'rš son of ʕbdštrt;

Zmr son of 'ṭbn son of Ypmṭt son of Plw;

Mngy son of Wrsbn. 

And for its ???, Zzy son of Ṭmn and Wrskn. 

Workers of the wood: Msdl son of Nnpsn and 'nkn son of 'šy.

Casters of the iron: Šfṭ son of Bll and Ppy son of Bby.








Normalization and adding of known or possible vowels

Aṭeban w-Yefmaṭat w-Falu****D'rš w-Wadaštar

Zamir w-Aṭeban w-Yefmaṭat w-Falu

Mangy w-Wareskan

KSLNS Żaży w-Ṭaman w-Raskn

inababen n a-šɣarh Masdil w-Nanafsen Naken w-šy

inababen (?) n uzzal Šufeṭ w-Balil Fafy W-Beby[30]

Kef Beni Fredj inscriptions



Latin to English

Sactut son of Ihimir lived 70 years. [He is buried here.]



Normalization and adding of known or possible vowels

Zaktut w-Iymir MTYBLH amsiweɣ amenkad

Possible Numidian to English translation

Zaktut son of Iyimir MTYLBH soldier of the emperor.[24]

See also


^ Meaning either "the good one" or the "resting one".


  1. ^ Daniels, Peter T.; Bright, William (1996). The World's Writing Systems. Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-507993-7.
  2. ^ Güldemann, Tom (10 September 2018). The Languages and Linguistics of Africa. Walter de Gruyter GmbH & Co KG. ISBN 978-3-11-042175-0.
  3. ^ Woodard, Roger D. (10 April 2008). The Ancient Languages of Syria-Palestine and Arabia. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-1-139-46934-0.
  4. ^ Chaker, S. (1 January 2008). "Libyque : écriture et langue". Encyclopédie berbère (in French) (28–29): 4395–4409. doi:10.4000/encyclopedieberbere.344. ISSN 1015-7344. S2CID 161729616.
  5. ^ Chaker, Salem (2002). "Variétés des usages libyques : variations chronologiques, géographiques et sociales". Antiquités africaines. 38 (1): 267–273. doi:10.3406/antaf.2002.1360.
  6. ^ a b Kossmann, Maarten (2013). The Arabic Influence on Northern Berber. BRILL. ISBN 978-90-04-25309-4.
  7. ^ Iglesias, Hector (2011). "La parenté de la langue berbère et du basque: nouvelle approche". Archive ouverte HAL (in French). Retrieved 15 November 2023.
  8. ^ a b Rask, Rasmus (15 April 2013). Investigation of the Origin of the Old Norse or Icelandic Language: New edition of the 1993 English translation by Niels Ege. John Benjamins Publishing. ISBN 978-90-272-7198-3.
  9. ^ Blench, Roger. "Reconciling archaeological and linguistic evidence for Berber prehistory". Archived from the original on 7 May 2023.
  10. ^ Gatto, M. C.; Mattingly, D. J.; Ray, N.; Sterry, M. (14 February 2019). Burials, Migration and Identity in the Ancient Sahara and Beyond. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-1-108-47408-5.
  11. ^ "Pliny the Elder, The Natural History, BOOK I.1, DEDICATION. 1 Lemaire informs us, in his title-page, that the two first books of the Natural History are edited by M. Alexandre, in his edition". Retrieved 2 May 2022.
  12. ^ "Hérodote : livre IV : Melpomène (bilingue)". Retrieved 11 April 2022.
  13. ^ Jamil M. Abun-Nasr (20 August 1987). A History of the Maghrib in the Islamic Period. Cambridge University Press. p. 15. ISBN 978-1-316-58334-0.
  14. ^ Phillip C. Naylor (7 May 2015). Historical Dictionary of Algeria. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers. p. 132. ISBN 978-0-8108-7919-5.
  15. ^ Steven Roger Fischer (4 April 2004). History of Writing. Reaktion Books. p. 104. ISBN 978-1-86189-588-2.
  16. ^ a b Robert Martin Kerr, 2010
  17. ^ Pereltsvaig, Asya (3 September 2020). Languages of the World. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-1-108-47932-5.
  18. ^ Nehmé, Laïla; Al-Jallad, Ahmad (20 November 2017). To the Madbar and Back Again: Studies in the languages, archaeology, and cultures of Arabia dedicated to Michael C.A. Macdonald. BRILL. ISBN 978-90-04-35761-7.
  19. ^ Maddy-Weitzman, Bruce (1 May 2011). The Berber Identity Movement and the Challenge to North African States. University of Texas Press. ISBN 978-0-292-74505-6.
  20. ^ "Libyco-Berber". Retrieved 12 February 2022.
  21. ^ a b Daniels, Peter T.; Bright, William (1996). The World's Writing Systems. Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-507993-7.
  22. ^ Jensen, Hans (1969). Sign, Symbol, and Script: An Account of Man's Efforts to Write. Putnam.
  23. ^ "Libyan' Inscriptions in Numidia and Mauretania". World History Encyclopedia. Retrieved 12 February 2022.
  24. ^ a b c Chaker, Salem (1995). Linguistique berbère: études de syntaxe et de diachronie (in French). Peeters Publishers. ISBN 978-2-87723-152-7.
  25. ^ Camps, G.; Chaker, S. (1 May 2004). "Jugurtha". Encyclopédie berbère (in French) (26): 3975–3979. doi:10.4000/encyclopedieberbere.1377. ISSN 1015-7344.
  26. ^ Jongeling, Karel (1984). Names in Neo-Punic Inscriptions. Rijksuniversiteit te Groningen.
  27. ^ Chaker, Salem (1 June 2013). "Onomastique libyco-berbère (Anthroponymie)". Encyclopédie berbère (in French) (35): 5760–5779. doi:10.4000/encyclopedieberbere.2816. ISSN 1015-7344.
  28. ^ Cust, Robert Needham (15 October 2013). A Sketch of the Modern Languages of Africa: Volume I. Routledge. ISBN 978-1-136-37237-7.
  29. ^ a b c Souag, Lameen (2011). Re-examining Libyco-Berber: how much do we know, and how does it fit into the family's subclassification?. Lameen Souag.
  30. ^ "Libyco-Berber - Examples of writing". Retrieved 14 March 2022.
  • Aikhenvald & Militarev, 1991. 'Livijsko-guanchskie jazyki', Jazyki Azii i Afriki, vol. 4, pp. 148–266.
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Numidian language
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