Languages (and the Phoenician language)
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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,
Assyrian, Coptic...etc. are still evident.
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A quick guide to the Semitic languages and people
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.
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and imperceptibly superseded by another.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
of the pre-Christian era (Ancient Aramaic or Imperial Aramaic) is
from inscriptions, papyrus letters and documents, and from the Old
Testament books of Ezra and Daniel. A small number of literary texts
known (including the 'novel' Ahiqar). The Aramaic alphabet was derived
from Phoenician Canaanite script. By the time of Christ's birth,
had divided into several different forms based on the various types
of script adopted by different religions. All the languages come
the general headings of West Aramaic and East Aramaic, West again referring
to the Middle East and East to Mesopotamia.
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
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.
is divided into three distinct languages on the same grounds as
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
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
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.
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
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,
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
of which were Sabaean, Minaean (or Ma`in), Qatabanian and Hadramauth
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
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.
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
differences multiplied, and the spoken language soon divided into local
dialects, which could be either sociolectal (townspeople, country
Bedouins) or religious (Muslims, Jews, Christians) in character. Although
the written language and the language of communication (radio, TV,
speaking) basically represent a common Classical Arabic (fu), only
local dialects are spoken in everyday life. The dialects differ from
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
Harviainen, Professor of Semitic Languages at the University of Helsinki