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Semitic languages

Akkadian]], found in Amarna.

The Semitic languages are a group of related languages whose living representatives are spoken by more than 270 million people across much of the Middle East, North Africa and the Horn of Africa. They constitute a branch of the Afroasiatic language family. The most widely spoken Semitic languages today are Arabic[1] (206 million native speakers),[2] Amharic (27 million),[3][4] Hebrew (about 7 million)[5] Tigrinya (6.7 million),[6] and Aramaic (about 2.2 million).

Semitic languages are attested in written form from a very early date, with texts in Eblaite and Akkadian appearing from around the middle of the third millennium BC, written in a script adapted from Sumerian cuneiform. However, most scripts used to write Semitic languages are abjads a type of alphabetic script that omits some or all of the vowels, which is feasible for these languages because the consonants in the Semitic languages are the primary carriers of meaning. Among them are the Ugaritic, Phoenician, Aramaic, Hebrew, Syriac, Arabic, and South Arabian alphabets. The Ge'ez alphabet, used for writing the Semitic languages of Ethiopia and Eritrea, is technically an abugida a modified abjad in which vowels are notated using diacritic marks added to the consonants. Maltese is the only Semitic language written in the Latin script and the only official Semitic language of the European Union.

The Semitic languages are well known for their nonconcatenative morphology. That is, word roots are not themselves syllables or words, but instead are isolated sets of consonants (usually three, making a so-called triliteral root). Words are composed out of roots not so much by adding prefixes or suffixes, but rather by filling in the vowels between the root consonants (although prefixes and suffixes are often added as well). For example, in Arabic, the root meaning "write" has the form k t b. From this root, words are formed by filling in the vowels, e.g. kit b "book", kutub "books", k tib "writer", kutt b "writers", kataba "he wrote", yaktubu "he writes", etc.




11th century manuscript of the Hebrew Bible with Targum
11th century manuscript of the Hebrew Bible with Targum

Page from a 15th century Bible in Ge'ez (Ethiopia & Eritrea)
Page from a 15th century Bible in Ge'ez (Ethiopia & Eritrea)

The Semitic family is a member of the larger Afroasiatic family, all of whose other five or more branches are based in Africa. Largely for this reason, the ancestors of Proto-Semitic speakers are believed by many to have first arrived in the Middle East from North Africa, possibly as part of the operation of the Saharan pump, around the late Neolithic.[7][8] Diakonoff sees Semitic originating between the Nile Delta and Canaan as the northernmost branch of Afroasiatic. Blench even wonders whether the highly divergent Gurage indicate an origin in Ethiopia (with the rest of Ethiopic Semitic a later back migration). However, an opposing theory is that Afroasiatic originated in the Middle East, and that Semitic is the only branch to have stayed put; this view is supported by apparent Sumerian and Caucasian loanwords in the African branches of Afroasiatic.[9] A recent Bayesian analysis of alternative Semitic histories supports the latter possibility and identifies an origin of Semitic languages in the Levant around 3,750 BC with a single introduction from southern Arabia into Africa around 800 BC.[10]

In one interpretation, 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 late 4th millennium BC, the Semitic-speaking Akkadians were entering Mesopotamia from the deserts to the west, and were probably already present in places such as Ebla in Syria. Akkadian personal names began appearing in written record in Mesopotamia from the late 29th Century BC.[11]

2nd millennium BC

By the late 3rd millennium BC, East Semitic languages such as Akkadian and Eblaite dominated in Mesopotamia and north east Syria, while West Semitic languages such as Amorite, Canaanite and Ugaritic were probably spoken from Syria to the Arabian Peninsula, although Old South Arabian is considered by most to be South Semitic although data is sparse. The Akkadian language of Akkad, Assyria and Babylonia had become the dominant literary language of the Fertile Crescent, using the cuneiform script which was adapted from the Sumerians. The Middle Assyrian Empire facilitated the use of Akkadian as a 'lingua franca' in many regions outside its homeland. The related but more sparsely attested Eblaite disappeared with the city, and Amorite is attested only from proper names in Mesopotamian records.

