The Semitic languages are a branch of the Afroasiatic language family originating in the Middle East. They are spoken by more than 330 million people across much of West Asia, North Africa, the Horn of Africa, Malta, in small pockets in the Caucasus as well as in often large immigrant and expatriate communities in North America, Europe and Australasia. The terminology was first used in the 1780s by members of the Göttingen School of History, who derived the name from Shem, one of the three sons of Noah in the Book of Genesis. The most widely spoken Semitic languages today, with numbers of native speakers only, are Arabic (300 million), Amharic (~22 million), Tigrinya (7 million), Hebrew (~5 million native/L1 speakers), Tigre (~1.05 million), Aramaic (575,000 to 1 million largely Assyrian speakers) and Maltese (483,000 speakers). Semitic languages occur in written form from a very early historical date, with East Semitic Akkadian and Eblaite texts (written in a script adapted from Sumerian cuneiform) appearing from the 30th century BCE and the 25th century BCE in Mesopotamia and the north eastern Levant respectively. The only earlier attested languages are Sumerian, Elamite (2800 BCE to 550 BCE, both language isolates), Egyptian, and the unclassified Lullubi (30th century BCE). Most scripts used to write Semitic languages are abjadsa type of alphabetic script that omits some or all of the vowels, which is feasible for these languages because the consonants are the primary carriers of meaning in the Semitic languages. These include the Ugaritic, Phoenician, Aramaic, Hebrew, Syriac, Arabic, and ancient South Arabian alphabets. The Geʽez script, 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 at all times, in contrast with other Semitic languages which indicate diacritics based on need or for introductory purposes. Maltese is the only Semitic language written in the Latin script and the only Semitic language to be an official language of the European Union. The Semitic languages are notable 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 and sometimes adding additional consonants, e.g. كتاب ''kitāb'' "book", كتب ''kutub'' "books", كاتب ''kātib'' "writer", كتّاب ''kuttāb'' "writers", كتب ''kataba'' "he wrote", يكتب ''yaktubu'' "he writes", etc.

Name and identification

The similarity of the Hebrew, Arabic and Aramaic languages has been accepted by all scholars since medieval times. The languages were familiar to Western European scholars due to historical contact with neighbouring Near Eastern countries and through Biblical studies, and a comparative analysis of Hebrew, Arabic, and Aramaic was published in Latin in 1538 by Guillaume Postel. Almost two centuries later, Hiob Ludolf described the similarities between these three languages and the Ethiopian Semitic languages. However, neither scholar named this grouping as "Semitic". The term "Semitic" was created by members of the Göttingen School of History, and specifically by August Ludwig von Schlözer (1781). Johann Gottfried Eichhorn (1787) coined the name "Semitic" in the late 18th century to designate the languages closely related to Arabic, Aramaic, and Hebrew. The choice of name was derived from Shem, one of the three sons of Noah in the genealogical accounts of the biblical Book of Genesis, or more precisely from the Koine Greek rendering of the name, . Eichhorn is credited with popularising the term, particularly via a 1795 article "Semitische Sprachen" (''Semitic languages'') in which he justified the terminology against criticism that Hebrew and Canaanite were the same language despite Canaan being "Hamitic" in the Table of Nations. Previously these languages had been commonly known as the "" in European literature. In the 19th century, "Semitic" became the conventional name; however, an alternative name, "", was later introduced by James Cowles Prichard and used by some writers.


