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The Origins of the Olive Tree

[We offer the reader an accurate and fascinating study of one of the leading specialists of the Berber language, which invites you to travel through words, in Berber country. The path is sometimes difficult, but the end point is an illumination: what if the Greek word for olive came from Berber? Let’s start…]

Kabyle potery

Kabyle potery

The two words for olive tree in Berber

Excluding the micro-local forms, specialized or clearly borrowed (including Semitic: Punic or Arabic), the berber language has two basic names of the olive-oleastre: azəmmur ” olive ” or ” wild olive ” depending on the region, which is the most widely attested; and āliw/ālew limited to the tuareg and specifically refers to a Saharan variety of wild olive.

1. azəmmur (zamora and zemmuri) “strong”

The spread of the word azəmmur (and its feminin tazəmmurt[1]) to a vast area of the Berber world –  from Jebel Nefoussa in Libya throughout Morocco – and its great formal stability confirm its ancient character. The term is also very widespread in the North African (and Iberian) toponymy –  often under arabized forms: zamora, zǝmmuri… –  and already attested in the medieval Arab sources in the eleventh century (Al-Išbīlī). At the semantic level, a very interesting distribution is found : all eastern and central Mediterranean regions (Tripolitania through Kabylia), with an ancient olive tradition, give azəmmur meaning ” olive tree (cultivated)”, then the western and southern regions (Berber dialects of western Algeria and Morocco), where olive growing is less important and more recent, give it the sense of “oleaster” and borrow the Arabic name of the grown olive tree : zzitun, zzutin, zzitunǝt.

Morphologically, the term azəmmur presents the typical shape of a passive participle of the root ZMR, which refers to the concept of “power, to bear, to endure, to be able”. This formal information suggests that azǝmmur is a secondary qualifying form and not a primitive lexeme. In semitic, this root, which is found  in the variants DMR / ZMR, evokes the notion of  “force”. The link with the Berber/Semitic root ZMR form a semantic link between the olive tree and the concept of  “force, strength/ endurance, ability …” which is not without interest on the symbolic level when it comes to the virtues attributed to the olive tree. Incidentally this would confirm the secondary nature of the name azəmmur

2. āliw,ālew : “oleaster”, and the assumption of the borrowing made ​​by Charles de Foucauld.

The Tuareg, southern variety of the berber language, has a form āliw, ālew, plur. āliwən which refers to a variety of wild olive tree which, from a botanical point of view is a subspecies of Olea europaea. It should be noted right away that āliw, ālew/āliwən is perfectly integrated with the morphological structures of the language, by its scheme and its plural, which is an indication of its ancient use, if not its “indigeneity.”

The word has a clear resemblance – Charles de Foucauld had already pointed in his monumental Tuareg-French dictionary – with Latin forms olea / olīua / oleum (olive, olive tree, olive oil), ancient Greek borrowing ἐλαία [<ἐλαί (Ϝ ) ᾱ, ἔλαι (Ϝ)ον].

The Great Emile Laoust (1920), referring to the importance of olive cultivation during the Roman period, in particular in Tripolitania, raises that the Tuareg ālew / āliw was borrowed to Latin. The argument has some plausibility given the dialectological isolation of this form wish is only attested in Tuareg and it is established that at least part of the current Tuareg populations comes from the Libyan northern regions of Tripolitania (Gast, 2008 , Ibn Khaldun, I). Latin etymology was generally accepted by later authors, with the exception of the hispanicist R. Ricard on the basis of the presence of a form Aleo in Portuguese, emit serious doubts about it and formulate the idea that “it is once again the common vocabulary fund of the Mediterranean world” (1961, p 184.).

Objection: the Latin word olea and the Greek word ἐλαία [elaia] are not of Indo-European origin

And, of course, the Latin origin (or Greek) of the Tuareg āliw, although plausible, should be regarded as a mere hypothesis – and not as the most probable

In one hand, the term olea / ἐλαία is not of Indo-European origin (Meillet 1975, p 302-303.). Since the olive tree (wild) grows spontaneously around the Mediterranean, we must necessarily admit that the Indo-European  ​​have borrowed it to a “Mediterranean” – or “Aegean” languages according to Meillet – when they arrived on the shores of the Mediterranean. The term is already attested in Mycenaean Greek (Linear B), ie the XIVcentury BC, this means that it has been borrowed from a “Mediterranean” language  at a very early date, well before the Greeks installation in Cyrenaica which dates only VII century BC: the assumption of a loan by the Greek in the Berber region of modern Libya is clearly excluded. But other possibilities remain open:

− Parallel Greek and Berber borrowing from a  unidentified “Mediterranean” language

− Borrowing to the Greek from a “Mediterranean” language which, itself, would have borrowed from Berber

− Finally borrowed from the archaic Greek to Berber in previous contacts during the founding of the Cyrenaica’s colonies… The linguistic data, rather ethno- and Paleobotanical lead to favor the latter hypothesis.

