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Room: The Labyrinth of Scripts

Tifinagh alphabet: an ancient survivor in a modern multi-script environment

Juan Luis Blanco, Tifinagh alphabet (text), The Palace of Typographic Masonry - a guided tour, 210 x 297 mm (364 pages), 2018

As a graphic designer, type designer and calligrapher, located in San Sebastian (Spain), Juan Luis Blanco is extraordinarily knowledgeable when it comes to Tifinagh: the writing system of the Amazigh in North-Africa. Its story is exemplifying the intertwined relation of script and its society: the writing system and the culture from which it originates. Whereas the arrival of the Arabs installed the ban on Tifinagh, the renewed interest in cultural identity from the 70s onwards caused a revival of the Amazigh culture; and consequently the revivification of its writing script.

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There is little doubt that writing is one of the biggest achievements of humankind. Actually, we define history as the time period that starts when our collective memory is subject to be recorded and preserved in written forms. The Tifinagh script is one of the few typographical survivors of those times. Unlike other ancient scripts, which either evolved over the centuries adapting themselves to new uses, materials and needs, or become extinct due to wars, territorial dominations or demographic movements, Tifinagh has survived and remained almost unchanged from those early times in history. Its actual origin, however, remains uncertain to a great extent and is still an open debate as we will see.

The 33 basic characters of the modern Tifinagh alphabet set in Ebrima typeface.

Tifinagh's roots: an open question

Tifinagh is the native writing system for the Amazigh languages. It was originally a consonantal alphabet [1] used all over the North of Africa in areas where the these languages had a significant presence. More than a thousand ancient inscriptions have been found in this vast region comprising the Mediterranean zone from west Egypt through Libya, Algeria and Morocco to the Canary Islands, as well as other southern areas in Niger, Mauritania, Mali and Burkina Faso.

Areas where Amazigh languages are spoken today.

In contrast with this early expansion, nowadays Tifinagh is used by a scattered collection of small communities. The system is overshadowed by the two dominant writing systems found in modern-day North Africa: Arabic and Latin. However, it’s amazing to think of how Tifinagh has actually survived against all odds. Amazigh cultures have a pronounced oral tradition, and the system had to weather long-lasting periods of displacement by the aforementioned rival scripts. This makes tracing its history and origins a challenging undertaking – one that often calls for an intuitive and creative approach to compensate for a dearth of data and primary sources.

This may explain why since the mid-19th century, an extraordinary number of theories and hypotheses have been put forward on the subject of this writing system. A wide range of areas have been suggested for its birthplace: everywhere from Norway, Greece or the south of France to the Indus Valley. And the script’s proposed precursors include systems as varied as Ugaritic cuneiform and runic inscriptions. As for the time of its emergence, different scholars date it as late as 429 CE and as early as 30000 BCE (both refuted)! W. Pichler [2] presents a remarkably diverse overview of theories, referring among others to M. Slaouti Taklit [3], who suggests that the Phoenician script – and its successors, Latin and Greek – may actually derive from Libyco-Berber. This system would have been invented by the Amazigh people, a theory that runs counter to the widely-adopted hypothesis of Western alphabets’ Semitic roots.

Without pushing it so far, the theory of the own invention is also supported by other scholars, primarily native researchers. According to this view, the Tifinagh script is regarded as the natural evolution of the pictorial geometric signs used in ancient rock art. The word Tifinagh would derive from the phrase tifin negh, which means ‘our invention’ [4]. It is also reported that it could derive from the Tuareg word tafineq, plural of the wordafney meaning ‘character’, ‘sign’ or ‘letter’ [5]. Accepting this theory means that Tifinagh would have experienced independently the four stages that semiologist have determined in the evolution of linguistic signs. This is to say that the long journey from the early rudimentary marks through the more skilled figurative images that gave way to the first pictograms later transformed in abstract symbols that eventually configured a complex phonetic alphabet would have taken place in Northern Africa in parallel with a similar process in the Middle East. Such a groundbreaking theory calls for a definitive set of evidences that have not been fully validated yet.

Tifinagh inscription found in the Acacus mountains (south western Lybia) by the Italian-Libyan Archaeological Mission.

As a result, most researchers favour a unifying, more linear hypothesis – one that aligns with the general theory of a Semitic primordial alphabet from which subsequent Western writing systems evolved and/or borrowed key features. In this reasoning, Tifinagh’s origins lie either in Southern Semitic (Arabic scripts) or Northern Semitic (Phoenician and/or Punic). A majority of scholars favour the second hypothesis. This argument draws its strength from similarities between Phoenician/Punic letter forms and archaic forms of the Tifinagh script as well as the supposed derivation of its name from the Amazigh word tifinigh, which means ‘the Phoenician letters’.

