The Subfamily of
Semitic Languages

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The Semitic languages are of particular importance to both linguists and archaeologists and to the common people. The fact is, the Semitic language family (or more accurately Subfamily) has the longest recorded history of any linguistic group. The Akkadian language is first attested in cuneiform writing on clay tablets from ancient Mesopotamia (modern Iraq) from the mid-third millennium BC, and Semitic languages continue to be spoken in the Middle East and in northeastern Africa today.

The second but most important reason arises from the fact that some of the descendants of the Semitic group are religious languages of the three most wide-spread religions of the world. Arabic is the religious language of the Muslims; Hebrew of the Jews; and some sects of Christianity in Western Asia still use Syriac (actually a modern version of Aramaic) for their scriptures. The Coptic Church of Egypt also uses the Coptic language -- a Greek-influenced version of Late Egyptian, and akin to the Semitic languages -- as their religious language. The Qur'an is in Classical Arabic language, the Talmud in Hebrew -- so members of the corresponding religions at least know how to read them, if not completely understand them.

The Semitic also influenced other languages by means other than religious; almost all the personal names of Christians, Muslims and Jews originate from actual Semitic roots. When the Arabs dominated most of the Old World during 7th-12th centuries AD, various scientific, judicial, astronomical, astrological, mathematical and chemical terms infiltrated their subjects' original language. The name of the star Aldebaran originate from Arabic -- along with the names of some other stars and constellations. The term Algebra is from Arabic. The words in Bangla Hakim, Malik, Huzur, and many more are derived from Arabic either directly or by way of Farsi. Many Christian biblical terms evidently have Hebrew roots.

Before we go deep down into the discussion of Semitic languages, it should be worthwhile to have a look at the family of Afro-Asiatic languages -- to which the Semitic group belongs.

 

 

Afro-Asiatic Family

The Afro-Asiatic language family is one of the four main language families of Africa (here once again I must remind you, language family names do not imply that they are restricted to geographical boundaries). Afro-Asiatic was formerly known as the Hamito-Semitic reflecting a biased assumption that the Semitic languages (found outside Africa) were more distantly related to the rest of the family (found inside Africa). The family was called Hamito-Semitic before because it was said that the descendants of Noah's two oldest sons, Sham and Ham, were the original speakers of the languages. This was, of course, a religiously biased term (forgive me if I am offending anyone!).

The languages of the Afro-Asiatic family are thought to have first been spoken along the shores of the Red Sea. Another theory holds that the Afro-Asiatic language family came into being in Africa, for only in Africa are all its members found, aside from some Semitic languages encountered in Western Asia. The existence of the Semitic languages in West Asia is explained by assuming that the Semites in Africa migrated from Eastern Africa to Western Asia in very ancient times. At a later date, some Semites returned from Arabia to Africa.

The classification of Afro-Asiatic into subfamilies or groups is as follows:

Table 1: The Afro-Asiatic Language Family and its Grouping

Afro-Asiatic

Egyptian

The Egyptian group is very ancient, once spoken in Ancient Egypt. In time, it evolved from Old Egyptian to Middle Egyptian, then into Late Egyptian, which are based on the chronology of the civilization. The Late Egyptian tongue had a colloquial version called Demotic. After the Greco-Roman ruling period in Egypt, a new language influenced by Greek and incurring Egyptian language characteristics developed which is called Coptic. Coptic died out around 17th century AD as a spoken language, but retains its position as a religious language of the Coptic Christian Church.

Egyptian was written in Hieroglyphics. But later on, several easier writing systems developed called Hieratic and Demotic. Probably from these, other Semitics developed their alphabets, mainly the Phoenicians and Arabians.

Berber

This group of languages are spoken in North Africa, West of Egypt. The nomadic tribes of Morocco, Tunisia, Mauritania, Algeria, Libya, Niger, Mali are thought to be speaking these languages since at least 3000 BC! The noteworthy members are: Tuareg, Riff, Kabyle, Tamazight, etc. Berber languages are mother tongues of more than 10 million people in N Africa. The oldest known Berber inscriptions are from 4th century BC. The Berber tongues have survived Phoenician, Roman and Arab conquests. The Arabic alphabet is employed to write these, except the Tamachek dialect, which continues to use an ancient Berber alphabet known as Tifinagh. Appendages by Lameen Souag: The Roman-era Libyan Berber inscriptions are the only ones in the world whose usual direction was bottom to top!

