2.1. Semitic Languages

1. Aramaic > 2.1. Semitic Languages

2.1.1. Importance:

The Aramaic language belongs to the Semitic language family, which consists of a group of some of the most important languages in the world, as it has given humanity a very rich cultural heritage and contributed to the advancement of human life.

Some of its languages are considered by many to be one of the most sacred languages in the world:

  • Aramaic, a sacred language for Christians, as it is the language of Jesus Christ, his mother, the irgin Mary, his disciples and early Christians.
  • Arabic, a sacred language for Muslims, is the language of the Quran.
  • Hebrew, a sacred language for the Jews, is the language of the Torah.

Some of them are among the oldest written languages in the world, particularly Akkadian, Ugaritic, Phoenician and Aramaic.

Writing systems were complex and difficult to learn, as illustrations and symbols were used to express a specific thing, until the Phoenicians developed the world’s first alphabet, from which most of the current writing systems descended through two main branches:

  • Aramaic: The Aramaeans quickly adopted the Phoenician alphabet, developed it, modified it, and added vowel letters so that it became easy to write and read. Later, most of the writing systems in Central and Western Asia, as well as North Africa, were derived from the Aramaic alphabet, including the Arabic and Hebrew scripts.
  • Greek: On the other hand, the Greeks adopted the Phoenician alphabet and modified it to create the Greek alphabet, from which most of the alphabets of the western world, including the English alphabet, were derived.
Family tree of the writing systems

Figure 2.1.1.1: Family tree of the writing systems {Starkey Comics}

Date of derivation of writing systems

Figure 2.1.1.2: Date of derivation of writing systems {usu.edu> Prof. Mark Damen}

2.1.2. Name:

Just as a person has a family to which he belongs, so does a language.

Scholars have long studied languages and found similarities between some of them, whether in grammar, vocabulary, or otherwise, but the idea of “language families” did not emerge until the 18th century CE when they began to group languages according to their common features.

The German historian Schlosser was the first to apply the term “Semitic” to a group of Middle Eastern languages, but the use of the term “Semitic languages” and its spread is thanks to the German semitist and orientalist Eichhorn.

This term was derived from Shem, one of the sons of Noah, mentioned in Genesis in the Old Testament as the great ancestor of the peoples of this region:

  • Genesis 6:10 And Noah had three sons, Shem, Ham, and Japheth.
  • Genesis 10:22 The sons of Shem: Elam, Asshur, Arpach′shad, Lud, and Aram.
The three sons of Noah, as they were imagined by the French painter James Tissot

Figure 2.1.2.1: The three sons of Noah, as they were imagined by the French painter James Tissot (1896-1902) {Wikipedia> User: Obinfo}

This term is used today by most Semitic scholars not to confirm or deny an ideological consideration, but as a purely Semitic term that aims to create a label that brings together the languages of the region linked by common features.

The Semitic languages form a branch of the Afro-Asiatic family, which is one of the biggest language groups in the world and includes most of the languages of Africa and the Middle East.

Semitic languages in the world's language families

Figure 2.1.2.2: World’s major language families {Wikipedia> User: ish ishwar}

2.1.3. Origin, original distribution areas and classification:

The mother of all Semitic languages is called Proto-Semitic. The Proto-Semitic language originated in the Levant about 5,750 years ago and then diverged into two main branches:

1. East: Diverged into:

  • Akkadian (origin in the Levant and later moved eastward into Mesopotamia)
  • Eblaite.

2. Western: In its first phase, diverged into:

  • Ugaritic in northwest Syria.
  • Aramaic in the Levant.
  • Canaanite in the Levant coast.
  • Samalian in the northwest of the Levant.

       Later, it spread south and diverged into:

  • Arabic in the Arabian Peninsula.
  • Ancient South Arabian in Yemen.

      After that, it spread to the Horn of Africa and branched into the Ethio-Semitic languages.

The Akkadian, Eblaite, Ugaritic, Samalian, and Ancient South Arabian languages are completely extinct, and the other languages remained alive with their modern branches.

Semitic languages and their origin and dispersal

Figure 2.1.3.1: The origin and dispersal of Semitic languages {Kitchen et al.: Proceedings of the royal society B, vol.276}

Classical Semitic languages and their original regions

Figure 2.1.3.2: Classical Semitic languages and their original regions {Rubin: The Semitic Language Family}

Classification of the Semitic languages

Figure 2.1.3.3: Classification of the Semitic languages {© Rimon Wehbi}

2.1.4. Common features:

What makes Semitic languages one family? What is the similarity between them that sets them apart from the rest of the world’s languages?

Hello in some languages

Figure 2.1.4: Hello in some languages {© Rimon Wehbi}

Some common linguistic features among Semitic languages:

  1. Genders in Semitic languages are either male or female, so there is no such thing as neutrality as found in other languages such as Latin and German.
  2. Some sounds do not exist in any language in the world except some Semitic languages and among these sounds /ḥ, ʕ, ṣ, ḍ, ṭ, ẓ/.
  3. The sentence structure is Verb + Subject + Object, while in English, for example, it is Subject + Verb + Object.
  4. They have a number of common vocabularies, such as the names of the human body parts, some plants and animals, numbers, prepositions and others.
  5. Some pronouns are similar.
  6. Some stems (forms) are similar.
2.1.5. Unique features:

While there are similarities between Semitic languages, there are also specific features for each language that distinguish them from other languages. Here are some examples:

1. Some Semitic languages tend to convert the original Semitic sounds to other similar sounds, such as: shifting the /š/ sound to /s/, as in the common root ŠLM which became SLM in the languages of the Arabian Peninsula and the Horn of Africa, and it remained ŠLM in the languages the Levant and Iraq, meaning “Peace, rest, well-being, completeness”. Another example of sound shifting can be found in the word “earth” corresponds to the root ʔRʕ in Aramaic, ʔRḌ in Arabic and ʔRṢ in Hebrew, and so on.

The root ŠLM in Semitic languages

Figure 2.1.5.1: The root ŠLM in Semitic languages {© Rimon Wehbi}

2. There are a large number of vocabularies related to each language and not to any other. For examples:

  • The adjective “big” corresponds to the root RB in Aramaic, Akkadian and Ugaritic, GDL in Hebrew, KBR in Arabic, ʕBY in Ge’ez, GDR in Amharic and ŝōḫ in Mehri…
  • The verb “to know” in Aramaic, Canaanite and Ugaritic has its root YDʕ and in Akkadian YDU, while in Arabic it is ʕLM and in the Ethiopian languages ʕWḲ, FLṬ, ʔMR and KHL. and in Modern South Arabian languages ʕRB and ĠRB …
  • As we saw earlier, “dove” translates to YWN in Aramaic and Hebrew, YNT in Ugaritic, and ḤMM in Arabic.
The adjective “big” in Semitic languages

Figure 2.1.5.2: The adjective “big” in Semitic languages {© Rimon Wehbi}

The verb “to know” in Semitic languages

Figure 2.1.5.3: The verb “to know” in Semitic languages {© Rimon Wehbi}

3. There are also many grammatical differences between these languages, but they require special knowledge of grammar and books to explain them. So, we’re going to skip them here.

Rimon Wehbi   14/04/2021

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