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Semitic languages

Semitic Geographic
distribution: Middle East, North Africa, Northeast Africaand MaltaGenetic
: Afro-Asiatic
 Semitic Subdivisions: East Semitic(extinct) West SemiticISO 639-2: sem
14th century BC diplomatic letter in Akkadian, found in Amarna.

The Semitic languages are a family of languages spoken by more than 300 million people across much of the Middle East, North Africa, and the Horn of Africa. They constitute the only branch of the Afro-Asiatic language family spoken in Asia.

The most widely spoken Semitic languages today are Arabic[1] (325 million native speakers),[2] followed by Amharic (27 million),[3][4] Tigrinya (about 6.7 million) [5], and Hebrew (about 5 million)[6].

Semitic languages were among the earliest to attain a written form, with Eblaite and Akkadian writing beginning in an adapted cuneiform script around the middle of the third millennium BC. Other scripts used for Semitic languages have included the Ugaritic, Phoenician, Aramaic, Syriac, Arabic, South Arabian, and Ge'ez alphabets. Maltese is the only Semitic language that uses the Latin alphabet.

The term "Semitic" for these languages, after Shem, the son of Noah in the Bible, is etymologically a misnomer in some ways (see Semitic), but is nonetheless standard.




Main article: Proto-Semitic
11th century manuscript of the Hebrew Bible with Targum Page from a 15th century Bible in Ge'ez (Ethiopia)

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, possibly as part of the operation of the Saharan pump, around the late Neolithic.[7][8] However, an opposing theory is that Proto-Afro-Asiatic originated in the Middle East, and Semitic was the only branch to stay put.[9]

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(E)

By the beginning of the 2nd millennium BC(E), 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(E) 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(E). 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(E)

9th century Syriac manuscript

In the 1st millennium BC(E), the alphabet spread much further, giving us a picture not just of Canaanite but also of Aramaic, Old South Arabian, and early Ge'ez. During this period, the case system, once 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 / A.D.

Page from a 12th century Qur'an in Arabic

Syriac, a descendent of Aramaic used in the northern Levant and Mesopotamia, rose to importance as a literary language of early Christianity in the 3rd to 5th centuries and continued into the early Islamic era.

With the emergence of Islam in the 7th century, 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 native populations outside the Arabian Peninsula gradually abandoned their mother tongues for Arabic and as Bedouin tribes settled in conquered areas, it became the main language of not only central Arabia, but also Yemen,[10] 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.

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 non-Arabic-speaking 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 the North African dialect 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 as a colloquial language and in use only in Jewish literary, intellectual, and liturgical activity, was revived at the end of the 19th century by the Jewish linguist Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, and has become the main language of Israel, while remaining the language of liturgy and religious scholarship of Jews worldwide.

Several small ethnic groups, especially the Assyrians, continue to speak Aramaic dialects (especially Neo-Aramaic, descended from Syriac) in the mountains of northern Iraq, eastern Turkey, northwestern Iran, and northeast Syria, while Syriac itself, a descendant of Old Aramaic, is used liturgically by Syrian and Iraqi Christians.

In Arabic-dominated Yemen and Oman, on the southern rim of the Arabian Peninsula, a few tribes continue to speak Modern South Arabian languages such as Mahri and Soqotri, very different both from the surrounding Arabic and from the (presumably related) languages of the Old South Arabian inscriptions.

Historically linked to the peninsular homeland of the South Arabian languages, 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. (lit. saw Muhammad Farid, 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 and Maltese (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, Ge'ez, was VSO, possessed–possessor, and noun–adjective[4].

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 in literary and broadcasting contexts. An accusative ending -n is preserved in Ethiopian Semitic.[11] 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"), and in Maltese (sena means "one year", sentejn means "two years", and snin 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, and still common in Maltese, 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 typically of "triliteral", or 3-consonant consonantal roots (2- and 4-consonant roots also exist), from which nouns, adjectives, and verbs are formed in various ways: e.g. by inserting vowels, doubling consonants, and/or adding prefixes, suffixes, or infixes.

