Semitic languages

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SEMITIC LANGUAGES , the name given by A.L. Schloezer in 1781 to the language family to which Hebrew belongs because the languages then reckoned among this family (except Canaanite) were spoken by peoples included in Genesis 10:21–29 among the sons of Shem.

1. Wider Background

The Semitic family forms part of a wider grouping generally called Hamito-Semitic, but lately also known as Afroasiatic or Afrasian. This includes with certainty:

(a) Ancient Egyptian and its descendant, Coptic; (b) the Cushitic languages, comprising a large number of mostly little-explored languages spoken in the northeast corner of Africa, the most important ones being Beja (on the Red Sea coast), Galla (in Ethiopia), and Somali;

(c) Berber, with numerous dialects, spread from the Siwa Oasis in Egypt to Morocco, and southward into the Sahara (Tuareg). Less well established is the status within this family of the Chadic languages of West Africa, the chief of which is Hausa, and of the Central-Saharan group. Genetic relationship has often been claimed between the Semitic languages and the Indo-European family (to which English belongs as one of the Teutonic languages, as well as Latin and its descendants, Greek, Slavonic, Iranian, Sanskrit, Hittite, etc.). Though such a connection is intrinsically probable, no definite proof has been provided.

2. The Semitic Family

About 70 distinct forms of Semitic are known, ranging from important languages with large literatures to language forms used over a limited territory and either entirely unwritten or possessing but few preserved documents. It was usual, until a short time ago, to group all these into five great branches: Canaanite, Aramaic, Akkadian, Arabic, and Ethiopic, each with an important literary language at its center, and the other forms treated as dialects. This division can no longer be maintained because of the discovery of languages that do not fit into any of those branches, and the rise of doubts with regard to the genetic justification of the assumption of such branches as Canaanite, Aramaic, or Arabic. It is, however, still convenient to describe the languages and dialects roughly in the order of the above branches.

3a. Northwest Semitic

This is the grouping to which Hebrew belongs. Starting from the north, there is Ugaritic, on the seacoast in the northwest corner of Syria, documented in the 14th–13th centuries b.c.e. by poetry, mainly epic, and by administrative lists and letters. While quite distinct from Hebrew as a language, it closely resembles Hebrew in its poetical style, and its study has thrown much light on certain aspects of Hebrew literature. South of Ugaritic, along the coast as far as Haifa and even beyond, was the area of Phoenician. The oldest inscriptions have been variously dated to the 17th, 12th, or even ninth century b.c.e. In the Phoenician homeland, inscriptions appear down to the first century b.c.e. Inscriptions in this language are also known from Cyprus, from Cilicia (the inscription of Azatiwada of the eighth (?) century is the longest Phoenician inscription known), and from various places in the Mediterranean as far west as Spain, from Marseille, from Pyrgoi in Italy, etc. In Carthage, a Phoenician colony, the language developed a distinct form, called Punic, and in its latest stage, documented down to the first centuries c.e., Neo-Punic. In Punic there exists the only continuous text which shows what Phoenician sounded like, namely the Punic passages in Latin script inserted in the play Poenulus by Plautus (254–184). From these it is also learned that at least second-century Phoenician was more different from Hebrew than can be guessed from the unvocalized Semitic script of the inscriptions.

The earliest attestation of the language of Phoenicia, however, is not in documents written in that language, but is obtained through the mistakes made by scribes in that area in the Babylonian cuneiform text of the Tell el-Amarna *Letters (14th–13th centuries b.c.e.), as well as in a small number of local words used to gloss certain Babylonian words in those letters. These so-called Canaanisms show clearly that already at that time a language was spoken in the area which had typical features of later Phoenician. However, the senders of the Tell el-Amarna Letters were not only local rulers in what later became Phoenicia, but also in the inland of Syria and further south in Palestine. The Canaanisms in letters from all those areas are so similar that a single language was used in that entire region. That there should have been no marked differences of language in such a large, geographically broken-up and politically disunited area is rather strange, and in fact there is evidence of at least one difference, in the development of the sibilants, between Jerusalem and the areas further north, which appears in place names. Therefore the question may be asked whether the Canaanisms in the Tell el-Amarna Letters do not represent a common literary language rather than the actual spoken local forms. This problem, still unsolved, is of great importance to the history of Hebrew, in view of the large-scale Canaanite element in that language. The evidence, however, speaks in any case for the assumption that a language very close to Hebrew was spoken in Palestine in the period preceding the Israelite conquest. Unfortunately there exists no later literary document in the language of the non-Israelite Semitic population of Palestine. All views about the relation between Canaanite and Hebrew are based on extrapolations from what is known of Phoenician and of pre-Israelite Canaanite. Apart from the Tell el-Amarna Letters, there are two other sources of information about the Semitic languages spoken in Palestine. One source is the Semitic loanwords in Ancient Egyptian and the few words in Egyptian texts put into the mouths of Semites. This material is unmistakably Northwest Semitic, but cannot be further defined with any certainty, and there are many items the semantic identification of which is doubtful. Part of it is written in the so-called syllabic hieroglyphic spelling, and according to the reading of this system by W.F. Albright, the Semitic words show u in places where Semitic ā is represented in Canaanite by ō. The other source is a number of inscriptions in an early form of alphabetic writing, which has not yet been satisfactorily deciphered, and some in legible Canaanite script, of which a few may be non-Israelite.

