By Irene Thompson | Updated August 2, 2017 by Irene Thompson
"Semitic languages constitute a the most populous branch of the Afro-Asiatic language family. They are spoken by more than 500 million people across the Middle East, North Africa, and the Horn of Africa. They are believed to have evolved from a hypothetical common ancestor called *Proto-Semitic whose place of origin is still disputed: Africa, Arabian Peninsula, and Mesopotamia are the most probable locations. The Semitic branch can be divided into East, West (or Central), and South (or Ethiopic) Semitic. The term “Semitic” is thought to have come from Shem, one of the three sons of Noah (Gen. x:21-30), regarded in biblical literature as the ancestor of the Semites.
Today, the Semitic branch includes 77 languages that are spoken by more than 500 million people across the Middle East, and North and East Africa. The most widely spoken Semitic language today is Arabic, followed by Amharic, Tigrinya, and Hebrew. The table below lists the most populous Semitic languages."
Languages spoken by the Semitic peoples (comp. Semites). These peoples are the North-Arabians, the South-Arabians, the Abyssinians (ancient and modern), the ancient Babylonians and Assyrians, the various Aramean tribes, the Hebrews and their kindred (the Moabites and Edomites), the Canaanites, and the Phenicians and their colonies.
Not Related to the Aryan Tongues.
Like the Aryan languages, the various dialects of the Semitic group are inflectional. Both in the Aryan and in the Semitic tongues the agglutinative stage of development has passed, and words (such as verb-stems and pronouns) originally placed in juxtaposition have been worn down and welded into inflectional forms. Here the analogy ends; and the differences between the two groups are so striking that it is probable that they belong to two independent families of languages, each developed in a different part of the world quite apart from the other, and each representing an independent evolution of human speech.
The most fundamental characteristic of the Semitic languages is the triliteral form of their roots. With the exception of some biliterals, each root consists of three letters, as "ḳtl." A few have been worn down through use; but most of the words still exhibit the triliteral character. These roots consist entirely of consonants, vowels being only secondary; the substantial meaning resides in the former. When vowels are added the word is inflected, as "ḳatala"="he killed," "ḳâtilun" "="one who kills," and "ḳutila"="he was killed." The Aryan roots are totally different, as "i"="go," "sthâ"= "stand," and "vid"="know." The Semitic languages contain a system of guttural and palatal letters, some of which ("alef," "'ayin," and "ghayin") have no parallels in Aryan, and are nearly impossible for Aryan vocal organs. Moreover, the Aryan languages have an elaborate system of tenses; the peoples which originated them were careful to express when an action occurred. The Semites possess but two so-called tenses, neither of which primarily denotes time, but which simply represent an action as complete or incomplete: while little attention is paid to the time of an action or state, the manner of its occurrence is expressly noted; i.e., whether it was done simply or intensively, whether it was done reflexively or was caused by another, whether it was complete or incomplete, etc. Semitic modes of indicating these ideas, such as the doubling of the middle radical (thus, "ḳattala") to express the intensive, the prefixing of "'a," "ha," or "sha" to represent the causative idea, and the prefixing of "na" or prefixing or inserting of "t" to express the reflexive, are absolutely foreign to the genius of the Aryan tongues. In expressing the dependence of one noun upon another in the genitive relation Semites modify the first noun, producing what is known as the construct state, while theAryans modify the second or dependent noun. In short, the whole method of conceiving and expressing thought is different in the two groups of languages.
Relation to the Hamitic Tongues.
