Semitic languages

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Semitic (orange) within the Afro-Asian languages

The Semitic languages are a branch of the Afro-Asian language family . Today they are spoken by around 260 million people in the Middle East , North Africa and the Horn of Africa . Important Semitic languages ​​are Arabic , Hebrew , the New Aramaic languages, a number of languages ​​spoken in Ethiopia and Eritrea such as Amharic and Tigrinya, and numerous extinct languages ​​of the Ancient Near East such as Akkadian . Maltese , which is native to Europe, is one of the Semitic languages .

The term "Semitic" was created in 1781 by the Göttingen philologist August Ludwig von Schlözer . It is based on the biblical person Shem , who is considered to be the progenitor of the Aramaeans , Assyrians , Elamites , Chaldeans and Lydians .

Research history

Jewish grammarians already noticed similarities between Hebrew , Aramaic and Arabic in the Middle Ages. When the preoccupation with oriental languages ​​began in Europe during the Renaissance , Christian Hebraists wrote the first approaches to a comparative grammar of Semitic, but they drew the incorrect conclusion that Aramaic and Arabic are degenerate mixed languages, derived from Hebrew, the supposed language of paradise . It was not until the 18th century that a newer way of looking at things began to take hold, when it became apparent that Arabic, although much younger than Hebrew and Aramaic, has particularly archaic features.

While Old Ethiopian had been known in Europe since the 16th century, other languages ​​that could be identified as Semitic were discovered since the 18th century: the modern Ethiosemitic languages , Akkadian , Old South Arabic , epigraphic evidence of ancient languages ​​in Syria and Palestine and finally also the modern Arabic, Aramaic and New South Arabic dialects as well as Ugaritic only in 1928 . The discovery and development of Akkadian in particular had lasting consequences for Semitic studies , as it deviated greatly from the views of Proto- Semitic at that time, despite its advanced age. Eblaite was discovered as the last Semitic language in 1975 .

In the 19th century, relationships with other language families in Africa and thus the Afro-Asian language family were discovered, which opened up new perspectives for the understanding of Semitic.

History and geographical distribution

In ancient times , the Semitic languages ​​were still essentially limited to the area of ​​the Near East . Since the 1st millennium BC They then experienced a spatial spread to the African continent, when Semitic languages ​​appeared in Ethiopia and today's Eritrea - if this had not happened much earlier - and Arabic spread through the Islamic expansion in the 7th century over all of North Africa and parts of it Southern Europe, especially the Iberian Peninsula, spread. Today the Semitic language area includes the Middle East , the Horn of Africa , North Africa and, with the island of Malta, even a small part of Europe . Numerous geographical names on the Iberian Peninsula testify to the Arab heritage of this region.


In Mesopotamia from the 3rd millennium BC The Akkadian passed down. It was used as the language of international correspondence as far as Egypt . A dialect of Akkadian was Eblaite spoken in Syria . During the 1st millennium BC Akkadian was replaced as a spoken language by Aramaic, but it was still able to hold its own as a written language into the first centuries AD.

The Amurrian has been handed down in fragments , which can only be found in the personal names of the Amurrites from the period between 2000 and 1500 BC. Is known. Ugaritic is from Syria through extensive inscription finds from the period between 1400 and 1190 BC. Chr. Handed down. The Canaanite languages ​​were spoken in ancient times in Canaan . This included Hebrew , the language of the Israelites and Judeans , in which the Old Testament is written. It had been a spoken language since the middle of the 1st millennium BC. On the retreat and probably died in the 2nd / 3rd. Century AD. However, it continued to serve as the sacred language of Judaism and for communication between Jewish communities around the world. In the Middle Ages it served partly as an intermediate stage for translations from Arabic into Latin. The Phoenician was originally in what is now Lebanon ( Tire , Byblos , Sidon ) by the Phoenicians spoken and also belongs to the Canaanite. Through the Phoenician colonization, the language spread in the form of Punic to North Africa, especially Carthage and further into today's Spain . It remained in use there until the 6th century AD. Smaller Canaanite languages, documented only by a few inscriptions, were Moabite , Ammonite and Edomite . The differences between individual Canaanite languages ​​seem to have been very small, so that occasionally a single language is assumed that was only differentiated into dialects and sociolects.

Since the 10./9. Century BC Aramaic documented in BC was originally only widespread in the city-kingdoms of Syria . The language form of that time is called Altaramaic . After the Aramaic kingdoms in the 8th century BC Were conquered by the Assyrians , Aramaic in the form of Imperial Aramaic became the administrative language first in the New Assyrian Empire and later in the New Babylonian Empire (610-539 BC) and in the Persian Achaemenid Empire (539-333 BC). As a result, it spread throughout the Middle East as a lingua franca . Aramaic was pushed back by the Islamic expansion, but it remained for Judaism (through the Targum tradition and above all the Palestinian and Babylonian Talmuds ) and for Christianity (for example through the Peshitta of the Oriental Churches and as the church language of Oriental Christians ) significant.