To the south of Canaan a number of inscriptions have been found in the Sinai Peninsula, some superimposed upon datable Egyptian objects. The whole series is variously dated by scholars between 1900 and 1500 b.c.e. Their Semitic character has not been doubted, but the attempts at decipherment have not produced enough agreement even to identify their language with assurance as Northwest Semitic.

Proceeding inland, east of the coastal languages described, from south to north, there is in southern Transjordan evidence of three ancient peoples: the Edomites, the Ammonites, and the Moabites. The few Ammonite and Edomite inscriptions found are insufficient to allow conclusions as to the exact character of those languages. As for Edomite, quite a few scholars have sought evidence concerning the Edomite language in the deviations of the Book of Job from normal biblical Hebrew, some drawing the conclusion that it was a form of Arabic, others, especially N.H. Tur-Sinai, that it was Aramaic. King Mesha of Moab set up a lengthy inscription, of which now two copies are known. Unless the view of Segert is accepted that the inscription is in Hebrew, written by an Israelite, it must be concluded that eighth-century Moabite was very similar to biblical Hebrew, at least as far as its consonantal skeleton was concerned. A plaster text found at Tell Deir Alla (biblical Succoth?) revealed an unknown Northwest Semitic dialect, though some consider the language of the text to be Aramaic.

The linguistic situation in inland Syria is complicated. At Mari and in Mesopotamia, one finds in the second quarter of the second millennium large numbers of personal names of a Northwest Semitic character, and at Mari also a few common nouns apparently belonging to the same language. Historically, these names are connected with the nomad people called Amurrū. Although the bearers of these names ruled Mari and Babylonia, they did not, as far as is known, produce any documents in their own language, but used Akkadian, and the proper names are practically all there is to go on in reconstructing the language they spoke; it shows connections with Ugaritic and Canaanite. It is still a moot point whether the Emōrī mentioned in the Bible were Amurrū. Also the connection between the Amurrū and the central Syrian state of Amurru is not clear. Because of the position of the Amorites as a link between Mesopotamia and Syria and Palestine, it is possible – but cannot be proved at present – that the Amorite language had considerable influence upon the rest of Northwest Semitic.

At Zenjirli, in northern Syria, there are, for a short period in the eighth century b.c.e., inscriptions in the local language of a region called Sham'al or Ya'udi. This so-called Samalian stands about halfway between Phoenician and Aramaic. The existence of such an intermediate dialect is of importance for determining the origins of the most widely developed branch of Northwest Semitic, Aramaic. It is widely believed, following the researches of Moscati and Mazar, that Aramaic, used from the early ninth century onward in inscriptions from northern Syria to Damascus, did not come as a separate language with the Aramaic tribes from outside Syria, but rather spread from the region of Damascus as a result of the unification of large parts of Syria under the tenth-century kingdom of Damascus. The presence of certain "Aramaic" phonetic features in the Hebrew of the 11th-century Song of Deborah shows that Northern Hebrew shared these features with the Damascus dialect. As a result of political events, dialects in middle and northern Syria, which originally may have resembled Amorite and/or Ya'udic, became Aramaicized. (For the later fortunes of this language, see *Aramaic.) The great importance of the Aramaic language group for the study of Hebrew is due

(a) to its being the best-preserved member of the Northwest Semitic branch,

(b) to its persistent influence on Hebrew at almost all the stages of the latter's development, and

(c) to the existence of several specific Jewish-Aramaic dialects at various times, beginning with biblical Aramaic and ending with today's colloquials from Iraqi, Turkish, and Iranian Kurdistan.

