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Afroasiatic languages(ăf'rōā'zhēăt`ĭk), formerly
Hamito-Semitic languages(hăm`ĭtō-səmĭt`ĭk), family of languages spoken by more than 250 million people in N Africa; much of the Sahara; parts of E, central, and W Africa; and W Asia (especially the Arabian peninsula, Iraq, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, and Israel). Since four of the Afroasiatic tongues, Arabic, Hebrew, Coptic, and Syriac, are also respectively the languages of Islam, Judaism, and two sects of the Christian faith, the language family reaches many millions in addition to its native speakers.
The Afroasiatic family is divided into six branches: Egyptian, Semtic, Berber, Cushitic, Omotic, and Chadic. According to one theory, the languages of the Afroasiatic family are thought to have first been spoken along the shores of the Red Sea. Another theory holds that the language family came into being in Africa, for only in Africa are all its members found, aside from some Semitic languages encountered in SW Asia. The existence of the Semitic languages in W Asia is explained by assuming that African Semitic speakers migrated from E Africa to W Asia in very ancient times. At a later date, some Semitic speakers returned from Arabia to Africa.
The Egyptian Languages
The Egyptian branch of the Afroasiatic family comprises Ancient EgyptianEgyptian language,
extinct language of ancient Egypt, a member of the Afroasiatic family of languages (see Afroasiatic languages). The development of ancient Egyptian is usually divided into four periods: (1) Old Egyptian, spoken and written in Egypt during the IV to VI
..... Click the link for more information. and its descendant, Coptic. Both languages are now extinct, although a dialect of Coptic continues to be used liturgically by the Coptic Church (see CoptsCopts
, the native Christian minority of Egypt; estimates of the number of Copts in Egypt range from 5% to 17% of the population. Copts are not ethnically distinct from other Egyptians; they are a cultural remnant, i.e.
..... Click the link for more information. ). Of all the Afroasiatic languages, Ancient Egyptian is the one for which there is the oldest surviving evidence.
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 AkkadianAkkadian
, extinct language belonging to the East Semitic subdivision of the Semitic subfamily of the Afroasiatic family of languages (see Afroasiatic languages). Also called Assyro-Babylonian, Akkadian (or Accadian) was current in ancient Mesopotamia (now Iraq) from about 3000
..... Click the link for more information. , 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, AramaicAramaic
, language belonging to the West Semitic subdivision of the Semitic subfamily of the Afroasiatic family of languages (see Afroasiatic languages). At some point during the second millenium B.C.
..... Click the link for more information. (which embraced many dialects in the course of its long history, including SyriacSyriac
, late dialect of Aramaic, which is a West Semitic language (see Afroasiatic languages). The early Christians of Mesopotamia and Syria gave the Greek name Syriac to the Aramaic dialect they spoke when the term Aramaic
..... Click the link for more information. ), 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 HebrewHebrew language,
member of the Canaanite group of the West Semitic subdivision of the Semitic subfamily of the Afroasiatic family of languages (see Afroasiatic languages).
..... Click the link for more information. . 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 UgaritUgarit
, ancient city, capital of the Ugarit kingdom, W Syria, on the Mediterranean coast N of modern Latakia. Although the name of this city was known from Egyptian and Hittite sources, its location and history were a mystery until the accidental discovery (1928) of an ancient
..... Click the link for more information. 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 ArabicArabic languages,
members of the West Semitic group of the Semitic subdivision of the Afroasiatic family of languages (see Afroasiatic languages). The Arabic languages comprise North Arabic (or simply Arabic) and South Arabian (or Himyaritic or South Arabic); South Arabian
..... Click the link for more information. 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 EthiopicEthiopic
, extinct language of Ethiopia belonging to the North Ethiopic group of the South Semitic (or Ethiopic) languages, which, in turn, belong to the Semitic subfamily of the Afroasiatic family of languages (see Afroasiatic languages).
..... Click the link for more information. or Geez, Tigre, Tigrinya, AmharicAmharic
, language of Ethiopia belonging to the South Ethiopic group of South Semitic languages, which, in turn, belong to the Semitic subfamily of the Afroasiatic family of languages (see Afroasiatic languages). The official tongue of Ethiopia since the 14th cent.