The tribes of the Arabian Peninsula belonged to different language groups in ancient times. In the north, early Northern Arabic was widespread with several dialect groups. It has been around since the 8th century BC. Passed down in writing and died out during the spread of Islam . The ancient language of Central Arabia was an early form of today's Arabic . As the language of the Koran , it quickly gained importance with the spread of Islam and also supplanted the ancient languages ​​in today's Yemen, including Old South Arabic and possibly other, hardly documented languages ​​such as Himjar .

At the latest since the 1st millennium BC Semitic languages ​​were also spoken in the area of ​​the present-day states of Ethiopia and Eritrea . Already in ancient times they split into a northern and a southern branch. The northern branch has the longest written tradition of the Ethiopian languages in the form of Old Ethiopian. Old Ethiopian was the language of the Aksumite Empire (around 1st to 7th centuries AD) and later the sacral language of the Ethiopian Christians.


Today, with around 230 million speakers, Arabic is by far the largest of all Semitic languages ​​and one of the largest languages ​​in the world. Their distribution area extends from Mauritania to Oman . It is the official language in a total of 25 countries in the Arab world . The Arabic-speaking countries are in a pronounced diglossia situation: While the written Arabic language is based on the classical Arabic of the 8th century, the regionally different Arabic dialects (also: New Arabic) serve as colloquial language . Also, the Maltese , the only native to Europe Semitic language goes back to an Arabic dialect; Due to the Catholic-European tradition of Malta, it is written in Latin letters and is no longer subject to high Arabic influences. As the language of the Koran , Arabic has also spread in non-Arabic-speaking countries of the Islamic world and has significantly shaped the autochthonous languages, especially in terms of vocabulary. Arabic loanwords are ubiquitous in Turkish and Persian and are as common as Latin in European languages. Today, due to migration, there are Arabic-speaking minorities in many European states, especially in France, the Netherlands and Belgium.

Despite its much smaller number of speakers, Hebrew occupies a remarkable position because of the importance it has as a Jewish cultural and literary language used for millennia. It has also been researched and studied in Christian circles as the language of the Old Testament since the Middle Ages. Since the 19th century, especially in the wake of Zionism , Jewish intellectuals revitalized Hebrew as a common language suitable for everyday use ( Ivrit ), which, together with Arabic, became the official language of the State of Israel in 1948 and was already one of the official languages ​​of the British Mandate of Palestine . Today Hebrew is used in Israel by around seven million people as a first language or another language (after Arabic, Russian , Ethiopian , etc. ); only an estimated half of the Hebrew speakers in Israel are native speakers. Even after the evacuation of Palestinian territories by Israel, Hebrew is used as the lingua franca there, at least in contact with Israel. In the Jewish diaspora (especially in Western Europe, North and South America) it is cultivated as the religious language and language of the Jewish people, so that outside of Israel several tens or even hundreds of thousands of people can be assumed who have communicative competence in this language.

Syriac-Aramaic script (West Syriac, East Syriac and Estrangelo)

Although Aramaic has lost much of its former meaning, it has survived as a spoken language to this day, for example in south-east Turkey ( Tur-Abdin ), Iraq and Iran ( Azerbaijan ). In total there are around 500,000 Aramaic speakers scattered across the Middle East . Their number is likely to have declined sharply as a result of the demographic change marked by repression , war and emigration in the 20th and early 21st centuries (after the First World War, the persecution of Christians under Turkish rule , the Iraq war and its consequences, etc.) In contrast, exile communities have grown in Northern and Western Europe (e.g. in Gütersloh / Westphalia and Södertälje / Sweden) and North America, in which the Aramaic dialects have survived as the house, family and community language. In Europe, around 250,000 Assyrians (also known as Arameans) speak the Syriac-Aramaic Surayt (also known as Turoyo). The Neuwestaramäische is still approximately 10,000 people in three villages in Syria spoken. Among the neuostaramäischen languages include Surayt / Turoyo (an estimated 50,000 people in the Middle East) and Neumandäisch . As a rule, the Aramaic speakers belong to Christian churches in which older forms of Aramaic are or have been used as a sacred language . Since there is no separate educational system that could establish and expand Aramaic as a modern high-level language, most modern varieties of Aramaic are writtenless; In Syria there was a government initiative in 2010 to write the dialect of the Aramaic village Maalula with the alphabet now known as Hebrew. The square script, today's Hebrew print script , is based on an imperial Aramaic alphabet that replaced the ancient Hebrew script in ancient times . Jewish minorities, such as the Kurdish Jews , also have local forms of Aramaic as their mother tongue. As a result of emigration to Israel in the 1950s and 1960s and the conversion to Hebrew in everyday Israeli life and education, it must be assumed that there are only a few younger speakers of Jewish-Aramaic dialects. Nevertheless, the Israeli state broadcaster Kol Israel introduced a daily broadcast in Aramaic in its immigrant program in 2011.

In the south of the Arabian Peninsula, Yemen and Oman is called the Modern South languages. Despite their name, these are not closely related to Old South Arabic or (North) Arabic, but form an independent branch of the Semitic languages. The six South Arabic languages Mehri , Dschibbali , Harsusi , Bathari , Hobyot and Soqotri have a total of about 200,000 speakers, the largest language Mehri 100,000 speakers.

