Online Encyclopedia


Online Encyclopedia
Originally appearing in Volume V24, Page 621 of the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica.
Spread the word: it!
SEMITIC LANGUAGES, the general designation of a group of Asiatic and African languages, some living and some dead, namely Assyrian, Hebrew, Phoenician, Aramaic, Arabic, Ethiopic, Mahri-Socotri. The name, which was introduced by Schlozer, is derived from the fact that most nations which speak or spoke these languages are descended, according to Genesis, from Shem, son of Noah.'. But the classification of nations in Genesis x. is founded neither upon linguistic nor upon ethnographical principles: it is determined rather by geographical and political considerations. For this reason Elam and Lud are also included among the children of Shem; but neither the Elamites (in Susiana) nor the Lydians appear to have spoken a language connected with Hebrew. On the other hand, the Phoenicians (Canaanites), whose dialect closely resembled that of Israel, are not counted as children of Shem. Moreover, the compiler of the list in Genesis x. had no clear conceptions about the peoples of south Arabia and Ethiopia. Nevertheless it would be undesirable to give up the universally received terms " Semites " and " Semitic." The connexion of the Semitic languages with one another is somewhat close, in any case closer than that of the Indo- Mutua/ European languages. The more ancient Semitic eon- tongues differ from one another scarcely more than do nexion. the various Teutonic dialects. Hence even in the 17th century such learned Orientalists as Hottinger, Bochart, Castell and Ludolf had a tolerably clear notion of the relationship between the different Semitic languages with which they were acquainted; indeed the same may be said of some Jewish scholars who lived many centuries earlier, as, for instance, Jehuda ben Koreish. It is not difficult to point out a series of characteristic marks common to these languages, the pre-dominance of triconsonantal roots, or of roots formed after the analogy of such, similarity in the formation of nominal and verbal stems, a great resemblance in the forms of the personal pronouns and in their use for the purpose of verbal inflection, the two principal tenses, the importance attached to the change of vowels in the interior of words, and lastly, considerable agreement with regard to order and the construction of sentences. Yet even so ancient a Semitic language as the Assyrian appears to lack some of these features, and in certain modern dialects, such as New Syriac, Mahri and more particularly Amharic, many of the characteristics of older Semitic speech have disappeared. And the resemblance in vocabulary generally diminishes in pro-portion to the modernness of the dialects. Still we can trace the connexion between the modern and the ancient dialects, and show, at least approximately, how the former were developed out of the latter. Where a development of this kind can be proved to have taken place, there a relationship must exist, however much the individual features may have been effaced. The question here is not of logical categories but of organic groups. All these languages are descendants of a primitive Semitic language which has long been extinct. Of course this should not be taken literally as implying an absolute unity. If, in the strictest sense of the words, no two men ever speak the same language, it must apply with still greater force to any considerable mass of men not living in the closest conjunction; and as such we must conceive the ancient Semites, so soon as they had severed themselves from other races. As long as the primitive Semitic people occupied no great extent of territory, many linguistic differences existent in their midst might still be reconciled. Other differences, however, might even then have formed the germs of the subsequent dialectical distinction. Thus, if the gradual, or sudden, separation of individual sections of the people led to alienation on a large scale, their dialects must necessarily have developed decided lines of cleavage and become finally distinct languages. With all this, it is still possible that, even in that pre-historic era, peaceful or warlike intercourse may have exercised an influence tending to assimilate these languages once again. Within the limitations which we have intimated rather than discussed, the expression " proto-Semitic language " is thoroughly justifiable. Many of its most important features may be reconstructed with at least tolerable certainty, but we must beware of attempting too much in this respect. When the various cognate languages of a group diverge in essential points, it is by no ' In Eichhorn's Repertorium, viii. 161 (1781). Universally accepted from Eichhorn's Einleitung in das Alte Testament, 2nd ed., i. 15 (Leipzig, 1787).means always possible to determine which of them has retained the more primitive form. The history of the development of these tongues during the period anterior