Semitic languages

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Semitic languages,

subfamily of the Afroasiatic family of languages. See Afroasiatic languagesAfroasiatic languages
, formerly Hamito-Semitic languages
, 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
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Semitic Languages


a branch of the Afrasian, or Hamito-Semitic, family of languages. Semitic languages are spoken in the Arab countries, including Iraq, Kuwait, the states on the southern coast of the Persian Gulf, the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen, the Yemen Arab Republic, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, Mauritania, and the Sudan, as well as on Malta and in Israel, Mali, Chad, the Central African Empire, and Ethiopia. There are also communities of Semitic speakers in South Africa, Nigeria, the USA, and Iran. In the USSR, various Arabic dialects and Neo-Syriac are spoken. In 1970, the number of Semitic speakers was estimated at 120 million.

The Semitic languages are divided into several groups. The Northern Peripheral, or Eastern, group includes the extinct Accadian language and its dialects of Assyrian and Babylonian. The Northern Central, or Northwestern, group consists of a number of living languages, among which are Hebrew and the Neo-Aramaic dialects, including Neo-Syriac. Extinct members of the Northern Central group include Amorite, Canaanite, Ugaritic, Phoenician-Punic, ancient Hebrew, and various Aramaic dialects. Aramaic dialects include Ancient Aramaic, Imperial Aramaic, Western Aramaic (Palmyrenean, Nabataean, Palestinian), and Eastern Aramaic (Syriac, Babylonian Tal-mudic, and Mandaean). The Southern Central group consists of Arabic, which has many extremely divergent living dialects, and Maltese. The Southern Peripheral group consists of a number of living languages, including Mahri, Shahri, Sokotri and some minor languages spoken in southern Arabia and on the island of Socotra, Tigre, Tigrai (Tigrinya), Amharic, Argobba, and Gafat. Dead languages of the Southern Peripheral group include Minaean, Sabaean, Qatabanian, and Ethiopic (Geez). The Southern Central and Southern Peripheral groups are sometimes combined into a single Southern group.

The earliest texts in Semitic are the Accadian cuneiform inscriptions of Iraq and the proper names and place-names of Palestine that have been preserved in Egyptian inscriptions of the third and second millennia B.C There is an extensive litera-’ ture in Accadian, ancient Hebrew, Syriac and other Aramaic dialects, Ethiopic, and Arabic. Literature in Arabic is particularly extensive because the language was long the literary language of Iran, Middle Asia, Spain, and many other areas. Inscriptions are known in Ugaritic, Phoenician-Punic Minaean, Sabaean, Qatabanian, and other dead Semitic languages. Tigre, Amharic, Maltese, and other Semitic languages have their own literatures.

The Semitic languages have a limited number of vowels; originally, the vowels were a, i, and u in long and short variants. There are three series of consonants: voiced, voiceless, and emphatic, the last being tense velarized or glottalized consonants. The languages have no affricates but do have the pharyngeal consonants h and ‘ (‘ayn), the uvular consonants x and i, and a glottal stop known as hamza. The root usually consists of three consonants that possess a basic lexical meaning; vowel infixation, suffixes, prefixes, and infixes modify the basic meaning or indicate a grammatical category. For example, from the root k-t-b may be formed kataba (“he wrote”), kutiba (“[it] was written”), ‘aktaba (“he caused to write”), kātib (“writer”), kitāb (“letter,” “book”), and maktab (“place of writing,” “school”). There are traces of a more ancient type of root form, consisting of two or three consonants and a vowel. There is a complex system of word-formation based on affixes and changes in vowel scheme. An important role is played by the nominal attribute in the genitive case; the governing noun appears in a special form that indicates “annexation” to the governed noun.

There were five cases in Accadian and three in the other ancient Semitic languages, but the case system later died out in all the Semitic languages. There are dual and plural numbers. In the South Semitic languages, the plural has been largely replaced by collective substantives formed by vowel mutations of the stem; for example, in Arabic bāb (“door”) becomes ’abwāb in the plural, ‘ālim (“scholar”) becomes ‘ulamā, and jurnāl (“journal”) becomes jurānāl. The verb system is characterized by the formation of derived verb stems, consisting of related groups of stems having specific vowel schemes and other features (prefixes, infixes, suffixes, double consonants). The derived verb stems (intensive, causative, reflexive) modify the primary meaning of the verb. Each derived verb stem usually has a complete system of forms to indicate person, number, aspect, deverbative nouns, and so forth. The category of tense developed late. There are usually two aspects: the perfective (punctual), with suffixal conjugation, and the imperfective (durative), with prefixal conjugation. In Accadian, the prefixal conjugation in verbs of action has both aspects: the imperfective aspect is formed with a full vowel scheme and the perfective has a reduced vowel scheme or an infixed t; the suffixal conjugation expresses a state.


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