• December 9, 2023

Linguistic History

Tunisia’s Native Language

Tunisia is a multiethnic country that has been undergoing linguistic change since its independence from France. It is officially bilingual, and both Arabic and Tunisian are taught in schools and used in the media.

The dominant spoken language is the local Tunisian Arabic dialect (darja). Most people are able to read and speak Modern Standard Arabic, but it is rarely heard in daily conversation.


Known locally as Derja, Tunisian Arabic ( /tunsi/) differs from Modern Standard Arabic, which is the language of Egypt and much of the Middle East, but is very close to Algerian and Libyan Arabic. In particular, the Northwestern and Sfax dialects of Tunisian Arabic do not mark the second person gender, so that ntiy /inti/ is used for both men and women, even though this would normally be feminine in Classical Arabic.

During the Renaissance, Tunisia came under the influence of European culture, and educated citizens often spoke French and Italian as well as Tunisian. This foreign influence affected the language, especially in writing, with many loanwords and international vocabulary coming from French, and influenced the pronunciation of the dialect.

This has had some repercussions on the pronunciation of modern Tunisian Arabic, as it lost the distinction between long and short vowels. As a result, the Tunisian pronunciation of Arabic is sometimes difficult for non-speakers to understand.


While Arabic is the dominant language in Tunisia, almost all citizens are able to speak some French. This is largely because of the long period under French rule in the country, and also because it was the lingua Franca for business, administration and education.

A good knowledge of French is a social marker in the Tunisian society. It is still used in the business community, intellectual domains and the sphere of natural sciences.

The modern French language is a direct descendant of Vulgar Latin, with unstressed syllables being dropped and some consonants lost. Today, the language has a rich vocabulary and many loanwords from other languages like Italian, Spanish, Portuguese and English.

Although the constitution of the country states that the sole official language is Arabic, most people in the country can read and write both Tunisian Arabic and French. Additionally, Tunisian Arabic and French are mutually intelligible to a certain degree, owing to the influx of migrants from other countries during Tunisia’s history.


Tunisian Arabic, or Tamazight (lég tens) to its millions of speakers, is one of the two official languages of Tunisia, alongside Modern Standard Arabic. The influx of Berber migrants to urban areas and western Europe from the early 20th century helped convey a sense of modern material culture back into their homelands, where they form a sizeable minority.

Also known as Amazigh, Berbers are a tribe that predates the Arab invasion of North Africa by thousands of years. They are still mostly nomadic, although some reside in villages such as Chenini and Douiret in the south of Tunisia or on the island of Djerba. In their homelands, they are mainly Muslim. Their language, which is written using Tifinagh, consists of many different varieties that are mutually intelligible. It was also the language of the ancient Numidian empire, although it lost status under the new governments that frowned on a separate Berber identity as a relic of colonialism.


As Tunisia looks to navigate Group D at the 2022 World Cup, it’s important to understand the North African country’s complex linguistic history. Although Arabic is the official language of Tunisia, most citizens also speak French to varying degrees, as the country was once a French colony and the European tongue was used in schools and government institutions.

The rise of Islam in the 7th century resulted in a shift away from Romance usage to purely Arabic, and literacy plummeted. In a bid to stabilize the new language, the Royal Academy of Tunis established a written standard, and the academy continued to monitor words that were introduced by foreign cultures and civilizations (such as international vocabulary and forms from Neo-Punic, African Latin, Berber, Spanish, Turkish and French) into the modern Tunisian dialect.

The Amazigh (or Amazighi) are the indigenous population of Tunisia, and they have their own distinct Tamazight language. However, there are no legal rights for the Amazigh, and Tunisia has no laws or public institutions dedicated to their cultural and economic well-being.

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