Northwest Semitic languages
Learn more about Northwest Semitic languages
|Northwest Semitic |
|concentrated in the Middle East|
The Northwest Semitic languages form a medium-level division of the Semitic language family. The languages of this group are spoken by approximately eight million people today. The group is generally divided into three branches: Ugaritic (extinct), Canaanite (including Hebrew) and Aramaic. Semiticists often group the Northwest Semitic languages together with Arabic to form the larger Central Semitic group: noting Arabic's distinctive relationship to the languages of this group.
The extinct Ugaritic language is the earliest witness to Northwest Semitic. Phonologically, Ugaritic has lost the sound /dˤ/ (ḍ), replacing it with /sˤ/ (ṣ) (the same shift occurred in Akkadian). That this same sound became /ʕ/ in Aramaic (although in Ancient Aramaic, it was written with qoph), suggests that Ugaritic is not the parent language of the group. An example of this sound shift can be seen in the word for earth: Ugaritic /ʔarsˤ/ (’arṣ), Hebrew /ʔɛrɛsˤ/ (’ereṣ) and Aramaic /ʔarʕaː/ (’ar‘ā’). Ugaritic is also distinguished from the other Northwest Semitic languages in that it retains the word-initial /w/ where Canaanite and Aramaic languages replace it with /y/.
The Canaanite languages are best represented by Hebrew. They were originally spoken throughout the area that is covered by modern-day Israel, Palestine, Jordan, Lebanon, and the Sinai. The vowel shift from /aː/ to /oː/ distinguishes Canaanite from Ugaritic. Also, the series of Semitic interdental fricatives become sibilants: /ð/ (ḏ), /θ/ (ṯ) and /zˤ/ (ṱ) became /z/, /ʃ/ (š) and /sˤ/ (ṣ) respectively. The effect of this sound shift can be seen by comparing the following words:
|shift||Ugaritic||Aramaic||Biblical Hebrew||Modern Hebrew||translation|
|/ð/ (ḏ)→/z/||ḏhb||דהב /dəhab/ - [dəhav] (dəhaḇ)||זהב /zaːhaːb/ - [zaːhaːv] (zāhāḇ)||זהב /zaˈhav/||gold|
|/θ/ (ṯ)→/ʃ/ (š)||ṯlṯ||תלת /təlaːt/ - [təlaːθ] (təlāṯ)||שלש /ʃaːloːʃ/ (šālōš)||שלש/שלוש /ʃaˈloʃ/||three|
|/zˤ/ (ṱ)→/sˤ/ (ṣ)||ṱw||טור /tˤuːr/ (ṭûr)||צור /sˤuːr/ (ṣûr)||צור /tsur/||mountain|