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Encyclopedia > South Semitic languages

The Semitic languages are the northeastern subfamily of the Afro-Asiatic languages, and the only family of this group spoken in Asia.

The most common Semitic languages spoken today are Arabic, Amharic, Hebrew, and Tigrinya.

The term "Semitic" for these language is etymologically a misnomer in some ways (see Semitic), but is the standard term in linguistics.

The classification given below is probably the most widespread - following Robert Hetzron - but is still disputed; in particular, several Semitists still argue for the traditional view of Arabic as part of South Semitic, and a few (eg Alexander Militarev) see the South Arabian languages as a third branch of Semitic alongside East and West Semitic, rather than as a subgroup of South Semitic.


The Eastern Semitic Languages

Controversial (either East Semitic or Northwest Semitic): Eblaite language -- extinct

The Central Semitic languages

Northwest Semitic languages

South Central (Arabic) languages

The South Semitic languages

Western (within South Semitic)

  • Ethiopic languages
    • North
    • South
      • Transverse
        • Amharic language
        • Argobba language
        • Harari language
        • East Gurage languages
          • Selti language
          • Wolane language
          • Zway language
          • Ulbare language
          • Inneqor language
      • Outer
        • Soddo language
        • Goggot language
        • Muher language
        • West Gurage languages
          • Masqan language
          • Ezha language
          • Gura language
          • Gyeto language
          • Ennemor language
          • Endegen language
  • Old South Arabian -- extinct
    • Sabaean language -- extinct
    • Minaean language -- extinct
    • Qatabanian language -- extinct
    • Hadhramautic languages -- extinct

Eastern (within South Semitic)

  • Soqotri language
  • Mehri language
  • Jibbali language
  • Harsusi language
  • Bathari language
  • Hobyot language

Common characteristics

These languages all exhibit a pattern of words consisting of triconsonantal roots, with vowel changes, prefixes, and suffixes used to inflect them. For instance, in Hebrew:

gdl means "big" but is no part of speech and not a word, just a root
gadol means "big" and is a masculine adjective
gdola means "big" (feminine adjective)
giddel means "he grew" (transitive verb)
gadal means "he grew" (intransitive verb)
higdil means "he magnified" (transitive verb)
magdelet means "magnifier" (lens)
spr is the root for "count" or "recount"
sefer means "book" (containing tales which are recounted)
sofer means "scribe" (Masoretic scribes counted verses)
mispar means "number".

Many roots are shared among more than one Semitic language. For example, the root ktb, a root signifying writing, exists in both Hebrew and Arabic ("he wrote" is rendered in Hebrew katav and in Classical Arabic kataba).

The following list will provide some equivalent words in Semitic languages.

Akkadian Aramaic Arabic Hebrew English translation
zikaru dikrā ḏakar zḵr Male
maliku malkā malik mĕlĕḵ King
imru ḥamarā ḥimār ḥămōr Donkey
erṣetu ʔarʿā ʔarḍ ʔĕrĕṣ Land

Sometimes certain roots differ in meaning from one Semitic language to another. For example, the root b-y-ḍ in Arabic has the meaning of "white" as well as "egg", whereas in Hebrew it only means "egg". The root l-b-n means "milk" in Arabic, but the color "white" in Hebrew.

Of course, there is sometimes no relation between the roots. For example, "knowledge" is represented in Hebrew by the root y-d-ʿ but in Arabic by the roots ʿ-r-f and ʿ-l-m.

Other Afro-Asiatic languages show similar patterns, but more usually with biconsonantal roots; e.g. in Kabyle afeg means "fly!", while affug means "flight", and yufeg means "he flew".

See Also

  • List of Proto-Semitic roots
  • Proto-Semitic

  Results from FactBites:
ninemsn Encarta - Semitic Languages (682 words)
Semitic Languages, one of the seven subfamilies or branches of the Afro-Asiatic or Hamito-Semitic language family.
Of the Semitic languages, Arabic was carried beyond its original home in the Arab Peninsula throughout the Arab Empire and is spoken across North Africa to the Atlantic coast, and Arabic and Hebrew are used by Muslims and Jews in other parts of the world.
The other Semitic languages are centred in a region bounded on the west by Ethiopia and on the north by Syria and extending south-east through Iraq and the Arab Peninsula, with some “islands” of Semitic speech farther east in Iran.
Semitic languages - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia (1514 words)
Semitic languages were among the earliest to attain a written form, with Akkadian writing beginning in the middle of the third millennium BC.
Since Semitic is a member of Afro-Asiatic, a principally African family, the first speakers of proto-Semitic are generally believed to have arrived in the Middle East from Africa, although this question is still much debated.
By the end of the millennium, East Semitic languages dominated in Mesopotamia, while West Semitic languages were probably spoken from Syria to Yemen, although data is sparse.
  More results at FactBites »



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