Ancient Semitic-speaking peoples

There are several locations proposed as possible sites for prehistoric origins of Semitic-speaking peoples: Mesopotamia, the Levant, East Mediterranean, the Arabian Peninsula, and North Africa, with the most recent Bayesian studies supporting the view that Semitic originated in the Levant circa 3800 BC, and was later also introduced to the Horn of Africa in approximately 800 BC from the southern Arabian peninsula, and to North Africa via Phoenician colonists at approximately the same time. This is supported by the fact that by far the earliest recorded examples of Semitic languages are to be found in Western Asia, and considerably the largest number of historically recorded Semitic languages occur in this region also. Semitic languages were spoken and written across much of the Middle East and Asia Minor during the Bronze Age and Iron Age, the earliest attested being the East Semitic Akkadian of the Mesopotamian, northeast Levantine and southeastern Anatolian polities of Akkad, Assyria and Babylonia (effectively modern Iraq, southeast Turkey and northeast Syria), and the also East Semitic Eblaite language of the kingdom of Ebla in the northeastern Levant. The various extremely closely related and mutually intelligible Canaanite languages, a branch of the Northwest Semitic languages included Amorite, first attested in the 21st century BC, Edomite, Hebrew, Ammonite, Moabite, Phoenician (Punic/Carthaginian), Samaritan Hebrew, Ekronite, Amalekite and Sutean. They were spoken in what is today Israel, Syria, Lebanon, the Palestinian territories, Jordan, the northern Sinai peninsula, some northern and eastern parts of the Arabian peninsula, southwest fringes of Turkey, and in the case of Phoenician, coastal regions of Tunisia (Carthage), Libya and Algeria, and possibly in Malta and other Mediterranean islands. Ugaritic, a Northwest Semitic language closely related to but distinct from the Canaanite group was spoken in the kingdom of Ugarit in north western Syria. A hybrid Canaano-Akkadian language also emerged in Canaan (Israel,Jordan, Lebanon) during the 14th century BC, incorporating elements of the Mesopotamian East Semitic Akkadian language of Assyria and Babylonia with the West Semitic Canaanite languages. Aramaic, a still living ancient Northwest Semitic language, first attested in the 12th century BC in the northern Levant, gradually replaced the East Semitic and Canaanite languages across much of the Near East, particularly after being adopted as the lingua franca of the vast Neo-Assyrian Empire (911-605 BC) by Tiglath-Pileser III during the 8th century BC, and being retained by the succeeding Neo-Babylonian and Achaemenid Empires. The ''Chaldean language'' (not to be confused with Aramaic or its Biblical variant, sometimes referred to as ''Chaldean'') was a Northwest Semitic language also, possibly closely related to Aramaic, but no examples of the language remain, as after settling in south eastern Mesopotamia from the Levant during the 9th century BC the Chaldeans appear to have rapidly adopted the Akkadian and Aramaic languages of the indigenous Mesopotamians. Old South Arabian languages (classified as South Semitic and therefore distinct from the Central Semitic language of Arabic which developed over 1000 years later) were spoken in the kingdoms of Dilmun, Meluhha, Sheba, Ubar, Socotra and Magan, which in modern terms encompassed part of the eastern coast of Saudi Arabia, and Bahrain, Qatar, Oman and Yemen. South Semitic languages are thought to have spread to the Horn of Africa circa 8th century BC where the Ge'ez language emerged (though the direction of influence remains uncertain).

Common Era (CE)