In Ethiopia and Eritrea there is a large number of Semitic languages ​​from the branch of the Ethiosemitic languages , which are spoken by around 29 million people. The largest Ethiopian Semitic language and the second largest Semitic language of all is Amharic , the national language of Ethiopia spoken by around 20 million people. Along with Arabic, Tigrinya is the official language in Eritrea and has around seven million speakers. In addition to these, the various Gurage languages ​​are spoken by around 1.9 million people in southern central Ethiopia. Tigre (0.8 million speakers) is also widespread in Eritrea . An Ethiopian-speaking minority has also lived in Israel since the mass emigration of Ethiopian Jews in the 1980s. As a language imported from the Jewish diaspora, it is threatened there by the administrative and educational language Hebrew, similar to Yiddish , Jewish Spanish , Jewish-Aramaic , Russian, French and the like. a.


Historical approaches

The internal classification of the Semitic languages ​​has not yet been conclusively clarified. The Semitic languages ​​are divided into two main branches: East and West Semitic . Eastern Semitic consists of Akkadian and closely related Eblaite. The main difference between these two branches is that the suffix conjugation in East Semitic (probably in line with Protosemitic) expresses a state, while the same form in West Semitic has the function of the perfect. Traditionally, West Semitic was further subdivided - primarily according to geographical criteria - into the Northwest Semitic languages (Canaanite, Aramaic, Ugaritic) and the South Semitic languages (Arabic, Old South Arabic, New South Arabic, Ethiopian). This would result in the following structure:

  • Semitic
    • Eastern Semitic (Akkadian, Eblaite)
    • Western Semitic
      • Northwest Semitic (Canaanite, Aramaic, Ugaritic)
      • South Semitic (Arabic, Old South Arabic, New South Arabic, Ethiopian)
A chronology of some Semitic languages.

This classification presented Robert Hetzron from 1969 through the inclusion of the concept of "joint innovation" ( shared innovation ) significantly in question. The position of Arabic plays a central role in this. In fact, Arabic has three noticeable features in common with the other languages ​​traditionally summarized as South Semitic: the presence of the internal plural formation, the sound change from ursemitic * p to f and a verbal stem formed by vowel expansion (Arabic qātala as well as with the t-prefix taqātala ). According to Hetzron, these similarities do not meet the criterion of genetic relationship, as the sound change * p > f is an areal feature and the internal plural formation is an ursemitic phenomenon that has been replaced in the other languages. On the other hand, Arabic shares some innovations in the verbal system with the Northwest Semitic ones. This includes the past tense form yaqtulu , while Ethiopian and New South Arabic have a form that goes back to the Ur-Semitic * yaqattVl . Hetzron therefore combines Arabic and Northwestern Semitic into a central Semitic sub-branch. The question of the classification of Arabic has not yet been clearly clarified, but Hetzron's structure is gaining approval in research.

Recently, further modifications of Hetzron's model have been proposed: Old South Arabic apparently also has an imperfect form of the * yaqtulu type and should therefore also be assigned to Central Semitic . In addition, the existence of a South Semitic branch is completely questioned: Because the past tense form * yaqattVl, as a common feature of the two remaining sub-branches, does not represent a common innovation, but a conservation, New South Arabic and Ethiopian should be viewed as separate sub-branches of Western Semitic. This results in the following structure for the classification of the Semitic languages:

  • Semitic
    • Eastern Semitic (Akkadian)
    • Western Semitic
      • Central Semitic
        • Northwest Semitic (Canaanite, Aramaic, Ugaritic)
        • Arabic
        • Old South Arabic
      • New South Arabic
      • Ethiosemitic

The classification of the Himjar is uncertain as there are too few data on its classification; Although it appears to be a Semitic language, it must remain unclassified and only additional texts could improve this situation.

Classification of the Semitic Languages


Clay tablet with Mesopotamian cuneiform writing
" Tel-Dan-Inscription " in Phoenician script
(9th century BC)
The word "Arabic" in Arabic script

Semitic languages ​​have been handed down in written form since the 3rd millennium BC. For Akkadian, since the 3rd millennium BC, The Mesopotamian cuneiform script , mainly a syllable script, adopted from the Sumerians was used. In contrast, since the earliest evidence from the first half of the 2nd millennium BC, Western Semitic languages ​​have been used for writing. Alphabetic scripts. Its root was probably the Protosinaitic script , which via the Phoenician script became the origin of not only all Semitic alphabets, but also numerous other alphabetical scripts. The Ugaritic script , which was formally a cuneiform script, but actually a consonant alphabet, had a special position .

The alphabetic scripts were originally pure consonant scripts , so most vowels in extinct Semitic languages ​​remain unknown. However, since the 1st millennium AD, some systems have been expanded to include vowel designations. The Ethiopian writing developed a secondary vowel designation by adding circles and lines. In other younger alphabets, a vowel designation was introduced by overlaying or underlaying elements, which in Hebrew are called Nikud ("punctuation").

