Semitic languages

The Semitic languages are a family of languages spoken by more than 250 million people across much of the Middle East, where they originated, and North and East Africa. They constitute the northeastern subfamily of the Afro-Asiatic languages, and the only family of this group spoken in Asia.

The most widely spoken Semitic language today is Arabic by far, followed by Amharic, Hebrew, and Tigrinya. 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.



Cuneiform script
Cuneiform script

Since Semitic is a member of Afro-Asiatic, a principally African family, the first speakers of proto-Semitic are generally believed to have arrived in the Middle East from Africa, although this question is still much debated. Within recorded history, the spread of Semitic languages has consisted largely of a series of migrations from Arabia, overwhelming the populations of more fertile areas. When records begin in the third millennium BC, the Semitic-speaking Akkadians and Amorites were entering Mesopotamia from the deserts to the south, and were probably already present in places such as Ebla in Syria. By the end of the millennium, East Semitic languages dominated in Mesopotamia, while West Semitic languages were probably spoken from Syria to Yemen, although data is sparse. Akkadian became 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 following millennium, somewhat more data is available, thanks to the spread of an invention first used to capture the sounds of Semitic languages - the alphabet. In this millennium, brief Proto-Canaanite texts yield the first undisputed attestations of a West Semitic language, soon followed by the much more extensive Ugaritic tablets of northern Syria. Akkadian continued to flourish, splitting into Babylonian and Assyrian dialects, despite the incursions of nomadic Aramaeans from the Syrian desert.

Missing image
9th century Syriac manuscript

In the first 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 and developing a substantial literature. Meanwhile, speakers of Semitic languages from Yemen spread south into Ethiopia, where their language would develop into Ge'ez, still the liturgical language there.

Missing image

With the emergence of Islam, the ascendancy 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 Morocco to Pakistan. 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 tongue for Arabic and as Bedouin tribes settled in conquered areas, it became the language not only of central Arabia, but also of Yemen, the Fertile Crescent, and Egypt. Most of the Maghreb 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 Solomonid 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; this spread continues to this day, with Kemant 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, was revived in the 20th century owing to the ideology of Zionism, and has become the main language of Israel, while remaining the liturgical language of Jews worldwide. Descendants of Aramaic continue to be spoken by small minorities in the mountains of northern Iraq, eastern Turkey, northwestern Iran, and Syria, while an older descendant of 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 in Ethiopia, and Tigrigna in Eritrea, and are the most widely spoken. Both are official languages of their respective countries, while Ge'ez remains the liturgical language for Christians there. A number of Gurage languages are to be found in the mountainous center of Ethiopia, while Harari is restricted to the city of Harar; Tigre, spoken in the Eritrean highlands, has over a million speakers.


The Semitic languages vary substantially in many aspects of their grammar. The original Verb Subject Object word order has given way in most languages to typologically commoner orders, sometimes, as in Ethiopia, under influence from other languages, while the proto-Semitic case system, fully preserved in classical Arabic, Akkadian, and Ugaritic, has disappeared everywhere. In the extreme case of Neo-Aramaic, even the verb conjugations have been entirely reworked under Iranian influence. The curious phenomenon of broken plurals, found most profusely in the languages of Arabia and northern Ethiopia, may be partly of proto-Semitic origin, but has been very substantially elaborated from its simpler origins in languages such as Arabic. Nonetheless, one typologically unusual feature is preserved almost everywhere: all Semitic languages exhibit a pattern of stems consisting of consonantal roots (usually consisting of 3 consonants), from which words are formed by imposing vowel changes, prefixes, suffixes, or infixes. For instance, in Hebrew:

gdl means "big" but is not a part of speech and not a word, just a root
gadol means "big" and is a masculine adjective
gdola means "big" (feminine adjective)
giddel means "he raised" (transitive verb)
gadal means "he grew" (intransitive verb)
higdil means "he magnified" (transitive verb)
magdelet means "magnifier" (lens)
spr is the root for "count" or "recount"
sefer means "book" (containing tales which are recounted)
sofer means "scribe" (Masoretic scribes counted verses)
mispar means "number".

Other Afro-Asiatic languages show similar patterns, but more usually with biconsonantal roots; e.g. in Kabyle afeg means "fly!", while affug means "flight", and yufeg means "he flew".

Common vocabulary

Main article: List of Proto-Semitic roots.

Due to the Semitic languages' common origin, they share many words and roots in common. For example:

Akkadian Aramaic Arabic Hebrew English translation
zikaru dikrā ḏakar zḵr Male
maliku malkā malik mĕlĕḵ King
imru ḥamarā ḥimār ḥămōr Donkey
erṣetu ʔarʿā ʔarḍ ʔĕrĕṣ Land

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; the original meaning in both languages was most probably "food".

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.


The classification given below is probably the most widespread - following Robert Hetzron - but is still disputed; in particular, several Semitists 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.

The Eastern Semitic Languages

Controversial (either East Semitic or Northwest Semitic): Eblaite language -- extinct

The Central Semitic languages

Northwest Semitic languages

South Central (Arabic) languages

The South Semitic languages

Western (within South Semitic)

Eastern (within South Semitic)

See Also

External links

da:Semitiske sprog de:Semitische Sprachen fr:Langues smitiques he:שפות שמיות nl:Semitische talen nds:Semitsche Spraken ja:セム語派 pl:Języki semickie pt:Lnguas semticas sk:Semitsk jazyky sl:Semitski jeziki fi:Seemiliset kielet sv:Semitiska sprk


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