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 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. Incursions of nomadic Semitic Aramaeans, and later still Chaldeans, from the Syrian desert begin around this time. Akkadian continued to flourish, splitting into Babylonian and Assyrian dialects.

1st millennium BC

9th century Syriac manuscript
9th century Syriac manuscript

In the 1st millennium BC, 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 (such as Carthage) 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 vast conquests, Aramaic became the lingua franca of the Fertile Crescent and much of the Near East, gradually pushing Akkadian, Hebrew, Phoenician-Canaanite, and several other languages to extinction, although Hebrew and Akkadian remained in use as liturgical languages, Hebrew in particular developing a substantial literature. Meanwhile, Ge'ez texts, imported from Arabia in the 8th Century BC, give the first direct record of Ethiopian Semitic.

Common Era (AD)

Page from a 12th century Qur'an in Arabic
Page from a 12th century Qur'an in Arabic

Syriac, a Mesopotamian descendant of Aramaic used in North Eastern Syria, Assyria (Assuristan) and Mesopotamia, rose to importance as a literary language of early Christianity in the 3rd to 5th centuries and continued into the early Arab Islamic era.

With the emergence of Islam in the 7th century, 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 Spain to Central Asia.

Approximate distribution of Semitic language around the 1st century A.D.
Approximate distribution of Semitic language around the 1st century A.D.
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 many (although not all) of the native populations outside the Arabian Peninsula only gradually abandoned their languages in favor of Arabic. As Bedouin tribes settled in conquered areas, it became the main language of not only central Arabia, but also Yemen,[12] 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 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 ass n 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 Qimant set to disappear in another generation.

Present situation

Map showing the distribution of Semitic (orange) and other Afro-Asiatic language speakers today
Map showing the distribution of Semitic (orange) and other Afro-Asiatic language speakers today
Arabic is the native language of 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 studied widely in the non-Arabic-speaking Muslim world as well. Its spoken form is divided into a number of varieties, some not mutually comprehensible, united by a single written form. The principal exception to this almost universal use of Arabic script is the Maltese language, genetically a descendant of the extinct Sicilian Arabic dialect. The Maltese alphabet is based on the Latin script with the addition of some letters with diacritic marks and digraphs. Maltese is the only Semitic official language within the European Union.

Despite the ascendancy of Arabic in the Middle East, other Semitic languages still exist. Hebrew, long extinct as a colloquial language and in use only in Jewish literary, intellectual, and liturgical activity, was revived in spoken form at the end of the 19th century by the Jewish linguist Eliezer Ben-Yehuda. It has become the main language of Israel, while remaining the language of liturgy and religious scholarship of Jews worldwide.

Several smaller ethnic groups, in particular the Christian Assyrians and Gnostic Mandeans, continue to speak and write Mesopotamian Aramaic dialects (especially Neo-Aramaic, descended from Syriac) in northern Iraq, south eastern Turkey, northwestern Iran, and northeast Syria and the Caucasus. These dialects still contain a number of Akkadian loan words. Syriac itself, a descendant of Mesopotamian Old Aramaic, is used liturgically by Lebanese (the Maronites), Syrian and Assyrian Christians throughout Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Iran and Turkey.

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. These languages differ greatly from both the surrounding Arabic dialects and from the (unrelated but previously thought to be related) languages of the Old South Arabian inscriptions.

Historically linked to the peninsular homeland of the Old South Arabian languages, Ethiopia and Eritrea contain a substantial number of Semitic languages; the most widely spoken are Amharic in Ethiopia, Tigre in Eritrea, and Tigrinya in both. Respectively, Amharic is the official language of Ethiopia. Tigrinya is a working language in Eritrea. Tigre is spoken by over one million people in the northern and central Eritrean lowlands and parts of eastern Sudan. A number of Gurage languages are spoken by populations in the semi-mountainous region of southwest Ethiopia, while Harari is restricted to the city of Harar. Ge'ez remains the liturgical language for certain groups of Christians in Ethiopia and in Eritrea.