Relationships with other languages

Semitic is one of the six primary branches of the Afro-Asian language family widespread in North Africa and the Middle East , to which Egyptian , Cushitic , Berber , Omotic and Chadian also belong in addition to Semitic . With approximately 260 million speakers, it is the most widely spoken main branch of Afro-Asian. It not only shares part of the lexicon with other Afro-Asian language families, but also has essential structural properties such as the root morphology, verb conjugation, the case system, the sound system and personal pronouns. The following table provides some examples of parallels with the other major branches of Afro-Asian:

(Basic) meaning Arabic Egyptian Berber Cushy Chadian Omotic
"Heart" lubb * jéb Somali laab Mokilko ʔulbo Gollango libʔa ("belly")
"Tongue" lisān * lés Kabyle iləs Bole lisìm Dime lits'- ("lick")
"Water" * máw Kabyle aman Bole àmma Mocha amiyo ("to rain")
"Your" / "you" / "you" (m.) - ka = k Kabyle - k Somali ku Hausa ka
"two" ʾIṯn-āni * sinéwwVj Kabyle sin
"You (m.) Die" ta-mūtu mwt "die" Tuareg tə-mmut Rendille ta-mut Hausa mútù "to die"
"he dies" ya-mūtu Tuareg yə-mmut Rendille ya-mut

Semitic word equations

The vocabulary found in all branches of Semitic contains, in particular, typical basic vocabulary words: terms for relationships, body parts, animals, parts of the world (“sky”, “water”) as well as important adjectives (“large”, colors) and words from religion and mythology. The following list gives some examples of common Semitic words:

meaning Proto-Semitic
Eastern Semitic Central Semitic Ethiosemitic New South Arabic
Akkadian Classic
Hebrew Old Ethiopian More I
ear * ʾUḏn- uzn-um ʾUḏn ʾŌzæn ʾƏzn ḥə-yḏēn
mother * ʾImm- umm-um ʾUmm ʾĒm ʾƏmm ʾƐ̄m
House * bayt- bīt-um bayt bayiṯ bet bayt
blood * dam- dam-um dam dām stupid dəm ("pus")
* ḫamiš- ḫamiš ḫams ḥāmēš ḫäməs ḫáyməh
dog *calf- calf-around calf kælæḇ calf kawb
king * malik- malk-um malik mælæḵ mäläkä ("rule") məlēk
he heard) * ya-šmaʿ i-šmē ya-smaʿ-u yi-šmaʿ yə-smaʿ yə-hmɛ̄
head * raʾš- rēš-um raʾs rōš rəʾs ḥə-rōh
Day * yawm- ūm-um yawm yōm yom ḥə-yáwm ("sun")



The common Semitic consonant inventory includes 29 phonemes , which can only be found in this number in Old South Arabic and part of early North Arabic, Classical Arabic follows with 28 preserved consonant phonemes, while in Akkadian these have been reduced to only 17 sounds. The Semitic consonant inventory shares some essential characteristics with other primary branches of Afro-Asian: there are “emphatic” consonants formed by glottalization or pharyngealization , which often form triadic groups with voiced and unvoiced consonants; The existence of two pharyngeal and - today, however, limited to New South Arabic - lateral consonants is characteristic. Although the number and development of the proto-Semitic consonants is certain, their realization is being discussed. The following table shows a possible more recent reconstruction (the conventional transcription based on Arabic and Hebrew is in brackets):

bilabial dental alveolar palatal velar pharyngal glottal
Plosives unvoiced p (p) t (t) k (k) ʔ (ʾ)
empathic tˀ (ṭ) kˀ (q)
voiced b (b) d (d) g (g)
Affricates unvoiced ᵗs (s)
empathic ᵗsˀ (ṣ)
voiced ᵈz (z)
Fricatives unvoiced θ (ṯ) s (š) x (ḫ) ħ (ḥ) h (h)
empathic θˀ (ẓ)
voiced ð (ḏ) ɣ (ġ) ʕ (ʿ)
Lateral unvoiced ɬ (ś)
empathic ɬˀ (ḍ / ṣ́)
voiced l (l)
Nasals m (m) n (n)
Vibrants r (r)
Half vowels w (w) y (y)


For the Proto-Semitic, the vowels a , i and u and their long counterparts ā , ī , ū are undisputedly reconstructed. However, this system has only been fully preserved in very few languages, such as classical Arabic, while in most Semitic languages ​​considerable changes have occurred in some cases. Diphthongs were impossible in Proto-Semitic due to the severe restrictions on syllable structure, but combinations of a and the half-vowels w and y were probably implemented as diphthongs, as in classical Arabic . In the modern Semitic languages ​​in particular, these combinations are monophthongized , compare Arabic ʿayn- - Akkadian īnu- "eye", Arabic yawm- - Hebrew yōm "day".

Syllable structure

Originally only syllables of the form consonant-vowel (CV; open syllable) and consonant-vowel-consonant (CVC; closed syllable) are allowed in the Semitic languages . If a word violates these laws due to the loss of a vowel, a descendant vowel can be inserted in subsidiary languages : Arabic ʾuḏn-u- "ear" - Hebrew ʾōzæn . It is controversial, such as * whether some consonants and vowels as were the Proto-Semitic occur syllabic, BN "son"> Arabic 'ibn- , akkaddisch bin .