For instance, the root k-t-b, (dealing with "writing" generally) yields in Arabic:

kataba كتب "he wrote" (masculine)
kutiba كتب "it was written" (masculine)
kutibat كتبت "it was written" (feminine)
kitāb- كتاب "book" (dash - here shows end of stem before various case endings)
kutub- كتب "books" (plural)
kutayyib- كتيب "booklet" (diminutive)
kitābat- كتابة "writing"
kātib- كاتب "writer" (masculine)
kātibat- كاتبة "writer" (feminine)
kuttāb- كتاب "writers"
katabat- كتبة "writers"
maktab- مكتب "desk" or "office"
maktabat- مكتبة "library" or "bookshop"
maktūb- مكتوب "written" (participle) or "postal letter" (noun)

and the same root in Hebrew (where it appears as k-t-ḇ):

kataḇti כתבתי "I wrote"
kataḇta כתבת "you (m) wrote"
kataḇ כתב "he wrote" or "reporter" (m)
katteḇet כתבת "reporter" (f)
kattaḇa כתבה "article" (plural katavot כתבות)
miḵtaḇ מכתב "postal letter" (plural miḵtaḇim מכתבים)
miḵtaḇa מכתבה "writing desk" (plural miḵtaḇot מכתבות)
ktoḇet כתובת "address" (plural ktoḇot כתובות)
ktaḇ כתב "handwriting"
katuḇ כתוב "written" (f ktuḇa כתובה)
hiḵtiḇ הכתיב "he dictated" (f hiḵtiḇa הכתיבה)
hitkatteḇ התכתב "he corresponded (f hitkatḇa התכתבה)
niḵtaḇ נכתב "it was written" (m)
niḵteḇa נכתבה "it was written" (f)
ktiḇ כתיב "spelling" (m)
taḵtiḇ תכתיב "prescript" (m)
meḵuttaḇ מכותב "a person on one's mailing list" (meḵutteḇet מכותבת f)
ktubba כתובה "ketubah (a Jewish marriage contract)" (f) (note: b here, not ḇ)

In Maltese, the consonantal roots are referred as the mamma of each word, which can be determined by reference to the masculine past tense of the applicable verb. In the case of the verb "to write", the masculine past tense would be kiteb (k-t-b), so that the following nouns and verbs can be formed, using the same mamma always in the same order, but inserting different vowels and, occasionally additional consonants:

jiena ktibt "I wrote"
inti ktibt "you wrote" (m or f)
huwa kiteb "he wrote"
hija kitbet "she wrote"
aħna ktibna "we wrote"
intkom ktibtu "you (pl) wrote
huma kitbu "they wrote"
huwa miktub "it is written"
kittieb "writer"
kittieba "writers"
ktieb "book"
kotba "books"

In Tigrinya and Amharic, this root survives 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").

Verbs in other non-Semitic 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:

English Proto-Semitic AkkadianMehriArabicHebrewSyriacGe'ezPhoenicianfather *ʼab- ḥa-yb ab- ʼab- ʼāḇ ʼab-ā ʼab ab- heart *lib(a)b- ḥa-wbēb libb- lubb- lēḇ(āḇ) lebb-o libb lib house bayt- beyt, bêt bītu, bētu bayt- báyiṯ, bêṯ beyt-o bet bet peace *šalām- səlōm šalām- salām- šālôm shlom-o salām salem tongue *lišān-/*lašān- əwšēn lišān- lisān- lāšôn leššān-o lissān lshen water *may-/*māy- ḥə-mō mû (root *mā-/*māy-) māʼ- máyim mayy-ā māy maym

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", just as in Maltese bajda means "white" (f. sing.) and also "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 (root: m-d-n) has the meaning of "city" in Arabic, and "metropolis" in Amharic, but in Modern 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 and f-l-ṭ.