The reconstruction of Proto-Semitic (PS) was originally based primarily on the Arabic language, whose phonology and morphology (particularly in Classical Arabic) is extremely conservative, and which preserves 28 out of the evident 29 consonantal phonemes.[13] Thus, the phonemic inventory of reconstructed Proto-Semitic is very similar to that of Arabic, with only one phoneme less in Arabic than in reconstructed Proto-Semitic. As such, Proto-Semitic is generally reconstructed as having the following phonemes (as usually transcribed in Semitology)[14]:


Proto-Semitic consonant phonemes
  Labial Inter-
Palatal Velar Pharyn-
Central Lateral
  • m
  • n
Stop voiceless
  • p
  • t
  • k
  • b
  • d
  • g
  • q

  • *s
  • h
  • z
  • r
  • l
  • y
  • w

The probable phonetic realization of most consonants is straightforward, and is indicated in the table with the IPA. Two subsets of consonants however call for further comment:


The sounds notated here as "emphatic" sounds occur in nearly all Semitic languages, as well as in most other Afroasiatic languages, and are generally reconstructed as glottalized in Proto-Semitic. [15] Thus, * for example represents . (See below for the fricatives/affricates).

In modern Semitic languages, emphatics are variously realized as pharyngealized (Arabic, Aramaic: e.g. ), glottalized (Ethiopian Semitic languages, Modern South Arabian languages: e.g. ), or as unaspirated (Turoyo of Tur-Abdin: e.g. );[16] Modern Hebrew and Maltese are exceptions to this general retention, with all emphatics merging into plain consonants under the influence of Indo-European languages (Italian/Sicilian in Maltese, German/Yiddish in Hebrew).

An emphatic labial occurs in some Semitic languages but it is unclear whether it was a phoneme in Proto-Semitic.

  • Hebrew developed an emphatic phoneme to represent unaspirated in Iranian and Greek.[17]
  • Ge'ez is unique among Semitic languages for contrasting all three of , , and . While and mostly occur in loanwords (especially Greek), there are many other occurrences where the origin is less clear (e.g. hep 'strike', h pp l 'wash clothes').[18]


The reconstruction of Proto-Semitic has nine fricative sounds that develop into sibilants at various points in later languages, although it is a matter of dispute whether all started as sibilants already in PS:

  • One voiced fricative, that eventually becomes, for example, both Hebrew and Arabic *z
  • Three voiceless fricatives
    • () that becomes Hebrew * but Arabic *s
    • () that becomes Hebrew * but Arabic *
    • () that becomes both Hebrew and Arabic *s
  • Two emphatic fricatives ()
  • Three interdental fricatives
    • Voiced
    • Unvoiced
    • Emphatic

The precise sound of the PS fricatives, notably of , , , and , remains a perplexing problem, and there are various systems of notation to describe them. Many authors now posit values that differ significantly from what these symbols would normally suggest (hence, it may be more appropriate to designate them with , and ), but the older transcription remains predominant in most literature, often even among scholars positing the new pronunciation.[19]

The traditional view as expressed in the conventional transcription and still maintained by one part of the authors in the field[20][21] is that was a Voiceless postalveolar fricative (), was a voiceless alveolar sibilant () and was a voiceless alveolar lateral fricative (). Accordingly, is seen as an emphatic version of (), and as a voiced version of it ().

Another common opinion[22] is that the difference between and is that between an affricate and a fricative . Likewise the consonants are taken as the voiced and emphatic counterparts of . Affricates in PS were proposed long since, but the idea only seems to have met wider acceptance since the work of Alice Faber (1981) challenging the older approach. A different opinion is maintained for example by Joshua Blau (2010), who maintains that * was indeed originally [ ], while also acknowledging that an affricate [t ] is possible.[23]

The Semitic languages that have survived to the modern day often have fricatives for these consonants. Ethiopic languages and Modern Hebrew (in many reading traditions) have an affricate for .[24] Many sources of evidence have been cited to support further affricates in not only Proto-Semitic, but also ancient Semitic languages:

  • The sign from the Old Akkadian script representing was borrowed by other languages (e.g. Hittite) to represent affricates.[25]
  • In Akkadian underlying |||| was realized as ss. This is much more natural if the law was phonetically |||| [tts].[25]
  • The Canaanite sound change of is also much more natural if * was , than if it was .
  • Egyptian transcriptions of Semitic names and loanwords render as dz and ts.
  • Aramaic and Syriac had an affricated realization of up to some point, as seen in Old Armenian loanwords (e.g. Aram. 'bundle, bunch' OArm. 'crar' ).[25]
  • Older Semitic borrowings in Armenian have also and for and *z.[24]
  • Other branches of Afro-Asiatic also have affricates corresponding to these consonants, and /*s/ for PS /* /.

Judging by evidence from South Arabian, it was determined that were likely not sibilants, but lateral obstruents: (where the emphatic can also be reconstructed as an affricate).

The shift h occurred in most Semitic languages (besides Akkadian, Minaian, Qatabanian) in grammatical and pronominal morphemes, and it is unclear whether reduction of began in a daughter proto-language or in PS itself. Given this, some suggest that weakened may have been a separate phoneme in PS.[26]

Reflexes of Proto-Semitic sounds in daughter languages


Each Proto-Semitic phoneme was reconstructed to explain a certain regular sound correspondence between various Semitic languages. Note that Latin letter values (italicized) for extinct languages are a question of transcription; the exact pronunciation is not recorded.

Most of the attested languages have merged a number of the reconstructed original fricatives, though South Arabian retains all fourteen (and has added a fifteenth from *p f).

In Aramaic and Hebrew, all non-emphatic stops were softened to fricatives when occurring singly after a vowel, leading to an alternation that was often later phonemicized as a result of the loss of gemination.

In languages exhibiting pharyngealization of emphatics, the original velar emphatic has rather developed to a uvular stop .

Proto-Semitic Akkadian Arabic1 Ugaritic Phoenician Hebrew Modern
Aramaic Ge'ez Modern
South Arabian
/ /
/ /
/ /
/ /
/ /
/ /
2 2 4/
1 4/
3 3 4/

Proto-Semitic Akkadian Arabic Ugaritic Phoenician Hebrew Modern Hebrew Aramaic Ge'ez Modern
South Arabian


  1. Arabic pronunciation is that of reconstructed Qur'anic Arabic of the 7th and 8th centuries CE. If the pronunciation of Modern Standard Arabic differs, this is indicated (for example, ).
  2. Proto-Semitic appears to have merged with in Tiberian Hebrew, but is still distinguished graphically.
  3. Biblical Hebrew as of the 3rd century BCE apparently still distinguished and (based on transcriptions in the Septuagint).
  4. Although early Aramaic (pre-7th century BCE) had only 22 consonants in its alphabet, it apparently distinguished all of the original 29 Proto-Semitic phonemes, including , , , , , and although by Middle Aramaic times, all of these had merged with other sounds. This conclusion is based mostly on the shifting representation of words etymologically containing these sounds; in early Aramaic writing, the first five are merged with , , , , , respectively, but later with , , , , .[27][28] (Also note that due to begadkefat spirantization, which occurred after this merger, OAm. t and d in some positions, so that PS *t, and *d, may be realized as either of t, and d, respectively.) The sounds and were always represented using the pharyngeal letters , but they are distinguished from the pharyngeals in the Demotic-script papyrus Amherst 63, written about 200 BC.[29] This suggests that these sounds, too, were distinguished in Old Aramaic language, but written using the same letters as they later merged with.
  5. These are only distinguished from the zero reflexes of *h, * by e-coloring adjacent *a, e.g. pS * ba al-um 'owner, lord' Akk. b lu(m).[30]


Proto-Semitic vowels are in general harder to deduce due to the templatic nature of Semitic languages. The history of vowel changes in the languages makes drawing up a complete table of correspondences impossible, so only the most common reflexes can be given:

Vowel correspondences in Semitic languages (in proto-Semitic stressed syllables)[31]
pS Hebrew Aramaic Arabic Ge'ez Akkadian
/ _.1 / _C 2 / _C.C3 usually4 /_C. V
  • a
a a a a a, e, 5
  • i
e , e e, i,
i i
  • u
o o u, o u , 6 u
[32] ,
  • ay.
ayi, ay BA, JA ay(i), ,
WSyr. ay/ & ay/
ay ay,
  • aw.
pausal w
WSyr. aw/
  1. in a stressed open syllable
  2. in a stressed closed syllable before a geminate
  3. in a stressed closed syllable before a consonant cluster
  4. when the proto-Semitic stressed vowel remained stressed
  5. pS *a,* Akk. e, in the neighborhood of pS and before r.
  6. I.e. pS Ge'ez / _u

Correspondence of sounds with other Afroasiatic languages

See table at Proto-Afroasiatic language.


The Semitic languages share a number of grammatical features, although variation - both between separate languages, and within the languages themselves - has naturally occurred over time.

Word order

The reconstructed default word order in Proto-Semitic is verb subject object (VSO), possessed possessor (NG), and noun adjective (NA). This was still the case in Classical Arabic and Biblical Hebrew, e.g. Classical Arabic ra' mu ammadun far dan. (literally "saw Muhammad Farid", Muhammad saw Farid). In the modern Arabic vernaculars, however, as well as sometimes in Modern Standard Arabic (the modern literary language based on Classical Arabic) and Modern Hebrew, the classical order VSO has given way to SVO. Modern Ethiopian Semitic languages follow a different word order of SOV, possessor possessed, and adjective noun; however, the oldest attested Ethiopian Semitic language, Ge'ez, was VSO, possessed possessor, and noun adjective Akkadian was also predominantly SOV.

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.[33] The archaic Samalian dialect of Old Aramaic reflects a case distinction in the plural between nominative - and oblique - (compare the same distinction in Classical Arabic).[27][34] 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. Classical Arabic still has a mandatory dual (i.e. it must be used in all circumstances when referring to two entities), marked on nouns, verbs, adjectives and pronouns. Many contemporary dialects of Arabic, still have a dual, as in the name for the nation of Bahrain (ba r "sea" + -ayn "two"), although it is marked only on nouns and is no longer mandatory. It also occurs sporadically in Hebrew ( ana means "one year", natayim means "two years", and anim means "years"). The curious phenomenon of broken plurals e.g. in Arabic, sadd "one dam" vs. sud d "dams" found most profusely in the languages of Arabia and Ethiopia, 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 Afroasiatic, 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: perfective for completed action (with pronominal suffixes) and imperfective 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, lengthening vowels, and/or adding prefixes, suffixes, or infixes.

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

kataba or "he wrote" (masculine)
katabat or "she wrote" (feminine)
katabtu or "I wrote" (f and m)
kutiba or "it was written" (masculine)
kutibat or "it was written" (feminine)
katab or "they wrote" (masculine)
katabna or "they wrote" (feminine)
katabn or "we wrote" (f and m)
yaktub(u) or "he writes" (masculine)
taktub(u) or "she writes" (feminine)
naktub(u) or "we write" (f and m)
aktub(u) or "I write" (f and m)
yuktab(u) or "being written" (masculine)
tuktab(u) or "being written" (feminine)
yaktub n(a) or "they write" (masculine)
yaktubna or "they write" (feminine)
taktubna or "you write" (feminine)
yaktub n(i) or "they both write" (masculine) (for 2 males)
taktub n(i) or "they both write" (feminine) (for 2 females)
k taba or "he exchanged letters (with sb.)"
yuk tib(u) "he exchanges (with sb.)"
yatak tab n(a) or "they write to each other" (masculine)
iktataba or "he is registered" (intransitive) or "he contributed (a money quantity to sth.)" (ditransitive) (the first t is part of a particular verbal transfix, not part of the root)
istaktaba or "to cause to write (sth.)"
kit b or "book" (the hyphen shows end of stem before various case endings)
kutub or "books" (plural)
kutayyib or "booklet" (diminutive)
kit bat or "writing"
k tib or "writer" (masculine)
k tibat or "writer" (feminine)
k tib n(a or "writers" (masculine)
k tib t or "writers" (feminine)
kutt b or "writers" (broken plural)
katabat or "clerks" (broken plural)
maktab or "desk" or "office"
mak tib or "desks" or "offices"
maktabat or "library" or "bookshop"
makt b or "written" (participle) or "postal letter" (noun)
kat bat or "squadron" or "document"
kat ib or "squadrons" or "documents"
iktit b or "registration" or "contribution of funds"
muktatib or "subscription"
istikt b or "causing to write"

and the same root in Hebrew (where it appears as ):