Chadic

This group is spoken around Lake Chad in West Africa, South of Sahara. The most important of this group is Hausa, spoken in Chad, Cameroon, Nigeria, Niger, Togo, Benin; Hausa is a lingua franca of W Africa; among others are Angas, Bole and many more.

Semitic

As I said, the most important group in Afro-Asiatic.

Today, spoken in Ethiopia, North Africa and the Middle East (the Arabian Peninsula, Iraq, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, and Israel).

The most ancient of this group is Akkadian. There are many dead languages in this group such as Eblaite, Aramaic, Amorite, Ugaritic, Canaanite, Phoenician, etc. The languages spoken today include Arabic, Hebrew, South Arabian, Amharic, Maltese, etc.

Cushitic

This group is named after a son of Ham, Cush. Members of this group, among which are Somali, Oromo, Afar, etc., are spoken in Ethiopia, Somalia, Djibouti, Kenya, Tanzania. Oromo is the tongue of 20 mln. people in Ethiopia and Kenya. Somali is spoken by 9 mln. people in Somalia, Ethiopia, and Djibouti. Oromo is written in the Ethiopic script and Somali in the Roman alphabet. There are many more languages of Ethiopia related to this group.

Omotic

Omotic languages are spoken in SW Ethiopia. This group often classified as a branch of Cushitic. The important members of this group are Maale, Aari, Hamer, etc.

Often, the other groups except Semitic are classified as Hamitic -- which is not completely based on linguistic similarities, but cultural and historical links.

 

 

The Semitic Subfamily

There are various classifications and family trees proposed by different linguists. I am providing a basic family tree of Semitic. Detailed discussion is continued in the following table. I constructed the table based on a version by Farber (1997) -- obtainable on the internet as a PDF document. In the family tree, the dead languages are shown in Red, and the modern languages in Blue; while in the table, the corresponding colours are Red and Green.

 

 

And here is the table :--

 

Table 2: The Semitic Languages - Ancient and Modern

Group

Primary Branching

Secondary Branching 1

Sec. Branching  2

Sec. Branching 3

Sec. Branching 4

Main languages or groups

Group members

Dialects and Provenience

Arch. Evidences of Ancient Languages

Semitic

East Semitic

 

 

 

Akkadian

 

Akkadian (or Babylonian-Assyrian) is the collective name for the

spoken languages of the people of Mesopotamia in the 3000 years BC.

Often classified into Babylonian & Assyrian, but both are dialects of Akkadian

from different eras. Named after the ancient city-state of Akkad.

First ever recorded inscriptions are

Akkadian cuneiforms. Evolved from Sumerian

Cuneiform, but Sumerian is an isolate language,

not included in any family.

West Semitic

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Central Semitic

North-Western Semitic

Eblaite

 

This language when first discovered was thought to be a variant of Akkadian, but later proved to be different. Appendages as suggested by Lameen Souag: Eblaite is often regarded as early NW-Semitic rather than E Semitic.

Eblaite was discovered from recent excavations of cuneiform tablets in Ebla, Syria in 1974; the inscriptions are from around 2400 BC. The city of Ebla flourished in the 3rd millennium BC and was destroyed around 2200 BC.

Language from Biblos

 

Once spoken in the Phoenician city of Biblos, on the Eastern Mediterranean shore.

Some documents with pseudo-hieroglyphic inscriptions from 14th cent. BC.

Proto-Sinaite

 

Once spoken in the Sinai peninsula, used by copper-mine workers employed there by the Egyptian Kingdom.

Inscriptions with the oldest alphabet, 15th cent. BC.

Language from Lachish

 

Once spoken in the city of Lachish of Ancient Palestine.

 

Ugaritic

 

Once spoken in Syria; it produced immense sensation after its discovery in 1928 in the City of Ras Shamara or ancient Ugarit in N.W. Syria. Concurrent in 15th-13th cent. BC. The Ugaritic language has variously been regarded as an early form of Hebrew, an early form of Phoenician, an early dialect of Canaanite, and an independent dialect of NW Semitic. Its classification is still unresolved. The writings in Ugaritic are important in the study of the Hebrew language and biblical literature of the early period. Appendages as suggested by Lameen Souag: Ugaritic has no real descendants, but it comes from the same NW-Semitic dialect group that both Hebrew and Aramaic descended from. It's actually very much like Arabic in the grammar, because it's so conservative.