Second objection, the kabyle word for the phillyria: *wala(w)

As an important element must be admitted: there are traces of āliw (or related forms) in other Berber dialects . Kabyle linguist Boulifa (1913) had already drawn attention in a small glossary Kabyle name of a shrub, the Filaria (Phillyrea angustifolia L.) of the Oleaceae family: tamətwala. Phillyrea angustifolia evokes the olive in appearance, with its narrow leaves rather dark green, lance-shaped, 2 to 6 cm, and evergreen. Boulifa proposed to analyze this word as a compound of tamət + wala, and put the second element in relation with the Tuareg āliw. This division is quite acceptable and even almost certainly because it is difficult to see in a such Berber word a single or derived form. It may be noted that the field of botany is the one where the largest number of compounds is found in Berber [2]. The second component, wala, may well be the Kabyle corresponding of the Tuareg āliw, whose the /ā/ , long and non-alternating indicates the presence of an old initial consonant, probably the semi-consonant / w / or laryngeal / h /  (< *[a]wliw / *[a]hliw), and reinforces the connection with the Kabyle –wala and the assumption of a common primitive root or *WLW  or (* HLW). We can therefore, without insurmountable difficulties, semantically as in formal terms, connect the tuareg āliw to the Kabyle  *wala(w) implied by tamǝtwala.

If the same root, denoting endemic shrubs of the same botanical family is found in the Tuareg and Kabyle, Berber dialects geographically distant from one another, the assumption of a native origin āliw/ * WLW is not at all excluded; and consequently, that of a Greek borrowing to Berber, direct or indirect, to  becomes a serious track, while the opposite hypothesis – Berber directly borrowing from Greek via Latin – becomes symmetrically very unlikely.

Contacts between the Greek/Aegean world and the Berber world are very ancient

It should be stressed that the contacts between the Greek / Aegean world and the Berber world are very old and date back at least to the last centuries of the second millennium BC ( Camps 1985, pp. 50-51) : they both predate the founding of the Greek colonies of Cyrenaica (VII century BC) and it’s compatible with the presence of the Mycenaean Greek term (XIV BC). Herodotus himself explicitly mentions several technological or cultural borrowings made ​​by the Greeks from the Berbers. And if one has long had strong reservations to admit cultural borrowing in this sense, it is, as rightly wrote by G. Camps (1985, p 50.), because:

“Obsessed by the Greek genius we hardly recognize that the Libyans, these barbarians, these “north african stragglers” to use an expression of E.-F. Gautier, have been able to teach anything to the Greeks. ”

Olive tree. Maslina Olovka

Olive tree. Maslina Olovka

The bitter oil from oleaster

It also comes logically to formulate the idea that āliw “oleaster” had to precede the berber azǝmmur “olive tree / oleaster” qualifying secondary form (verbal adjective), as stated above.

Of course the proper linguistic question of the origin of the term āliw can not be dissociated from the historical and ethnological origin of the culture and the exploitation of the olive tree in North Africa . However, paleobotany establishes both the African origin of the genus Olea and the ancient presence of pollen of  Olea europaea in North Africa : from – 20 000, especially in the north of Tunisia. In terms of its operations and its culture, G. Camps, who devoted a long passage to the olive tree in Masinissa (1961, p. 87-91), considers that the Berbers practiced grafting of wild olive tree before Phoenician influence and noted that, according to the express testimony of the pseudo-Scylax [3], “the inhabitants of Djerba knew how to pull oil from the fruits of the oleaster.” In other words, the Berbers exploited in the middle of the IV century BC, the fruit of the native uncultivated shrub, which ultimately makes the borrowing of its name from the Greeks rather unlikely, a fortiori to Latin. Emile Laoust noted that the Chleuhs, Berbers of the High Atlas, still extract oil that was “bitter, of little used, reserved for lighting” from the fruit of the wild olive.

More broadly, it seems well established that in the entire western Mediterranean, domestication – or “pre-domestication” – of the olive tree is prior to the antique Punic, Greek or Roman olive cultivation, and is rooted in the Neolithic (Terral 1997). In North Africa and throughout the western basin of the Mediterranean, the Punic, Greek or Roman influence was late and focused on aspects of agronomic techniques, crop improvement and production techniques of the oil (presses), as well as storage and marketing.

Women, marriage and the olive

Finally the plural form of the Tuareg āliwən also means a marriage ritual chant:

“… The use of the rhythm āliwən is exclusively reserved to verses sung by women in some wedding ceremonies. Verses, very few and all very old, composed on ​​this rhythm are part of the wedding ceremony and handed down from generation to generation without knowing when or by whom they were made. The rhythm Āliwən is native of Ajjer and is very old. […] The women of the camp where the marriage takes place sing in chorus to the rhythm āliwən in the morning of day of the wedding. ” ( Foucauld, III, p 1094).