to the docu- ments which we possess is often extremely obscure in its details. Even when several Semitic languages agree sem/tic language. in important points of grammar we cannot always be sure that in these particulars we have what is primitive, since in many cases analogous changes may have taken place independently. To one who should assert the complete re-construction of the primitive Semitic language to be possible, we might put the question, Would the man who is best acquainted with all the Romance languages be in a position to reconstruct their common mother, Latin, if the knowledge of it were lost? And yet there are but few Semitic languages which we can know as accurately as the Romance languages are known. As far as the vocabulary is concerned, we may indeed maintain with certainty that a considerable number of words which have in various Semitic languages the form proper to each were a part of primitive Semitic speech. Nevertheless even then we are apt to be misled by independent but analogous formations and by words borrowed at a very remote period.' Each Semitic language or group of languages has, however, many words which we cannot point out in the others. Of such words a great number no doubt belonged to primitive Semitic speech, and either disappeared in some of these languages or else remained in use, but not so as to be recognizable by us. In the case of certain proto-Semitic words, we can even yet observe how they gradually recede from the foreground. So, for instance, in Hebrew, Aramaic and Arabic, the common designation of the lion, laith, has disappeared, almost before our eyes, in order to make room for other expressions. Yet many isolated words and roots may in very early times have been borrowed by the Hebrew, the Aramaic, the Ethiopic, &c., perhaps from wholly different languages, of which no trace is left. To what extent the separate languages created new roots is an extremely obscure problem. The question which of the known Semitic dialects most resembles the primitive Semitic language is less important than one might at first suppose, since the question is one not of absolute but only of relative priority. After scholars had given up the notion (which, however, was not the fruit of scientific research) that all Semitic languages, and indeed all the languages in the world, were descendants of Hebrew or of Aramaic, it was long the fashion to maintain that Arabic bore a close resemblance to the primitive Semitic language.' But, just as it is now re-cognized with ever-increasing clearness that Sanskrit is far from having retained in such a degree as was even lately supposed the characteristics of primitive Indo-European speech, so in the domain of the Semitic tongues we can assign to Arabic only a relative antiquity. It is true that in Arabic very many features are preserved more faithfully than in the cognate languages, for instance, nearly all the original abundance of consonants, the short vowels in open syllables, particularly in the interior of words, and many grammatical distinctions which in the other languages are more or less obscured. On the other hand, Arabic has coined, simply from analogy, a great number of forms which, owing to their extreme simplicity, seem at the first glance to be primitive, but which nevertheless are only modifications of the primitive forms; whilst perhaps the other Semitic languages exhibit modifications of a different kind. In spite of its great wealth, Arabic is characterized by a certain monotony, which can scarcely have existed from the beginning. Both Hebrew and even Aramaic are in many respects more ancient than Arabic. This would no doubt be far more apparent if we knew Hebrew more completely and according to the original pronunciation of its vowels, and if we could discover how Aramaic was pronounced about the 13th century before our era. It must always be borne in mind that we are far more fully and accurately 2 The more alike two languages are the more difficult it usually is to detect, as borrowed elements, those words which have passed from one language into the other. This theory is carried to its extreme limit in Olshausen's very valuable Hebrew Grammar (Brunswick, 1861). acquainted with Arabic than with the other Semitic languages of antiquity. The opinion sometimes maintained by certain over-zealous Assyriologists, that Assyrian is the " Sanskrit of the Semitic world," has not met with the approval even of the Assyriologists themselves, and is unworthy of a serious refutation. A comparative grammar of the Semitic languages must of course be based upon Arabic, but must in every matter of detail take into consideration all the cognate languages, as far as they are known to us. In the reconstruction of the primitive Semitic tongue Hebrew might perhaps afford more assistance than Ethiopic; but Aramaic, Assyrian, and even the less known and the more modern dialects might furnish valuable materials. The method' by which these younger languages, especially the dialects of