In Ugarit was found ancient clay tablets with writing in this language. Ugarit flourished before the 12th cent. BC.  The Ugaritic archive is from 1400-1200 BC, and represents the earliest materials of NW Semitic.

Canaanite Group

The Canaanite group subsumes the ancient languages of Phoenician, Punic, Hebrew, Ammonite, Moabite, and Edomite, primarily geographical dialect designations. Modern Hebrew is a resurrected version of Ancient Hebrew. Canaan is the name of the ancient region that comprised Palestine, Phoenicia, and part of Syria.

 

 

Amorite

 

Only known from proper names mentioned in the Bible, concurrent in 2000-1600 BC.

 

Phoenician, Punic

Languages of the Phoenician city-states and their colonies. Phoenician was spoken on the Eastern Mediterranean shore, while Punic is a variant of original Phoenician used in the city of Carthage, the leading city of North Africa.

The earliest inscriptions in Phoenician that can be deciphered are dated c. 10th cent. BC. The language is also preserved in inscriptions from ancient Phoenician colonies, especially Carthage.

 

El-Amarna

Language from  archives found in Tell El Amarna, Egypt, which was the capital Akhetaten during Akhenaten's rule. There was a community of Ancient Jews living there during the New Kingdom Period.

Correspondence letters from Imperial Archives from 12th cent. BC.

 

Moabite

 

The existence of Moabite is known from a single inscription dating from c. 9th cent. BC., from proper names that occur in the Old Testament, and from the inscriptions of other peoples.

 

Hebrew

Language of the Old Testament and Talmud

Hebrew ceased to be spoken as a native language by 200 BC.

 

Modern Hebrew

Modern Hebrew is called Ivrit, which is a standardized form to facilitate communication through newspapers or radio.

Modern Hebrew refers either to: a. Revival of Hebrew in Eastern Europe by Jewish intellectuals - mostly as a written language. b. Revival of Modern Hebrew in Israel as a fully functional written and spoken language.

Aramaic Group

 

 

 

Old Aramaic

 

Inscriptions from Syria, 10th-8th cent. BC

 

Aramaic

Language of the New Assyrian Empire, 7th-4th cent. BC. Once used as the lingua franca of West Asia for trade and administration.

 

 

Western Aramaic

 

 

 

 

Nabataen

Once spoken by the Arabian population of Petra, Jordan.

The famous Qumran Rolls are written in Nabataean.

 

 

Palmyrene

Once spoken by the Arabian population of Palmyra, Jordan.

 

 

 

Jewish Palestinian Aramaic

It is widely believed that Jesus Christ spoke this dialect of Aramaic. Spoken in the Kingdom of Judah and Isra'el during Roman rule.

 

 

 

Samaritan Aramaic

Concurrent around 4th cent. BC.

 

 

 

Christian Palestinian Aramaic

Christian Melkieten, 5th-8th cent. AD.

 

 

 

Modern Western Aramaic

or Western Neo-Aramaic

Still spoken in villages near Damascus. Used by sects of Christians in Syria, Iraq and Iran. Appendages as suggested by Lameen Souag: Western Neo-Aramaic is spoken only near Damascus, but Eastern Neo-Aramaic (see below) is also still spoken natively in parts of Turkey, Iraq, and Iran.

 

 

Eastern Aramaic

 

 

 

 

Syriac

Spoken in the city of Edessa, during 3rd-13th cent. AD.

 

 

 

Babylonian Syriac

 

The Babylonian Talmud from around 4th-6th cent. AD.

 

 

Mandaean

Spoken by the gnostic religious community of Mandaeans (3rd-8th cent. AD). Still spoken in some parts of Iran.

 

 

 

Modern Eastern Aramaic

or Eastern Neo-Aramaic

Present-day Aramaic spoken in villages in South-Eastern Turkey, Iraq and Iran.

 

 

Classical

Arabic

Pre-Classical Arabic

 

Arabic was the main language of the Arabian peninsula in the pre-Islamic era or Jahiliyyah period (4th-5th cent. AD), and in certain areas of Palestine, Syria, and Mesopotamia.

 

Classical North Arabic

 

Arabic was formalized in extensive written form in the 7th-8th centuries AD in the Qur'an. The Qur'an is read by Muslims around the world, some of whom understand the Classical Arabic, not the modern dialects. Concurrent as spoken from 4th-10th cent. AD.

 

 

Modern Arabic Dialects

Modern Arabic is a standardized modern form of Classical Arabic. Spoken Arabic dialects differ widely depending on the country. The different dialects are listed here: Ethnologue Report for Arabic.