Root flexion

The basis of the morphology and the lexicon is - as is typical for Afro-Asian - the root consisting of a sequence of usually three consonants, the radicals , which contains only lexical, but no grammatical information. Words and word forms can be formed from this by adding further morphemes . These morphemes, which are also referred to as schemes , can be affixes , infixes and, in particular, a sequence of vowels, so that the root is characteristic of a term, whereas the scheme is indicative of a word and its grammatical form. This may be illustrated by the following listing of forms of the root ktb "writing" in Arabic:

Part of speech analysis shape translation
verb 3rd person singular masculine perfect kataba "he wrote"
3rd person singular masculine imperfect tense yaktubu "he writes"
noun Verbal nouns kitāba "the writing"
Derived noun kitāb "Book"
kutub "Books"
kutayyib "Brochure"
maktab "Office"
maktaba "Library"
adjective Nisbe adjective kitābī "written"
participle active kātib "Writing; Secretary"
Passive participle maktūb "written"

Roots that have y or w as the stem consonant and those whose last two consonants are identical are referred to as weak roots - in individual languages ​​with certain other groups ; they show various irregularities in the formation of the shape. In addition to pronouns and various particles, a further exception are some two-consonant nouns, for example * dam- "blood", * yam- "sea". Their different structure is due to their high linguistic age.

According to a theory that goes back to the 19th century, many or all of the three-consonant roots of Semitic are based on originally two-consonant forms. The weak roots, which lose their semivowel in certain forms, roots of the form C 1 C 2 C 2 ; and roots of similar meaning that two consonants have in common. Sun can be found in the Hebrew verbs QSS "cut off, cut off," qsh "cut off, cut off," QSB "cut" QSP "tear break" qṣ' "cut" QSR "cut", all with QA start and are related in their meaning to "hit, cut". In addition, Arabic has the verbs qṣm "(collapse)" and qṣl "cut off, maqṣala = guillotine"

As in Egyptian and Berber, there are restrictions in the structure of the roots that affect the occurrence of similar and identical consonants. Roots with identical first and second radicals are impossible, and different consonants that have the same place of articulation do not occur at the same time in one root.

Nominal morphology

Gender and number

Every noun belongs to one of the two genera masculine or feminine . While the masculine is generally unmarked, the ending - (a) t is used as a feminine marker . An exception are some unmarked nouns, which still behave like feminine nouns. This phenomenon is particularly found in nouns with a female natural gender (* ʾimm- "mother") and names for body parts that occur twice (* ʾuḏn- "ear").

The three numbers singular , dual and plural can be reconstructed for the Proto-Semitic . Singular and dual are identified by their case endings, but the formation of the plural is much more complex. In principle, two types of education can be distinguished: the inner plural ( broken plural ), which is predominant in South Semitic, including Old South Arabic and Arabic, and the outer plural, which occurs primarily in the other languages . The outer plural is primarily marked by its case endings that differ from singular and dual (see the chapter on cases), whereas the vowel scheme of the singular is replaced by another scheme to form the inner plural, which is always declined as a singular: Arabic bayt "house" - buyūt "houses", raǧul "man" - riǧāl "men". A second type of formation of the masculine outer plural is the ending -ān , compare Akkadian šarr-ān-u "kings" next to the synonymous šarr-ū . In many cases, a gender polarity occurs when forming the plural. A feminine outer plural is formed for a masculine singular: Akkadian lišān-um "tongue" - lišān-āt-um "tongues". In Akkadian, Arabic and Ugaritic, the dual can be found for the general designation of the two number. In most languages, however, it is limited to things that occur in pairs, for example body parts as in the Hebrew dual yāḏ-ayim "the (two) hands".

Case inflection

In several Semitic languages ​​there are three cases that have different endings depending on the number. Since the endings in Akkadian as well as in two central Semitic languages ​​(classical Arabic and Ugaritic) are largely identical, they can be traced back to Proto-Semitic. In some other languages ​​at least remnants of the system have been preserved. Their reconstructed proto-Semitic forms are:

Masculine Feminine
and Inner Plural
dual Outer plural Singular dual Outer plural
Nominative - u - ā - ū - do - t-ā - āt-u
Genitive - i - ay - ī - ti - t-ay - āt-i
accusative - a - ta

The nominative serves as a subject case , as a predicate of a sentence with a nominal predicate, and as a citation form . The genitive marks possessors and the object of prepositions, while the accusative marks objects of verbs and adverbial noun phrases: Akkadian bēl bīt- i -m "the master of the house" (genitive), Arabic qatala Zayd- u -n ʿAmr- a -n "Zayd (nominative) killed Amr (accusative)", Arabic yawm- a -n "one day" (accusative).

Other cases, mainly found in Akkadian, are the locative on - u and a mainly adverbial case on - , both of which are, however, only of limited productivity.

Status, Determination and Indetermination

All Semitic languages ​​have in common that the noun, depending on its syntactic environment , can have several statuses that have certain formal differences. Two statuses can probably be reconstructed for the Proto-Semitic: free and linked to a following genitive (noun or pronominal) ( status constructus ). Free nouns differ from nouns in the Constructus status by one of the two endings * - n and * - m , which are designated as mimation (- m ) and nunation (- n ) after the Arabic letter names for m and n .

