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Semitic language

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Semitic language

Western Asia, North Africa,
Northeast Africa, Malta
Linguistic classification: Afro-Asiatic
  • Semitic
Proto-language: Proto-Semitic
Ethnologue code: 5: sem

Approximate historical distribution of Semitic languages.

The Semitic languages are a group of related languages originating in the Near East whose living representatives are spoken by more than 470 million people across much of Western Asia, North Africa and the Horn of Africa. They constitute a branch of the Afroasiatic language family. The most widely spoken Semitic languages today are Arabic[1] (206 million native speakers),[2] Amharic (27 million),[3][4] Hebrew (about 7 million),[5] Tigrinya (6.7 million),[6] and Aramaic (about 2.2 million).

Semitic languages are attested in written form from a very early date, with Akkadian and Eblaite texts (written in a script adapted from Sumerian cuneiform) appearing from around the middle of the third millennium BC in Mesopotamia and the northern Levant respectively. However, most scripts used to write Semitic languages are abjads — a type of alphabetic script that omits some or all of the vowels, which is feasible for these languages because the consonants in the Semitic languages are the primary carriers of meaning. Among them are the Ugaritic, Phoenician, Aramaic, Hebrew, Syriac, Arabic, and South Arabian alphabets. The Ge'ez alphabet, used for writing the Semitic languages of Ethiopia and Eritrea, is technically an abugida — a modified abjad in which vowels are notated using diacritic marks added to the consonants. Maltese is the only Semitic language written in the Latin script and the only official Semitic language of the European Union.

The Semitic languages are well known for their nonconcatenative morphology. That is, word roots are not themselves syllables or words, but instead are isolated sets of consonants (usually three, making a so-called triliteral root). Words are composed out of roots not so much by adding prefixes or suffixes, but rather by filling in the vowels between the root consonants (although prefixes and suffixes are often added as well). For example, in Arabic, the root meaning "write" has the form k-t-b. From this root, words are formed by filling in the vowels, e.g. kitāb "book", kutub "books", kātib "writer", kuttāb "writers", kataba "he wrote", yaktubu "he writes", etc.


The name Semitic was first coined by the German orientalists August Ludwig von Schlözer[7] and Johann Gottfried Eichhorn[8] in the late 18th century to designate the languages closely related to Arabic, Aramaic, and Hebrew.[7]

Schlözer derived the name from Shem, one of the three sons of Noah in the genealogical tables of the biblical Book of Genesis,[7] or more precisely from the Greek derivative of that name, namely Σημ (Sēm).

Before Schlözer, these languages had been known as the Oriental languages in European literature.[7][8] In the 19th century, Semitic became the conventional name; however, an alternative name: Syro-Arabian languages was introduced and used by some writers.[8]

That important family of languages, of which the Arabic is the most cultivated and most widely-extended branch, has long wanted an appropriate common name. The term Oriental languages, which was exclusively applied to it from the time of Jerome down to the end of the last century, and which is even now not entirely abandoned, must always have been an unscientific one, inasmuch as the countries in which these languages prevailed are only the east in respect to Europe; and when Sanskrit, Chinese, and other idioms of the remoter East were brought within the reach of our research, it became palpably incorrect. Under a sense of this impropriety, Eichhorn was the first, as he says himself (Allg. Bibl. Biblioth. vi. 772), to introduce the name Semitic languages, which was soon generally adopted, and which is the most usual one at the present day.

[...] In modern times, however, the very appropriate designation Syro-Arabian languages has been proposed by Dr. Prichard, in his Physical History of Man. This term, [...] has the advantage of forming an exact counterpart to the name by which the only other great family of languages with which we are likely to bring the Syro-Arabian into relations of contrast or accordance, is now universally known—the Indo-Germanic. Like it, by taking up only the two extreme members of a whole sisterhood according to their geographical position when in their native seats, it embraces all the intermediate branches under a common band; and, like it, it constitutes a name which is not only at once intelligible, but one which in itself conveys a notion of that affinity between the sister dialects, which it is one of the objects of comparative philology to demonstrate and to apply.

John Kitto, A Cyclopædia of Biblical Literature (1845).[8]



Main article: Proto-Semitic

The Semitic family is a member of the larger Afroasiatic family, all of whose other five or more branches are based in north and north east Africa. Largely for this reason, the ancestors of Proto-Semitic speakers were originally believed by some to have first arrived in the Middle East from North Africa, possibly as part of the operation of the Saharan pump, around the late Neolithic.[9][10] Diakonoff sees Semitic originating between the Nile Delta and Canaan as the northernmost branch of Afroasiatic. Blench even wonders whether the highly divergent Gurage languages indicate an origin in Ethiopia (with the rest of Ethiopic Semitic a later back migration).

