The Language of Cooking: Documentation and reconstruction in the Berber-speaking area (Africa)


The Language of Cooking: Documentation and reconstruction in the Berber-speaking area (Africa)

Berber languages are spoken from the Mediterranean sea to the Sahel zone, and from the Egyptian oasis of Siwa to the Atlantic ocean. The variation inside the family is comparable to that within Romance, but internal classification is still unstable. One open question is the status of the "Zenati" subgroup, which spans almost the whole area, but is not an ancient subbranch of the family. The study of intra-Berber contacts is needed in order to investigate that question further.

One angle for that study consists in focussing on an anthropological and linguistic domain which allows comparison across languages, and can help reconstruction. Food preparation is an ideal domain for that, as the communities who speak those languages interact with each other, and live in very different surroundings and ecosystems; some have long been sedentary, others have stopped their pastoral semi-nomadism relatively recently, and some are still nomadic.

Traditional cooking is an activity that involves cultural transmission of heritage recipes and techniques, themselves drawing on knowledge about wild herbs and vegetables, agriculture, fabrication of utensils from local resources, a kind of knowledge which is anchored in the surrounding ecosystem. Traditional cooking is almost exclusively practised by women, who also are the most skilled speakers in those communities. And, just as a great number of Berber languages and varieties are endangered due to several factors, traditional cooking is threatened by modern ways of life.

It is still, however, a central cultural component of the countries where Berber is spoken, as is shown by Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia and Libya's current joint UNESCO application in view of registering couscous as intangible world heritage. It is therefore a rich domain for documentation, and also for language maintenance or revitalization, because of its association with comfort, pleasure, childhood, community, and identity.

This context has led to the submission of a project, Inyen*, which will be presented and discussed in my talk. It revolves around recipes and food preparation in the Berber-speaking zone, and aims at documenting such practice by way of a mobile App, among other methods, in order to empower women, sustain language and cultural maintenance, and create a comparative lexical database in several Berber languages of the Zenati subgroup.

*Inyen is the term referring to the stones of the cooking hearth in traditional dwellings.


  • Professor Amina Mettouchi
    Professor Amina Mettouchi, Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes, Paris