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 or the German-Egyptian professor Arafa Hussein Mustafa [12]) 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.

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.

East Semitic languages

West Semitic languages

Central Semitic languages

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.

South Semitic languages

  • Old South Arabian languages — extinct, formerly believed to be the linguistic ancestors of modern South Arabian and Ethiopian Semitic languages (for which see below)

These languages are spoken mainly by tiny minority populations on the Arabian peninsula in Yemen and Oman.

Living Semitic languages by number of speakers

lang speakers Arabic325,000,000 Amharic27,000,000 Tigrinya6,700,000 Hebrew5,000,000[6]Syriac1,500,000 Silt'e830,000 Tigre800,000 Neo-Aramaic605,000 Sebat Bet Gurage440,000 Maltese410,000 South Arabian languages360,000 Inor280,000 Soddo250,000 Harari21,283


  1. ^ Including all varieties.
  2. ^ Ethnologue report for language code:arb
  3. ^ 1994 Ethiopian census
  4. ^ Amharic alphabet, pronunciation and language
  5. ^ In 2005, Ethnologue estimated a total of 4.45 million Tigrinya speakers ranging over all countries; 3.2 million in Ethiopia, 1.2 million in Eritrea, 10,000 Beta Israels in Israel (the remaining 15,000 are unaccounted for).[1] The Tigrinya ethnic group, almost entirely Tigrinya speaking[citation needed], is estimated at 3.3 million by Ethnologue, whereas other estimates indicate 4.3 million in Ethiopia (CSA 2005 National Statistics, Table B.3.), 2.4 million in Eritrea (July 2006).[2]
  6. ^ a b Gordon, Raymond G., Jr. (ed.), 2005. Ethnologue: Languages of the World, Fifteenth edition. Dallas, Tex.: SIL International. Online version: (Hebrew->Population total all countries, [3])
  7. ^ The Origins of Afroasiatic - Ehret et al. 306 (5702): 1680c - Science
  8. ^
  9. ^
  10. ^ Nebes, Norbert, "Epigraphic South Arabian," in von Uhlig, Siegbert, Encyclopaedia Aethiopica (Wiesbaden:Harrassowitz Verlag, 2005), pps.335.
  11. ^ Moscati, Sabatino (1958). "On Semitic Case-Endings". Journal of Near Eastern Studies 17 (2): 142-43.  "In the historically attested Semitic languages, the endings of the singular noun-flexions survive, as is well known, only partially: in Akkadian and Arabic and Ugaritic and, limited to the accusative, in Ethiopic.
  12. ^ [ ]

See also


  • Patrick R. Bennett. Comparative Semitic Linguistics: A Manual. Eisenbrauns 1998. ISBN 1-57506-021-3.
  • Gotthelf Bergsträsser, Introduction to the Semitic Languages: Text Specimens and Grammatical Sketches. Translated by Peter T. Daniels. Winona Lake, Ind. : Eisenbrauns 1995. ISBN 0-931464-10-2.
  • Giovanni Garbini. Le lingue semitiche: studi di storia linguistica. Istituto Orientale: Napoli 1984.
  • Giovanni Garbini & Olivier Durand. Introduzione alle lingue semitiche. Paideia: Brescia 1995.
  • 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.
  • Edward Ullendorff, The Semitic languages of Ethiopia: a comparative phonology. London, Taylor's (Foreign) Press 1955.
  • 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]
  • Arafa Hussein Mustafa. "Analytical study of phrases and sentences in epic texts of Ugarit." (German title: Untersuchungen zu Satztypen in den epischen Texten von Ugarit). PhD-Thesis. Martin-Luther-University Halle-Wittenberg, Germany: 1974.

External links

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Northwest Semitic2

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1 excluding Southern Sudan.    2 Aramaic and Hebrew. Categories: Afro-Asiatic languages | Semitic languagesHidden categories: All articles with unsourced statements | Articles with unsourced statements since March 2007 | Articles with unsourced statements since February 2007

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