Syriac, a 5th-century BC Assyrian Mesopotamian descendant of Aramaic used in northeastern Syria, Mesopotamia and south east Anatolia, rose to importance as a literary language of early Christianity in the third to fifth centuries and continued into the early Islamic era. The Arabic language, although originating in the Arabian peninsula, first emerged in written form in the 1st to 4th centuries CE in the southern regions of present-day Jordan, Israel, Palestine, and Syria. With the advent of the early Muslim conquests of the seventh and eighth centuries, Classical Arabic eventually replaced many (but not all) of the indigenous Semitic languages and cultures of the Near East. Both the Near East and North Africa saw an influx of Muslim Arabs from the Arabian Peninsula, followed later by non-Semitic Muslim Iranian and Turkic peoples. The previously dominant Aramaic dialects maintained by the Assyrians, Babylonians and Persians gradually began to be sidelined, however descendant dialects of Eastern Aramaic (including the Akkadian influenced Assyrian Neo-Aramaic, Chaldean Neo-Aramaic, Turoyo and Mandaic) survive to this day among the Assyrians and Mandaeans of northern Iraq, northwestern Iran, northeastern Syria and southeastern Turkey, with up to a million fluent speakers. Western Aramaic is now only spoken by a few thousand Aramean Syriac Christians in western Syria. The Arabs spread their Central Semitic language to North Africa (Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco and northern Sudan and Mauritania), where it gradually replaced Egyptian Coptic and many Berber languages (although Berber is still largely extant in many areas), and for a time to the Iberian Peninsula (modern Spain, Portugal and Gibraltar) and Malta. With the patronage of the caliphs and the prestige of its liturgical status, Arabic 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, the Fertile Crescent, and Egypt. Most of the Maghreb followed, specifically in the wake of the Banu Hilal's incursion in the 11th century, and Arabic became the native language of many inhabitants of al-Andalus. After the collapse of the Nubian kingdom of Dongola in the 14th century, Arabic began to spread south of Egypt into modern Sudan; soon after, the Beni Ḥassān brought Arabization to Mauritania. A number of Modern South Arabian languages distinct from Arabic still survive, such as Soqotri, Mehri and Shehri which are mainly spoken in Socotra, Yemen and Oman. Meanwhile, the Semitic languages that had arrived from southern Arabia in the 8th century BC 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 currently the native language of majorities from Mauritania to Oman, and from Iraq to the Sudan. Classical Arabic is the language of the Quran. It is also studied widely in the non-Arabic-speaking Muslim world. The Maltese language is genetically a descendant of the extinct Siculo-Arabic, a variety of Maghrebi Arabic formerly spoken in Sicily. The modern 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. Successful as second languages far beyond their numbers of contemporary first-language speakers, a few Semitic languages today are the base of the sacred literature of some of the world's major religions, including Islam (Arabic), Judaism (Hebrew and Aramaic), churches of Syriac Christianity (Syriac) and Ethiopian and Eritrean Orthodox Christianity (Ge'ez). Millions learn these as a second language (or an archaic version of their modern tongues): many Muslims learn to read and recite the Qur'an and Jews speak and study Biblical Hebrew, the language of the Torah, Midrash, and other Jewish scriptures. Ethnic Assyrian followers of the Assyrian Church of the East, Chaldean Catholic Church, Ancient Church of the East, Assyrian Pentecostal Church, Assyrian Evangelical Church and Assyrian members of the Syriac Orthodox Church both speak Mesopotamian eastern Aramaic and use it also as a liturgical tongue. The language is also used liturgically by the primarily Arabic-speaking followers of the Maronite, Syriac Catholic Church and some Melkite Christians. Greek and Arabic are the main liturgical languages of Oriental Orthodox Christians in the Middle East, who compose the patriarchates of Antioch, Jerusalem and Alexandria. Mandaic is both spoken and used as a liturgical language by the Mandaeans. Despite the ascendancy of Arabic in the Middle East, other Semitic languages still exist. Biblical 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. Modern Hebrew is the main language of Israel, with Biblical Hebrew remaining as the language of liturgy and religious scholarship of Jews worldwide. Several smaller ethnic groups, in particular the Assyrians, Kurdish Jews, and Gnostic Mandeans, continue to speak and write Mesopotamian Aramaic languages, particularly Neo-Aramaic languages descended from Syriac, in those areas roughly corresponding to Kurdistan (northern Iraq, northeast Syria, south eastern Turkey and northwestern Iran). Syriac language itself, a descendant of Eastern Aramaic languages (Mesopotamian Old Aramaic), is used also liturgically by the Syriac Christians throughout the area. Although the majority of Neo-Aramaic dialects spoken today are descended from Eastern varieties, Western Neo-Aramaic is still spoken in 3 villages in Syria. In Arab-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 Old South Arabian, of which only one language, Razihi, remains, 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. 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. The reconstruction of Proto-Semitic (PS) was originally based primarily on Arabic, whose phonology and morphology (particularly in Classical Arabic) is very conservative, and which preserves as contrastive 28 out of the evident 29 consonantal phonemes. with and merging into Arabic and becoming Arabic . Note: the fricatives *s, *z, *ṣ, *ś, *ṣ́, *ṱ may also be interpreted as affricates (/t͡s/, /d͡z/, /t͡sʼ/, /t͡ɬ/, /t͡ɬʼ/, /t͡θʼ/), as discussed in . 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. Sound shifts affecting the vowels are more numerous and, at times, less regular.