to-day, have received their present form, may be traced with tolerable comprehensiveness. Thus we gain valuable analogies for determining the genetic process in the older tongues. At the same time, a conscientious investigation forces upon us the conviction that there are many and important phenomena which we are powerless to explain; and this applies, in part, to cases where, at first, the solution appears perfectly simple. So, although we have seen that the main features of the correspondence between the Semitic languages have long been definitely established—years before Bopp scientifically demonstrated the connexion of the Indo-European tongues—still in our domain it is a task of extreme difficulty to create a comparative grammar which shall be minutely exact and yield permanent results. Only the most accomplished philologist could attempt the task, and it is very doubtful whether the time is yet ripe for such an attempt.' Much careful and minute investigation is still indispensable. One great obstacle lies in the fact, that, in most Semitic languages, the sounds are very inadequately transmitted. It would probably be easier to give a comparative presentment of Semitic syntax than of Semitic phonetics and the theory of Semitic forms. It is not a formidable undertaking to describe in general terms the character of the Semitic mind, as has been done, for example, by Lassen (Indische Altertumskunde, i. 414 sq.) and by Renan in the introduction to his Histoire des langues semitiques.a But still there is a danger of assuming that the most important characteristics of particular Semitic peoples, especially of the Israelites and of the Arabs, are common to all Semites, and of ascribing to the influence of race certain striking features which are the result of the external conditions of life, and which, under similar circumstances, are also developed among non-Semitic races. And, though it is said, not without reason, that the Semites possess but little talent for political and military organization on a large scale, yet we have in the Phoenicians, especially the Carthaginians, in Hamilcar and in Hannibal, a proof that under altered conditions the Semites are not incapable of distinguishing themselves in these domains. It is a poor evasion to deny that the Phoenicians are genuine Semites, since even, our scanty sources of information suffice to show that in the matter of religion, which among Semites is of such supreme importance, they bore a close resemblance to the ancient Hebrews and Aramaeans. In general descriptions of this kind it is easy to go too far. But to give in general terms a correct idea of the Semitic languages is a task of very much greater difficulty. Renan's brilliant and most interesting sketch is in many respects open to serious criticism. He cites, for example, as characteristic of the Semitic tongues, that they still retain the practice of expressing psycho- logical processes by means of distinct imagery. In saying this he is taking scarcely any language but Hebrew into account. But the feature to which he here alludes is owing to the particular ' By this we do not wish to call in question the merits of the following works: William Wright, Lectures on the Comparative Grammar of the Semitic Languages (Cambridge, 1890, a posthumous work) ; O. E. Lindberg, Vergleichende Grammatik d. semitischen Sprachen (pt. 1, Goteborg, 1897); Heinr. Zimmern, Vergl. Gramm. d. semit. Sprachen (Berlin, 1898) ; C. Brockelmann, Semitische Sprachwissenschaft (Leipzig, 1906) and Grundriss der vergl. Gramm. d. semit. Sprachen, vol. i. (Berlin, 1908). ' Cf. Th. Noldeke, Some Characteristics of the Semitic Races, in Sketches from Eastern History (London and Edinburgh, 1892), I if.stage of intellectual development that had been reached by the Israelites, is in part peculiar to the poetical style, and is to be found in like manner among wholly different races. That the Semitic languages are far from possessing the fixity which Renan attributes to them we shall see below. But, however this may be, certain grammatical peculiarities of the Semitic languages—above all, the predominance of triliteral roots—are so marked that it is scarcely possible to doubt whether any language with which we are tolerably well acquainted is or is not Semitic. Only when a Semitic language has been strongly influenced not only in vocabulary but also in grammar by some non-Semitic speech, as is the case with Amharic, can such a doubt be for a moment entertained. Many attempts have been made, sometimes in a very superficial fashion and sometimes by the use of scientific methods, to establish a relationship between the Semitic Relations languages and the Indo-European. It was very with other natural to suppose that the tongues of the two races families of which, with the single exceptions of the Egyptians speech. and the Chinese, have formed and moulded human civilization, who have been near neighbours from the earliest times, and who, moreover, seem to bear a great physical