..... Click the link for more information. , 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 Berber Languages
The Berber languages are the mother tongues of some 12 million persons in enclaves throughout many nations of N Africa. The oldest known Berber inscriptions are from the 4th cent. B.C., but Berber-speaking peoples have lived in N Africa since c.3000 B.C., and Berber names appear in ancient Egyptian inscriptions from the Old Kingdom. The Berber tongues have survived Phoenician, Roman, and Arab conquests. Today they are spoken in Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Mauritania, Mali, Chad, and Niger. Many Berbers are bilingual, speaking also Arabic. The modern Berber variants include Tamazight, Tachelhit (Tashalit), Kabyle, Shawiya (Tashawit), Tamasheq (Taureg), Rif (Tarifit), Siwi, Zenaga, and others. Grammatically, gender and number are indicated by prefixes and suffixes. The vocabulary has been enriched by borrowings from Latin, Arabic, French, and Spanish. The Arabic alphabet is employed, except in the case of the Tamazight and Tamasheq dialects, which continue to use an ancient Berber alphabet known as Tifinagh.
The Cushitic and Omotic Languages
The two principal Cushitic languages are Oromo, the tongue of 20 million people in Ethiopia and Kenya, and Somali, spoken by 9 million people in Somalia, Ethiopia, and Djibouti. Among the many other Cushitic languages are Agaw, Bedawi, Burji, Daasanach, Komso, Saho-Afar and Sidamo. Oromo is written in the Ethiopic script (see discussion of writing below); Somali, in the Roman alphabet. The Omotic languages were formerly classified with the Cushitic and are spoken by perhaps 3 million people who live in SW Ethiopia in the Omo River region. Dizi, Gonga, Gimira, Janjero, Kaficho, and Walamo are among the Omotic languages.
The Chadic Languages
The Chadic group of languages are spoken near Lake Chad in central Africa. Its most important tongue is Hausa, a West Chadic language native to 25 million people, of whom about 19 million live in N Nigeria, 5 million in Niger, and 1 million in Cameroon, Togo, and Benin. In addition, Hausa is widely used as a lingua francalingua franca
, an auxiliary language, generally of a hybrid and partially developed nature, that is employed over an extensive area by people speaking different and mutually unintelligible tongues in order to communicate with one another.
..... Click the link for more information. in W Africa. Written Hausa has long employed an alphabet based on that of Arabic, but today it is turning increasingly to a system based on Roman characters. The written literature in Hausa includes both poetry and prose. Among the many other Chadic tongues are Angas, Bole, Gwandara, Ron, and other West Chadic languages; the Masa languages; Kera, Mubi, Nancere, Tobanga, and other East Chadic languages; and Kamwe, Kotoko, Mandara, and other Biu-Mandara languages.
The Role of Semitic Languages in the Development of Writing Systems
The writing used for Semitic languages is either cuneiformcuneiform
[Lat.,=wedge-shaped], system of writing developed before the last centuries of the 4th millennium B.C. in the lower Tigris and Euphrates valley, probably by the Sumerians (see Sumer).
..... Click the link for more information. or alphabetic writing. The oldest known writing system employed by Semitic-speaking peoples is cuneiform. It was adopted by the Akkadians (see AkkadAkkad
, ancient region of Mesopotamia, occupying the northern part of later Babylonia. The southern part was Sumer. In both regions city-states had begun to appear in the 4th millennium B.C. In Akkad a Semitic language, Akkadian, was spoken.
..... Click the link for more information. ) c.2500 B.C. from the Sumerians (see SumerSumer
and Sumerian civilization
. The term Sumer is used today to designate the southern part of ancient Mesopotamia. From the earliest date of which there is any record, S Mesopotamia was occupied by a people, known as Sumerians, speaking a non-Semitic language.