A recent Bayesian analysis of alternative Semitic histories supports the latter possibility and identifies an origin of Semitic languages in the Levant around 3,750 BC with a single introduction from southern Arabia into Africa around 800 BC.[11]

In one interpretation, Proto-Semitic itself is assumed to have reached the Arabian Peninsula by approximately the 4th millennium BC, from which Semitic daughter languages continued to spread outwards. When written records began in the late 4th millennium BC, the Semitic-speaking Akkadians (Assyrians/Babylonians) were entering Mesopotamia from the deserts to the west, and were probably already present in places such as Ebla in Syria. Akkadian personal names began appearing in written record in Mesopotamia from the late 29th Century BC.[12]

2nd millennium BC

By the late 3rd millennium BC, East Semitic languages, such as Akkadian and Eblaite, were dominant in Mesopotamia and north east Syria, while West Semitic languages, such as Amorite, Canaanite and Ugaritic, were probably spoken from Syria to the Arabian Peninsula, although Old South Arabian is considered by most people to be South Semitic despite the sparsity of data. The Akkadian language of Akkad, Assyria and Babylonia had become the dominant literary language of the Fertile Crescent, using the cuneiform script that was adapted from the Sumerians. The Middle Assyrian Empire, which originated in the 14th century BC, facilitated the use of Akkadian as a 'lingua franca' in many regions outside its homeland. The related, but more sparsely attested, Eblaite disappeared with the city, and Amorite is attested only from proper names in Mesopotamian records.

For the 2nd millennium, somewhat more data are available, thanks to the spread of an invention first used to capture the sounds of Semitic languages — the alphabet. Proto-Canaanite texts from around 1500 BC yield the first undisputed attestations of a West Semitic language (although earlier testimonies are possibly preserved in Middle Bronze Age alphabets), followed by the much more extensive Ugaritic tablets of northern Syria from around 1300 BC. Incursions of nomadic Semitic Aramaeans, and later still Chaldeans and Suteans, from the Syrian desert begin around this time. Akkadian continued to flourish, splitting into Babylonian and Assyrian dialects.

1st millennium BC

In the 1st millennium BC, the alphabet spread much further, giving us a picture not just of Canaanite, but also of Aramaic, Old South Arabian, and early Ge'ez. During this period, the case system, once vigorous in Ugaritic, seems to have started decaying in Northwest Semitic. Phoenician colonies (such as Carthage) spread their Canaanite language throughout much of the Mediterranean, while its close relative, Hebrew, became the vehicle of a religious literature, the Torah and Tanakh, that would have global ramifications. However, as an ironic result of the Assyrian Empire's vast conquests, Aramaic became the lingua franca of the Fertile Crescent and much of the Near East and parts of Asia Minor, gradually pushing Akkadian, Hebrew, Phoenician-Canaanite, and several other languages to extinction, although Hebrew and Akkadian remained in use as liturgical languages, Hebrew in particular developing a substantial literature. Ethiopian Semitic is attested by the 9th century BC, with the earliest proto-Ge'ez inscriptions of the kingdom of D'mt using the South Arabian alphabet.[13]

Common Era (AD)

Syriac, an Assyrian Mesopotamian descendant of Aramaic used in North Eastern Syria, Assyria (Assuristan) and Mesopotamia, rose to importance as a literary language of early Christianity in the 3rd to 5th centuries and continued into the early Arab Islamic era.

With the emergence of Islam in the 7th century, the ascendancy of Aramaic was dealt a fatal blow by the Arab conquests, which made another Semitic language — Arabic — the official language of an empire stretching from Spain to Central Asia.

With the patronage of the caliphs and the prestige of its liturgical status, it rapidly became one of the world's main literary languages. Its spread among the masses took much longer, however, as many (although not all) of the native populations outside the Arabian Peninsula only gradually abandoned their languages in favour of Arabic. As Bedouin tribes settled in conquered areas, it became the main language of not only central Arabia, but also Yemen,[14] the Fertile Crescent, and Egypt. Most of the Maghreb (Northwest Africa) followed, particularly in the wake of the Banu Hilal's incursion in the 11th century, and Arabic became the native language of many inhabitants of Spain. After the collapse of the Nubian kingdom of Dongola in the 14th century, Arabic began to spread south of Egypt; soon after, the Beni Ḥassān brought Arabization to Mauritania.

Meanwhile, Semitic languages were diversifying in Ethiopia and Eritrea, where, under heavy Cushitic influence, they split into a number of languages, including Amharic and Tigrinya. With the expansion of Ethiopia under the Solomonic dynasty, Amharic, previously a minor local language, spread throughout much of the country, replacing both Semitic (such as Gafat) and non-Semitic (such as Weyto) languages, and replacing Ge'ez as the principal literary language (though Ge'ez remains the liturgical language for Christians in the region); this spread continues to this day, with Qimant set to disappear in another generation.

Present situation

Arabic is the native language of majorities from Mauritania to Oman, and from Iraq to the Sudan. As the language of the Qur'an and as a lingua franca, it is also studied widely in the non-Arabic-speaking Muslim world. Its spoken form is divided into a number of varieties, some not mutually comprehensible, united by a single written form. The principal exception to this almost universal use of Arabic script is the Maltese language, genetically a descendant of the extinct Sicilian Arabic dialect. The Maltese alphabet is based on the Latin script with the addition of some letters with diacritic marks and digraphs. Maltese is the only Semitic official language within the European Union.

Despite the ascendancy of Arabic in the Middle East, other Semitic languages still exist. Hebrew, long extinct as a colloquial language and in use only in Jewish literary, intellectual, and liturgical activity, was revived in spoken form at the end of the 19th century. It has become the main language of Israel, while remaining the language of liturgy and religious scholarship of Jews worldwide.