For the proto-Semitic, no means of distinguishing between determination and indetermination can be reconstructed. However, many Semitic languages ​​have developed formal means of doing this. Some languages ​​use nunation and mimation for this purpose, but mostly new suffixes or prefixes have been developed. The following table provides examples from some Semitic languages:

Determination Indetermination
Central Semitic Arabic ʾAl- -n
Old South Arabic -n -m / -n
Early North Arabic h (n) -
Aramaic -a
Hebrew h- (plus doubling of the first consonant)
Ethiosemitic Amharic -u (mask.) / -wa (fem.)
Tigrinya ʾƏtu (mask.) / ʾƏta (fem.)
Harari -zo
New South Arabic More I a-, ḥ-, h-, ∅
Eastern Semitic Akkadian

After Josef Tropper, the shapes of the article Central Semitic let all the basic form * Han traced, which is based on a deictic particles.

Pronominal morphology

In Semitic, personal pronouns can appear in several different forms, depending on their syntactic position. In Classical Arabic they are:

number person Absolutely Suffused
Singular 1. ʾAnā , -ya (genitive)
-nī (accusative)
2. m. ʾAnta -ka
f. anti -ki
3. m. huwa -hu
f. hiya -Ha
dual 2. ʾAntumā -kumā
3. humā -humā
Plural 1. naḥnu -n / A
2. m. ʾAntumū -cumu
f. ʾAntunna -kunna
3. m. hum -humu
f. hunna -hunna

The independent pronouns are the subject of sentences, for example in Arabic huwa raǧulun "he (is) a man". Enclitic forms are suffixed to a reference word; this can be a verb form, a noun in the status constructus or a preposition. Behind verb forms and prepositions they express their object: Arabic daʿā-hu "he called him", while nouns indicate ownership: Akkadian šum-šu "his name". Some Semitic languages ​​also have a series of absolute pronouns that can also be found outside of Semitic, such as Akkadian kâti "dich", which are formed with a suffix - t . In Akkadian, in Old South Arabic, where they appear as adjectival demonstrative pronouns, and in Ugarit they are used as oblique forms, while Phoenician uses them in the nominative. Some other formations only to be found in Akkadian are isolated.


The cardinal numbers are particularly consistent with the lower numbers, but there are new formations for "one" and "two" in individual languages. Cardinal numbers appear both in the masculine and - marked by the ending proto-Semitic - at - in the feminine. For cardinal numbers from three to ten, the rule of reverse polarity applies , that is, female forms of numerals are combined with male forms of nouns and vice versa. In this respect, they are morphologically gender incongruent with their reference word (for example in Arabic ṯalāṯ-at-u ban-īna "three sons", ṯalāṯ-u banāt-in "three daughters").

This rule of morphological gender opposition, which applies in all Semitic languages (with a few exceptions, for example Ethiosemitic or Ugaritic ) goes back to the Protosemitic. Its origin has not been finally clarified, although various attempts to explain it have been made. For example, it was proposed that the ending - at originally did not have the feminine, but the nomen unitatis (individual designation, derived from a basic word that is collective or generic) and thus marked countability. The ordinalia are formed as adjectives and are regularly gender-congruent with their reference word.

Verbal morphology

Prefix conjugation

In all Semitic languages ​​there is a conjugation by means of prefixed and partially suffixed personal markings. In Akkadian there are three such tenses / aspects (present tense, past tense and "perfect"), which differ in a different stem vocalization. In Ethiosemitic and New South Arabic there is a separate past tense indicative stem that is similar to the Akkadian present , while the stem -C 1 C 2 VC 3 - takes on the function of a subjunctive . On the other hand only is in the Central Semitic languages imperfect conjugated in this manner, the trunk of which the shape -C 1 C 2 VC 3 - and thus has the Accadian preterite is formally identical ( QTL "kill," prs "cut"):

Eastern Semitic:
Central Semitic:
classic Arabic
Old Ethiopian
New South Arabic:
Present preterite Perfect Past tense
Subjunctive Imperfect
Singular 1. a-parras a-prus a-ptaras ʾA-qtul ʾƏ-qättəl ʾƏ-qtəl ə-ruukəz ə-rkeez
2. m. ta-parras ta-prus ta-ptaras ta-qtul tə-qättəl tə-qtəl tə-ruukəz tə-rkeez
2. f. ta-parras-ī ta-prus-ī ta-ptars-ī ta-qtul-ī tə-qätl-i tə-qtəl-i tə-reekəz tə-rkeez-i
3. m. i-parras i-prus i-ptaras ya-qtul yə-qättəl yə-qtəl yə-ruukəz yə-rkeez
3. f. ta-parras ta-prus ta-ptaras ta-qtul tə-qättəl tə-qtəl tə-ruukəz tə-rkeez
Plural 1. ni-parras ni-prus ni-ptaras na-qtul nə-qättəl nə-qtəl nə-ruukəz nə-rkeez
2. m. ta-parras-ā ta-prus-ā ta-ptars-ā ta-qtul-ū tə-qätl-u tə-qtəl-u tə-rəkz-əm tə-rkeez-əm
2. f. ta-parras-ā ta-prus-ā ta-ptars-ā ta-qtul-na tə-qätl-a tə-qtəl-a tə-rəkz-ən tə-rkeez-ən
3. m. i-parras-ū i-prus-ū i-ptars-ū ya-qtul-ū yə-qätl-u yə-qtəl-u yə-rəkz-əm yə-rkeez-əm
3. f. i-parras-ā i-prus-ā i-ptars-ā ya-qtul-na yə-qätl-a yə-qtəl-a tə-rəkz-ən tə-rkeez-ən
dual 1.             ə-rəkz-oo l-ə-rkəz-oo
2.       ta-qtul-ā     tə-rəkz-oo tə-rkəz-oo
3. m. i-parras-ā i-prus-ā i-ptars-ā ya-qtul-ā   yə-rəkz-oo yə-rkəz-oo
3. f. ta-qtul-ā   tə-rəkz-oo tə-rkəz-oo