resemblance to one another, can be nothing else than two descendants of the same parent speech. But all these endeavours have wholly failed. It is indeed probable that the languages, not only of the Semites and of the Indo-Europeans, but also those of other races, are derived from the same stock, but the separation must have taken place at so remote a period that the changes which these languages underwent in prehistoric times have completely effaced what features they possessed in common; if such features have some-times been preserved, they are no longer recognizable. It must be remembered that it is only in exceptionally favourable circumstances that cognate languages are so preserved during long periods as to render it possible for scientific analysis to prove their relationship with one another.' On the other hand, the Semitic languages bear so striking a resemblance in some respects to certain languages of northern Africa that we are forced to assume the existence of a tolerably close relationship between the two groups. We allude to the family of languages known in modern times as the " Hamitic," and composed of the Egyptian, Berber, Beja (Bishari, &c.), and a number of tongues spoken in Abyssinia and the neighbouring countries (Agaw, Galla, Dankali, &c.). It is remarkable that some of the most indispensable words in the Semitic vocabulary (as, for instance, " water," " mouth " and certain numerals) are found in Hamitic also, and that these words happen to be such as cannot well be derived from triliteral Semitic roots, and are more or less independent of the ordinary grammatical rules. We notice, too, important resemblances in grammar-for ex-ample, the formation of the feminine by means of a t prefixed or affixed, that of the causative by means of s, similarity in the suffixes and prefixes of the verbal tenses, and, generally, similarity in the personal pronouns, &c. It must be admitted that there is also much disagreement—for instance, the widest divergence in the mass of the vocabulary; and this applies to the Semitic languages as compared not only with those Hamitic languages that are gradually becoming known to us at the present day, but with the Egyptian, of which we possess documents dating from the fourth and perhaps fifth millennium before the Christian era. The question is here involved in great difficulties. Some isolated resemblances may, improbable as it appears, have been produced by the borrowing of words. Uncivilized races, as has been proved with certainty, sometimes borrow from others elements of speech in cases where we should deem such a thing impossible—for example, numerals and even personal suffixes. But the great resemblances in grammatical formation cannot be reasonably explained as due to borrowing on the part of the 3 The following is an instance of the manner in which we may be deceived by isolated cases. " Six " is in Hebrew shesh, almost exactly like the Sanskrit and modern Persian shash, the Latin sex, &c. But the Indo-European root is sweks, or perhaps even ksweks, whereas the Semitic root is shidth, so that the resemblance is a purely accidental one, produced by phonetic change. Character of Semitic mind. Hamites, more especially as these points of agreement are also found in the language of the Berbers, who are scattered over an enormous territory, and whose speech must have acquired its character long before they came into contact with the Semites. We are even now 'but imperfectly acquainted with the Hamitic languages; and 'the relation in which Egyptian stands to Berber on the one hand and to the south Hamitic languages on the other requires further elucidation. The attempt to write a comparative grammar of the Semitic and Hamitic languages would be, to say the least, very premature.' The connexion between the Semitic languages and the Hamitic appears to indicate that the primitive seat of the Semites is to be sought in Africa; for it can scarcely be supposed that the Original Hamites, amohgst whom there are gradual transitions seat of from an almost purely European type to that of the Semites. Negroes, are the children of any other land than " the dark continent." There seems, moreover, to be a considerable physical. resemblance between the Hamites and the Semites, especially in the case of the southern Arabs; we need mention only the slight development of the calf of the leg, and the sporadic appearance amongst Semites of woolly hair and prominent jaws.' But both Semites and Hamites have been mingled to a large extent with foreign races, which process must have diminished their mutual similarity. All this, however, is offered not as a definite theory, but as a modest hypothesis. It was once the custom to maintain that the Semites came origin-ally from certain districts in Armenia. This supposition was founded on the book of Genesis, according to which several of the Semitic nations are descended from Arphaxad, i.e. the eponym of the district of Arrapachitis, now called Albak, on the borders of Armenia