3b. East Semitic

This is represented by the various branches of the Akkadian language and by Eblaitic. The former is divided into Old Akkadian (c. 2500–1950 b.c.e.), Babylonian (which also was used as a literary language in Assyria), and Assyrian. Akkadian was written in a script that expressed syllables, and hence also indicated the vowels, but on the other hand seems to have been in several respects phonetically imperfect, owing to its having been adapted originally from a non-Semitic language, Sumerian. Documents were written mainly with a stylus on clay tablets (cuneiform), and are thus practically imperishable. The huge number of private letters, contracts, public documents, and literary texts preserved makes Akkadian one of the principal sources for ancient Semitic. Various forms of Akkadian served in the second millennium b.c.e. for purposes of official correspondence in Syria and Palestine. The outstanding case of this is the Tell el-Amarna Letters. This use of Akkadian bears witness to what must have been extensive cultural influence. In its wake, hundreds of Akkadian words entered the Hebrew language, and this number was further increased during the political contacts in the ninth to sixth centuries and once more through indirect loans via Aramaic. It appears that by a gradual process, between the eighth and the sixth centuries, Akkadian died out as a spoken language, and was in its homeland replaced by Aramaic. Its written use, however, continued on a smaller scale after 539, and Akkadian documents so far discovered can be dated as late as 75 c.e. Eblaitic is the language of the Syrian city of Ebla and is attested from the 24th–23rd centuries b.c.e. It too is written in cuneiform, though many features of the language are obscured by the orthography and thus its classification is difficult. Some have argued that it is an early dialect of Akkadian.

3c. South Semitic

The earliest attestation of South Semitic speech are a number of names borne by leaders of the Aribi tribes whom Assurbanipal and Sennacherib fought in the Syrian Desert and in northern Arabia. Their language seems to have belonged to a group of dialects now called Proto-Arabic or Ancient North Arabian. The chief one is Thamudic, attested along the northern and southern edge of Arabia as well as in Transjordan. Others are Dedanite and Liḥyānic in biblical Midian, and Ṣafaitic in an area east of Damascus. The numerous inscriptions consist mainly of names, but give enough information about the language to show that it is related to Arabic. The time of these inscriptions extends from c. 500 b.c.e. to 500 c.e. The Nabatean inscriptions in Transjordan, southern Palestine, and Sinai (c. 150 b.c.e.–300 c.e.), and the Palmyrene inscriptions in the Syrian Desert (first–third centuries c.e.), though in Aramaic, were put up by speakers of Arabic dialects, and provide further information about the earlier history of that language. Later Arab philologists have preserved some data on dialects spoken in the peninsula closer to the seventh century, and there are also a few inscriptions. It is probable that Classical Arabic was formed as an intertribal lingua franca before 500 c.e. It is first attested by a fairly large number of poems of the sixth century and by the Koran in the early seventh century. Owing to the Muslim conquests, Arabic became the vehicle of a far-flung and lively culture, with uninterrupted literary use until the present day. From the beginning, much Arabic was written by people who did not speak it, and through the efforts of grammarians and schools it has maintained its grammar and syntax, and much of its vocabulary, almost unchanged. Since the Muslims conquered the entire territory occupied by Semitic languages in Asia, the speakers of such languages gradually gave up their own speech in favor of Arabic, and only small islands of Aramaic and of South Arabian persisted. On the other hand, Arabic absorbed many words from those languages.

A short time after the conquests there is evidence that spoken Arabic differed profoundly from the written form; in part it seems to have continued pre-Classical dialects. In the Middle Ages Christians and Jews often wrote an Arabic that showed influence of the spoken forms. Except for Maltese, no spoken Arabic colloquial achieved official status as a written language, but there was some popular literature in various dialects, and of course many have been recorded and described by mainly western linguists.