Western or Maghreb dialect: spoken in North African countries - Western Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, Mauritania, Sudan, Chad, Nigeria.

 

Eastern or Levantine dialect: spoken in the Middle East - Arabian peninsula, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Jordan, Israel, Egypt.

Appendages as suggested by Lameen Souag: The Bedouin dialects should be separated from the rest. There Arabic creoles as well, spoken mainly in African countries such as Kenya, Chad, Uganda, Sudan etc. Among these are Ki-Nubi, Babalia Creole and Sudanese Creole. They are listed here: Ethnologue Report for Arabic-Based.

South Semitic

Western

Ethiopic

North

Ge'ez or Classical Ethiopic

 

One of the three members of North Ethiopic Semitic branch, still used as a liturgical language of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. But no native speakers exist.

 

 

Tigre, Tigrinya

Originated from Ge'ez. Tigre is spoken in Northern Eritrea. Tigrinya is one of the official language of Eritrea, spoken in central Eritrea and Northern Ethiopia.

 

South

Outer

many

Numerous languages such as: Soddo, Goggot, Muher, W. Gurage: Ezha, Masqan, Gyeto, Gura, Ennemor, Endegen, Chaho, etc.

 

Transverse

Amharic

The official language of Ethiopia. Spoken in Central and Southern highlands of Ethiopia and Addis Ababa.

 

Harari

Also called Ge Sinaan by its speakers or Adare/Adarinya. Spoken in the walled Muslim city of Harar in Eastern Ethiopia.

 

Gurage

Eastern Gurage Group: Seiti, Wolane, Zway, Ulbare, Inneqor.

 

others

Argobba is an endangered language, spoken in a few scattered regions of Ankober north of Addis Ababa. Gafat is a dead language of Gojjam area, last speakers died in the 20th century.

 

Old South Arabian

 

 

  Closely related languages of the southern tip of the Arabian peninsula, of Yemen, Oman, etc. The main languages are: Sabaean, Minaean, Qatabanian, Hadramautic. About 5,000 inscriptions in Ancient South Arabic (or Himyaritic), from the 8th to the 5th century AD, were found in what is now Yemen. Sabaean inscriptions were also found in Ethiopia.

Eastern

 

 

 

Modern South Arabian

South Arabian languages spoken on the tip of the Arabian peninsula. They share features with both Arabic and Ethiopian Semitic.

 

The dialects spoken today in parts of Southern Arabian peninsula are called Modern South Arabic. Their relationship to the ancient South Arabic dialects has not yet been determined.

 

 

Soqotri Dialect spoken in the island of Soqotra off the Yemeni coast.

Jibbali

Spoken in parts of Oman.

Mehri

Spoken in Yemen and Oman.

Harsusi

Spoken in Oman.

 

Group

Primary Branching

Secondary Branching 1

Sec. Branching  2

Sec. Branching 3

Sec. Branching 4

Main languages or groups

Group members

Dialects and Provenience

Arch. Evidences of Ancient Languages

 

 

 

 

Writing Systems

The writing used for Semitic languages is either cuneiform or alphabetic writing. The latter has two principal division, the North Semitic script and the South Semitic script. The oldest known writing system employed by Semitic-speaking peoples is cuneiform. It was adopted by the Akkadians c. 2500 BC from the Sumerians, whose language was not a Semitic tongue. The Sumerian cuneiform goes back to about 4000 BC, and it was used by various peoples until about the 2nd cent. BC. Babylonian and Assyrian, which were later dialects of Akkadian, also employed cuneiform. At first cuneiform was written from top to bottom in vertical rows, with the first row at the right, but at a later date the direction of writing was reversed, that is, it was written in horizontal rows from left to right. The North Semitic and South Semitic scripts are thought by some scholars to go back to a common source, a hypothetical proto-Semitic writing system. Others dispute this and regard the origin of the South Semitic alphabet as a still unsolved problem. The source of the proto-Semitic alphabetic script has been variously conjectured to be Egyptian Hieroglyphics, Babylonian cuneiform, or other writing systems.