..... Click the link for more information. ), whose language was not a Semitic tongue. The Sumerian cuneiform goes back to about 4000 B.C., and it was used by various peoples until about the 2d cent. B.C. Babylonian and Assyrian, which were later dialects of Akkadian, also employed cuneiform. At first cuneiform was written from top to bottom in vertical rows, with the first row at the right, but at a later date the direction of writing was reversed, that is, it was written in horizontal rows from left to right. The North Semitic and South Semitic scripts are thought by some scholars to go back to a common source, a hypothetical proto-Semitic writing system. Others dispute this and regard the origin of the South Semitic alphabetalphabet
[Gr. alpha-beta, like Eng. ABC], system of writing, theoretically having a one-for-one relation between character (or letter) and phoneme (see phonetics). Few alphabets have achieved the ideal exactness.
..... Click the link for more information. as a still unsolved problem. The source of the proto-Semitic alphabetic script has been variously conjectured to be Egyptian hieroglyphicshieroglyphic
[Gr.,=priestly carving], type of writing used in ancient Egypt. Similar pictographic styles of Crete, Asia Minor, and Central America and Mexico are also called hieroglyphics (see Minoan civilization; Anatolian languages; Maya; Aztec).
..... Click the link for more information. , Babylonian cuneiform, or other writing systems.
The North Semitic writing is alphabetic in that each sign or symbol represents a consonantal sound of the language. Vowels for some time were omitted. Symbols of various kinds to indicate the vowels for Hebrew, Arabic, and Syriac probably date from the 8th cent. A.D. The North Semitic script consists of a Canaanite branch and an Aramaic branch. The Canaanite branch gave rise to Early Hebrew writing and Phoenician writing. Another descendant of the Canaanite branch is the Greek alphabet, which is the parent of all modern European alphabets, including the Roman and the Cyrillic. According to a Greek tradition the Phoenicians passed on their alphabet to the Greeks. The oldest extant Early Hebrew text is dated at about the 11th or 10th cent. B.C. Early Hebrew writing was the alphabet of the Jews until they adopted Aramaic instead of Hebrew as their spoken language sometime before the Christian era, when they also began to use the Square Hebrew letters derived from the Aramaic writing. The only descendant of the Early Hebrew alphabet still in use is the Samaritan writing. Records of the Aramaic script go back to the 9th cent. B.C. After about 500 B.C. the Aramaic alphabet was used throughout the Middle East. In addition to being the parent of Square Hebrew letters, from which evolved modern Hebrew writing, the Aramaic alphabet is the ancestor of Arabic writing, the Syriac scripts, and other Semitic alphabets. Aramaic writing probably also gave rise to the significant alphabetic writing systems of Asia, such as the Devanagari alphabet so widely used in India.
As Islam spread to various nations in Africa and Asia, it was accompanied by the Arabic alphabet. For example, Arabic writing was adapted for Persian, Pashto, Urdu, Malay, the Berber languages, Swahili, Hausa, and Turkish. (Since 1928, however, the Roman alphabet has been used for Turkish.) The South Arabian inscriptions mentioned earlier employed the South Semitic alphabet, which is no longer used on the Arabian peninsula. This alphabet was taken to Ethiopia during the first millennium B.C. and is still used there, in modified form, for the Ethiopic languages. In fact, the sole noteworthy South Semitic script to survive until modern times is the one employed for the Ethiopic languages. All other known alphabets are believed to be derived from North Semitic writing. Although the South Arabian letters form a consonantal alphabet, Ethiopic writing is syllabic in nature. Ethiopic consonants have six or more forms, each depending on the vowel following the consonant, but this may be a later development. In any case, the origin of the syllabic nature of the Ethiopic script is an unsolved problem. All Semitic languages are writtten from right to left except Ethiopic, Assyrian, and Babylonian, which are written from left to right.
See L. H. Gray, Introduction to Semitic Comparative Linguistics (1934); M. A. Bryan, Notes on the Distribution of the Semitic and Cushitic Languages of Africa (1947); S. Moscati, ed., An Introduction to the Comparative Grammar of the Semitic Languages (1964); J. H. Greenberg, The Languages of Africa (2d ed. 1966); D. L. E. O'Leary, Comparative Grammar of the Semitic Languages (1923, repr. 1969); J. J. McCarthy, Formal Problems in Semitic Phonology and Morphology (1985); G. Khan, Studies in Semitic Syntax (1989).