Kabylia Blog

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Couscous: about the etymology of the word

Origin of the Couscous

The Amazigh (Berber) origin of the word couscous does not make any doubt, even if its exact formation has some darknesses. Indeed, the term, in the base form seksu (and various local phonetic alternatives) is attested in almost all the  Amazigh (Berber)  languages: kabyle, Chleuh, Riffian… (Cf Dallet 1982, p. 709, Destaing 1938, or Laoust 1920, p. 78, which gives a statement of attested forms).


The Saharan Berber language (Tuareg, Ghadames) present a slightly different form: keskesu (Tuareg: Foucauld II, p. 919; Ghadames: Lanfry 1973, n° 821, p. 167…). The geographical dispersion of the word is in itself an extremely strong sign in favour of a local origin.

One will also underline that the term presents, in a generalized way, a very remarkable morphological feature for nominal Amazigh (Berber ): the absence of the initial vowel (a -). However, this characteristic, except in the cases of not integrated loans, is an clear sign of archaism, specific to some nominal referring to not-countable realities, non-segmentables (Chaker 1995).

Another sign of the membership of the word in the Amazigh (Berber) lexical lies in the fact that it is not insulated and is integrated in a precise lexical field and very stable in all the field of North Amazigh (Berber), where one raises everywhere two related words:

Taseksut (a-seksu-t): “couscoussier”; in the plan of its morphology, the name of this kitchen utensile has a perfectly Amazigh (Berber) form and carries a suffix – T, sign very clear of an old formation.
Berkukes (nominal) and its feminin, taberkukest: “couscous with coarse grains”; as well as the verb berkukes: “to be wholesale grains”.

The second form is obviously to analyze like an expressive compound with prefix ber -, with augmentative value, perfectly well established(cf Chaker 1972-73); the topic thus breaks up into ber-kukes. The component kukes is, without any possible doubt, an expressive form with redoubling of the first radical (Chaker 1972-73). What makes it possible to pose a *KS root which could be at the origin of all these lexemes.

This root is confirmed besides by the Saharan forms keskesu which must be analyzed as an expressive formations with complete redoubling on a basis bilitère * KS, whose reality is supported the existence in Ghadames (Lanfry 1973, n° 821, p. 167) of a verb derived by prefix, skeskes, “to roll the couscous” (= s-keskes).

Subject to a more pushed lexicographical checking ,the root * KS does not seem to have, in synchrony, some immediate representation. It appears only in its expressive derived forms, with partial or total redoubling (KS > ksks; *KS > kukes; *KS > sksu).
The last form, most largely attested through the name of couscous, could be a derivative with prefix (factitive/instrumental) S on the *KS basis; seksu, analyzing itself then in s-ksu.


I personally find in kabyle an adjective imkeskes, “well rolled, well formed ” (not attested in the existing dictionaries), which could make it possible to allot to this *KS root a significance of “the well formed” type, “rounded”…The only obscure point thus remains the precise morphology of seksu, but a whole beam of indices and data confirm the thesis of the local, old and Amazigh (Berber) origin of the word couscous.
New note of Salem Chaker, Director of the Berber Research center at INALCO and professor of the universities (Berber).

Translated by NOA

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This entry was posted on 25/09/2016 by in Kultur and tagged , , , .
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