With reference to the languages sometimes called Hamitic the case is quite different. Here a degree of kinship is demonstrable. The Hamitic tongues are the ancient Egyptian, Coptic, Tameshek, Kaby'e, Bedza, Galla, Somali, Saho, Belin, Chamir, and Dankali, or 'Afar. The kinship of this group to the Semitic is indicated by the following facts: (1) The oldest known representative of the group, Egyptian, possesses the peculiar gutturals "alef" "'ayin." (2) The roots of ancient Egyptian, like those of the Semitic languages, were criginally triliteral (comp. Erman in "Sitzungsberichte der Königlichen Akademie der Wissenschaften zu Berlin," 1900, p. 350); the same is probably true with regard to the primitive stock of the whole group. (3) The personal pronouns in the two groups are almost identical; and as pronouns are ordinarily the most individual of all the parts of speech, the similarities here are the more significant. (4) In both the Hamitic and the Semitic groups intensive stems are formed by doubling the second radical (comp. Erman, l.c. p. 321; F. Müller, "Grundriss der Sprachwissenschaft," iii., section ii., pp. 268 et seq.). (5) Both groups form reflexive or passive verb-stems by prefixing or infixing the letter "t." (6) In both groups a causative stem is formed by prefixing "s" or "sh," which in some of the Semitic dialects is thinned to "ha" and even to "'a." (7) Five of the numerals, viz., two, six, seven, eight, and nine, are expressed by the same roots in the two groups (comp. Barton, "Sketch of Semitic Origins," p. 9, note 2). (8) The two groups have also the same endings to denote the two genders: masculine, "u" or "w"; feminine, "t."
It can not, therefore, be doubted that the two groups of languages sprang from the same stock. The Semitic languages betray their relationship one to another not only by similarity of articulation and grammatical foundation, but by identity of roots and word-forms; while the Hamitic languages reveal their kinship merely by a similarity in morphology and of the forms of their roots, less often in the material of the roots (comp. Müller, l.c. p. 225; Barton, l.c. p. 11).
Classification of the Semitic Languages.
The linguistic differences of the various Semitic tongues (described below) lead most scholars to divide them into two groups, the South-Semitic and the North-Semitic. Hommel ("Aufsätze und Abhandlungen," pp. 92 et seq.) proposed to divide them into East-Semitic and West-Semitic, the former consisting of Babylonian-Assyrian, and the latter including the other languages. The older and more generally accepted classification is, however, far more satisfactory, as it groups the languages much more in accordance with their similarities and differences. These groups are subdivided as follows:
South-Semitic Languages North-Arabic dialects.
North-Semitic Languages Babylonian-Assyrian.
Canaanitish dialects (including Phenician and Hebrew).
The probability has been demonstrated in recent years that the Hamito-Semitic stock was a part of the Mediterranean race, that its primitive home was in North Africa, and that the Semites migrated to central Arabia, where in their sheltered existence their special linguistic characteristics were developed (comp. Semites, Critical View; Barton, l.c. ch. i.). The linguistic differences between the northern and southern Semites make it probable that the ancestors of the northern group migrated at an early time to the northeastern part of Arabia, whence they found their way in successive waves to the Mesopotamian valley and thence to the Syro-Palestinian coast. The following is a tentative genealogical chart of the ancestry of the Semitic languages:
The known dialects of these languages are as follows:
Known Dialects of Semitic.
(1) North-Arabic Dialects: Old classical Arabic; North-Arabic inscriptions (various dialects); the Safaïtic inscriptions; modern Arabic (embracing many dialects, as Syrian Arabic, Egyptian Arabic, Tunisian Arabic, Algerian Arabic, Maltese Arabic, 'Omani Arabic, etc; often each separate village has a dialect of its own).
(2) South-Arabic Dialects: Minæan and Sabean inscriptions; modern South-Arabic dialects (as Mehri and Socotri).
(3) Abyssinian Dialects: Old Ethiopic inscriptions; Ethiopic (Ge'ez); and the modern dialects Tigre, Tigriña, Amharic, Hararī, and Gurāgē.
(1) Babylonian-Assyrian (including inscriptions from c. 4000 B.C. to c. 250 B.C.).
(2) Canaanitish Dialects: Canaanitish glosses in the El-Amarna tablets; Hebrew (including Biblical Hebrew and post-Biblical Hebrew); Moabitish (Moabite Stone); Phenician (including Punic).