and Kurdistan. It was also thought that this region was inhabited by the primitive race from which both the Semites and the Indo-Europeans derived their origin. But, as we saw above, this ancient relationship is a matter of some doubt; in any case, the separation does not date from a period so recent that the Semites can be sup-posed to have possessed any historical tradition concerning it. There cannot be a greater mistake than to imagine that nations have been able to preserve during long ages their recollection of the country whence their supposed ancestors are said to have emigrated. The fantastic notion once in vogue as to the permanence of historical memories among uncivilized races must be wholly abandoned. The period in which the Hebrews, the Arabs and the other Semitic nations together formed a single people is so distant that none of them can possibly have retained any tradition of it. The opinion that the Hebrews and the tribes most closely related to them were descendants of Arphaxad is apparently due to the legend that Noah's ark landed near this district. The notion has therefore a purely mythical origin. Moreover, in Genesis itself we find a totally different account of the matter, derived from another source, which represents all nations, and, therefore, the Semites among them, as having come from Babylon. Scarcely any man of science now believes in the northern origin of the Semites. Some prominent scholars consider the birthplace of the Semitic race to have been in Arabia. There is much that appears to support this theory. History proves that from a very early period tribes from the deserts of Arabia settled on the cultivable lands which border them and adopted a purely agricultural mode of life. Various traces in the language seem to indicate that the Hebrews and the Aramaeans were originally nomads, and Arabia with its northern prolongation (the Syrian desert) is the true home of nomadic peoples. The Arabs are also supposed to display the Semitic character in its purest form, and their language is, on the whole, nearer the original Semitic than are the languages of the cognate races. To this last circumstance we should, however, attach little importance. It is by no means always the case that a language is most faithfully preserved in the country where it originated. The Romance dialect spoken in the south of Sardinia is far more primitive than that spoken at Rome; and of all living Teutonic languages the most ancient is the Icelandic. Besides, we cannot unreservedly admit that the Arabs display the Semitic character in its purest form; it would be more correct to say that, under the influence of a country indescribably monotonous and of a life ever changing yet ever the same, the inhabitants of the Arabian deserts have developed most exclusively certain of the principal traits of the Semitic race. All 1 This of course applies yet more strongly to Benfey's work, Uber das Verhaltnis der agyptischen Sprache zum semittschen Sprachstamm (Leipzig, 1844) ; but his book has the permanent merit of having for the first time examined the relationship in a scientific manner. The investigation of the relationship between Egyptian and Semitic has been greatly advanced by the distinguished Egyptologist Ad. Erman: cf. especially his treatise, " Die Flexion des agyptischen Verbums," in the Sitzungsberichte der Berliner Abademie der Wissenschaften (1900), xix., especially p. 34 sq. See also HAMITIC LANGUAGES. ' Cf. G. Gerland, Atlas der Ethnographie (Leipzig, 1876), p. 40 of the text.these considerations are indecisive; but we willingly admit that the theory which regards Arabia as the primitive seat of all Semites is by no means untenable. Finally, one of the most eminent of contemporary Orientalists, Ignazio Guidi,3 has attempted to prove that the home of the Semites is on the lower Euphrates. He contends that the geographical, botanical and zoological conceptions which are expressed in the various Semitic languages by the same words, preserved from the time of the dispersion, correspond to the natural characteristics of no country but the above-mentioned. Great as are the ingenuity and the caution which he displays, it is difficult to accept his conclusions. Several terms might be mentioned which are part of the common heritage of the northern and the southern Semites, but which can scarcely have been formed in the region of the Euphrates. Moreover, the vocabulary of most Semitic languages is but very imperfectly known, and each dialect has lost many primitive words in the course of time. It is therefore very unsafe to draw conclusions from the fact that the various Semitic tongues have no one common designation for many important local conceptions, such as " mountain." The ordinary words for " man," " old man," "boy," " tent," " block," "to beat," &c., are quite different in the various Semitic languages, and yet all these are ideas for which the primitive Semites must have had names. It is not very easy to settle what is the precise