Several smaller ethnic groups, in particular the Christian ethnic Assyrians and Gnostic Mandeans, continue to speak and write Mesopotamian Aramaic dialects (especially Neo-Aramaic, descended from Syriac) in northern Iraq, south eastern Turkey, northwestern Iran, and northeast Syria and the Caucasus. These dialects still contain a number of Akkadian loan words and have more structural commonality with the Akkadian language than Western Aramaic. Syriac itself, a descendant of Mesopotamian Old Aramaic, is used liturgically by Lebanese (the Maronites), Syrian and Assyrian Christians throughout Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Iran and Turkey.

In Arabic-dominated Yemen and Oman, on the southern rim of the Arabian Peninsula, a few tribes continue to speak Modern South Arabian languages such as Mahri and Soqotri. These languages differ greatly from both the surrounding Arabic dialects and from the (unrelated but previously thought to be related) languages of the Old South Arabian inscriptions.

Historically linked to the peninsular homeland of the Old South Arabian languages, Ethiopia and Eritrea contain a substantial number of Semitic languages; the most widely spoken are Amharic in Ethiopia, Tigre in Eritrea, and Tigrinya in both. Respectively, Amharic is the official language of Ethiopia. Tigrinya is a working language in Eritrea. Tigre is spoken by over one million people in the northern and central Eritrean lowlands and parts of eastern Sudan. A number of Gurage languages are spoken by populations in the semi-mountainous region of southwest Ethiopia, while Harari is restricted to the city of Harar. Ge'ez remains the liturgical language for certain groups of Christians in Ethiopia and in Eritrea.


The phonologies of the attested Semitic languages are presented here from a comparative point of view. See Proto-Semitic language#Phonology for details on the phonological reconstruction of Proto-Semitic used in this article. This comparative approach is natural for the consonants, as sound correspondences among the consonants of the Semitic languages are very straightforward for a family of its time depth; for the vowels there are more subtleties.


Each Proto-Semitic phoneme was reconstructed to explain a certain regular sound correspondence between various Semitic languages. Note that Latin letter values (italicized) for extinct languages are a question of transcription; the exact pronunciation is not recorded.

Most of the attested languages have merged a number of the reconstructed original fricatives, though South Arabian retains all fourteen (and has added a fifteenth from *p → f).

In Aramaic and Hebrew, all non-emphatic stops occurring singly after a vowel were softened to fricatives, leading to an alternation that was often later phonemicized as a result of the loss of gemination.

In languages exhibiting pharyngealization of emphatics, the original velar emphatic has rather developed to a uvular stop [q].

Proto-Semitic IPA Akkadian Arabic1 Ugaritic Phoenician Hebrew Modern
Aramaic Ge'ez Modern
South Arabian
*b b b ب b b b ב /b6 /v/, /b/ ב /b6 /b/ /b/
*d d d د d d d ד /d6 /d/ ד /d6 /d/ /d/
*g ɡ g ج ǧ *[ɡʲ]→[d͡ʒ]1 g g ג /g6 /ɡ/ ג /g6 /ɡ/ /ɡ/
*p p p ف f p p פ /p6 /f/, /p/ פ /p6 /f/ /f/
*t t t ت t t t ת /t6 /t/ ת /t6 /t/ /t/
*k k k ك k k k כ /k6 /χ/, /k/ כ /k6 /k/ /k/
*ṭ ط [tˤ] ט /t/ ט /tʼ/ /tʼ/
*ḳ q ق q q ק q /k/ ק q /kʼ/ /kʼ/
*ḏ ð z ذ [ð] d z ז z /z/ ז4 4/d /z/ /ð/
*z z / dz ز z z ז z /z/
*ṯ θ š ث [θ] š שׁ š /ʃ/ ש4 4/t /s/ /θ/
ʃ س s š שׁ š /ʃ/, /h/
ɬ / ش š [ʃ] שׂ2 ś2 /s/ שׂ4 ś4/s /ɬ/ /ɬ/
*s s / ts s س s s s ס s ס s /s/ /s/
*ṱ θʼ / tθʼ ظ [ðˤ~zˤ] ġ צ /ts/ צ4 ṯʼ 4/ /tsʼ/ /θʼ/
*ṣ / tsʼ ص [sˤ] צ /sʼ/
*ṣ́ ɬʼ / tɬʼ ض *[ɮˤ]→[dˤ]1 ק4 *ġʼ 4/ʻ /ɬʼ/ /ɬʼ/
ʁ غ ġ [ɣ~ʁ] ġ,ʻ /ʕ/ ע3 ʻ3 /ʔ/, - ע4 ġ4/ʻ /ʕ/ /ɣ/
ʕ -5 ع ʻ [ʕ] ʻ ע ʻ /ʕ/
ʔ ء ʼ [ʔ] ʼ /ʔ/ א ʼ /ʔ/, - א ʼ /ʔ/ /ʔ/
*ḫ χ خ [x~χ] ח /χ/ ח4 4/ /χ/ /x/
*ḥ ħ -5 ح [ħ] ח /ħ/ /ħ/
*h h ه h h h ה h /h/, - ה h /h/ /h/
*m m m م m m m מ m /m/ מ m /m/ /m/
*n n n ن n n n נ n /n/ נ
/n/ /n/
*r ɾ r ر r r r ר r /ʁ/ ר r /r/ /r/
*l l l ل l l l ל l /l/ ל l /l/ /l/
*w w w و w w
/v/, /w/
/w/ /w/
*y j y ي y [j] y y י y /j/ י y /j/ /j/
Proto-Semitic IPA Akkadian Arabic Ugaritic Phoenician Hebrew Modern Hebrew Aramaic Ge'ez Modern
South Arabian