"I wrote"
"you (m) wrote"
"he wrote"
"reporter" (m)
"reporter" (f)
"article" (plural )
"postal letter" (plural )
"writing desk" (plural )
"address" (plural )
"written" (f )
"he dictated" (f )
"he corresponded (f )
"it was written" (m)
"it was written" (f)
"spelling" (m)
"prescript" (m)
"addressee" ( f)
ktubba "ketubah (a Jewish marriage contract)" (f) (note: b here, not )

also appearing in Maltese, where consonantal roots are referred to as the g erq:

jiena ktibt "I wrote"
inti ktibt "you wrote" (m or f)
huwa kiteb "he wrote"
hija kitbet "she wrote"
a na ktibna "we wrote"
intom ktibtu "you (pl) wrote"
huma kitbu "they wrote"
huwa miktub "it is written"
kittieb "writer"
kittieba "writers"
kitba "writing"
ktib "writing"
ktieb "book"
kotba "books"
ktejjeb "booklet"

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 () for the verb "to write" (this root exists in Arabic and is used to form words with close meaning to "writing", such as a fa "journalism", and a fa "newspaper" or "parchment").

Verbs in other non-Semitic Afroasiatic 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, where hafleg means "set sail!", haflaga means "a sailing trip", and heflig means "he sailed", while the unrelated uf, te'ufah and af pertain to flight).

Independent personal pronouns

English Proto-Semitic Akkadian Arabic Ge'ez Hebrew Aramaic
standard vernaculars
Thou (sg., masc.)
Thou (sg., fem.)
Ye (dual)
They (dual)
Ye (pl., masc.)
Ye (pl., fem.)
They (masc.)
They (fem.)


Some early Semitic languages are speculated to have weak ergative features.[35]

Common vocabulary

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

English Proto-Semitic Akkadian Arabic Aramaic Hebrew Ge'ez Mehri

Sometimes certain roots differ in meaning from one Semitic language to another. For example, the root in Arabic has the meaning of "white" as well as "egg", whereas in Hebrew it only means "egg". The root means "milk" in Arabic, but the color "white" in Hebrew. The root means "meat" in Arabic, but "bread" in Hebrew and "cow" in Ethiopian Semitic; the original meaning was most probably "food". The word medina (root: m-d-n) has the meaning of "metropolis" in Amharic and "city" in Arabic and Hebrew, but in Modern Hebrew it is usually used as "state".

Of course, there is sometimes no relation between the roots. For example, "knowledge" is represented in Hebrew by the root but in Arabic by the roots and and in Ethiosemitic by the roots and .

For more comparative vocabulary lists, see Wiktionary appendices:


There are six fairly uncontroversial nodes within the Semitic languages: East Semitic, Northwest Semitic, Arabic, Old South Arabian (also known as Sayhadic), Modern South Arabian, and Ethiopic. These are generally grouped further, but there is ongoing debate as to which belong together. The classification based on shared innovations given below, established by Robert Hetzron in 1976 and with later emendations by John Huehnergard and Rodgers as summarized in Hetzron 1997, is the most widely accepted today. In particular, several Semiticists still argue for the traditional (partially nonlinguistic) view of Arabic as part of South Semitic, and a few (e.g. Alexander Militarev or the German-Egyptian professor Arafa Hussein Mustafa) see the South Arabian languages as a third branch of Semitic alongside East and West Semitic, rather than as a subgroup of South Semitic. Roger Blench notes that the Gurage languages are highly divergent and wonders whether they might not be a primary branch, reflecting an origin of Afroasiatic in or near Ethiopia. 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 and the strong mutual influences between Arabic dialects render a genetic subclassification of them particularly difficult.

