A language family containing many of the world's most historically important languages. The major language today is Arabic, either a native or a literary language from Morocco to Indonesia. Other modern Semitic national languages are Hebrew, Maltese, and Amharic in Ethiopia. Anciently, most of the great powers of Mesopotamia were Semitic-speaking.

There are three branches of the Semitic family.

  • The West (or North-West) Semitic contains Hebrew, and modern Assyrian, and also contained the now-extinct languages of familiar coastal Near Eastern peoples such as the Phoenicians, Canaanites, and Moabites, as well as Aramaic and Syriac, and the recently discovered and deciphered Eblaite and Ugaritic.
  • The East or North-East Semitic is extinct, but included Akkadian and its later dialects Babylonian, and Assyrian, the languages of those great empires of the past.
    Note that the modern language called Assyrian is a descendant of Aramaic, not of ancient Assyrian.
  • South Semitic, containing languages to the south of Arabic. There were formerly in southern Arabia a number of peoples and civilizations, and their South Arabian languages do in some small degree survive there. Some of them crossed the Red Sea and settled in Abyssinia, and some of the modern languages of Ethiopia, among them Amharic and Tigre, are descended from them, as is the mediaeval liturgical language Ge'ez (Old Ethiopic).
The position of Arabic itself (and its descendant Maltese) is disputed: it is either North-West Semitic or South Semitic. Actually "Arabic" covers about ten dialects from Mauritania to Iraq so divergent that we could equally call them languages. They are unified by educated use of Classical Arabic.

The prime characteristic of all the Semitic languages must be the triconsonantal roots. Three consonants hold the basic meaning of a word, such as K-T-B for writing, and all the detailed grammatical structure is held by putting various vowels between them, and affixes before and after them. For a more detailed explanation of this see my write-up of Arabic, which contains a basic grammar. That gives a fair idea of how all Semitic languages work, in essence.

The alphabet was an invention of some Semitic people -- it is not known exactly who -- in Canaan (Palestine/Israel) or the Sinai, under Egyptian influence.

The Semitic family is part of a larger language family called Afro-Asiatic. This was formerly called Hamito-Semitic, but in fact Semitic is only one of six branches. There is no unity among the others to justify calling them "Hamitic". (The old name is a relic of late eighteenth-century anthropology that tried to link language groups with Biblical names.) Semitic is the only Asiatic member of the group, which is essentially an African family. The name was coined by von Schlözer in 1781 but their relatedness was recognized long before, especially by Jewish and Arabic scholars.

Thanks to atesh for spotting ridiculous typo, and to Gone Jackal for comments on Akkadian, Hamitic, and the classification of Arabic.

Sem*it"ic (?), a.

Of or pertaining to Shem or his descendants; belonging to that division of the Caucasian race which includes the Arabs, Jews, and related races.

[Written also Shemitic.]

Semitic language, a name used to designate a group of Asiatic and African languages, some living and some dead, namely: Hebrew and Ph&oe;nician, Aramaic, Assyrian, Arabic, Ethiopic (Geez and Ampharic).

Encyc. Brit.


© Webster 1913.

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