connexion between the various Semitic languages, considered individually. In this matter one may easily be led to hasty con- conclusions by isolated peculiarities in vocabulary or flexions grammar. Each of the older Semitic languages between occasionally agrees in grammatical points with some the other to which in most respects it bears no very close / guages. resemblance, while dialects much more nearly related to it are found to exhibit different formations. Each Semitic tongue also possesses features peculiar to itself. For instance, the Hebrew-Phoenician group and the Arabic have a prefixed definite article (the etymological identity of which is, however, not very probable); the dialect nearest to Arabic, the Sabaean, expresses the article by means of a suffixed n; the Aramaic, which in general more closely resembles Hebrew than does the Arabic group, expresses it by means of a suffixed a; whereas the Assyrian in the north and the Ethiopic in the south have no article at all. Of the termination n for the definite article there is no certain trace in either Arabic or Hebrew; the Sabaean, the Ethiopic, and the Aramaic employ it to give emphasis to demonstrative pronouns; and the very same usage has been detected in a single Phoenician inscription .° In this case, therefore, Hebrew and Arabic have, independently of one another, lost something which the languages most nearly related to them have preserved. In like manner, the strengthening of the pronoun of the third person by means of t (or tit) is only found in Ethiopic, Sabaean and Phoenician and perhaps in some Arabic particles too. Aramaic alone has no certain trace of the reflexive conjugation formed with prefixed n; Hebrew alone has no certain trace of the causative with sha.° In several of the Semitic languages we can see how the formation of the passive by means of internal vocal change (as kullima, " he was addressed," as distinguished from kallama, " he addressed '') gradually dropped out of use; in Ethiopic this process was already complete when the language first became literary; in Aramaic it was not wholly so and in most modern Arabic dialects the old passive forms have nearly or totally disappeared. In a few cases phonetic resemblances have been the result of later growth. For example, the termination of the plural masculine of nouns is in Hebrew im, in Aramaic in, as in Arabic. But we know that Aramaic also originally had m, whereas the ancient Arabic forms have after the n an a, which appears to have been originally a long a Gina, ina); in this latter position (that is, between two vowels) the change of m into n is very improbable.° These two similar terminations were therefore originally distinct. We must indeed be very cautious in drawing conclusions from points of agreement between the vocabularies of the various Semitic tongues. The $ Della sede primitiva dei popoli semitici," in the Proceedings I of the Accademia dei Lincei (1878-1879). ° Viz. the great inscription of Byblus, C.I.S., fasc. i. No. 1. ° Shalhebeth, " flame,' is borrowed from Aramaic. ° Arabic seems to have transplanted the termination from the verb to the noun, or to have at least modified the substantival termination in accordance with the verbal. Ethiopians and the Hebrews have the same word for many objects which the other Semites call by other names—for instance, " stone," " tree," " enemy," " enter," " go out "; and the same may be said of Hebrew as compared with Sabaean. But to build theories upon such facts would be unsafe, since the words cited are either found, though with some change of meaning, in at least one of the cognate languages, or actually occur, perhaps quite exceptionally and in archaic writings, with the same signification. The sedentary habits of the Ethiopians. and the Sabaeans may possibly have rendered it easier for them to retain in their vocabulary certain words which were used by the civilized Semites of the north, but which became obsolete amongst the Arabian nomads. To the same cause we may attribute the fact that in religion the Sabaeans seem to resemble the northern Semites more closely than do the tribes of central Arabia; but these considerations prove nothing in favour of a nearer linguistic affinity. One thing at least is certain, that Arabic (with Sabaean, Mahri and Socotri) and Ethiopic stand in a comparatively close Northern relationship to one another, and compose a group by and themselves, as contrasted with the other Semitic southern languages, Hebraeo-Phoenician, Aramaic and Assyrian.

Additional information and Comments

i feel that this artical in itself truley reflects a wonderfully detailed yet most forgoten n part of the semetic languages and would like to congradulate and aplode this web sites lovely and most fun and challenging works for the continental encyclopidia
» Add information or comments to this article.
Please link directly to this article:
Highlight the code below, right click and select "copy." Paste it into a website, email, or other HTML document.