  1. Arabic pronunciation is that of reconstructed Qur'anic Arabic of the 7th and 8th centuries CE. If the pronunciation of Modern Standard Arabic differs, this is indicated (for example, [ɡʲ]→[d͡ʒ] and [ɮˤ]→[dˤ]).
  2. Proto-Semitic was still pronounced as [ɬ] in Biblical Hebrew, but no letter was available in the Phoenician alphabet, so the letter ש did double duty, representing both /ʃ/ and /ɬ/. Later on, however, /ɬ/ merged with /s/, but the old spelling was largely retained, and the two pronunciations of ש were distinguished graphically in Tiberian Hebrew as שׁ /ʃ/ vs. שׂ /s/ < /ɬ/.
  3. Biblical Hebrew as of the 3rd century BCE apparently still distinguished the phonemes ġ /ʁ/ and /χ/, based on transcriptions in the Septuagint. As in the case of /ɬ/, no letters were available to represent these sounds, and existing letters did double duty: ח /χ/ /ħ/ and ע /ʁ/ /ʕ/. In both of these cases, however, the two sounds represented by the same letter eventually merged, leaving no evidence (other than early transcriptions) of the former distinctions.
  4. Although early Aramaic (pre-7th century BCE) had only 22 consonants in its alphabet, it apparently distinguished all of the original 29 Proto-Semitic phonemes, including *ḏ, *ṯ, *ṱ, , *ṣ́, and *ḫ — although by Middle Aramaic times, these had all merged with other sounds. This conclusion is mainly based on the shifting representation of words etymologically containing these sounds; in early Aramaic writing, the first five are merged with z, š, , š, q, respectively, but later with d, t, , s, ʿ.[15][16] (Also note that due to begadkefat spirantization, which occurred after this merger, OAm. t→ṯ and d→ḏ in some positions, so that PS *t,ṯ and *d,ḏ may be realized as either of t,ṯ and d,ḏ respectively.) The sounds and *ḫ were always represented using the pharyngeal letters ʿ , but they are distinguished from the pharyngeals in the Demotic-script papyrus Amherst 63, written about 200 BC.[17] This suggests that these sounds, too, were distinguished in Old Aramaic language, but written using the same letters as they later merged with.
  5. These are only distinguished from the zero reflexes of *h, *ʔ by e-coloring adjacent *a, e.g. pS *ˈbaʕal-um 'owner, lord' → Akk. bēlu(m).[18]
  6. Hebrew and Aramaic underwent begadkefat spirantization at a certain point, whereby the stop sounds /b ɡ d p k t/ were softened to the corresponding fricatives [v ɣ ð f x θ] (written ḇ ḡ ḏ ḵ p̄ ṯ) when occurring after a vowel and not geminated. This change probably happened after the original Old Aramaic phonemes /θ, ð/ disappeared in the 7th century BC,[19] and most likely occurred after the loss of Hebrew /χ, ʁ/ c. 200 BC.[nb 1] It is known to have occurred in Hebrew by the 2nd century AD.[20] After a certain point this alternation became contrastive in word-medial and final position (though bearing low functional load), but in word-initial position they remained allophonic.[21] In Modern Hebrew, the distinction has a higher functional load due to the loss of gemination, although only the three fricatives /v χ f/ are still preserved (the fricative /x/ is pronounced /χ/ in modern Hebrew). (The others are pronounced like the corresponding stops, apparently under the influence of later non-native speakers whose native European tongues lacked the sounds /ɣ ð θ/ as phonemes.)
  7. In the Northwest Semitic languages, */w/ became */j/ at the beginning of a word, e.g. Hebrew yeled "boy" < *wald (cf. Arabic walad).

In addition to those in the table, Modern Hebrew has introduced the new phonemes /tʃ/, /dʒ/, /ʒ/ through borrowings.

The following table shows the development of the various fricatives in Hebrew, Aramaic and Arabic through cognate words:

Proto-Semitic Hebrew Aramaic Arabic Examples
Hebrew Aramaic Arabic meaning
*/ð/ *ḏ */z/ ז */d/ ד */ð/ ذ זהב
*/z/1 *z */z/ ז */z/ ز מאזנים
*/ʃ/ */ʃ/ שׁ */ʃ/ שׁ */s/ س שׁנה
*/θ/ *ṯ */t/ ת */θ/ ث שלוש
*/θʼ/1 *ṱ */sʼ/1 צ */tʼ/ ט */ðˤ/ ظ צל
*/ɬʼ/1 *ṣ́ */ʕ ע */ɮˤ/ ض ארץ
*/sʼ/1 *ṣ */sʼ/ צ */sˤ/ ص צרח
'water melon like plant'
*/χ/ *ḫ */ħ/ ח */ħ/ ח */χ/ خ חֲמִשָׁה
*/ħ/ *ḥ */ħ/ ح מלח
*/ʁ/ */ʕ/ ע */ʕ/ ע */ʁ/ غ עורב
*/ʕ/ */ʕ/ ع עבד
*/ɬ/ */s/ שׂ */s/ שׂ */ʃ/ ش עשׂר ܥܣܪ عشر 'ten'
  1. possibly affricated (/dz/ /tɬʼ/ /ʦʼ/ /tθʼ/ /tɬ/)