At the southern end of Arabia an entirely different group of languages exists. It is attested since about the middle of the first millennium b.c.e. by inscriptions in a number of Ancient South Arabian languages: Sabean, Minean, Ḥaḍramautic, etc. Minean inscriptions have also been found in biblical Midian, probably set up by a trading colony. Owing to the absence of vowels and the rigid style of the texts, these languages are only partly recoverable; but what is known shows some interesting similarities with Northwest Semitic. Ancient South Arabian speech died out probably before 1000 c.e.; inscriptions were set up until just prior to the Islamic period. What is probably a distinct branch of the same language group, spoken in an area outside that in which Ancient South Arabian culture flourished, is at present represented by Mahri (Mehri), Shaḥari (Shkhauri), Harsusi, and Botahari, spoken at the southern tip of the Sultanate of Muscat and Oman, and by Soqotri, spoken on the island of Socotra in the Indian Ocean. These very archaic and, for the comparative study of Semitic, highly interesting languages, are only rather sketchily recorded, mainly by a mission of Austrian scholars in the late 19th century. Eritrea and the adjoining Ethiopian region of Tigre, with its capital Aksum, appear to have been colonized by South Arabians. At first, in the beginning of the Christian Era, Sabean was used on monuments, but by the third century c.e. there are texts written in the local language, Ge'ez (Ethiopic), first in South Arabian characters, then in a special script, which in the fourth century was provided with regular vowel markings by adding short strokes or circles and other alterations in the shape of letters. Until the tenth century, Ge'ez literature consists entirely of translations of Christian religious texts; after the 12th century, when Ge'ez was no longer spoken, it served also for original writing. The present spoken languages of Semitic stock in Ethiopia are undoubtedly related to Ge'ez. Tigrinya, the language of Eritrea, and Tigre in northern Ethiopia and the Sudan, seem to be direct descendants of Ge'ez, while the exact connection with the southern group, consisting of Amharic, Gafat, Argobba, Harari, and Gurage, the latter a cluster of rather divergent dialects, is not clear. Amharic, written since the 14th century, is now the rapidly developing official language of Ethiopia.

4. The Divisions of Semitic

The most widely accepted view is that the first division which Semitic underwent, probably before 3000 b.c.e., was between East Semitic (Akkadian) and all the rest. At a later date, but before 2000 b.c.e., West Semitic divided into a northern and a southern branch. Northwest Semitic then divided into Canaanite and Aramaic; Southwest Semitic into Arabic and South Arabian plus Ethiopic. The units mentioned again broke up into the languages actually attested. Another version of this view associates the theory of the "family tree" with successive "waves" emerging from the original home of the Semites, by most assumed to have been the Arabian Peninsula: first the Akkadians, then the Canaanites, Aramaeans, Ethiopians, and finally the Arabs. The picture here presented has been questioned since the discovery of Ugaritic, Amorite, and Deir Alla, which do not fully fit into the accepted division of Northwest Semitic, and since the realization that Arabia could hardly have supported sufficient population for such large waves of emigration before the domestication of the camel not long before 1000 b.c.e. No alternative theory has yet been generally accepted, either with reference to the original homeland of the Semites – or of the Semitic language family – or to account for its subdivisions. Some scholars have questioned the existence of either a proto-Canaanite or a proto-Aramaic, and suggested that Northwest Semitic was in 2000 b.c.e. still undifferentiated, and the closer similarity of some languages to each other might be due to later influences of one upon the other. Recently many scholars have preferred a classification that divides West Semitic into a South Semitic branch that includes South Arabian and Ethiopian, and a Central Semitic branch consisting of Arabic and the Northwest Semitic languages.

5. Proto-Semitic


Proto-Semitic probably had the sounds indicated in the following table.

Ordinary plosives:pbtdkg
Emphatic sounds:q
Other consonants:lrwy

Recent studies have reconstructed ṭ, ṣ, and q as originally glottalic or ejective; s, ś, and sh as ts, ḻ, and s respectively; and as ˀ.

remarks on grammar

Proto-Semitic nouns had at least three cases: nominative ending in -u, genitive in -i, and an adverbial accusative case in -a. The feminine nouns ended mainly in -t, but there were other suffixes. There was no definite article. The plural of nouns seems to have been expressed in a number of different ways. There was also a dual.

The most remarkable feature of the verb in Semitic and Hamitic is the possibility of varying the meaning of the verbal root by prefixes: sh, and perhaps also ʾ, to express causation (to make someone else do the action); t and n (also infixed t after the first root letter) for passive and reflexive. The middle or the last root letter could also be doubled or repeated, or part of the root repeated, to express various modifications, such as repetition or an elusive quality called emphasis. Internal vowel changes in the stem expressed intransitivity and the passive voice.

