Learn more about Semitic languages
|Middle East, North Africa, and East Africa|
The Semitic languages are a family of languages spoken by more than 200 million people across much of the Middle East, North Africa and East Africa. They constitute the northeastern subfamily of the Afro-Asiatic languages, and the only branch of this group spoken in Asia.
The most widely spoken Semitic language today is Arabic<ref>Arabic is considered one language for socio-political/religious reasons. Thus, "Arabic" comprises several languages. However, even when considering these sub-varieties of Arabic, one would still have to consider at least one of these varieties to be the most widely spoken Semitic language (e.g. Egyptian spoken Arabic has over 46 million speakers).</ref> (206 million speakers), followed by Amharic (27 million speakers), Hebrew (7 million speakers), and Tigrinya (6.75 million speakers). Semitic languages were among the earliest to attain a written form, with Akkadian writing beginning in the middle of the third millennium BC. The term "Semitic" for these languages, after Shem son of Noah, is etymologically a misnomer in some ways (see Semitic), but is nonetheless standard.
The Semitic family is a member of the larger Afro-Asiatic family, all the other five or more branches of which are based in Africa. Largely for this reason, the ancestors of Proto-Semitic speakers are now widely believed to have first arrived in the Middle East from Africa around the late Neolithic , although other linguists argue that, instead, Proto-Afro-Asiatic originated in the Middle East, and Semitic was the only branch to stay put.
In any event, Proto-Semitic itself is assumed to have reached the Arabian Peninsula by approximately the 4th millennium BC, from which Semitic daughter languages continued to spread outwards. When written records began in the mid 3rd millennium BC, the Semitic-speaking Akkadians and Amorites were entering Mesopotamia from the deserts to the west, and were probably already present in places such as Ebla in Syria.
 2nd millennium BC
By the beginning of the 2nd millennium BC, East Semitic languages dominated in Mesopotamia, while West Semitic languages were probably spoken from Syria to Yemen, although Old South Arabian is considered by most to be South Semitic and data are sparse. Akkadian had become the dominant literary language of the Fertile Crescent, using the cuneiform script they adapted from the Sumerians, while the sparsely attested Eblaite disappeared with the city, and Amorite is attested only from proper names.
For the 2nd millennium, somewhat more data are available, thanks to the spread of an invention first used to capture the sounds of Semitic languages — the alphabet. Proto-Canaanite texts from around 1500 BC yield the first undisputed attestations of a West Semitic language (although earlier testimonies are possibly preserved in Middle Bronze Age alphabets), followed by the much more extensive Ugaritic tablets of northern Syria from around 1300 BC. Incursions of nomadic Aramaeans from the Syrian desert begin around this time. Akkadian continued to flourish, splitting into Babylonian and Assyrian dialects.
 1st millennium BC
In the 1st millennium BC, the alphabet spread much further, giving us a picture not just of Canaanite but also of Aramaic, and Old South Arabian. During this period, the case system, still vigorous in Ugaritic, seems to have started decaying in Northwest Semitic. Phoenician colonies spread their Canaanite language throughout much of the Mediterranean, while its close relative Hebrew became the vehicle of a religious literature, the Torah and Tanakh, that would have global ramifications. However, as an ironic result of the Assyrian Empire's conquests, Aramaic became the lingua franca of the Fertile Crescent, gradually pushing Akkadian, Hebrew, Phoenician, and several other languages to extinction (although Hebrew remained in use as a liturgical language), and developing a substantial literature. Meanwhile, Ge'ez texts beginning in this era, give the first direct record of Ethiopian Semitic languages.
