Zenaga language

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Zenaga (autonym Tuḍḍungiyya) is a Berber language spoken by some 200 people[2] between Mederdra and the Atlantic coast in southwestern Mauritania. The language shares its basic structure with other Berber languages, but specific details are quite different; in fact, it is probably the most divergent surviving Berber language, with a significantly different sound system made even more distant by sound changes such as /l/ > /dj/ and /x/ > /k/, as well as a difficult-to-explain profusion of glottal stops. The name 'Zenaga' comes from that of a much larger ancient Berber tribe (Iznagen), known to medieval Arab geographers as the Senhaja.

Zenaga was once spoken throughout much of Mauritania, but fell into decline when its speakers were defeated by the Maqil Arabs in the Char Bouba war of the 17th century. After this war, they were forbidden to bear arms, and variously became either specialists in Islamic religious scholarship or servants to more powerful tribes. It was among the former, more prestigious group that Zenaga survived longest.

In 1940 (Dubié 1940), Zenaga was spoken by about 13,000 people belonging to four nomadic tribes distributed in an area roughly bounded by St. Louis, Podor, Boutilimit, and Nouakchott (but including none of these cities):

  • Tashumsha ("the five"): 4653 speakers out of 12000 members
  • D-abu-djhes (Arabic Id-ab-lahsen): 5000 out of 5000
  • Gumdjedjen (Arabic Ikumleilen), subtribe of the Ida ou el Hadj: 700 (out of Ida ou el Hadj population of 4600)
  • Tendgha: 2889 out of 8500

(Zenaga names from Nicolas (1953:102.)

These tribes, according to Dubié, traditionally specialised in Islamic religious scholarship, and led a nomadic lifestyle, specialising in sheep and cows. (Camel-herding branches of the same tribes had already switched to Arabic.) Even then, many speakers were shifting to Hassaniya Arabic, the main language of Mauritania, and all were bilingual. Zenaga was used only within the tribe, and it was considered impolite to speak it when non-speakers were present; some speakers deliberately avoided using Zenaga with their children, hoping to give them a head start in Hassaniya. However, many speakers regarded Zenaga as a symbol of their independence and their religious fervor; Dubie cites a Hassaniya proverb: "A Moor who speaks Zenaga is certainly not a Zenagui (a member of a servant tribe.)"

Half a century later, the number of speakers is reportedly under 300 (according to Ethnologue). However, while Zenaga appears to be nearing extinction, Hassaniya, the dominant Arabic language of Mauritania, contains a substantial number of Zenaga loanwords (more than [3] 10% of the vocabulary.)

There are significant dialect differences within Zenaga, notably between the Id-ab-lahsen and Tendgha dialects.

The ISO 639-2 code for Zenaga is: zen.

See also

  • Znaga, a Saharawi-Moorish tribal rank.


  • Al-Chennafi M. & Norris H. T., "How the Hassaniyya vernacular of Mauritania supplanted Zenaga" - The Maghreb-Review 76 (5-6), 1981. pp : 77-78.
  • Basset, Andre. 1933b. 'Note sur les parlers zenaga'. In Bull. Com. et. hist. sc. A.O.F., 319-32.
  • Basset, Rene. 1909. Mission au Senegal. Bulletin de correspondence africaine 39. Paris: Leroux.
  • Cohen, David & Catherine Taine-Cheikh. 2000. 'À propos du zénaga. Vocalisme et morphologie verbale en berbère'. Bulletin de la Société de linguistique de Paris XCV/1, pp. 267–319.
  • Dubié, P. (1940). "L'îlot berbérophone de Mauritanie", Bull. IFAN, 2, 315-325.
  • Faidherbe, Louis L. 1877. Le Zenaga des tribus Senegalaises. Paris.
  • Kossmann, Maarten. 2001. ‘L’origine du vocalisme en zénaga de Mauritanie’, pp. 83–95 of Ibriszimow, Dymitr & Rainer Vossen (eds.). 2001. Etudes berbères. Actes du « 1. Bayreuth-Frankfurter Kolloquium zur Berberologie » (Frankfurter Afrikanistische Blätter, 13.), Köln : Rüdiger Köppe.
  • Kossmann, Maarten. 2001. 'The Origin of the Glottal Stop in Zenaga and its Reflexes in the other Berber Languages'. Afrika und Übersee 84, pp. 61–100.
  • Masqueray, Emile. 1879. 'Comparaison d’un vocabulaire des Zenaga avec les vocabulaires correspondents des dialectes Chawia et des Beni Mzab'. Archives des missions scientifiques et litteraires 3/5: 473-533.
  • Nicholas, F. (1953). La langue berbère de Mauritanie, Dakar, mémoire de l'IFAN, n° 33.
  • Taine-Cheikh, Catherine. 1999. 'Le zénaga de Mauritanie à la lumière du berbère commun', pp. 299–324 of Lamberti, Marcello & Livia Tonelli (éds.). 1999. Afroasiatica Tergestina. Papers from the 9th Italian Meeting of Afro-Asiatic (Hamito-Semitic) Linguistics, Trieste, April 23–24, 1998 - Contributi presentati al 9° Incontro di Lingustica Afroasiatica (Camito-Semitica), Trieste, 23-24 Aprile 1998. Padova: UNIPRESS. ISBN 88-8098-107-2.
  • Taine-Cheikh, Catherine. 2002. 'Morphologie et morphogenèse des diminutifs en zénaga (berbère de Mauritanie)' pp. 427–454 of Nait-Zerrad, Kamal (éd.). 2002. Articles de linguistique berbère. Mémorial Werner Vycichl. Paris : L'Harmattan.
  • Taine-Cheikh, Catherine. 2003. 'L'adjectif et la conjugation suffixale en berbère', pp. 661–674 of Lentin, Jérôme & Antoine Lonnet (eds.), Mélanges David Cohen. Études sur le langage, les langues, les dialectes, les littératures, offertes par ses élèves, ses collègues, ses amis. Paris : Maisonneuve & Larose.
  • Taine-Cheikh, Catherine. 2004. ‘Les verbes à finale laryngale en zénaga’, pp. 171–190 of Nait-Zerrad, Kamal, Rainer Vossen & Dymitr Ibriszimow (eds.). 2004. Nouvelles études berbères. Le verbe et autres articles. Actes du “2. Bayreuth-Frankfurter Kolloquium zur Berberologie”. Köln: Rüdiger Köppe Verlag. ISBN 3-89645-387-4

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