Berbers are distributed in an area stretching from the Atlantic Ocean to the Siwa Oasis in Egypt, and from the Mediterranean Sea to the Niger River in West Africa. Historically, they spoke Berber languages, which together form the Berber branch of the Afroasiatic family. Since the Muslim conquest of North Africa in the seventh century, a large number of Berbers inhabiting the Maghreb (Tamazgha) have in varying degrees used as lingua franca the other languages spoken in North Africa. After the colonization of North Africa by France, "the French government succeeded in integrating the French language in Algeria by making French the official national language and requiring all education to take place in French." Foreign languages, mainly French and to some degree Spanish, inherited from former European colonial powers, are used by most educated Berbers in Algeria and Morocco in some formal contexts, such as higher education or business.
Most Berber people live in North Africa, mainly in Libya, Algeria, Tunisia, and Morocco. Small Berber populations are also found in Niger, Mali, Mauritania, Burkina Faso and Egypt, as well as large immigrant communities living in France, Spain, Canada, Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, and other countries of Europe.
The majority of Berbers are Sunni Muslim. The Berber identity is usually wider than language and ethnicity, and encompasses the entire history and geography of North Africa. Berbers are not an entirely homogeneous ethnicity and they encompass a range of societies and ancestries. The unifying forces for the Berber people may be their shared language, or a collective identification with Berber heritage and history.
There are some twenty-five to thirty million Berber speakers in North Africa. The number of ethnic Berbers (including non-Berber speakers) is far greater, as a large part of the Berbers have acquired other languages over the course of many decades or centuries, and no longer speak Berber today. The majority of North Africa's population is believed to be Berber in origin, although due to Arabization most ethnic Berbers identify as Arabized Berbers.
Berbers call themselves some variant of the word i-Mazigh-en (singular: a-Mazigh), possibly meaning "free people" or "noble men". The name probably had its ancient parallel in the Roman and Greek names for Berbers, Mazices. Some of the best known of the ancient Berbers are the Numidian king Masinissa, king Jugurtha, the Berber-Roman author Apuleius, Saint Augustine of Hippo, and the Berber-Roman general Lusius Quietus, who was instrumental in defeating the major wave of Jewish revolts of 115–117. Dihya or Kahina was a religious and military leader who led a fierce Berber resistance against the Arab-Muslim expansion in Northwest Africa. Kusaila was a seventh-century leader of the Awraba tribe of the Berber people and King of the Sanhadja confederation. Yusuf ibn Tashfin was king of the Berber Almoravid dynasty; Tariq ibn Ziyad the general who conquered Hispania; Abbas Ibn Firnas, a prolific inventor and early pioneer in aviation; Ibn Battuta, a medieval explorer who traveled the longest known distances of his time.
The name Berber derives from an ancient Egyptian language term meaning "outlander" or variations thereof. The exonym was later adopted by the Greeks, with a similar connotation. Among its oldest written attestations, Berber appears as an ethnonym in the 1st century AD Periplus of the Erythraean Sea.
Despite these early manuscripts, certain modern scholars have argued that the term only emerged around 900 AD in the writings of Arab genealogists, with Maurice Lenoir positing an 8th or 9th century date of appearance. The English term was introduced in the 19th century, replacing the earlier Barbary.