In his book Origin and Development of the Libyco-Berber Script (Rüdiger Köppe Verlag 2007), Professor Werner Pichler presents a new hypothesis that combines the two aforementioned propositions, which at first glance seem to conflict with one another. Pichler joins other scholars in proposing that all known Western alphabets are closely related to alphabets developed over 3,000 years ago in the Middle East, in a context where writing already existed in the form of syllabaries or ideograms [6]. In his view, those coincident letters would have derived from the old Phoenician alphabet, while other signs would have been added by Amazigh natives to round out a new, innovative writing system [7]. In short, it is difficult to arrive at a conclusive theory about the origins of the Tifinagh script. Since the only ancient examples available to analysis are scattered inscriptions on stone, decisively dating the sources is very complicated. Achieving absolute dates – based on concrete dating methods rather than contextual or relational dating – would undoubtedly shed further light on this question. One of the few facts that are beyond discussion in this debate is the dating of the bilingual inscription on the mausoleum dedicated to the Numidian prince Ateban in Dougga (Tunisia). According to the Punic inscription on the frieze, this dedication dates from 139 BCE.

This and other Punic-Libyan inscriptions at the same site not only attest to the contemporary use of this ancient script but also proved instrumental in deciphering the Libyco-Berber characters.

Transcription of the bilingual dedication to the Numidian king Massinissa, dated 139 BC.

We can only sketch a very rough picture of the script’s subsequent development from this early surviving example. As previously mentioned, it is very difficult to make an accurate chronological classification. Some scholars propose four loosely-defined historic periods:

1. Archaic, represented by the most ancient inscriptions found in the western Maghreb.

The Man of Azib n’Ikkis, found in the High Atlas (Morocco).

2. Classic, regarded as the official script of the Numidian kingdoms. The source inscriptions are often bilingual – Libyco-Punic or Libyco-Latin. The inscriptions are made using a carving or scratching technique rather than pecking and some curved shapes have become completely angular.

Classic bilingual inscription found at the Mausoleum of Ateban in Dougga (Tunisia), dated around 146 BC. The inscription has been carved onto two friezes, one written in Punic (left) and the other in Libyco-Berber (right).

3. Transitional. This period is marked by significant changes, the most noticeable being the gradual introduction of dots to replace signs made of parallel lines.

4. Tifinagh. Some of the words in these inscriptions correspond to Tuareg terms, leading some scholars to believe they are the most recent, since they use words found in a living language.

Tifinagh inscriptions orientated in multiple directions.

The reported changes over these periods seem to relate to the replacement of old shapes with new ones rather than stylistic innovations. An upward orientation – extremely rare within writing systems worldwide – is very common in these inscriptions. Nevertheless, changes in writing direction occur very often and do not seem to be a feature of any particular period. The letterforms remain highly geometrical at every stage and they share a common structural pattern that has been preserved almost unaltered up to the present day. Both a tendency towards geometry and a low degree of innovation are common features in other examples of early epigraphy, probably due to the difficult techniques and substrates that the writers had to work with.

As for the inscriptions’ content, we are unable to make many conclusive statements about the oldest examples. The only decipherable sources from before the Tifinagh period are the classic bilingual inscriptions. Imagine how researchers feel when confronted with an inscription whose precise meaning remains a mystery, due to the indecipherable relationship between its forms and the sounds they represent. Or – even worse – remaining unable to connect these sounds to specific concepts after establishing a correspondence between sounds and objects, due to a lack of insight into the language itself. This is the hidden complexity of language – a communication device that we take for granted whenever we speak, read or write.

Modern context: a multilingual/multi-script/multicultural landscape

One of the key features of phonetic alphabets – of which Tifinagh is an example – is that there no longer exists a direct link between the symbol and the object/concept/sound it represents [8].

Images present their meaning; linguistic signs only present themselves [9]. As mentioned earlier, we first need to know their hidden code: the specific language visualised by means of writing. Moreover, a single script can be used to write multiple languages, as is the case in most European countries where the same Latin script is used to record a variety of local tongues.

Trilingual/tri-script sign at the University of Rabat.

While this is a common enough arrangement for users of Latin script, we are less familiar with the opposite situation – in which a variety of scripts are used to record the same language. However, this occurs very often throughout North Africa and is particularly common in the case of Tamazight [10], which can be – and has been – recorded with the aid of Latin, Arabic or Tifinagh. The selection of one of these three systems over the other two was often determined by local power relationships. And this is also why over time, Tifinagh has been displaced by Latin and Arabic in most of the Amazigh-speaking areas of North Africa.

Boats in Tagazouth (Morocco) with Amazigh names written in Latin and Arabic alphabets.