The North Semitic writing is alphabetic in that each sign or symbol represents a consonantal sound of the language. Vowels for some time were omitted. Symbols of various kinds to indicate the vowels for Hebrew, Arabic and Syriac probably date from the 8th cent. AD. The North Semitic script consists of a Canaanite branch and an Aramaic branch. The Canaanite branch gave rise to Early Hebrew writing and Phoenician writing. Another descendant of the Canaanite branch is the Greek alphabet, which is the parent of all modern European alphabets, including the Roman and the Cyrillic. According to a Greek tradition, the Phoenicians passed on their alphabet to the Greeks. The oldest extant Early Hebrew text is dated at about the 11th or 10th cent. BC. Early Hebrew writing was the alphabet of the Jews until they adopted Aramaic instead of Hebrew as their spoken language sometime before the Christian era, when they also began to use the Square Hebrew letters derived from the Aramaic writing. The only descendant of the Early Hebrew alphabet still in use is the Samaritan writing. Records of the Aramaic script go back to the 9th cent. BC. After about 500 BC the Aramaic alphabet was used throughout the Middle East. In addition to being the parent of Square Hebrew letters, from which evolved modern Hebrew writing, the Aramaic alphabet is the ancestor of Arabic writing, the Syriac scripts, and other Semitic alphabets. Aramaic writing probably also gave rise to the significant alphabet writing systems of Asia, such as the Devanāgari so widely used in India.

As Islam spread to various nations in Africa and Asia, it was accompanied by the Arabic alphabet. For example, Arabic writing was adapted for Persian, Pushtu, Urdu, Malay, the Berber languages, Swahili, Hausa, and Turkish. (Since 1928, however, the Roman alphabet has been used for Turkish). The Ancient South Arabic inscriptions found in Yemen employed the South Semitic alphabet, which is no longer used on the Arabian peninsula. This alphabet was taken to Ethiopia during the first millennium BC and is still used there, in modified form, for the Ethiopic languages. In fact, the sole noteworthy South Semitic script to survive until modern times is the one employed for the Ethiopic languages. All other known alphabets are believed to be derived from North Semitic writing. Although the South Arabic letters form a consonantal alphabet, the Ethiopic writing is syllabic in nature. Ethiopic consonants have six or more forms, each depending on the vowel following the consonant, but this may be a later development. In any case, the origin of the syllabic nature of the script is an unsolved problem. All Semitic languages are written from right to left except Ethiopic, Assyrian, and Babylonian, which are written from left to right.

 

 

 

Triconsonantal Root System

In addition to a common source for their most ancient vocabulary, as well as other syntactic similarities, what binds the branches of the Afro-Asiatic family (evidently, the Semitic subfamily, too) together is their tri-consonantal root system, composed of three consonants separated by vowels. In this system most words consist of three consonants, while a lesser number have two or (to an even lesser extent) four consonants. In any one word, these consonants are called the "root", and the root relates to the general concept behind the meaning of the word. Usually, the root is unalterable, although it can be inflected by the use of infixes (elements which are inserted within the root) of vowels and by prefixes and suffixes, all of which denote grammatical changes and which form new words with related meanings. Two genders, masculine and feminine, are found in Semitic languages. The feminine is often indicated by the suffixes -t or -at. The plural can be formed either by adding a suffix to the singular or by an internal vowel change, as in Arabic kitab, "book", but kutub, "books." The Semitic verb is distinguished by it ability to form from the same root a number of derived stems that express new meanings based on the fundamental sense, such as passive, reflexive, causative, and intensive.

Most significantly, the vowels of the root -- and hence its vocalization -- change depending upon how the root is used in any given part of speech, e.g., as a noun, a verb, or in a certain mood, case or verb tense, etc. The pattern of vowel usage and change is called the "scheme". Thus, root and scheme are the two major elements which constitute the word in the Afro-asiatic languages. For example, in Arabic the root pertaining to the concept of teaching and learning is d-r-s. While the consonants drs will always remain the same, the scheme and vocalization will change depending upon usage, e.g.:

darasa, "to study, learn"

darrasa, "to teach"

dars, "lesson, class"

duruus, "lessons"

mudaaris, "teacher (male)" / mudaarisa, "teacher (female)"

madrasa, "school"

The same system holds for Akkadian. The consonants would remain the same, while the vowels and vocalization changed according to use. With the use of the cuneiform writing system (borrowed frm the Sumerians, a non-Semitic langauge), with sign values that stand for syllables. Akkadian is the only Semitic language in which the vowels are explicitly spelled.

 

 

Proto-Semitic

The Semitic languages are believed to have evolved from a hypothetical parent tongue, proto-Semitic. The place of origin of proto-Semitic is still disputed: Africa, Arabia, and Mesopotamia are the most probable locations.

 

 


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