Shifinagh Characters

ⴾⵜⵀ ⵙ ⵜⵎⵌⵆ

In the Tawallammat Tamajaq language (ttq) the word šifinaɣ generally refers to the Tamajaq script.  It is the writing system for the Tamajaq alphabet, punctuation markers, spacing conventions, and various typographical ligatures (combined letters). The Tamajaq word šifinaɣ is transliterated into English as Shifinagh. The Tamajaq word for an individual letter of the alphabet or individual written character is tǝfirt and its plural is šǝfîr.

Before looking into the details of the Shifinagh characters, to avoid confusion, it is worth noting that just as Tawallammat Tamajaq is an instance of the macrolanguage Tamashek (tmh), so Shifinagh is a regional instance of which might be called a macroscript, Tifinagh.  Other Tamashek languages have their own Tifinagh systems which are similar to Shifinagh in some ways, but have significant differences as well.

The Shifinagh characters are traditionally written in the sand, on rocks, on paper or other surfaces.  Books in Shifinagh are rare, but the script is commonly used for notes and short correspondence such as shopping lists, greetings, and love letters.  Artisans will often engrave their names in Shifinagh on the things they have crafted.

With the advent of computers and on-screen or printed graphical outputs, an effort has been made to incorporate Tifinagh characters into the standard Universal Coded Character Set more commonly know as the Unicode.  However, many Shifinagh characters were not included in the Tifinagh block of Unicode characters.  Even some of the main characters like effa, ella, and final “a” were not included.  To display or print the missing characters on a computer other methods must be used.  All of the Shifinagh characters can be displayed or printed with computers only if the computer has one or more special fonts loaded (standard unicode fonts are insufficient) that include customized glyphs for certain Tifinagh block unicode characters, SmartFont technology that creates combined characters, and word processing software that correctly utilizes SmartFont technology.

A special Unicode font for displaying and printing Shifinagh characters with customized glyphs and SmartFont technology have been developed and work very well in robust word processing programs like LibreOffice.  Using SIL’s Tagmukay font in LibreOffice will give you the best results when creating a Shifinagh document. Unfortunately though, incorporating a Shifinagh specific font like Tagmukay into other desktop or online applications requires the use of an API, and is a quite a bit more difficult.  Typical Unicode fonts used by operating systems and browsers do not have the specific character set and glyphs needed to display and print Shifinagh.  Examples of some of the font and glyph problems will be given as we go through the individual characters one by one.

We will also endeavor to write articles about the fonts later, so keep checking back at to learn more about how you can create, display, and print documents in Shifinagh script.

Once you have the Tagmukay font loaded in LibreOffice, you will still need to learn how to key in the specific characters. We will be doing a separate article later to introduce you to some of the methods of keying in special characters. Here I will just mention that the best way to key in Unicode ans Shifinagh specific characters is to use SIL’s free keyboard program called Keyman.

For the rest of this article we will focus on providing a brief introduction to each of the individual Shifinagh characters, then later will write separate, more detailed articles on each character in the script.

Let’s start with the four letters used in Shifinagh to write the word Tamajaq.  Apart from the vowel “a” at the end of a word, in traditional Shifinagh, vowels are not written, so only four letters, all consonants, “tmjq” are needed to write the word Tamajaq like this:  ⵜⵎⵌⵆ

Etta: ⵜ

Unicode:  U+2D5C (Yat) corresponds to the letter named etta in Tamajaq. The an ⵜ glyph should look more like the addition or plus sign (+) in arithmatic, having bisecting vertical and horizontal lines of about the same length.  However, as you can see above, webfonts typically present a glyph with a shorter horizontal line. The Shifinagh letter ⵜ phonetically represents the unvoiced alveo-dental stop [t] similar to a “t” in English or French. Etta is one of the Shifinagh consonants frequently combines with other consonants to form bi-consonant ligatures (two consonants combined into one character).  

Emma: ⵎ

Unicode:  U+2D4E (Yam) corresponds to the letter named emma in Tamajaq.  The Shifinagh letter ⵎ phonetically represents the bilabial nasal sound [m] like an “m” in English or French.

Ejja:  ⵌ

Unicode:  U+2D4C (Yazh) corresponds to the letter named ejja in Tamajaq.  The Shifinagh letter ⵌ phonetically represents the post alveolar voiced fricative [ʒ] like an “s” in the English word measure or the “j” in the French word majeure.

Eqqa:  ⵆ

Unicode:  U+2D46 (Yakh) corresponds to the letter named eqqa in Tamajaq.  The Shifinagh letter ⵆ phonetically represents the unvoiced uvular plosive sound [q]. This sound does not occur in English or French.  It is similar to a “k” in English, only formed further back in the mouth.
This is a developing article. Please check back for more Shifinagh characters later.