Proto-Semitic vowels are, in general, harder to deduce due to the templatic nature of Semitic languages. The history of vowel changes in the languages makes drawing up a complete table of correspondences impossible, so only the most common reflexes can be given:

Vowel correspondences in Semitic languages (in proto-Semitic stressed syllables)[22]
pS Hebrew Aramaic Arabic Ge'ez Akkadian
/ˈ_.1 /ˈ_Cː2 /ˈ_C.C3 usually4 /_C.ˈV
*a ā a ɛ a ə a a a, e, ē5
*i ē e ɛ, e e, i,
WSyr. ɛ
ə i ə i
*u ō o o u, o ə u ə, ʷə6 u
ō[nb 2] ā ā ā ā, ē
ī ī ī ī ī
ū ū ū ū ū
*ay. ayi, ay BA, JA ay(i), ē,
WSyr. ay/ī & ay/ē
ay ay, ē ī
*aw. ō,
pausal ˈāwɛ
WSyr. aw/ū
aw ō ū
  1. in a stressed open syllable
  2. in a stressed closed syllable before a geminate
  3. in a stressed closed syllable before a consonant cluster
  4. when the proto-Semitic stressed vowel remained stressed
  5. pS *a,*ā → Akk. e,ē in the neighborhood of pS *ʕ,*ħ and before r.
  6. I.e. pS *g,*k,*ḳ,*χ → Ge'ez gʷ,kʷ,ḳʷ,χʷ / _u

Correspondence of sounds with other Afroasiatic languages

See table at Proto-Afroasiatic language#Consonant correspondences.


The Semitic languages share a number of grammatical features, although variation - both between separate languages, and within the languages themselves - has naturally occurred over time.

Word order

The reconstructed default word order in Proto-Semitic is Akkadian was also predominantly SOV.

Cases in nouns and adjectives

The proto-Semitic three-case system (nominative, accusative and genitive) with differing vowel endings (-u, -a -i), fully preserved in Qur'anic Arabic (see ʾIʿrab), Akkadian and Ugaritic, has disappeared everywhere in the many colloquial forms of Semitic languages, although Modern Standard Arabic maintains such case endings in literary and broadcasting contexts. An accusative ending -n is preserved in Ethiopian Semitic.[23] The archaic Samalian dialect of Old Aramaic reflects a case distinction in the plural between nominative and oblique (compare the same distinction in Classical Arabic).[15][24] Additionally, Semitic nouns and adjectives had a category of state, the indefinite state being expressed by nunation.

Number in nouns

Semitic languages originally had three grammatical numbers: singular, dual, and plural. Classical Arabic still has a mandatory dual (i.e. it must be used in all circumstances when referring to two entities), marked on nouns, verbs, adjectives and pronouns. Many contemporary dialects of Arabic still have a dual, as in the name for the nation of Bahrain (baħr "sea" + -ayn "two"), although it is marked only on nouns. It also occurs in Hebrew in a few nouns (šana means "one year", šnatayim means "two years", and šanim means "years"), but for those it is obligatory. The curious phenomenon of broken plurals – e.g. in Arabic, sadd "one dam" vs. sudūd "dams" – found most profusely in the languages of Arabia and Ethiopia, may be partly of proto-Semitic origin, and partly elaborated from simpler origins.

Verb aspect and tense

Paradigm of a regular Classical Arabic verb:
Form I kataba (yaktubu) "to write"
Past Present
1st katab-tu كَتَبْتُ ʼa-ktub-u أَكْتُبُ
2nd masculine katab-ta كَتَبْتَ ta-ktub-u تَكْتُبُ
feminine katab-ti كَتَبْتِ ta-ktub-īna تَكْتُبِينَ
3rd masculine katab-a كَتَبَ ya-ktub-u يَكْتُبُ
feminine katab-at كَتَبَتْ ta-ktub-u تَكْتُبُ
2nd masculine
& feminine
katab-tumā كَتَبْتُمَا ta-ktub-āni تَكْتُبَانِ
3rd masculine katab كَتَبَا ya-ktub-āni يَكْتُبَانِ
feminine katab-atā كَتَبَتَا ta-ktub-āni تَكْتُبَانِ
1st katab-nā كَتَبْنَا na-ktub-u نَكْتُبُ
2nd masculine katab-tum كَتَبْتُمْ ta-ktub-ūna تَكْتُبُونَ
feminine katab-tunna كَتَبْتُنَّ ta-ktub-na تَكْتُبْنَ
3rd masculine katab كَتَبُوا ya-ktub-ūna يَكْتُبُونَ
feminine katab-na كَتَبْنَ ya-ktub-na يَكْتُبْنَ

All Semitic languages show two quite distinct styles of morphology used for conjugating verbs. Suffix conjugations take suffixes indicating the person, number and gender of the subject, which bear some resemblance to the pronominal suffixes used to indicate direct objects on verbs ("I saw him") and possession on nouns ("his dog"). So-called prefix conjugations actually takes both prefixes and suffixes, with the prefixes primarily indicating person (and sometimes number and/or gender), while the suffixes (which are completely different from those used in the suffix conjugation) indicate number and gender whenever the prefix does not mark this. The prefix conjugation is noted for a particular pattern of ʔ- t- y- n- prefixes where (1) a t- prefix is used in the singular to mark the second person and third-person feminine, while a y- prefix marks the third-person masculine; and (2) identical words are used for second-person masculine and third-person feminine singular. The prefix conjugation is extremely old, with clear analogues in nearly all the families of Afroasiatic languages (i.e. at least 10,000 years old). The table on the right shows examples of the prefix and suffix conjugations in Classical Arabic, which has forms that are close to Proto-Semitic.