Living Semitic languages by number of speakers

lang speakers
Arabic 206,000,000[36]
Amharic 27,000,000
Tigrinya 6,700,000
Hebrew 5,000,000[37]
Neo-Aramaic 2,105,000
Silt'e 830,000
Tigre 800,000
Sebat Bet Gurage 440,000
Maltese 371,900[38]
Modern South Arabian 360,000
Inor 280,000
Soddo 250,000
Harari 21,283

See also


Additional Reference Literature

  • Bennett, Patrick R. 1998. Comparative Semitic Linguistics: A Manual. Eisenbrauns. ISBN 1-57506-021-3.
  • Bergstr sser, Gotthelf. 1995. Introduction to the Semitic Languages: Text Specimens and Grammatical Sketches. Translated by Peter T. Daniels. Winona Lake, Ind. : Eisenbrauns. ISBN 0-931464-10-2.
  • Garbini, Giovanni. 1984. Le lingue semitiche: studi di storia linguistica. Naples: Istituto Orientale.
  • Garbini, Giovanni; Durand, Olivier. 1995. Introduzione alle lingue semitiche. Paideia: Brescia 1995.
  • Hetzron, Robert (ed.). 1997. The Semitic Languages. London: Routledge. ISBN 0-415-05767-1. (For family tree, see p. 7).
  • Lipinski, Edward. 2001. Semitic Languages: Outlines of a Comparative Grammar. 2nd ed. Leuven: Orientalia Lovanensia Analecta. ISBN 90-429-0815-7
  • Mustafa, Arafa Hussein. 1974. "Analytical study of phrases and sentences in epic texts of Ugarit." (German title: Untersuchungen zu Satztypen in den epischen Texten von Ugarit). Dissertation. Halle-Wittenberg: Martin-Luther-University.
  • Moscati, Sabatino. 1969. An introduction to the comparative grammar of the Semitic languages: phonology and morphology. Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz.
  • Ullendorff, Edward. 1955. The Semitic languages of Ethiopia: a comparative phonology. London: Taylor's (Foreign) Press.
  • Wright, William; Smith, William Robertson. 1890. Lectures on the comparative grammar of the Semitic languages. Cambridge University Press 1890. [2002 edition: ISBN 1-931956-12-X]

External links

af:Semitiese taalfamilie als:Semitische Sprachen am: ar: an:Luengas semiticas arc: bg: bs:Semitski jezici br:Yezho semitek ca:Lleng es sem tiques cv: cs:Semitsk jazyky da:Semitiske sprog de:Semitische Sprachen dsb:Semitiske r cy et:Semi keeled el: es:Lenguas sem ticas eo:Semida lingvaro eu:Hizkuntza semitikoak fa: ( - ) fr:Langues s mitiques fy:Semityske talen ga:Teangacha Seim teacha gl:Linguas sem ticas ko: hy: hi: hsb:Semitiske r e hr:Semitski jezici id:Rumpun bahasa Semit ia:Linguas semitic is:Sem sk tungum l it:Lingue semitiche he: ka: kw:Yethow Semitek sw:Lugha za Kisemiti ku:Ziman n sam lad:Linguas semetikas la:Linguae Semiticae lv:Sem tu valodas lt:Semit kalbos li:Semitische taole hu:S mi nyelvek mk: arz: ms:Bahasa Semitik nl:Semitische talen ja: no:Semittiske spr k nn:Semittiske spr k pms:Lenghe sem tiche nds:Semitsche Spraken pl:J zyki semickie pt:L nguas sem ticas ro:Limbi semitice ru: stq:Semitiske Sproaken sk:Semitsk jazyky sl:Semitski jeziki so:Luqadaha Semitiga sr: fi:Seemil iset kielet sv:Semitiska spr k ta: kab:Tutlayin tisamiyin th: tr:Sami dil ailesi uk: ur: vi:Ng n ng Semit zh:

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