There were three tenses, fully preserved only in Akkadian: the perfect yaqtul, the imperfect yaqattil, and a form to express state rather than action, qatil or qatala. The first two were conjugated by a combination of prefixes and suffixes, the last by suffixes only. Moods and certain other variations were indicated by adding vowels or n to the first two tenses. These tenses were only partly for the expression of time; it is thought that their main function was aspect: yaqtul expressed an action that takes place once and was accomplished, while yaqattil indicated that an action goes on for some time. This aspect function is still clearly seen in the biblical Hebrew perfect and imperfect tenses.

The outstanding peculiarity in syntax is the nominal sentence, which corresponds roughly to English sentences containing "is" (though its use is much wider), but contains no words for "is." These sentences are timeless, and it seems that Proto-Semitic did not yet possess the possibility to express the perfect and imperfect moods by a verb meaning "to be", since the verbs for this purpose differ in the various languages. A special type of nominal clause enables the Semitic languages to take any element out of an ordinary verbal or nominal sentence and to place it in front of the sentence, making it the subject, and the rest of the sentence (with a pronoun to represent the word taken out) the predicate. For example, the sentence "The way of God is in storm" is transformed into "God (is) his way is in storm" (cf. Nahum 1:3).

All Semitic languages make use of the same root in different functions within the same sentence, mainly to express emphasis, such as "a killer killed" (= someone killed), "he killed a killing", "she pancaked pancakes" (ii Sam. 13:6), "the boy (was) a boy" (i Sam. 1:24).

6. Relation of Hebrew to Other Semitic Languages

If the changes from the Proto-Semitic situation are taken as an index of the genetic relationship between languages it will be found that Hebrew shares important developments with different languages. Thus it shares with Phoenician, considered with Moabite to be closest to Hebrew, the development of original ā to ō. It appears that Phoenician, like Hebrew, lengthened short vowels under certain circumstances; it pronounced the lengthened a as ō, and in this agrees with the Ashkenazi and Yemenite, but not the Sephardi pronunciation of Hebrew. The changes of dh to z, th to sh, ẓ and ḍ to ṣ are common to Hebrew, Moabite, Phoenician, and Akkadian, while those of gh to ʿ and kh to ḥ appear in Hebrew, Moabite, Phoenician, and Aramaic only. Hebrew agrees with Aramaic in changing ś to s (probably late), while Phoenician and Akkadian changed it into sh, as did Ugaritic. Ugaritic changed ḍ to ṣ, but not ẓ. The only sound change that Ugaritic is known to have shared only with Phoenician, Moabite, and Hebrew, is that of initial w into y. Though the earlier development of the sounds of Aramaic was rather different from the Hebrew, Hebrew underwent two important changes which it shares with later Aramaic:

(a) the ordinary plosives p, b, t, d, k, g came to be pronounced as fricatives f, v, th, dh, kh, gh when preceded by a vowel, unless they were doubled;

(b) short vowels in unstressed open syllables (unless lengthened) were reduced to an indeterminate vowel ě (šěwa mobile). This (as also the further reduction, called šěwa medium) continues to turn plosives positioned after it into fricatives. Hebrew, Phoenician, and Aramaic lost at an early stage the ability to pronounce short vowels at the end of a word, and through this gave up the cases of nouns; in Arabic the same change occurred only after 600 c.e.

It should be noted that Ugaritic was almost as close to Proto-Semitic in its sound system as were Ancient South Arabian and Classical Arabic, and therefore quite unlike Hebrew. Neither did it resemble Hebrew closely in its grammar. The main feature common to Ugaritic, Phoenician, and biblical Hebrew was the -m ending for the masculine plural, as opposed to -n in Moabite, Aramaic, and Arabic, but also in mishnaic Hebrew. However, Ugaritic, like Tell el-Amarna Canaanite, still distinguished a nominative -ūma from genitive and accusative -īma, while Phoenician and Hebrew have -īm only. Hebrew early elided the t of the feminine ending at(u), Phoenician only very late, Arabic first in the end of the sentence, and after 600 c.e. throughout (the t remains in the construct state). With Phoenician, Moabite, and Ancient North Arabian, Hebrew shares the article ha-; with Phoenician, Aramaic, and Classical Arabic the ha- or - before the demonstrative pronoun (Heb. ha-zeh).