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 .
Note: the fricatives *s, *z, *ṣ, *ś, *ṣ́, *ṱ may also be interpreted as affricates (/t͡s/, /d͡z/, /t͡sʼ/, /t͡ɬ/, /t͡ɬʼ/, /t͡θʼ/).
Notes: # Proto-Semitic was still pronounced as in Biblical Hebrew, but no letter was available in the Early Linear Script, so the letter ש did double duty, representing both and . Later on, however, merged with , but the old spelling was largely retained, and the two pronunciations of ש were distinguished graphically in Tiberian Hebrew as שׁ vs. שׂ < . # Biblical Hebrew as of the 3rd century BCE apparently still distinguished the phonemes and from and , respectively, based on transcriptions in the Septuagint. As in the case of , no letters were available to represent these sounds, and existing letters did double duty: ח and ע . 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. # 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 , , , , , and 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 , , , , , respectively, but later with , , , , . (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 were always represented using the pharyngeal letters , but they are distinguished from the pharyngeals in the Demotic-script papyrus Amherst 63, written about 200 BCE. This suggests that these sounds, too, were distinguished in Old Aramaic language, but written using the same letters as they later merged with. # The earlier pharyngeals can be distinguished in Akkadian from the zero reflexes of *h, *ʕ by e-coloring adjacent *a, e.g. pS ''*ˈbaʕal-um'' 'owner, lord' > Akk. ''bēlu(m)''. # Hebrew and Aramaic underwent begadkefat spirantization at a certain point, whereby the stop sounds were softened to the corresponding fricatives (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 disappeared in the 7th century BCE, and most likely occurred after the loss of Hebrew c. 200 BCE.According to the generally accepted view, it is unlikely that begadkefat spirantization occurred before the merger of and , or else and would have to be contrastive, which is cross-linguistically rare. However, Blau argues that it is possible that lenited and could coexist even if pronounced identically, since one would be recognized as an alternating allophone (as apparently is the case in Nestorian Syriac). See . It is known to have occurred in Hebrew by the 2nd century CE. 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. In Modern Hebrew, the distinction has a higher functional load due to the loss of gemination, although only the three fricatives are still preserved (the fricative is pronounced 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 as phonemes.) # In the Northwest Semitic languages, became at the beginning of a word, e.g. Hebrew ''yeled'' "boy" < ''*wald'' (cf. Arabic ''walad''). # There is evidence of a rule of assimilation of /j/ to the following coronal consonant in pre-tonic position, shared by Hebrew, Phoenician and Aramaic. # In Assyrian Neo-Aramaic, is nonexistent. In general cases, the language would lack pharyngeal fricative (as heard in ''Ayin''). However, /ʕ/ is retained in educational speech, especially among Assyrian priests. #The palatalization of Proto-Semitic gīm to Arabic jīm, is most probably connected to the pronunciation of qāf as a gāf (this sound change also occurred in Yemenite Hebrew), hence in most of the Arabian peninsula (which is the homeland of the Arabic language) is jīm and is gāf , except in western and southern Yemen and parts of Oman where is gīm and is qāf . # Ugaritic orthography indicated the vowel after the glottal stop. #The Arabic letter ' () has three main pronunciations in Modern Standard Arabic. in north Algeria, Iraq, also in most of the Arabian peninsula and as the predominant pronunciation of Literary Arabic outside the Arab world, occurs in most of the Levant and most North Africa; and is used in northern Egypt and some regions in Yemen and Oman. In addition to other minor allophones. #The Arabic letter ' () has three main pronunciations in spoken varieties. in most of the Arabian Peninsula, Northern and Eastern Yemen and parts of Oman, Southern Iraq, Upper Egypt, Sudan, Libya, some parts of the Levant and to lesser extent in some parts (mostly rural) of Maghreb. in most of Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco, Southern and Western Yemen and parts of Oman, Northern Iraq, parts of the Levant especially Druze dialects. in most of the Levant and Lower Egypt, as well as some North African towns such as Tlemcen and Fez. In addition to other minor allophones. #' can be written ', and always is in the Ugaritic and Arabic contexts. In Ugaritic, sometimes assimilates to ', as in ''ġmʔ'' 'thirsty' (Arabic ''ẓmʔ'', Hebrew ''ṣmʔ'', but Ugaritic ''mẓmủ'' 'thirsty', root ''ẓmʔ'', is also attested). #Early Amharic might've had a different phonology. #The pronunciations /ʕ/ and /ħ/ for ''ʿAyin'' and ''Ḥet'', respectively, still occur among some older Mizrahi speakers, but for most modern Israelis, ''ʿAyin'' and ''Ḥet'' are realized as /ʔ, -/ and /χ ~ x/, respectively. The following table shows the development of the various fricatives in Hebrew, Aramaic and Arabic through cognate words: # possibly affricated (/dz/ /tɬʼ/ /ʦʼ/ /tθʼ/ /tɬ/)


