Semitic Languages (and the Phoenician language)

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Ancient languages spoken by non-Arab population of these many Middle Easter countries continue to survive in the dialects/languages of everyday life and the roots of the older languages of the Phoenician, Aramaic, Syriac, Assyrian, Coptic...etc. are still evident.

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Linguistics: A quick guide to the Semitic languages and people

Written records in the Semitic languages exist for almost five millennia. They may have been spoken for much longer than this: languages are usually much older than their known history. Writing only goes back just over 5,000 years, and merely a few ancient peoples had any form of writing at all. Many languages existed only in spoken form, and left no material for scholars to study.

It is, however, characteristic of many of the languages of the Middle East that they have survived in religious literature for centuries after the spoken language became extinct. In practice, extinction means that, for one reason or another, a language is overshadowed and gradually and imperceptibly superseded by another.

The change appears dramatic only in retrospect. The peoples that have spoken or speak one of the Semitic languages as their main language are known as Semitic peoples. Divisions between the branches of the group have been subject to much controversy, and the presentation below is much more straightforward than the present state of research would warrant.

Semitic Languages

The Semitic languages are generally divided into three main groups: (1) Eastern Semitic; (2) Northwestern or Western Semitic; (3) Southwestern or Southern Semitic. The East here refers to Mesopotamia, the Northwest (West) to the Middle East proper, i.e. Lebanon and Syria, and the Southwest (South) to the Arabian peninsula and Ethiopia. The Semitic languages are fairly closely interrelated -- approximately as closely as the various Germanic or Romance languages.

Eastern Semitic

The East Semitic branch consists of only one language: Akkadian. This language is known from cuneiform inscriptions found in Mesopotamia dating from the first half of the 3rd millennium BC. (The language of the Sumerians, who actually invented cuneiform script, was not Semitic.) Akkadian was spoken in parts of what is today Iraq. From about 2000 BC, two dialects of Akkadian are known: Babylonian, which was spoken in southern Mesopotamia and Assyrian, which was spoken in the north. As spoken languages, they were succeeded by Aramaic in the 6th century BC, but as a literary language Akkadian survived approximately until the beginning of the Christian era.

The main differences between the Eastern Semitic dialects and their western relatives are in the verb system. Akkadian is known quite well owing to the extensive literature and substantial finds made. Some twenty years ago, a previously unknown language was discovered south of Aleppo in Syria and named Eblaite after the site of its discovery. Passages in this language were interspersed with Sumerian texts from about 2400 BC. Research on Eblaite is still incomplete. Although it resembles Akkadian in many ways, Eblaite also has a number of similarities with the languages of the Northwestern group.

Northwestern Semitic

The main groups are: (1) the ancient languages Amorite and Ugaritic, (2) the Canaanite languages and, (3) Aramaic. Amorite is a general term for a language known from the first half of the 2nd millennium BC, proper nouns in the language being inserted into Akkadian and Egyptian texts. The first speakers of Amorite were probably nomads.

To a sample of what the Aramaic language sounds like, follow the links to the music files provided of the Good Friday Entombment Service of Jesus Christ. The files are in MP3 format. Click to play: Glory (majdlak.mp3) and Bearers of Fragrance (hamilatilteeb.mp3). They are part of the full service in Aramaic which was held in Maalula, Syria (a town which were Aramaic is still spoken today), 1994, for the first time in 300 years. The Melkite Greek Catholic Patriachal Office of the Cathechism holds the copyright and is indebted for providing this rare service.

Ugaritic appears to be an early form of Canaanite. It was spoken and written in and -- to an unknown extent -- near the ancient city of Ugarit on the eastern Mediterranean, the northern coast of Phoenicia in the 14th and 13th centuries BC, before the city was sacked. The first Ugaritic texts were discovered in the excavation of Ras Shamra in the late 1920s. Most of the texts were written with alphabetic characters resembling cuneiform script. The many epic poems are especially interesting. The Canaanite languages constitute a group of closely-related languages and dialects spoken in Phoenicia, written records going back to about 1500 BC.

The main Canaanite languages are Phoenician, Punic, Moabite, Edomite, Hebrew and Ammonite. Initially all these were written in Phoenician script. Letters from the 14th century BC, written in Akkadian, the language of diplomacy at the time and discovered at Tell el-Amarna in Egypt, contain 'mistakes' which are actually early Phoenician Canaanite words and phrases.

Phoenician records extend from inscriptions dating from around 1000 BC and found in Lebanon, Syria, Israel, Cyprus and other locations to the early Christian centuries. Punic, a language that developed from Phoenician in Phoenician colonies around the Mediterranean beginning in the 9th century BC. Punic Phoenician was still spoken in the 5th century AD; St. Augustine, for example, was familiar with the language.