 Common Era
With the emergence of Islam, the ascent of Aramaic was dealt a fatal blow by the Arab conquests, which made another Semitic language — Arabic — the official language of an empire stretching from Spain to Central Asia. With the patronage of the caliphs and the prestige of its liturgical status, it rapidly became one of the world's main literary languages. Its spread among the masses took much longer; however, as natives abandoned their tongues for Arabic and as Bedouin tribes settled in conquered areas, it became the main language of not only central Arabia, but also Yemen,<ref>Nebes, Norbert, "Epigraphic South Arabian," in von Uhlig, Siegbert, Encyclopaedia Aethiopica (Wiesbaden:Harrassowitz Verlag, 2005), pps.335.</ref> the Fertile Crescent, and Egypt. Most of the Maghreb (Northwest Africa) followed, particularly in the wake of the Banu Hilal's incursion in the 11th century, and Arabic became the native language even of many inhabitants of Spain. After the collapse of the Nubian kingdom of Dongola in the 14th century, Arabic began to spread south of Egypt; soon after, the Beni Hassan brought Arabization to Mauritania. The spread of Arabic continues even today in Sudan and Chad, both by peaceful sociolinguistic processes, and by wars such as the Darfur conflict.
Meanwhile, Semitic languages were diversifying in Ethiopia and Eritrea, where, under heavy Cushitic influence, they split into a number of languages, including Amharic and Tigrinya. With the expansion of Ethiopia under the Solomonic dynasty, Amharic, previously a minor local language, spread throughout much of the country, replacing languages both Semitic (such as Gafat) and non-Semitic (such as Weyto), and replacing Ge'ez as the principal literary language (though Ge'ez remains the liturgical language for Christians in the region); this spread continues to this day, with Qemant set to disappear in another generation.
 Present situation
Arabic is spoken natively by majorities from Mauritania to Oman, and from Iraq to the Sudan; as the language of the Qur'an and as a lingua franca, it is widely studied in much of the Muslim world as well. Its spoken form is divided into a number of dialects, some not mutually comprehensible, united by a single written form. Maltese, genetically a descendant of Arabic, is the principal exception, having adopted a Latin orthography in accordance with its cultural situation.
Despite the ascendancy of Arabic in the Middle East, other Semitic languages are still to be found there. Hebrew, long extinct outside of Jewish liturgical purposes, was revived at the end of the 19th century by the Jewish linguist Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, owing to the ideology of Zionism, and has become the main language of Israel, while remaining the liturgical language of Jews worldwide. Several small ethnic groups, especially the Assyrians, continue to speak Aramaic in the mountains of northern Iraq, eastern Turkey, northwestern Iran, and Syria, while a descendant of Old Aramaic, Syriac, is used liturgically by many Iraqi Christians. In Yemen and Oman, a few tribes continue to speak "Modern South Arabian" languages such as Soqotri, very different both from Arabic and from the languages of the Old South Arabian inscriptions.
Ethiopia and Eritrea contain a substantial number of Semitic languages, of which Amharic and Tigrinya in Ethiopia, and Tigre and Tigrinya in Eritrea, are the most widely spoken. Both Amharic and Tigrinya are official languages of Ethiopia and Eritrea, respectively, while Tigre, spoken in the northern Eritrean and central lowlands, as well as parts of eastern Sudan, has over one million speakers. A number of Gurage languages are to be found in the mountainous center-south of Ethiopia, while Harari is restricted to the city of Harar. Ge'ez remains the liturgical language for Christians in Ethiopia and Eritrea.
The Semitic languages share a number of grammatical features, although variation has naturally occurred - even within the same language as it evolved through time, such as Arabic from the 6th century AD to the present.
 Word order
The reconstructed default word order in Proto-Semitic is Verb Subject Object (VSO), possessed — possessor (NG), and noun — adjective (NA). In Classical and Modern Standard Arabic, this is still the dominant order: ra'ā muħammadun farīdan. (Muhammad saw Farid.) However, VSO has given way in most modern Semitic languages to typologically more common orders (e.g. SVO); in many modern Arabic dialects, for example, the classical order VSO has given way to SVO, and the same happened in Hebrew (due to Europeanisation). Modern Ethiopian Semitic languages are SOV, possessor — possessed, and adjective — noun, probably due to Cushitic influence; however, the oldest attested Ethiopian Semitic language, Geez, was VSO, possessed — possessor, and noun — adjective.