Biblical Hebrew and Moabite stand alone in preserving the old perfect form yaqtul when preceded by wa- ("and"), while at the same time using the old stative form, qatal, as a perfect when not preceded by "and" (i.e., at the beginning of an utterance, or in the middle of a sentence). Phoenician, Ya'udic, Old Aramaic, and perhaps Ancient North Arabian abandoned the old perfect yaqtul altogether much earlier than Hebrew, which did so only during the Second Temple period. Classical Arabic still has some remnants of perfect yaqtul. Ancient South Arabian has very rare cases of perfective wa-yaqtul, Ehiopic only perfective qatala. Ugaritic poetry usually employs perfective yaqtul, but the administrative prose only perfective qatala. Hebrew thus was more conservative than neighboring languages in carrying out a change characteristic of the whole of West Semitic.

Characteristic of Tell el-Amarna Canaanite, Hebrew, Moabite, and Phoenician (where it is only attested late) is the ending - of the first person singular of the perfect (elsewhere -tu). The first person singular pronoun 'nk (Heb. ānōkhī), as opposed to 'n (Heb. ǎ;nī), also in Akkadian, Ugaritic, Phoenician, Moabite, and Ya'udic, is an ancient form, found also in Egyptian, Somali (aniga), and Berber. It ended in -i also in Tell el-Amarna Canaanite and in Phoenician.

The Hebrew hāyāh ("to be"), from hwy, is also found in Aramaic, Ya'udic, rarely in Akkadian, and according to an ancient lexicon possibly also in Ugaritic, while the ordinary verb for "to be" in Ugaritic is kwn, as in Phoenician, Arabic, South Arabian, and Ethiopic. The use of yesh ("there is"), from 'yth, is paralleled by Ugaritic, Aramaic, and Akkadian; in Arabic only in the negative. The Hebrew negative ēyn ("there is not") is found in Ugaritic, Late Phoenician, Moabite, and Babylonian. Phoenician and Akkadian have sh- as relative pronoun and mark of the genitive; this is found in very early Hebrew (the time of the Judges), in the Hebrew of the Second Temple period, and in mishnaic Hebrew. It is not clear what the relation is between this and the Classical Hebrew ǎsher in the same sense. The Hebrew accusative sign et is also found in Moabite, Phoenician ('yt), Ya'udic (wt), and early Aramaic (yāt).

A survey of the first 100 Phoenician (not Punic) words in the dictionary shows that 82% have the same meaning in Hebrew. A comparison with Ugaritic on the basis of the basic word list of Morris Swadesh shows 79% with the same meaning as in Hebrew. Comparisons with other languages according to the same list indicate the following percentages of correspondence with Hebrew: 66% for Syriac, 53% for Akkadian, 50% for Arabic, and 47% for Ge'ez (Ethiopic). Calculation of these results according to Swadesh's lexicostatisical method suggests that these differences reflect not only the difference in the date at which these words were recorded, but also different degrees of relationship, corresponding to the accepted "family tree" grouping of the Semitic languages (cf. para. 4). The following examples will give some idea of the forms the same word takes in different Semitic and Hamaitic languages.

(1) "Water": Heb. mayim, Ug. mym, Syr. mayyē, Old Akk. , Ar. mā'un, Eth. māy, Egyptian mw, Somali māh, Berber aman (pl.), Chadic am, yam.

(2) "Name": Heb. shēm, Phoen. shm, Ug. shm, Syr. shmā, Akk. shumu, Ar. ismun, Ge'ez sěm, Beja sim, Hausa sūnā.

(3) "Three": Heb. shālōsh (fem.), Late Punic salus, Ug. thlth, Syr. tlāth, Ar. thalāthun, Ge'ez shalās.

(4) "Fingernail, claw": Heb. ṣippōren, Syr. ṭephrā, Akk. ṣupru, Ar. ẓufrun, Soqotri ṭifer, Ge'ez ṣêfêr, Cushitic (Agau) ch'iffer, Berber (Tuareg) atfer.