Proto-Semitic vowels are, in general, harder to deduce due to the nonconcatenative morphology 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: # in a stressed open syllable # in a stressed closed syllable before a geminate # in a stressed closed syllable before a consonant cluster # when the proto-Semitic stressed vowel remained stressed # pS *a,*ā > Akk. e,ē in the neighborhood of pS *ʕ,*ħ and before r. # 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 verb–subject–object (VSO), possessed–possessor (NG), and noun–adjective (NA). This was still the case in Classical Arabic and Biblical Hebrew, e.g. Classical Arabic رأى محمد فريدا ''ra'ā muħammadun farīdan.'' (literally "saw Muhammad Farid", ''Muhammad saw Farid''). In the modern Arabic vernaculars, however, as well as sometimes in Modern Standard Arabic (the modern literary language based on Classical Arabic) and Modern Hebrew, the classical VSO order has given way to SVO. Modern Ethiopian Semitic languages follow a different word order: SOV, possessor–possessed, and adjective–noun; however, the oldest attested Ethiopian Semitic language, Ge'ez, was VSO, possessed–possessor, and noun–adjective. 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. Modern Standard Arabic maintains such case distinctions, although they are typically lost in free speech due to colloquial influence. An accusative ending -n is preserved in Ethiopian Semitic. In the northwest, the scarcely attested Samalian reflects a case distinction in the plural between nominative ''-ū'' and oblique ''-ī'' (compare the same distinction in Classical Arabic). 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

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 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 ' 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,Robert Hetzron. "Biblical Hebrew" in ''The World's Major Languages''. 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 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.) A special feature in classical Hebrew is the waw-consecutive, prefixing a verb form with the letter waw in order to change its tense or aspect. 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