 Cases in nouns and adjectives
The proto-Semitic three-case system (nominative, accusative and genitive) with differing vowel endings (-u, -a -i), fully preserved in Qur'anic Arabic (see i`rab), Akkadian, and Ugaritic, has disappeared everywhere in the many colloquial forms of Semitic languages, although Modern Standard Arabic maintains such case endings (somewhat artificially) in literary and broadcasting contexts. An accusative ending -n is preserved in Ethiopian Semitic. Additionally, Semitic nouns and adjectives had a category of state, the indefinite state being expressed by nunation.
 Number in nouns
Semitic languages originally had three grammatical numbers: singular, dual, and plural. The dual continues to be used in contemporary dialects of Arabic, as in the name for the nation of Bahrain (baħr "sea" + -ayn "two"), and sporadically in Hebrew (šana means "one year", šnatayim means "two years", and šanim means "years"). The curious phenomenon of broken plurals - e.g. in Arabic, sadd "one dam" vs. sudūd "dams" - found most profusely in the languages of Arabia and Ethiopia, may be partly of proto-Semitic origin, and partly elaborated from simpler origins.
 Verb aspect and tense
The aspect systems of West and East Semitic differ substantially; Akkadian preserves a number of features generally attributed to Afro-Asiatic, such as gemination indicating the imperfect, while a stative form, still maintained in Akkadian, became a new perfect in West Semitic. Proto-West Semitic maintained two main verb aspects: perfect for completed action (with pronominal suffixes) and imperfect for uncompleted action (with pronominal prefixes and suffixes). In the extreme case of Neo-Aramaic, however, even the verb conjugations have been entirely reworked under Iranian influence.
 Morphology: triliteral roots
All Semitic languages exhibit a unique pattern of stems consisting of "triliteral" or consonantal roots (normally consisting of three consonants), from which nouns, adjectives, and verbs are formed by inserting vowels with, potentially, prefixes, suffixes, or infixes.
For instance, the root K-T-B, "write", yields in Arabic:
- kataba كتب means "he wrote"
- kutiba كتب means "it was written" masculine
- kutibat كتبت means "it was written" feminine
- kitāb كتاب means "book"
- kutub كتب means "books"
- kutayyib كتيب means "booklet" dimunitive
- kitāba كتابة means "writing"
- kātib كاتب means "writer" masculine
- kātiba كاتبة means "writer" feminine
- kuttāb كتاب means "writers"
- kataba كتبة means "writers"
- maktab مكتب means "desk"
- maktaba مكتبة means "library"
- maktūb مكتوب means "written"
and in Hebrew (where it appears as K-T-V):
- kataḇti means "I wrote"
- kataḇta means "you (m) wrote"
- kataḇt means "you (f) wrote"
- kataḇ means "he wrote" or "reporter" (m)
- katḇa means "she wrote"
- kataḇnu means "we wrote"
- kataḇtem means "you (m or n) wrote"
- kataḇten means "you (f) wrote"
- katḇu means "they wrote"
- kateḇet means "reporter" (f)
- kataḇa means "article" (plural katavot)
- miḵtaḇ means "postal letter" (plural miḵtavim)
- miḵtaḇa means "writing desk" (plural miḵtavot)
- ktoḇet means "address" (plural ktovot)
- ktaḇ means "handwriting"
- katuḇ means "written" (f ktuva)
- hiḵtiḇ means "he dictated" (f hiḵtiva)
- hitkateḇ means "he corresponded (f hitkatva)
- niḵtaḇ means "it was written" (m)
- niḵteḇa means "it was written" (f)
This root survives in Amharic only in the noun kitab, meaning "amulet", and the verb "to vaccinate". Ethiopic-derived languages use a completely different root (ṣ-ḥ-f) for the verb "to write" (this root exists in Arabic and is used to form words with close meaning to "writing", such as ṣaḥāfa "journalism", and ṣaḥīfa "newspaper" or "parchment").
Some such roots are found throughout most Semitic languages, while others are more restricted in their distribution.
Verbs in other Afro-Asiatic languages show similar radical patterns, but more usually with biconsonantal roots; e.g. Kabyle afeg means "fly!", while affug means "flight", and yufeg means "he flew" (compare with Hebrew uf, te'ufah and af).
 Common vocabulary
- Main article: List of Proto-Semitic stems.