Moabite, Edomite and Ammonite were spoken in the area of present-day Jordan. Only a handful of short inscriptions and seals from the 9th to the 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.

Aramaic appears among the ranks of known languages around 850 BC in Syria (the Tell Fekheriye stele). Aramaic spread with tremendous speed, and by the 6th century BC was being used as the administrative language and lingua franca of the entire Middle East, all the way from Afghanistan in the Persian Empire to Egypt. Many ancient Semitic languages, including Akkadian and Hebrew, died out and were supplanted by Aramaic. Only Greek rivaled Aramaic for dominance in the Middle East until the Arab conquest of the 7th century AD.

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. A small number of literary texts are also known (including the 'novel' Ahiqar). The Aramaic alphabet was derived from Phoenician Canaanite script. By the time of Christ's birth, written Aramaic had divided into several different forms based on the various types of script adopted by different religions. All the languages come under the general headings of West Aramaic and East Aramaic, West again referring to the Middle East and East to Mesopotamia.

The West Aramaic languages include Nabataean, Palmyrene, Aramaic of Hatra, Jewish Palestine Aramaic (or Galilean Aramaic), Samaritan Aramaic and Christian Palestine Aramaic (Palestinian Syriac). The inhabitants of the Nabataean kingdom (Petra and surroundings in southern Jordan), Palmyra (Tadmor in northeastern Syria) and Hatra (el-Hadr in northern Iraq) between 100 BC and AD 350 wrote epitaphs and other short texts in Aramaic, the lingua franca of the day, using their own variant scripts.

Present-day Arabic script is derived from Nabataean characters. The three religious groups in Palestine clung to their own scripts and dialects. The Hebrews used Aramaic translations of the Bible (the Targum) and other religious writings (including parts of the Midrash and the Palestinian Talmud). The Samaritan sect, which broke off from Judaism, held on to the ancient Canaanite script, using it to produce its own Aramaic translation.

East Aramaic is divided into three distinct languages on the same grounds as West Aramaic. These are the Syriac language (or to use a better term, Syriac dialect because Syriac is a dialect of Aramaic and not a language on its own) of the Christians, Jewish Babylonian Aramaic and Mandaean, the language of the Mandaean Gnostic sect.

The centre of the Syriac language was the city of Edessa (mod. Urfa) in present-day Turkey, but the language was also spoken in Mesopotamia proper. There is a wealth of literature in Syriac, which is still the liturgical language of the Syriac churches, and can be heard as far afield as in the 'Assyrian churches' in Sweden. Syriac script is cursive and looks rather like Arabic. Hebrew script was used to write Jewish Babylonian Aramaic, the main cultural centers of which were in the central part of modern-day Iraq. The most important literary work in this language is the (Babylonian) Talmud, still of great importance in Judaism, consisting of the Mishnah, which is in Hebrew, and the extensive Gemara, in Aramaic. Syriac and Babylonian Aramaic died out as spoken languages around the year 1000 and were replaced by Arabic. The esoteric religion of the Mandaeans was based on the Gnostic doctrine of Antiquity. The Mandaeans, also known by the Arabic name of bi'n (Sabaeans), 'Baptists', live d in southern Iraq and

Classical, or Biblical Hebrew language is known mainly from the Old Testament, which contains texts in Hebrew from over a period of almost 1,000 years. The earliest known inscription, the Gezer Calendar, has been dated to around 925 BC. Hebrew was originally written in the Canaanite-Phoenician alphabet, but in the 4th century BC the Jews adopted from Aramaic the square alphabet still in use. By the 3rd century BC, Hebrew was spoken only in Judaea, and even there in a modified form known as Mishnaic. During the Babylonian Captivities of the Hebrews, Aramaic became their lingua franca. Targum or translation of scriptures into Aramaic was made to accommodate the switch from Hebrew to Aramaic. During the time of Christ, Aramaic was still the lingua franca of the Hebrews. As a language, Hebrew died out around AD 200, and was no longer spoken anywhere. Hebrew was revived as a spoken language to provide a lingua franca for Jews who moved to Palestine in the late 19th century.

Modern East Aramaic dialects are spoken by an estimated 300,000 people in the Middle East and in immigrant communities in Europe and the United States. The history of Aramaic over 2,800 years is thus known in considerable detail. Among living languages, only Greek can claim a longer continuously documented history.