The only people to keep Tifinagh alive – in remote areas, far away from the region’s decision-making centres – are the Tuareg. Other than this its use is mostly confined to the decorative arts, including pottery, jewellery, tattooing, tapestry and painting. Tifinagh’s use in such contexts primarily emphasises its aesthetic qualities as an abstract symbol over its linguistic aspects. It is probably an expression of the Amazigh people’s desire and determination to preserve their deep-rooted sense of tradition, identity and belonging in a world increasingly defined by alien cultures.

In the second half of the 20th century, Amazigh cultural movements worked towards a new popularisation of Tifinagh. Today, the script is increasingly used to signify the Amazigh identity. In some cases, this has clashed with dominant national conceptions and – more commonly – with the official language policies of governments in the region.

The most remarkable changes to the Tifinagh script were introduced in the late 1960s, when the first attempt to establish a standardised alphabet was presented by the Académie berbère in Paris.

Based on the alphabet used by the Tuareg in the Ahaggar region, the proposed alphabet dropped the less commonly-used characters and added four new characters for vowels. This alphabet, named Neo-Tifinagh, served as inspiration for the first attempt to establish global standards for both the Amazigh language and the Tifinagh script by the Royal Institute of the Amazigh Culture (IRCAM) [11] in Morocco.

This proved an immensely complex and challenging task. In Morocco alone, there are 3 Amazigh dialects – and as many as 23 if we include other areas of North Africa [12]. If that weren’t enough, most Amazigh dialects can be recorded in Arabic, Latin and Tifinagh. To have any hope of achieving an efficient and unified linguistic standard, one needs to select one of the three systems as the dedicated script. Needless to say, this process has inspired heated debate and, as we will see, the scholars’ decision to select Tifinagh – the least widely-used and least familiar alphabet of the three – was highly controversial. The resulting disputes not only spilled over the borders of Morocco into other countries, but also the boundaries of linguistics, giving rise to a range of ideologically- and religiously-inspired debates.

Those in favour of the Latin alphabet praised it for its versatility. They saw the choice for Tifinagh as a step back [13], and for Arabic as a concession to the Arabisation and historical Islamisation of the region. Advocates of the Arabic alphabet dismissed Latin as a remnant of the colonial era and believed that both Latin and Tifinagh threatened to alienate the Amazigh population from Islam [14]. Tifinagh’s ‘neutral’ position as an option that did not force users to choose between two worlds, West and East [15], ultimately became a decisive argument in its favour – although it was still perceived as a threat to the Arab-Muslim identity [16]. There are close ties between the Tifinagh alphabet and Amazigh culture – not only functional but also ideological. This, combined with the script’s potential as means of expression and consolidation for a historically marginalised identity, undoubtedly helped tip the balance in favour of adopting Tifinagh as the standard alphabet.

The selection of the Tifinagh alphabet over the other two prevalent writing systems, namely Arabic and Latin, was motivated by considerations of identity rather than utility, as illustrated in the diagram. This decision sparked intense controversy, which in some areas continues to this day.

I would like to note here that this powerful extra layer of meaning not only attaches itself to the signs themselves, but to the writing systems as a whole. This significance does not lie in either the meaning attached to the words or the visual qualities of their abstract symbols. Rather, it is intimately connected to the use, history and origins of each script, and especially to the power relationships that exist between them and how they are perceived by the speaker. A multilingual/multi-script environment is the only place in which this phenomenon – which remains veiled in mono-script contexts – comes into full view, inviting further study.

Tifinagh Ircam Unicode basic alphabet (IRCAM-CEISIC 2003), showing character names and code point values. This served as the base for IRCAM’s proposal to the Unicode Consortium.

One of the key milestones in this standardisation process was reached in 2005, when Tifinagh was accepted for inclusion in the Unicode Standard (v.4.1) [17]. The first decade of this century also saw Tinagh being used for the first time in primary schools in certain parts of Morocco and Algeria, the release of several Tifinagh fonts, the publication of books in this script and a marginal increase of its use in public spaces. Its status was further improved by Tamazight’s recognition as an official language in Morocco in 2011, and Algeria in 2016 [18]. These government positions are likely to encourage and spread the use of Tifinagh in both countries.

Tifinagh’s morphology

The morphology of the Tifinagh script is one of its most remarkable aspects. It is easy to distinguish from any other contemporary script thanks to the strong geometry of its basic shapes.


Pichler [19] refers to the ‘complete sign’, a concept coined by Frutiger [20] to explain the underlying structure in the ancient Libyco-Berber script. It is a combination of four elementary signs: the line, the cross, the square and the circle. More than 200 different signs can be created within this basic structure. Notably, most of the characters that form the Tifinagh script – ancient and current – fit into this grid.