Due to the Semitic languages' common origin, they share many words and roots in common. For example:
Sometimes certain roots differ in meaning from one Semitic language to another. For example, the root b-y-ḍ in Arabic has the meaning of "white" as well as "egg", whereas in Hebrew it only means "egg". The root l-b-n means "milk" in Arabic, but the color "white" in Hebrew. The root l-ḥ-m means "meat" in Arabic but "bread" in Hebrew and "cow" in Ethiosemitic languages; the original meaning was most probably "food". The word medina has the meaning of "city" in Arabic, and "metropolis" in Amharic, but in Hebrew it means "state".
Of course, there is sometimes no relation between the roots. For example, "knowledge" is represented in Hebrew by the root y-d-ʿ but in Arabic by the roots ʿ-r-f and ʿ-l-m and in Ethiosemitic by the root ʿ-w-q.
The classification given below, based on shared innovations - established by Robert Hetzron in 1976 with later emendations by John Huehnergard and Rodgers as summarized in Hetzron 1997 - is the most widely accepted today, but is still disputed. In particular, several Semiticists still argue for the traditional view of Arabic as part of South Semitic, and a few (e.g. Alexander Militarev) see the South Arabian languages as a third branch of Semitic alongside East and West Semitic, rather than as a subgroup of South Semitic. At a lower level, there is still no general agreement on where to draw the line between "languages" and "dialects" - an issue particularly relevant in Arabic, Aramaic, and Gurage below - and the strong mutual influences between Arabic dialects render a genetic subclassification of them particularly difficult. It is widely recognised in Ethiopia that Amharic inherited its basic vocabulary directly from Giiz, in which case it belongs in Ethiopic rather than North Ethiopic.
The traditional grouping of the Semitic languages (prior to the 1970s), based partly on non-linguistic data, differs in several respects; in particular, Arabic was put in South Semitic, and Eblaite had not been discovered yet.
- Amorite language — extinct
- Ugaritic language — extinct
- Canaanite languages
- Ammonite language — extinct
- Moabite language — extinct
- Edomite language — extinct
- Hebrew languages
- Biblical Hebrew language — extinct
- Mishnaic Hebrew language — extinct
- Medieval Hebrew language — extinct
- Mizrahi Hebrew language — live descendants
- Sephardi Hebrew language — live descendants
- Ashkenazi Hebrew language — live descendants
- Samaritan Hebrew language — extinct
- Modern Hebrew — live descendants
- Phoenician language — extinct
- Punic — extinct
- Aramaic languages
- Western Aramaic languages
- Eastern Aramaic languages
- Biblical Aramaic language — extinct
- Hatran Aramaic language — extinct
- Syriac language — live descendants
- Jewish Middle Babylonian Aramaic language — extinct
- Chaldean Neo-Aramaic language — live descendants
- Assyrian Neo-Aramaic language — live descendants
- Senaya language — live descendants
- Koy Sanjaq Surat — live descendants
- Hertevin language — live descendants
- Turoyo language — live descendants
- Mlahso language — extinct
- Mandaic language — live descendants
- Judæo-Aramaic language — live descendants
 Arabic languages
- Arabic language
- Fusha (literally "eloquent"), the written language, divided by specialists into:
- Classical Arabic — the language of the Qur'an and early Islamic Arabic literature,
- Middle Arabic, a generic term for premodern post-classical efforts to write Classical Arabic, characterized by frequent hypercorrections and occasional lapses into more colloquial usage. Not a spoken language.
- Modern Standard Arabic — modern literary (non-native) language used in formal media and written communication throughout the Arab World, differing from Classical Arabic mainly in numerous neologisms for concepts not found in medieval times, as well as in occasional calques on idioms from Western languages.