In Proto-Semitic, as still largely reflected in East Semitic, prefix conjugations are used both for the past and the non-past, with different vocalizations. Cf. Akkadian niprus "we decided" (preterite), niptaras "we have decided" (perfect), niparras "we decide" (non-past or imperfect), vs. suffix-conjugated parsānu "we are/were/will be deciding" (stative). Some of these features, e.g. gemination indicating the non-past/imperfect, are generally attributed to Afroasiatic. According to Hetzron,[25] Proto-Semitic had an additional form, the jussive, which was distinguished from the preterite only by the position of stress: the jussive had final stress while the preterite had non-final (retracted) stress.

The West Semitic languages significantly reshaped the system. The most substantial changes occurred in the Central Semitic languages (the ancestors of modern Hebrew, Arabic and Aramaic). Essentially, the old prefix-conjugated jussive and/or preterite became a new non-past (or imperfect), while the stative became a new past (or perfect), and the old prefix-conjugated non-past (or imperfect) with gemination was discarded. New suffixes were used to mark different moods in the non-past, e.g. Classical Arabic -u (indicative), -a (subjunctive), vs no suffix (jussive). (It is not generally agreed whether the systems of the various Semitic languages are better interpreted in terms of tense, i.e. past vs. non-past, or aspect, i.e. perfect vs. imperfect.) However, in Hebrew, elements of the old system survived alongside the new system for a while, in forms known as the waw-consecutive and marked with a prefixed w-. The South Semitic languages show a system somewhere between the East and Central Semitic languages.

Later languages show further developments. In the modern varieties of Arabic, for example, the old mood suffixes were dropped, and new mood prefixes developed (e.g. bi- for indicative vs. no prefix for subjunctive in many varieties). In the extreme case of Neo-Aramaic, the verb conjugations have been entirely reworked under Iranian influence.

Morphology: triliteral roots

Main article: Semitic root

All Semitic languages exhibit a unique pattern of stems consisting typically of "triliteral", or 3-consonant consonantal roots (2- and 4-consonant roots also exist), from which nouns, adjectives, and verbs are formed in various ways: e.g. by inserting vowels, doubling consonants, lengthening vowels, and/or adding prefixes, suffixes, or infixes.

For instance, the root k-t-b, (dealing with "writing" generally) yields in Arabic:

kataba كَتَبَ or كتب "he wrote" (masculine)
katabat كَتَبَت or كتبت "she wrote" (feminine)
katabtu كَتَبْتُ or كتبت "I wrote" (f and m)
kutiba كُتِبَ or كتب "it was written" (masculine)
kutibat كُتِبَت or كتبت "it was written" (feminine)
katabū كَتَبُوا or كتبوا "they wrote" (masculine)
katabna كَتَبْنَ or كتبن "they wrote" (feminine)
katab كَتَبْنَا or كتبنا "we wrote" (f and m)
yaktub(u) يَكْتُب or يكتب "he writes" (masculine)
taktub(u) تَكْتُب or تكتب "she writes" (feminine)
naktub(u) نَكْتُب or نكتب "we write" (f and m)
aktub(u) أَكْتُب or أكتب "I write" (f and m)
yuktab(u) يُكْتَب or يكتب "being written" (masculine)
tuktab(u) تُكتَب or تكتب "being written" (feminine)
yaktubūn(a) يَكْتُبُونَ or يكتبون "they write" (masculine)
yaktubna يَكْتُبْنَ or يكتبن "they write" (feminine)
taktubna تَكْتُبْنَ or تكتبن "you write" (feminine)
yaktubān(i) يَكْتُبَانِ or يكتبان "they both write" (masculine) (for 2 males)
taktubān(i) تَكْتُبَانِ or تكتبان "they both write" (feminine) (for 2 females)
kātaba ##### or ##### "he exchanged letters (with sb.)"
yukātib(u) ##### "he exchanges (with sb.)"
yatakātabūn(a) يَتَكَاتَبُونَ or يتكاتبون "they write to each other" (masculine)
iktataba اِكْتَتَبَ or اكتتب "he is registered" (intransitive) or "he contributed (a money quantity to sth.)" (ditransitive) (the first t is part of a particular verbal transfix, not part of the root)
istaktaba اِسْتَكْتَبَ or استكتب "to cause to write (sth.)"
kitāb كِتَاب or كتاب "book" (the hyphen shows end of stem before various case endings)
kutub كُتُب or كتب "books" (plural)
kutayyib كُتَيِّب or كتيب "booklet" (diminutive)
kitābat كِتَابَة or كتابة "writing"
kātib كاتِب or كاتب "writer" (masculine)
kātibat كاتِبة or كاتبة "writer" (feminine)
kātibūn(a كاتِبونَ or كاتبون "writers" (masculine)
kātibāt كاتِبات or كاتبات "writers" (feminine)
kuttāb كُتاب or كتاب "writers" (broken plural)
katabat كَتَبَة or كتبة "clerks" (broken plural)
maktab مَكتَب or مكتب "desk" or "office"
makātib مَكاتِب or مكاتب "desks" or "offices"
maktabat مَكتَبة or مكتبة "library" or "bookshop"
maktūb مَكتوب or مكتوب "written" (participle) or "postal letter" (noun)
katībat كَتيبة or كتيبة "squadron" or "document"
katā’ib كَتائِب or كتائب "squadrons" or "documents"
iktitāb اِكتِتاب or اكتتاب "registration" or "contribution of funds"
muktatib مُكتَتِب or مكتتب "subscription"
istiktāb اِستِكتاب or استكتاب "causing to write"