(3) Aramaic Dialects: West-Aramaic, including: inscriptions of Zenjirli; Jewish Aramaic (embracing Biblical Aramaic, Jewish Palestinian Aramaic [Targ. Onḳ. and Targ. Jonathan], Galilean Aramaic [Jerusalem Talmud, Jerusalem Targumim, and Midrashim]); Christian Palestinian Aramaic (a version of the Gospels), closely related to the Galilean Aramaic; Samaritan; Palmyrene inscriptions; Nabatæan inscriptions; modern dialect of Ma'lula in the Lebanon. East-Aramaic, including: Babylonian Aramaic (dockets to cuneiform tablets and the Babylonian Talmud); Mandæan; Syrian (Edessan); Syriac inscriptions from north-central Syria (comp. Littmann, "Semitic Inscriptions"); modern dialects spoken at Tur 'Abdin and in Kurdistan, Assyria, and Urumia."
"The oldest Aramaic known is found in dockets to Babylonian tablets, inscriptions on weights, and the much longer inscriptions from Zenjirli of the eighth and seventh centuries B.C. This language, though undoubtedly Aramaic, approximates much more closely to Canaanitish than does the later Aramaic. During the Persian period Aramaic was the official language of the western provinces. Some inscriptions of this period—one as early as Xerxes—and several tattered papyri in Aramaic are known, all of which exhibit much the same form of the language, though differing from that of Zenjirli. Aramaic as spoken by the Jews is known in several dialects as noted above. Of these, the Biblical Aramaic has been much influenced by Hebrew. The other Palestinian dialects closely resemble the Biblical Aramaic, but exhibit a later form of it. In them the causative in "ha" instead of "'a," and the formation of the passive by means of internal vowel-changes have disappeared (comp. Aramaic Language).
Samaritan, Nabatæan, and Palmyrene.
The Samaritans translated their sacred books into Aramaic, writing it in a script peculiar to themselves but developed out of the old Hebrew character. Their dialect of Aramaic is closely related to the other Palestinian dialects, though perhaps they softened the gutturals a little more. They have often arbitrarily introduced into their sacred books Hebrew forms from the original. This has led some wrongly to suppose that Samaritan is a mixture of Hebrew and Aramaic. Aramaic is the language also of the inscriptions of the Nabatæan kingdom, which flourished for two or three centuries with its capital at Petra, until overthrown by Trajan in 105 C.E. It is thought by Nöldeke that the Nabatæans were Arabs who used Aramaic simply as a literary language. At Palmyra Aramaic inscriptions are found dating from a time shortly prior to the beginning of the Christian era down to the third century. The dialect of the Palmyrene inscriptions, while in most respects resembling closely West-Aramaic, has some features, such as the plural in א, in common with East-Aramaic.
Modern knowledge of the dialect of north-central Syria is confined to the Syriac inscriptions collected by Littmann ("Semitic Inscriptions," pp. 1-56). These offer but little grammatical material. While they exhibit some dialectical differences, the formation of the third person imperfect with "n" links the dialect with East-Aramaic.
Edessan or Syriac.
Syriac is the language of the Christian versions of the Bible made from the second century onward, and of a large Christian literature. Through this literature it became widely influential even in parts where it had not been previously known. It was called Syriac because the name "Aramaic," which belonged to the old inhabitants of the country,had come to the Christians to mean "heathen." In the eastern part of the Roman empire it was, next to Greek, the most important language until the Arabian conquest. Its characteristics, such as the imperfect in "n," and the emphatic state in "a" from which all trace of its use as a definite article had disappeared, were clearly marked from the beginning.
Babylonian and Mandæan Dialects.
The Babylonian Talmud (Gemara) is written in Babylonian Aramaic; but, as there is a constant mingling of Hebrew and Aramaic passages, the Aramaic is not pure. Closely akin to this is the dialect of the Mandæans, a peculiar sect, half Christian, half heathen, whose members lived probably in a different part of Babylonia. Mandæan is, therefore, slightly purer, because not subject to Hebrew influence. These dialects employ an imperfect either in "n" or in "l." They were displaced by the Arabian conquest, though possibly the Mandæans still speak among themselves a descendant of their old language.
In the region of ancient Assyria, Kurdistan, and Urumia dialects of Aramaic are still spoken by many Christians and by some Jews. American missionaries have developed the dialect spoken in Urumia into a new literary language. These modern dialects present many changes from the older usage, especially in verbal forms."
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