Presumably a present * ya-C 1 aC 2 C 2 VC 3 and a past tense * ya-C 1 C 2 VC 3 can be reconstructed for the proto-Semitic (and possibly also the proto-Afro-Asian) . This is also supported by the occasional past meaning of the "central Semitic" imperfect tense.

In several Central Semitic languages ​​and in New South Arabic there is a passive that is formed by a deviating ablaut pattern (classical Arabic ya-qtul- "he kills", yu-qtal- "he is killed") and in Central Semitic there are several (originally) through Modes formed by suffixes.

Related to the stem of the prefix conjugation * ya-C 1 C 2 VC 3 is the imperative , which has no ending in the singular masculine and is marked by vowel endings in the singular feminine and plural, so the Arabic forms ya-qtul-u "er kills ”imperatives like ʾuqtul “ kill! ”(masculine), ʾuqtul-na “ kill! ”(feminine).

Suffix conjugation

All Semitic languages ​​have a further set of personal affixes in common, which, however, shows significant differences in use. In Akkadian it can be added to any noun or adjective and thus express a state that is not precisely defined in terms of time: zikar (= zikar-∅ ) "he is / was a man", damq-āku "I am / was good". In the West Semitic languages, however, this set of endings is used with a verbal stem of the form C 1 aC 2 VC 3 - as a tense / aspect analogous to the prefix conjugation, mostly to express the perfect: Arabic qatal-a "he killed", Old Ethiopian nägär-ku " I have said". It is commonly assumed that the state found in Akkadian can essentially also be ascribed to Proto-Semitic. The whole paradigm is:

Eastern Semitic:
Central Semitic:
Old Ethiopian
New South Arabic:
Singular 1. pars-āku qatal-tu qätäl-ku rəkəz-k
2.m. pars-āta qatal-ta qätäl-kä rəkəz-k
2. f. pars-āti qatal-ti qätäl-ki rəkəz-š
3. m. Paris qatal-a qätäl-ä rəkuuz
3. f. pars-at qatal-at qätäl-ät rəkəz-uut
Plural 1. pars-ānu qatal-nā qätäl-Nä rəkuuz-ən
2.m. pars-ātunu qatal-tumū qätäl-kəmmu rəkəz-kəm
2. f. pars-ātina qatal-tunna qätäl-kən rəkəz-kən
3. m. pars-ū qatal-ū qätäl-u rəkawz
3. f. pars-ā qatal-na qätäl-a rəkuuz
dual 1.   qatal-tumā   rəkəz-ki
2. m. qatal-tumā   rəkəz-too
2. f.     rəkəz-ki
3. m.   qatal-ā   rəkəz-oo
3. f.   qatal-atā   rəkəz-too

It is noticeable that the endings of the 1st and 2nd person singular and the 2nd person plural, which partly contained t , partly k in Protosemitic and Akkadian , in southern languages ​​(Ethiosemitic, Old South Arabic, New South Arabic) after k and in the other Central Semitic languages ​​(outside of Old South Arabic) were standardized according to t .

Derived Tribes

From the mostly three-consonant root of the verb, several verb stems can be derived that are related to this in terms of their meaning. Affixes, vowel expansion and gemination serve as educational tools. The following examples are from Akkadian; they are found in very similar forms in other Semitic languages.

education meaning example
Gemination of the second stem consonant causative , plural , factual damiq "is good"> dummuqum "do well"
Prefix š - causative, factual tariṣ "is stretched out"> šutruṣum "lie down broadly"
Prefix n - passive parāsum "decide"> naprusum "be decided"
Infix - t - passive, reciprocal , reflexive , intense maḫārum "to face"> withḫurum "to face one another"

Individual derived tribes can also be combined with one another, this is particularly strong in the South Semitic. In ancient Ethiopian, three further derived stems (the 3rd person singular masculine of the suffix conjugation) can be formed from the intensive stem qättälä :

  • Basic tribe: qätälä "he killed"
  • Intensive strain : qättälä "he killed"
  • Intensive strain + causative strain : ʾäqättälä "he let kill"
  • Intensive strain + reflexive strain : taqättälä "he killed himself"
  • Intensive strain + causative strain + reflexive strain : ʾästäqättälä "he let himself be killed"

Nominal forms

The active participle of the basic stem has forms in all Semitic languages ​​that go back to proto- Semitic * C 1 āC 2 iC 3 . In the Akkadian verbal adjective and the West Semitic perfect, a verbal adjective of the form * C 1 aC 2 VC 3 has been preserved, which originally had passive meaning in transitive verbs, but active meaning in intransitive verbs. In the derived stems, the participles have a prefix ma- or mu- .