It is a quite remarkable symbolic that marriage is also clearly associated with the olive tree : evocation of sustainability, regeneration capacity, fertility with reference to the multiplicity of fruit …? This data also confirms the antiquity of the cultural roots of the olive tree in the Berber societies.

In conclusion, on the basis of the Berber language data, reinforced by paleobotanical and ethnological data, the two fundamental denominations of the oleaster and the olive tree (āliw / azǝmmur) seem to be native and pan-Berber, first āliw, being the oldest and certainly the first name oleaster (or from the Oleaceae family).

Consequently, the Berber form āliw has a very good chance to be the origin of the Greek ἐλαία [elaia] and then of the Latin olea and all avatars resulting in a multitude of languages.

Salem Chaker. Berber Professor, University of Aix-Marseille


[1] En berbère, pour certaines classes lexico-sémantiques (animaux, végétaux), le masculin est un générique ou collectif (azǝmmur = « l’espèce olivier », « les oliviers ») et le féminin un singulatif (tazǝmmurt = « un olivier »).

[2] Cf. Laoust 1920, p. 492-495 ; pour une approche plus globale de composition lexicale en berbère : Chaker 1984, chap. 10.

[3] « Ils font beaucoup d’huile avec le fruit de l’olive sauvage », Pseudo-Scylax, Périple, 110 (texte et trad. de E. Cougny & H. Lebègue, Paris, Renouard, 1878-1892 ; consulté sur Internet).

Orientation bibliographique

Al-’Išbīlī Abulḫayr, Kitābu ʿUmdati ṭ-ṭabib fī maʿrifati nnabāt likulli labīb (Libro base del médico para el conocimiento de la Botánica por todo experto) / s. V/XI), (Bustamante J., F. Corriente F. y M. Tilmatine M., Eds.), edición, notas y traducción castellana, Madrid, 2007, Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas, vol. II (Fuentes arábico-hispanas : 33).

Basset A., La langue berbère, Londres, 1952 (1969).

Besnard G., Rubio de Casas R., Christin P. A., Vargas P., “Phylogenetics of Olea (Oleaceae) based on plastid and nuclear ribosomal DNA sequences: Tertiary climatic shifts and lineage differentiation times”, Annals of Botany, 104, 2009, p. 143-160.

Boulifa A., Lexique kabyle-français, Glossaire, Alger, Jourdan, 1913.

Camps G., Massinissa, ou les débuts de l’histoire, 1961, Alger, Imprimerie officielle.

Camps G., « Pour une lecture naïve d’Hérodote. Les récits libyens (IV, 168-199) », Storia della Storografia, 1985, 7, p. 38-59.

Chaker S., Textes en linguistique berbère (Introduction au domaine berbère), Paris, Editions du CNRS, 1984.

Chaker S., Encyclopédie berbère ; s.v. :

Aliw (olivier sauvage)” (A167), fasc. IV, 1987 ;

Azemmur (olivier)” (A346), fasc. VIII, 1990 ;

“Olivier – Olive”, fasc. XXXV (O16), 2013.

Chantraine P., Dictionnaire étymologique de la langue grecque : histoire des mots, 1968-1980 (nouvelle édition 2009), Paris, Klincksieck.

Cohen D. et al., Dictionnaire des racines sémitiques…, Louvain/Paris, Peeters, 1993-2011 (10 fasc. parus).

Ernout A. & Meillet A., Dictionnaire étymologique de la langue latine, Paris, Paris, Klincksiek, 1994 (1ère éd. : 1922).

Foucauld Ch. de, Dictionnaire touareg-français (dialecte de l’Ahaggar), Paris, Imprimerie Nationale, 1950-1952, 4 tomes.

Gast M., Des Huwwara aux Kel-Ahaggar, la Saga d’une tribu nomade au Sahara central, Alger, Cnrpah, 2008.

Green P. S., “A revision of Olea L.”, Kew Bulletin, 57, 2002, p. 91-140.

Ibn Khaldoun , Histoire des berbères, 4 vol., Paris, A. Maisonneuve, 1925 (1978).

Laoust E., Mots et choses berbères, Paris, 1920, p. 444 et sq.

Meillet A., Linguistique historique et linguistique générale, Paris, Champion, 1975 : « A propos du nom du vin et de l’huile », p. 297-304.

Naït-Zerrad K., Dictionnaire des racines berbères…, II, Paris/Louvain, Peeters, 1999.

Prasse K.-G. et al., Dictionnaire touareg-français, Copenhague, Museum Tusculanum Press/University of Copenhaguen, 2003.

Ricard R., « Latin “olea“, touareg et portugais “aléo“, hypothèses et rapprochements », Bulletin hispanique, t. 63/3-4, 1961, p. 179-185.

Terral J.-F., 1997 – La domestication de l’olivier (Olea europaea L.) en Méditerranée nord-occidentale: Approche morphométrique et implications paléoclimatiques,Thèse de Doctorat, Université Montpellier-II.

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This entry was posted on 11/05/2014 by in Historie, Kultur and tagged , , , .
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