It is important to note in this context that the further we move forward in time from the birth of the script, the more likely it is that we encounter exceptions to this principle. While it is difficult to establish the exact rationale behind this system, it may simply be that ‘economy’ played a stronger role in the first stages of its development, due to the laborious nature of carving into stone with rudimentary tools.

The ‘complete sign’ as shown in Signs and symbols, their design and meaning (Frutiger 1997:29). Most of the Tifinagh letters fit perfectly in this grid.


As remarkable as its geometry is Tifinagh’s limited evolution over an extended period. Over the centuries, the basic structures of its letters since its inception were preserved more or less unaltered. The remarkable absence of written documents in Tifinagh can be attributed to the script’s aforementioned displacement by rival systems, as well as the nomadic Tuareg lifestyle. Without a widespread writing tradition, the script lacks the natural variation in letterforms inherent to handwriting – the same variation that drives the formal evolution of other writing systems. As a consequence, modern-day attempts to produce new designs are undertaken in the complete absence of solid native models. This has forced type designers to mimic the stylistic variations encountered in neighbouring scripts.

After developing a number of fonts according to the geometric model, designers made a new targeted effort to produce a typographic repertoire that satisfied the technological and functional requirements of complex typographic systems. This new system allows the user to efficiently organise complex documents – that often contain multilingual/multi-script layouts – and establish a variety of hierarchy levels so that information is communicated to the reader as effectively as possible.

Some Tifinagh typefaces: a) Tifinagh Ircam Unicode. 2003. IRCAM; b) Tifinaghe Anafaw. 2013. IRCAM; c) Amaikha Tifinagh. 2014. J.L. Blanco; d) Tubqal. 2017. A. Balius, S. Bellizi, J.L. Blanco; e) Qandus. 2017. J.L. Blanco, L. Meseguer, K. Sarkis.

Secondly – and perhaps more importantly – it was necessary to develop new stylistic options for Tifinagh to exploit and expand the letterforms’ potential to evoke concepts, emotions and associations through their visual characteristics. After all, we see a text even before we start reading it. We may not always be aware of it, but the letters’ physical appearance encapsulates a complementary layer of meaning that reinforces or contrasts that conveyed by the words. As the volume of visual communications targeting Amazigh communities continues to grow, advertising, branding, publishing and graphic design professionals will benefit from a larger choice of fonts that allow them to align their texts’ visual qualities with the nature of the message or specific objective.

Ad written exclusively in Tifinagh: a way of narrowing the campaign’s target market.

While today’s selection of Tifinagh typefaces is larger than ever, the range is still far from comprehensive. As this ancient alphabet acquires an increasingly presence in the everyday lives of the Amazigh people, its typefaces will need to fulfil a sorts on new needs and practical requirements. This presents a whole new world to explore – as well as a lot of work that still needs to be done. Hopefully, the different Amazigh associations, institutions and local authorities will continue to develop and safeguard this typographic and cultural treasure.

1 In recent times vowels were added in order to build up a more versatile system; 2 Werner Pichler is an Austrian researcher linked to the Institutum Canarium. He is the instigator of the free Lybico-Berber inscription database ( and the author of “Origin and Development of the Lybico-Berber Script”. Pichler, W. 2007b:14; 3 Mebarek Slaouti Taklit is a Doctor in Linguistics and Professor of Language Sciences at the University of Bejaia (Argel). She is the author of “ L'alphabet latin serait-il d'origine berbère” Slaouti Taklit, M. 2004; 4 Omniglot. 2007; 5 Toudji. S. 2007:142; 6 Casajus, D, 2008:9-10; 7 Pichler, W. 2007b:117; 8 As Eric Gill would say: “Letters are things, not pictures of things”. Gill, E. 1940; 9 Costa, J. & Raposo, D. 2008:10; 10 Tamazight is the generic name for the Amazigh languages.; 11 Under the reign of Mohammed VI the long-neglected Amazigh issue seemed to acquire a new status and new policies in favour of the Amazigh culture resulted, among other achievements, in the foundation of the IRCAM (Institut Royal de la Culture Amazighe); 12 Lewis, M. et al. 2014; 13 Toudji, S. 2007: 149; 14 Lounaouci, M. 2004: 304; 15 Khadaoui, A. 2002: 38; 16 Boukous, A. 2001: 20-24; 17 The Unicode Standard is the universal character-encoding standard used for representation of text for computer processing. Being recognised and incorporated within Unicode is the first step for a script to enable its use in computer-based devices; 18 See:; 19 Pichler, W. 2007b:33; 20 Frutiger, A. 1978:29