and the same root in Hebrew (where it appears as k-t-ḇ):

katati כתבתי "I wrote"
katata כתבת "you (m) wrote"
kata כתב "he wrote"
katta כתב "reporter" (m)
katteet כתבת "reporter" (f)
kattaa כתבה "article" (plural kataḇot כתבות)
miḵta מכתב "postal letter" (plural miḵtaim מכתבים)
miḵtaa מכתבה "writing desk" (plural miḵtaot מכתבות)
ktoet כתובת "address" (plural ktoot כתובות)
kta כתב "handwriting"
katu כתוב "written" (f ktua כתובה)
hiḵti הכתיב "he dictated" (f hiḵtiḇa הכתיבה)
hitkatte התכתב "he corresponded (f hitkatḇa התכתבה)
niḵta נכתב "it was written" (m)
niḵtea נכתבה "it was written" (f)
kti כתיב "spelling" (m)
taḵti תכתיב "prescript" (m)
meutta מכותב "addressee" (meutteet מכותבת f)
ktubba כתובה "ketubah (a Jewish marriage contract)" (f) (note: b here, not )

In Tigrinya and Amharic, this root survives only in the noun kitab, meaning "amulet", and the verb "to vaccinate". Ethiopic-derived languages use a completely different root (ṣ-ḥ-f) for the verb "to write" (this root exists in Arabic and is used to form words with a close meaning to "writing", such as ṣaḥāfa "journalism", and ṣaḥīfa "newspaper" or "parchment").

Verbs in other non-Semitic Afroasiatic languages show similar radical patterns, but more usually with biconsonantal roots; e.g. Kabyle afeg means "fly!", while affug means "flight", and yufeg means "he flew" (compare with Hebrew, where hafleg means "set sail!", haflaga means "a sailing trip", and hiflig means "he sailed", while the unrelated ʕūf, təʕūfā and ʕāf pertain to flight).

Independent personal pronouns

English Proto-Semitic Akkadian Arabic Ge'ez Hebrew Aramaic
standard vernaculars
I *ʔanāku,[nb 3] *ʔaniya anāku ʔanā ana, āni, āna ʔana ʔānōḵī, ʔănī ʔanā
Thou (sg., masc.) *ʔanka → *ʔanta atta ʔanta inta, inti ʔánta ʔattā ʔantā
Thou (sg., fem.) *ʔanti atti ʔanti inti, init ʔánti ʔatt ʔanti
He *suʔa šū huwa huwwa, huwwe wəʔətu hu
She *siʔa šī hiya hiyya, hiyye yəʔəti hi
We *niyaħnū, *niyaħnā nīnu naħnu iħna, niħna nəħnā ʔānū, ʔănaħnū náħnā
Ye (dual) *ʔantunā ʔantumā
They (dual) *sunā [nb 4] *sunī(ti) humā
Ye (pl., masc.) *ʔantunū attunu ʔantum intu, intum ʔantəmu ʔattem ʔantun
Ye (pl., fem.) *ʔantinā attina ʔantunna ʔantən ʔatten ʔanten
They (masc.) *sunū šunu hum(u) humma, hinne ʔəmuntu hēm hinnun
They (fem.) *sinā šina hunna ʔəmāntu hēn, hēnnā hinnin

Cardinal numerals

English Proto-Semitic[26] IPA Arabic Hebrew Tigrinya Sabaean
One *ʼaḥad-, *ʻišt- ʔaħad, ʔiʃt waːħid-, ʔaħad- ʔɛˈħad ħade ʔḥd
Two *ṯin-ān (nom.), *ṯin-ayn (obl.), *kilʼ- θinaːn, θinajn, kilʔ iθn-āni (nom.), iθn-ajni (obj.), fem. θint-āni, θint-ajni ˈʃn-ajim, fem. ˈʃt-ajim klte *ṯny
Three *śalāṯ-*ṯalāṯ-[nb 5] ɬalaːθ → θalaːθ θalaːθ- fem. ʃaˈloʃ seleste (Ge'ez śälas) *ślṯ
Four *ʼarbaʻ- ʔarbaʕ ʔarbaʕ- fem. ˈʔarbaʕ arbaʕte *ʼrbʻ
Five *ḫamš- χamʃ χams- fem. ˈħameʃ ħamuʃte *ḫmš
Six *šidṯ-[nb 6] ʃidθ sitt- (ordinal saːdis-) fem. ʃeʃ ʃduʃte *šdṯ/šṯ
Seven *šabʻ- ʃabʕ sabʕ- fem. ˈʃɛβaʕ ʃewʕate *šbʻ
Eight *ṯamāniy- θamaːnij- θamaːn-ij- fem. ʃǝˈmonɛ ʃemonte *ṯmny/ṯmn
Nine *tišʻ- tiʃʕ tisʕ- fem. ˈteʃaʕ tʃʕate *tšʻ
Ten *ʻaśr- ʕaɬr ʕaʃ(a)r- fem. ˈʕɛśɛr ʕaserte *ʻśr

These are the basic numeral stems without feminine suffixes. Note that in most older Semitic languages, the forms of the numerals from 3 to 10 exhibit gender polarity (also called "chiastic concord" or reverse agreement), i.e. if the counted noun is masculine, the numeral would be feminine and vice versa.