Different schemes are used for the infinitive in the individual languages, which can probably also be transferred to the proto-semitic.


Verbal clauses

Sentences whose predicate is a finite verb form predominantly have the position verb - subject - object (VSO) in West Semitic : Arabic ḍaraba Zayd-un ʿAmr-an "Zayd has struck Amr". While the same order also applies to early Akkadian personal names, in Akkadian there is usually the verb at the end of the sentence: Iddin-sîn " Sin has given" (personal name), but bēl-ī 1 šum-ī 2 izzakar 3 "my master 1 has mine Name 2 called 3 “. Usually this variation is attributed to the influence of Sumerian, the oldest written language in Mesopotamia.

Nominal rates

In Semitic, a sentence does not have to contain a verbal predicate to be complete. Instead, nouns, adjectives, adverbs and prepositional phrases can also serve as predicates. Such sentences are called nominal sentences in Semitic studies . Examples:

  • With noun: Arabic huwa raǧulun "he (is) a man"
  • With adjective: Arabic al-waladu ṣaġīrun "the boy (is) small"
  • With adverb: Arabic ar-raǧulu hāhunā "The man (is) here"
  • With prepositional phrase: Arabic ar-raǧulu fī d-dāri "the man (is) in the house"


General and grammar

  • Gotthelf Bergsträßer : Introduction to the Semitic languages. Speech samples and grammatical sketches . Reprint, Darmstadt 1993.
  • Carl Brockelmann : Outline of the comparative grammar of the Semitic languages , Vol. 1–2, Berlin 1908/1913 (still unsurpassed, very material-rich reference work)
  • Robert Hetzron (Ed.): The Semitic Languages . Routledge, London 1997 (overview of the individual Semitic languages)
  • Burkhart Kienast : Historical Semitic Linguistics . Harrassowitz, Wiesbaden 2001
  • Edward Lipiński : Semitic languages. Outline of a comparative grammar. Peeters, Leuven 1997. ISBN 90-6831-939-6
  • Sabatino Moscati (Ed.): An introduction to the comparative grammar of the Semitic languages . 2nd Edition. Harrassowitz, Wiesbaden 1969
  • Stefan Weninger (Ed.): The Semitic Languages: An International Handbook . De Gruyter Mouton, Berlin 2011, ISBN 3-11-018613-6 .


  • D. Cohen: Dictionnaire des racines sémitiques ou attestées dans les langues sémitiques. Mouton / Peeters, Paris / The Hague / Louvain-la-Neuve 1970 ff. (Unfinished)
  • A. Militarev, L. Kogan: Semitic Etymological Dictionary. Old Orient and Old Testament 278. Kevelaer 2000 ff. (Two volumes published so far)

Web links

Individual evidence

  1. Gen 10: 21-31  EU
  2. To this and the following: Johann Fück: History of Semitic Linguistics. In: Semitic Studies. ( Handbuch der Orientalistik , Volume 3, Section 1), Brill, Leiden, Cologne 1953, pp. 31-39
  3. ^ MCA Macdonald: Reflections on the linguistic map of pre-Islamic Arabia. In: Arabian archeology and epigraphy , 11/1 (2000), pages 28-79 .; AFL Beeston: Languages ​​of Pre-Islamic Arabia. Arabica 28, No. 2/3 (1981), pages 178-186; Chaim Rabin: Ancient West Arabian. London, 1951.
  4. Shabo Talay: Šlomo Surayt An introductory course in Surayt Aramaic (Turoyo) . Ed .: Shabo Talay. Bar Habraeus Verlag, Losser, ISBN 978-90-5047-065-0 .
  5. Ross Perlin: Is the Islamic State Exterminating the Language of Jesus? Foreign Policy , August 14, 2014, accessed August 16, 2015 .
  6. For classification see Alice Faber: "Genetic Subgrouping of the Semitic Languages", in: Robert Hetzron (Ed.): The Semitic Languages , London 1997, pp. 3-15, and John Huehnergard, Aaron D. Rubin: "Phyla and Waves: Models of Classification of the Semitic Languages ​​", in: Stefan Weninger et al. (Ed.): The Semitic Languages , Berlin 2011, pp. 259-278.
  7. ^ Robert Hetzron: "Two Principles of Genetic Reconstruction", in: Lingua 38 (1976), pp. 89-104.
  8. John Huehnergard: Features of Central Semitic . In: biblica et orientalia 48 (2005). Pp. 155-203. Here p. 160 f.
  9. ^ TM Johnstone: Mehri Lexicon . School of Oriental and African Studies, London 1987, ISBN 0-7286-0137-0 .
  10. J. Tropper: The formation of the definite article in Semitic. In: Journal of Semitic Studies XLVI (2001), pp. 1–31.
  11. Example definition for nomen unitatis z. B. in: Manfred Woidich, Das Kairenisch-Arabische: Eine Grammatik, 2006, ISBN 978-3-447-05315-0 , p. 113, here via Google book search
This version was added to the list of articles worth reading on May 14, 2008 .