All Semitic languages exhibit a unique pattern of stems called Semitic roots consisting typically of triliteral, or three-consonant consonantal roots (two- and four-consonant roots also exist), from which nouns, adjectives, and verbs are formed in various ways (e.g., by inserting vowels, doubling consonants, lengthening vowels or by adding prefixes, suffixes, or infixes). For instance, the root k-t-b, (dealing with "writing" generally) yields in Arabic: :''katabtu'' كَتَبْتُ or كتبت "I wrote" (f and m) :''yuktab(u)'' يُكْتَب or يكتب "being written" (masculine) :''tuktab(u)'' تُكتَب or تكتب "being written" (feminine) :''yatakātabūn(a)'' يَتَكَاتَبُونَ or يتكاتبون "they write to each other" (masculine) :''istiktāb'' اِستِكتاب or استكتاب "causing to write" :''kitāb'' كِتَاب or كتاب "book" (the hyphen shows end of stem before various case endings) :''kutayyib'' كُتَيِّب or كتيب "booklet" (diminutive) :''kitābat'' كِتَابَة or كتابة "writing" :''kuttāb'' كُتاب or كتاب "writers" (broken plural) :''katabat'' كَتَبَة or كتبة "clerks" (broken plural) :''maktab'' مَكتَب or مكتب "desk" or "office" :''maktabat'' مَكتَبة or مكتبة "library" or "bookshop" :''maktūb'' مَكتوب or مكتوب "written" (participle) or "postal letter" (noun) :''katībat'' كَتيبة or كتيبة "squadron" or "document" :''iktitāb'' اِكتِتاب or اكتتاب "registration" or "contribution of funds" :''muktatib'' مُكتَتِب or مكتتب "subscription" and the same root in Hebrew: (A line under k and b mean a fricitive, x for k and v for b.) :''kāṯaḇti'' כתבתי "I wrote" :''kattāḇ'' כתב "reporter" (''m'') :''katteḇeṯ'' כתבת "reporter" (''f'') :''kattāḇā'' כתבה "article" (plural ''kattāḇōṯ'' כתבות) :''miḵtāḇ'' מכתב "postal letter" (plural ''miḵtāḇīm'' מכתבים) :''miḵtāḇā'' מכתבה "writing desk" (plural ''miḵtāḇōṯ'' מכתבות) :''kəṯōḇeṯ'' כתובת "address" (plural ''kəṯōḇōṯ'' כתובות) :''kəṯāḇ'' כתב "handwriting" :''kāṯūḇ'' כתוב "written" (''f'' ''kəṯūḇā'' כתובה) :''hiḵtīḇ'' הכתיב "he dictated" (''f'' ''hiḵtīḇā'' הכתיבה) :''hiṯkattēḇ'' התכתב "he corresponded (''f'' ''hiṯkattəḇā'' התכתבה) :''niḵtaḇ'' נכתב "it was written" (''m'') :''niḵtəḇā'' נכתבה "it was written" (''f'') :''kəṯīḇ'' כתיב "spelling" (''m'') :''taḵtīḇ'' תכתיב "prescript" (''m'') :''məḵuttāḇ'' מכותב "addressee" (''meḵutteḇeṯ'' מכותבת ''f'') :''kəṯubbā'' כתובה "ketubah (a Jewish marriage contract)" (''f'') In Tigrinya and Amharic, this root used to be used widely but is now seen as an Archaic form. Ethiopic-derived languages use different roots for things that have to do with writing (and in some cases counting) primitive root: ṣ-f and trilateral root stems: m-ṣ-f, ṣ-h-f, and ṣ-f-r are used. This roots also exists in other Semitic languages like (Hebrew: ''sep̄er'' "book", ''sōp̄er'' "scribe", ''mispār'' "number" and ''sippūr'' "story"). (this root also 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 ''hap̄lēḡ'' means "set sail!", ''hap̄lāḡā'' means "a sailing trip", and ''hip̄līḡ'' means "he sailed", while the unrelated ''ʕūp̄'', ''təʕūp̄ā'' and ''ʕāp̄'' pertain to flight).

Independent personal pronouns

Cardinal numerals

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 polarity of gender (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.

Common vocabulary

Due to the Semitic languages' common origin, they share some words and roots. Others differ. For example: Terms given in brackets are not derived from the respective Proto-Semitic roots, though they may also derive from Proto-Semitic (as does e.g. Arabic ''dār'', cf. Biblical Hebrew ''dōr'' "dwelling"). 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: d-y-n/d-w-n) has the meaning of "metropolis" in Amharic, "city" in Arabic and Ancient Hebrew, and "State" in Modern Hebrew. 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 Wiktionary appendices:
List of Proto-Semitic stems