- Numerous Modern Arabic spoken dialects, roughly divided by the Ethnologue into:
- Eastern Arabic dialects
- Arabian Peninsular dialects
- Bedouin/Bedawi Arabic dialects
- Central Asian dialects
- Egyptian Arabic — Cairo and Delta region
- Saidi Arabic — Upper Egypt
- Gulf dialects — includes speakers in Iran
- Levantine Arabic dialects
- Iraqi Arabic — includes speakers in Iran
- North Mesopotamian Arabic — Northern Iraq, Syria
- Judeo-Iraqi Arabic
- Sudanese Arabic
- Maghreb Arabic dialects
- Algerian Arabic
- Saharan Arabic
- Shuwa Arabic — Chad
- Hassaniya Arabic — Mauritania and Saharan area
- Libyan Arabic
- Judeo-Tripolitanian Arabic — Libyan dialect
- Andalusi Arabic Old Iberian Arabic — extinct
- Siculo-Arabic — Sicily - extinct
- Maltese language — separate language from, but ultimately derived from Arabic and member of the Arabic family of languages/dialects
- Moroccan Arabic
- Judeo-Moroccan Arabic
- Tunisian Arabic
- Judeo-Tunisian Arabic
- Eastern Arabic dialects
- Fusha (literally "eloquent"), the written language, divided by specialists into:
Several Jewish dialects, typically with a number of Hebrew loanwords, are grouped together with classical Arabic written in Hebrew script under the imprecise term Judeo-Arabic.
 Western South Semitic
- Old South Arabian languages — extinct, formerly believed to be the linguistic ancestors of modern South Arabian and Ethiopian Semitic languages (for which see below)
- Ethiopic languages (Ethio-Semitic, Ethiopian Semitic):
- Harari-East Gurage
 Eastern South Semitic
- Bathari language
- Harsusi language
- Hobyot language
- Jibbali language (also called Shehri)
- Mehri language
- Soqotri language — on the island of Soqotra (Yemen)
 Living Semitic languages by number of speakers
- Arabic — 206,000,000
- Amharic — 27,000,000
- Hebrew — 7,500,000
- Tigrinya — 6,750,000
- Silt'e – 830,000
- Tigre — 800,000
- Neo-Aramaic — 605,000
- Sebat Bet Gurage — 440,000
- Maltese — 410,000
- Syriac — 400,000
- South Arabian languages — 360,000
- Inor – 280,000
- Soddo — 250,000
- Harari-21 283
 See also
- Patrick R. Bennett. Comparative Semitic Linguistics: A Manual. Eisenbrauns 1998. ISBN 1-57506-021-3.
- Robert Hetzron (ed.) The Semitic Languages. Routledge: London 1997. ISBN 0-415-05767-1. (For family tree, see p. 7).
- Edward Lipinski. Semitic Languages: Outlines of a Comparative Grammar. 2nd ed., Orientalia Lovanensia Analecta: Leuven 2001. ISBN 90-429-0815-7
- Sabatino Moscati. An introduction to the comparative grammar of the Semitic languages: phonology and morphology. Harrassowitz: Wiesbaden 1969.
- William Wright & William Robertson Smith. Lectures on the comparative grammar of the Semitic languages. Cambridge University Press 1890. [2002 edition: ISBN 1-931956-12-X]
 External links
- Chart of the Semitic Family Tree American Heritage Dictionary (4th ed.)
- Semitic genealogical tree (as well as the Afro-Asiatic one), presented by Alexander Militarev at his talk “Genealogical classification of Afro-Asiatic languages according to the latest data” (at the conference on the 70th anniversary of V.M. Illich-Svitych, Moscow, 2004; short annotations of the talks given there(Russian))
- "Semitic" in SIL's Ethnologuear:سامية
br:Yezhoù semitek bs:Semitski jezici ca:Llengua semítica cs:Semitské jazyky da:Semitiske sprog de:Semitische Sprachen eo:Semida lingvaro es:Lenguas semíticas fi:Seemiläiset kielet fr:Langue sémitique he:שפות שמיות hu:Afroázsiai nyelvcsalád id:Bahasa Semitik it:Lingue semitiche ja:セム語派 kw:Yethow Semitek ku:Şemî nds:Semitsche Spraken nl:Semitische talen no:Semittiske språk oc:lenga semiticas pl:Języki semickie pt:Línguas semíticas ru:Семитские языки sk:Semitské jazyky sl:Semitski jeziki sv:Semitiska språk ta:செமிடிக் மொழிகள் uk:Семітські мови zh:闪语族