7. The Origin of Hebrew

The thoroughly "Hebraic" character of Tell el-Amarna Canaanite, as far as it can be discerned from the glosses (cf. para. 3a), demands an answer to the question how the Israelites, who came from outside the country, arrived at speaking a language so closely similar to that which had been spoken in Palestine before the conquest. Since the outstanding similarities (ō for ā,-tī in the first person perfect, ānōkhī ("I") with ī) are restricted to a well-defined and comparatively small area, it is impossible to claim that they would have appeared already in the speech the patriarchs brought from their home in Mesopotamia. It is generally assumed that the Israelites, either in the patriarchal period or after the conquest, adopted the Canaanite speech. Hans Bauer, G.R. Driver, H. Birkeland, and other scholars, however, saw in Hebrew traces of an admixture of the former language spoken by the Israelites. This Mischsprache ("mixed language") theory has been employed to account for certain inconsistencies and doublets in Biblical Hebrew grammar and vocabulary, e.g., for the fact that ā did not always become ō, and for the coexistence of wa-yaqtul and qātal to express the perfect (and wē-qātal and yiqtol for the imperfect).


semitic and hamito-semitic: T.A. Sebeok (ed.), Current Trends in Linguistics, 6 (1970), 237–527; A. Meillet and M. Cohen (eds.), Les langues du monde (21952), 82–181; I.M. Diakonoff, Semito-Hamitic Languages (1965); M. Cohen, Essai comparatif sur le… Chamito-Sémitique (1947); H. Fleisch, Introduction à l'étude des langues sémitiques (1947); G. Bergstraesser, Einfuehrung in die semitischen Sprachen (1928); W. Wright, Lectures on the Comparative Grammar of the Semitic Languages (1890); C. Brockelmann, Grundriss der vergleichenden Grammatik der semitischen Sprachen, 2 vols. (1908–13); S. Moscati (ed.), An Introduction to the Comparative Grammar of the Semitic Languages (1964); H.L. Ginsberg, in: World History of the Jewish People, ed. by Mazar, 2 (1970), 102–24; D. Cohen, Dictionnaire des racines sémitiques (1970- ); E. Lipiński, Semitic Languages: Outline of a Comparative Grammar (1997); R. Hetzron (ed.), The Semitic Languages (1997); A. Dolgopolsky, From Proto-Semitic to Hebrew: Phonology (1999); B. Kienast, Historische Semitische Sprachwissenschaft (2001); M. Krebernik, "The Linguistic Classification of Eblaite," in: The Study of the Ancient Near East in the 21stCentury (1996). grammars and dictionaries of semitic languages (except Aramaic and Hebrew): C.H. Gordon, Ugaritic Textbook (1965); J. Huehnergard, Ugaritic Vocabulary in Syllabic Transcription (1987); D. Sivan, A Grammar of the Ugaritic Language (1997); J. Tropper, Ugaritische Grammatik (2000); Z.S. Harris, A Grammar of the Phoenician Language (1936); J. Friedrich, Phoenizisch-Punische Grammatik (19993); A.v.d. Branden, Grammaire phénicienne (1969); Z.S. Harris, Development of the Canaanite Dialects (1939); W.R. Garr, Dialect Geography of Syria-Palestine, 1000586 b.c.e. (1985); A.F. Rainey, Canaanite in the Amarna Tablets (1996); G. Garbini, Il Semitico di nord-ovest (1960); J. Hoftijzer-K. Jongeling, Dictionary of the North-West Semitic Inscriptions (1995); C.R. Krahmalkov, Phoenician-Punic Dictionary (2000); idem, A Phoenician-Punic Grammar (2001); M. Sznycer, Les passages puniques… dans le "Poenulus" de Plaute (1967); S. Segert, in: Archiv Orientální, 29 (1961), 197–267; W.F. Albright, The Proto-Sinaitic Inscriptions and Their Decipherment (19692), H.B. Huffmon, Amorite Personal Names in the Mari Texts (1965); G. Buccellati, The Amorites of the Ur iii Period (1966); I.J. Gelb, Computer-Aided Analysis of Amorite (1980); F. Groendahl, Die Personennamender Texte aus Ugarit (1967); W.v. Soden, Grundriss der Akkadischen Grammatik (19953); idem, Akkadisches Handwoerterbuch (1958ff.); Chicago Assyrian Dictionary (1956ff.); A. v. d. Branden, Les inscriptions thamoudéennes (1950); W. Caskel, Lihyan und Lihyanisch (1954); C. Rabin, Ancient West-Arabian (1951); eis s.v.Arabiyya; J. Fueck, Arabiya (1950, Fr. tr. 1955); S. Hopkins, Studies in the Grammar of Early Arabic (1984); A.F.L. Beeston, The Arabic Language To-Day (1970); W. Wright, A Grammar of the Arabic Language (1896–98); E.W. Lane, An Arabic-English Lexicon (1863–93); J.G. Hava, Arabic-English Dictionary for the Use of Students (1899); J. Blau, The Emergence and Linguistic Background of Judaeo-Arabic (19993); idem, A Grammar of Medieval Judaeo-Arabic (Heb., 1961); idem, A Grammar of Christian Arabic (1966–67); A.F.L. Beeston, A Descriptive Grammar of Epigraphic South Arabian (1962); idem et al., Sabaic Dictionary (1982); M. Hoefner, Altsuedarabische Grammatik (1943); K. Conti Rossini, Chrestomathia arabica meridionalis epigraphica (1931); J.C. Biella, Dictionary of Old South Arabic: Sabaean Dialect (1982); S.D. Ricks, Lexicon of Inscriptional Qatabanian (1989); A. Jahn, Grammatik der Mehri-Sprache (1905); idem, Die Mehri-Sprache in Suedarabien (1902); M. Bittner, Studien zur Shkhauri-Sprache, 4 vols. (1915–17); W. Leslau, Lexique soqotri (1938); B. Thomas, Four Strange Tongues from South Arabia (1937); T.M. Johnstone, Harsusi Lexicon (1977); idem, Jibbali Lexicon (1981); idem, Mehri Lexicon (1987); A. Dillmann, Ethiopic Grammar (1907); M.M. Chaine, Grammaire éthiopienne (1938); A. Dillmann, Lexicon Linguae aethiopicae (1865); W. Leslau, Comparative Dictionary of Geez (1987); idem, Ethiopic and South Arabic Contributions to the Hebrew Lexicon (1958); E. Ullendorff, The Semitic Languages of Ethiopia (1955); W. Leslau, Bibliography of the Semitic Languages of Ethiopia (1946). the origin of hebrew: H. Bauer and P. Leander, Historische Grammatik der hebraeischen Sprache, 1 (1922), 1–25; G. Bergstraesser, in: olz, 26 (1923), 253–60, 477–81; H. Bauer, Zur Frage der Sprachmischung im Hebraeischen: eine Erwiderung (1924); G.R. Driver, Problems of the Hebrew Verbal System (1936); H. Birkeland, Akzent und Vokalismus im Althebräeischen (1940).