Swadesh lists for Afro-Asiatic languages


There are six fairly uncontroversial nodes within the Semitic languages: East Semitic, Northwest Semitic, North Arabian, Old South Arabian (also known as Sayhadic), Modern South Arabian, and Ethiopian Semitic. 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. However, a new classification groups Old South Arabian as Central Semitic instead. 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. A computational phylogenetic analysis by Kitchen, et al. (2009) considers the Semitic languages to have originated in the Levant about 5,750 years ago during the Early Bronze Age, with early Ethiosemitic originating from southern Arabia approximately 2,800 years ago. The Himyaritic and Sutean languages appear to have been Semitic, but are unclassified due to insufficient data. * East Semitic * West Semitic ** Central Semitic *** Northwest Semitic *** Arabic ** South Semitic *** Western: Ethiopian Semitic and Old South Arabian *** Eastern: Modern South Arabian

Semitic-speaking peoples

The following is a list of some modern and ancient Semitic-speaking peoples and nations:

Central Semitic

* Ammonite speakers of Ammon * Amorites 20th century BC * Arabs * Ancient North Arabian-speaking bedouins * Arameans 16th to 8th centuries BC / Akhlames (Ahlamu) 14th century BC. * Canaanite-speaking nations of the early Iron Age: * Chaldea appeared in southern Mesopotamia c. 1000 BC and eventually disappeared into the general Babylonian population. * Edomites * Hebrews/Israelites founded the nation of Israel which later split into the Kingdoms of Israel and Judah. The remnants of these people became the Jews and the Samaritans. * Maltese * Mandaeans * Moab * Nabataeans * Phoenicia founded Mediterranean colonies including Tyre, Sidon and ancient Carthage. The remnants of these people became the modern inhabitants of Lebanon. * Ugarit, 14th to 12th centuries BC * Nasrani (Syrian Christian)

East Semitic

* Akkadian Empire ancient Semitic speakers moved into Mesopotamia in the fourth millennium BC and settled among the local peoples of Sumer. *Babylonian Empire *Assyrian Empire *Ebla 23rd century BC

South Semitic

* Kingdom of Aksum 4th century BC to 7th century AD * Amhara people * Argobba people * Dahalik people * Gurage people * Harari people * Mehri people * Old South Arabian-speaking peoples * Sabaeans of Yemen 9th to 1st centuries BC * Silt'e people * Tigrigna People * Tigray people * Tigre people * Zay people


* Suteans 14th century BC * Thamud 2nd to 5th centuries AD

See also

* Proto-Semitic language * Middle Bronze Age alphabets



Additional reference literature

* * Bennett, Patrick R. 1998. ''Comparative Semitic Linguistics: A Manual''. Eisenbrauns. . * * * * * * Bergsträsser, Gotthelf. 1995. ''Introduction to the Semitic Languages: Text Specimens and Grammatical Sketches''. Translated by Peter T. Daniels. Winona Lake, Ind. : Eisenbrauns. . * 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. . * Hetzron, Robert (ed.). 1997. ''The Semitic Languages''. London: Routledge. . (For family tree, see p. 7). * Lipinski, Edward. 2001. ''Semitic Languages: Outlines of a Comparative Grammar''. 2nd ed. Leuven: Orientalia Lovanensia Analecta. * 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. 002 edition:

External links

Semitic genealogical tree
(as well as the Afroasiatic one), presented by Alexander Militarev at his talk "Genealogical classification of Afro-Asiatic languages according to the latest data" (at the conference on the 70th anniversary of Vladislav Illich-Svitych, Moscow, 2004
short annotations of the talks given there

''Pattern-and-root inflectional morphology: the Arabic broken plural''

* [https://hal.archives-ouvertes.fr/hal-02113751 '' Alexis Neme and Sébastien Paumier (2019), Restoring Arabic vowels through omission-tolerant dictionary lookup, Lang Resources & Evaluation, Vol 53, 1-65 pages'']
Swadesh vocabulary lists of Semitic languages
(from Wiktionary'
Swadesh-list appendix
{{Use dmy dates|date=April 2017 Category:Afroasiatic languages Category:Phoenician language