Southwestern Semitic

The Southwestern, or Southern, Semitic languages include (1) the South Arabian languages, (2) Arabic and (3) the Ethiopian languages. The South Arabian languages consist of the languages of ancient inscriptions, on the one hand, and of living vernacular languages in present-day Yemen and Oman, on the other. The monumental forms of the South Arabian alphabet were derived from Canaanite consonant script, brought to the area around 1300 BC. South Arabian inscriptions consist of short epitaphs, promises and deeds, dating from between 700 BC and AD 500. The language comprised several dialects, the most important of which were Sabaean, Minaean (or Ma`in), Qatabanian and Hadramauth (arami).

The modern South Arabian languages are not written, and they are giving way to Arabic. While containing some very archaic features, they have developed in very different directions. Best known are Mahr, Awr and Soqotr, which are spoken by less than one hundred thousand people, all in the eastern parts of South Yemen, in Oman and on the island of Socotra. The precursors of Arabic proper were the languages or dialects spoken by the tribes of Dedan, Liyn, Thamd and Saf, thousands of short petroglyphs and graffiti of whom have survived from the period 700 BC-- 400 AD. The other early forms of Arabic were discussed above in conjunction with West Aramaic (the Nabataeans, etc.). The oldest texts in Arabic proper, which uses a script derived from the Nabataean alphabet, date from the 4th century AD. The cradle of Arabic lies in the north central Arabian peninsula. Arabic first made its mark as a literary language with pre-Islamic poetry and the Koran, and these sources have remained universal ideals.

With the rise of Islam, Arabic rapidly spread over an area extending 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, who previously spoke Aramaic or other languages, soon adopted the language of their conquerors. With the spread of Arabic, its old dialectal differences multiplied, and the spoken language soon divided into local dialects, which could be either sociolectal (townspeople, country folk, Bedouins) or religious (Muslims, Jews, Christians) in character. Although the written language and the language of communication (radio, TV, public speaking) basically represent a common Classical Arabic (fu), only local dialects are spoken in everyday life. The dialects differ from the written language approximately as much as Italian differs from Latin. (The last sentence is vehemently rejected in a rebuttal from a writer to this site and it appears on the "Letters" page of this site.) The most important dialect groups are those of Iraq, Lebanese, Syrian, Egypt and North Africa (Maghreb). Their mutual comprehensibility is very limited. The reason behind the vast differences in spoken languages or dialects of the groups mentioned herewith is that they are mixes of many languages. Ancient languages spoken by non-Arab population of these countries continue to survive in the dialects/languages of everyday life and the roots of the older languages of the Phoenician, Aramaic, Syriac, Assyrian, Coptic...etc. are still evident.

The Ethiopian languages bear a closer resemblance to the South Arabian languages than to Arabic proper. At least some of the Semitic peoples of Ethiopia originally moved there from the Arabian peninsula, and the writing system still used by all of the Ethiopian languages is based on the South Arabian script of the immigrants. Vowels were first marked in the 4th century AD. The earliest known Ethiopian language is Ge`ez, commonly called Ethiopian. It diverged from the South Arabian languages around the beginning of the Christian era, reaching its greatest extension in the 4th century AD, when it was spoken especially in the kingdom of Aksum on either side of the present-day border of Ethiopia and Eritrea. An extensive Christian literature was later written in Ge`ez, and it is still used as the liturgical language of the Ethiopian Church and as a kind of Ethiopian Latin. As a spoken language, Ge`ez appears to have died out around the year 1000.

Several Semitic languages are still spoken in Ethiopia, but none of them can be considered direct descendants of Ge`ez. The dominant language is Amharic, which has long been Ethiopia's sole official language. Amharic differs radically from the general structure of the Semitic languages, especially in syntax. The language is known only from the 17th century, and its origins are obscure. The Cushitic languages of Ethiopia (e.g. Agaw) seem to have had a powerful impact on the independent development of Amharic. Today Amharic is the mother tongue of some 15 million people and, being taught at schools, is spoken throughout Ethiopia. Amharic literature, although relatively limited, is steadily growing. Tigrinya, the language of the Christians, and Tigre, the language of the Muslims, in northern Ethiopia and Eritrea have retained more of the Semitic language structure than Amharic. Tigrinya is spoken by some five million people, and thus it vies with modern Hebrew for the position as the third most widely spoken

The Muslims of the city of Harar in eastern Ethiopia speak their own language called Harari, sometimes written with Arabic script. Harari is a dying language, probably spoken by only a few thousand people today.

Gurage is really nothing but an imprecise cover term for a group of little-known Semitic languages spoken by an estimated 350,000 people southwest of Addis Ababa. Gafat and Argobba, the former once spoken in the province of Gojjam along the Blue Nile and the latter northeast of Addis Ababa, have died out in recent years, being superseded by Amharic.


  1. Tapani Harviainen, Professor of Semitic Languages at the University of Helsinki

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