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Afroasiatic languages

The Semitic Languages

The Semitic languages are believed to have evolved from a hypothetical parent tongue, proto-Semitic. The place of origin of proto-Semitic is still disputed: Africa, Arabia, and Mesopotamia are the most probable locations. The Semitic subfamily may be divided into East, West (or Central), and South (or Ethiopic) Semitic. The best-known representive of the extinct East Semitic division is Akkadian, also called Assyro-Babylonian.

A distinctive feature of the Semitic languages is the triliteral or triconsonantal root, composed of three consonants separated by vowels. The basic meaning of a word is expressed by the consonants, and different shades of this basic meaning are indicated by vowel changes. The plural can be formed either by adding a suffix to the singular or by an internal vowel change, as in Arabic kitab, "book," and kutub, "books." Two genders, masculine and feminine, are found in Semitic languages. The feminine is often indicated by the suffixes -t or -at. The Semitic verb is distinguished by its ability to form from the same root a number of derived stems that express new meanings based on the fundamental sense, such as passive, reflexive, causative, and intensive.

West Semitic Division

The principal subdivisions of the West Semitic group are Canaanite, Aramaic (which embraced many dialects in the course of its long history, including Syriac), Arabic, and the unrelated Old and Modern South Arabian.

The term Canaanite is derived from Canaan, the name for the ancient region that comprised Palestine, Phoenicia, and part of Syria. Included among the Canaanite languages are Phoenician, Moabite, Ugaritic, and Hebrew. Phoenician, a dead language, was the tongue of the Phoenician people. The earliest inscriptions in Phoenician that can be deciphered are dated c.10th cent. B.C. The language is also preserved in inscriptions from ancient Phoenician colonies, especially Carthage, whose language was a variant of Phoenician known as Punic. The existence of Moabite is known from a single inscription in that language dating from about the 9th cent. B.C., from proper names that occur in the Old Testament, and from the inscriptions of other peoples. The Ugaritic language was first encountered in 1929 at Ras Shamra, Syria, a village where ancient clay tablets with writing in this tongue were found. Since Ras Shamra, which flourished before the 12th cent. B.C., was called Ugarit in antiquity, the language discovered there was named after that ancient city. The Ugaritic language has variously been regarded as an early form of Hebrew, an early form of Phoenician, an early dialect of Canaanite, and an independent dialect of West Semitic. The writings in Ugaritic are important in the study of the Hebrew language and biblical literature of the early period.

Both classical Arabic and the modern Arabic dialects, as well as the ancient and modern South Arabian languages are also classified as West Semitic tongues. (Some linguists classify the South Arabian languages with Ethiopic in the South Semitic group.) About 5,000 stone inscriptions in Old South Arabian (or Himyaritic) have found in what is now Yemen. Ancient South Arabian had two principal dialects, Sabaean and Minaean. Sabaean inscriptions also have been discovered in parts of Ethiopia. The earliest Minaean inscriptions belong to the 8th cent. B.C. or even earlier; the Sabaean inscriptions are of a later date. The Modern South Arabian dialects spoken today in parts of S Arabia are classified separately from both modern Arabic and Old South Arabian.

South Semitic Division

To the South Semitic group belong the Semitic languages of Ethiopia, such as classical Ethiopic or Geez, Tigre, Tigrinya, Amharic, and Harari. A Semitic language (or languages) was brought from S Arabia to Ethiopia during the first millennium B.C. At that time the indigenous languages of Ethiopia were Cushitic, and these languages strongly influenced the imported Semitic tongues. The Semitic languages of Ethiopia are classified as North Ethiopic (to which classical Ethiopic, Tigre, and Tigrinya belong) and South Ethiopic (consisting of Amharic, Harari, Gurage, and others).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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