Some early Semitic languages are speculated to have had weak ergative features.[27]

Common vocabulary

Due to the Semitic languages' common origin, they share many words and roots. For example:

English Proto-Semitic Akkadian Arabic Aramaic Hebrew Ge'ez Mehri
father *ʼab- ab- ʼab- ʼaḇ-āʼ ʼāḇ ʼab ḥa-yb
heart *lib(a)b- libb- lubb- lebb-āʼ lēḇ(āḇ) libb ḥa-wbēb
house *bayt- bītu, bētu bayt- bayt-āʼ báyiṯ, bêṯ bet beyt, bêt
peace *šalām- šalām- salām- šlām-āʼ šālôm salām səlōm
tongue *lišān-/*lašān- lišān- lisān- leššān-āʼ lāšôn lissān əwšēn
water *may-/*māy- mû (root *mā-/*māy-) māʼ-/māy mayy-āʼ máyim māy ḥə-mō

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. The root l-ḥ-m means "meat" in Arabic, but "bread" in Hebrew and "cow" in Ethiopian Semitic; the original meaning was most probably "food". The word medina (root: m-d-n) has the meaning of "metropolis" in Amharic and "city" in Arabic and Hebrew, but in Modern Hebrew it is usually used as "state".

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 and in Ethiosemitic by the roots ʿ-w-q and f-l-ṭ.

For more comparative vocabulary lists, see appendices:


There are six fairly uncontroversial nodes within the Semitic languages: East Semitic, Northwest Semitic, Arabic, Old South Arabian (also known as Sayhadic), Modern South Arabian, and Ethiopic. These are generally grouped further, but there is ongoing debate as to which belong together. The classification based on shared innovations given below, established by Robert Hetzron in 1976 and with later emendations by John Huehnergard and Rodgers as summarized in Hetzron 1997, is the most widely accepted today. In particular, several Semiticists still argue for the traditional (partially nonlinguistic) view of Arabic as part of South Semitic, and a few (e.g. Alexander Militarev or the German-Egyptian professor Arafa Hussein Mustafa) see the South Arabian languages as a third branch of Semitic alongside East and West Semitic, rather than as a subgroup of South Semitic. Roger Blench notes that the Gurage languages are highly divergent and wonders whether they might not be a primary branch, reflecting an origin of Afroasiatic in or near Ethiopia. At a lower level, there is still no general agreement on where to draw the line between "languages" and "dialects" – an issue particularly relevant in Arabic, Aramaic, and Gurage – and the strong mutual influences between Arabic dialects render a genetic subclassification of them particularly difficult.

The Himyaritic language appears to have been Semitic, but is unclassified due to insufficient data.

Living Semitic languages by number of speakers

lang speakers
Arabic 206,000,000[28]
Amharic 27,000,000
Tigrinya 6,700,000
Hebrew 5,000,000[29]
Neo-Aramaic 2,105,000
Silt'e 830,000
Tigre 800,000
Sebat Bet Gurage 440,000
Maltese 371,900[30]
Modern South Arabian 360,000
Inor 280,000
Soddo 250,000
Harari 21,283

See also


Additional Reference Literature

  • Bennett, Patrick R. 1998. Comparative Semitic Linguistics: A Manual. Eisenbrauns. ISBN 1-57506-021-3.
  • Bergsträsser, Gotthelf. 1995. Introduction to the Semitic Languages: Text Specimens and Grammatical Sketches. Translated by Peter T. Daniels. Winona Lake, Ind. : Eisenbrauns. ISBN 0-931464-10-2.
  • Garbini, Giovanni. 1984. Le lingue semitiche: studi di storia linguistica. Naples: Istituto Orientale.
  • Garbini, Giovanni; Durand, Olivier. 1995. Introduzione alle lingue semitiche. Paideia: Brescia 1995.
  • Goldenberg, Gideon. 2013. Semitic Languages: Features, Structures, Relations, Processes. Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-964491-9.
  • Hetzron, Robert (ed.). 1997. The Semitic Languages. London: Routledge. ISBN 0-415-05767-1. (For family tree, see p. 7).
  • Lipinski, Edward. 2001. Semitic Languages: Outlines of a Comparative Grammar. 2nd ed. Leuven: Orientalia Lovanensia Analecta. ISBN 90-429-0815-7
  • Mustafa, Arafa Hussein. 1974. "Analytical study of phrases and sentences in epic texts of Ugarit." (German title: Untersuchungen zu Satztypen in den epischen Texten von Ugarit). Dissertation. Halle-Wittenberg: Martin-Luther-University.
  • Moscati, Sabatino. 1969. An introduction to the comparative grammar of the Semitic languages: phonology and morphology. Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz.
  • Ullendorff, Edward. 1955. The Semitic languages of Ethiopia: a comparative phonology. London: Taylor's (Foreign) Press.
  • Wright, William; Smith, William Robertson. 1890. Lectures on the comparative grammar of the Semitic languages. Cambridge University Press 1890. [2002 edition: ISBN 1-931956-12-X]

External links

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