[Chaim M. Rabin]

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A group of languages, previously categorized as the Semito-Hamitic family, that are now described as a branch of the Afro-Asiatic linguistic family.

Hebrew, Aramaic, Syriac, and Ugaritic are derived from the Northwest Semitic group; Arabic and the Ethiopic languages belong to the South Semitic branch. The character-defining feature of Semitic languages is the system of consonant roots. Most words are triliteral (three consonants separated by vowels), though bi- and quadriliterals are also common. Each root represents a distinct meaning; variations from that root are derived by set patterns of vocalization, less important consonants, and prefixes or suffixes. The root sense of the verb is modified to express intensification, causation, reciprocity, etc., by vowel changes or prefixes. All members of the family have two genders, masculine and feminine, and, with the exception of Ethiopic languages, the adjective follows the noun and agrees with it in gender. Nominal sentences are ordered subject-verb-object, while verbal sentences are verb-subject-object.


Campbell, George L. Compendium of the World's Languages, 2d edition. London and New York: Routledge, 2000.

Hetzron, Robert, ed. The Semitic Languages. New York: Routledge, 1998.

Levin, Saul. "Semitic and Indo European II." In Comparative Morphology, Syntax and Phonetics (Current Issues in Linguistic Theory, 226). Philadelphia: John Benjamins Publishing, 2002.

Shlonsky, Ur. Clause Structure and Word Order in Hebrew and Arabic: An Essay in Comparative Semitic Syntax. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.

david waldner

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Semitic languages Group of languages spoken by peoples native to n Africa and the Middle East and forming one of the five branches of the Afro-Asiatic language family. The Semitic languages divide into three sub-branches: North West Semitic (including Hebrew, Aramaic, and Eblaite); North East Semitic (consisting of Akkadian); and Central and Southern Semitic (including Arabic, South Arabian, and Ethiopic). Only Hebrew and Arabic survived to develop modern forms.

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Semitic languages, subfamily of the Afroasiatic family of languages. See Afroasiatic languages.