Neat Little Roundup of the Semitic Languages

From a book on the subject. I never knew much about them, but they are pretty darned important.

The name “Semitic” derives from Shem or Sem, Noah’s eldest son, from whom most of the Semites were said to descend. It is believed that Semitic languages evolved from hypothetical proto-Semitic. The place of origin of proto-Semitic is disputed: Africa, Arabia and Mesopotamia are possible locations. Unique to Semitic is a triconsonantal root, which carries the basic meaning.

Superimposed is a pattern of vowels (or vowels and consonants), indicating variations in meaning or serving as inflection. Another feature is that related consonants typically fall into three subtypes: voiced, unvoiced and emphatic. The Semitic languages are as closely as Slavic, Germanic, or Romance.

Semitic divides into three groups: I. Northeast or East Semitic; 2. Northwest or West Semitic; 3. Southwest or South Semitic.

East Semitic includes only Akkadian, the oldest attested Semitic language. Akkadian is known from cuneiform texts and was spoken in Mesopotamia between cca 3000 BC and 1,000 CE but remained in written usage until the 2nd- 3rd century CE. From cca 2000 BC, two dialects developed: Babylonian in the south and Assyrian in the north (both succeeded by Aramaic in the 6th century BC). The main differences between East and Northwest (West) Semitic are in the verb system.

Northwest Semitic includes: Amorite, Ugaritic, Canaanite, and Aramaic. Also, some twenty years ago, another language was found at the site of Elba, south of Aleppo in Syria. Passages in this language were interspersed with Sumerian texts from cca 2400 BC. Although heavily influenced by Akkadian, Elbaite shows similarities to Northwest Semitic.

Amorite is a general term for a language attested from the first half of the 2nd millennium BC by proper nouns inserted into Akkadian and Egyptian texts. The first Amorites were probably nomads. Ugaritic appears to be an early form of Canaanite. It was spoken and written in Ugarit (Ras Shamra) on the north coast of Phoenicia in the 14-13th centuries BC, before this city was sacked.

The first Ugaritic texts, discovered in the late 1920’s, were written with alphabetic characters resembling cuneiform script. Canaanite constitutes a group of closely-related idioms from Palestina, Phoenicia and Syria. Records go back to cca 1500 BC.

Aramaic is recorded from 850 BC in Syria (the Tell Fekheriye stele). It spread very quickly and by the 6th century BC it was the administrative language and lingua franca in the entire Middle East. Aramaic supplanted many Semitic languages, including Akkadian and Hebrew. Only Greek rivaled it for dominance in the Middle East until the Arab conquest of the 7th century CE.

Aramaic of the pre-Christian era (Ancient Aramaic or Imperial Aramaic) is known from inscriptions, papyrus letters and documents, and from the Old Testament books of Ezra and Daniel. The Aramaic alphabet was derived from Canaanite script. By the 1st century CE, written Aramaic divided into different forms based on the various types of script adopted by different religions.

West Aramaic includes Nabataean, Palmyrene, Aramaic of Hatra, Jewish Palestinian Aramaic (or Galilean Aramaic), Samaritan Aramaic and Christian Palestinian Aramaic (Palestinian Syriac). The inhabitants of the Nabataean kingdom (Petra and surroundings in south Jordan), Palmyra (Tadmor in northeast Syria) and Hatra (el-Hadr in Iraq) were mainly Arabs, but from 100 BC to 350 CE they wrote in Aramaic in their own variant scripts.

Classical or Biblical Hebrew, known mainly from the Old Testament, was used in texts from a period of cca 1,000 years. The earliest known Hebrew inscription, the Gezer Calendar, dates from cca 925 BC. Hebrew was first written in the Canaanite-Phoenician alphabet, but in the 4th century BC the Jews adopted from Aramaic the square alphabet still used.

By the 3rd century BC Hebrew was spoken only in Judaea, and even there in form known as Mishnaic. Yet the language was maintained by Jews down the centuries as a sacred language and was resurrected (with modifications) in the 20th century as the official language of Israel.

The major Canaanite languages are Phoenician, Punic, Moabite, Edomite, Hebrew and Ammonite. Initially all were written in Phoenician script. Letters from the 14th century BC in Akkadian, the language of diplomacy at the time and discovered at Tell el-Amarna in Egypt, contain “mistakes”, i.e. early Canaanite words and phrases. Phoenician records extend from eca 10,000 BC (inscriptions from Lebanon, Syria, Israel, Cyprus, etc.) to the early CE.

Punic developed from Phoenician in Phoenician colonies around the Mediterranean from the 9th century BC., was still spoken in the 5th century CE.

Moabite, Edomite, and Ammonite were spoken in present-day Jordan. Only a few short inscriptions and seals from the 9-5th century BC survive in these languages, which were probably supplanted by Aramaic. The best-known text, in Moabite, is inscribed on the Mesha Stone from about 840 BC; in it Mesha, King of Moab, recounts his battles against King Omri of Israel.

The Southwest, or South Semitic includes:

I. South Arabian,

2. Arabic and

3. the Ethiopian languages.

South Arabian is attested by ancient inscriptions and by living vernaculars in present-day Yemen and Oman. The South Arabian alphabet derived from the Canaanite script, brought to the area about 1300 BC from the North Arabia. South Arabian inscriptions (epitaphs, promises and deeds) date from 700 BC to 500 CE. The language comprised several dialects, e.g. Sabaean, Minaean (or Ma’in), Qatabanian, and Hadramauth.

The modern South Arabian languages are not written and are giving way to Arabic. Best known are Mahr, Awr, and Soqotr, spoken by less than one hundred thousand people.

The precursors of Arabic proper were the idioms spoken by the tribes of Dedan, Liyn, Thamd, and Saf. Thousands of short petroglyphs and graffiti have survived from the period 700 BC-400 CE. The oldest Arabic texts in a script derived from the Nabataean alphabet dated from the 4th century CE.

The cradle of Arabic lies in North Arabia. It first made its mark as a literary language with pre-Islamic poetry and the Quran, and these sources have remained universal ideals. With the rise of lslam, Arabic rapidly spread over an area from Persia and Asia Minor to the Atlantic Ocean, Spain and the Sahara.

Relatively few Arabs emigrated, but the inhabitants of the countries they conquered soon adopted the sacred language of Islam. The major dialect groups are those of Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, Egypt and North Africa (Maghreb). Their mutual comprehensibility is limited.

The Ethiopian languages more closely resemble South Arabian than Arabic proper. The earliest known example is Ge’ez, commonly called Ethiopian. It diverged from South Arabian around the beginning of the Christian era, reaching its greatest extension in the 4th century CE, when it was spoken especially in the kingdom of Axum on both sides of the present border of Ethiopia and Eritrea. Although it died out around 1000 CE as a spoken language, Ge’ez is still the liturgical language of the Abyssinian Church.

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