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Know More About Semitic Languages

The Semitic languages are a branch of the Afro-Asiatic language family containing languages predominantly spoken in North Africa and Southwest Asia by over 380 million people.

Moses Famuyiwa
Moses Famuyiwa

Like people, languages also belong to families, and in these families lay the origin and history of any language in the world. All the languages of this age have evolved from one much older language, and these mother languages have birthed hundreds of sub-languages spoken worldwide by thousands of native speakers.

The languages families—the Afro-Asiatic, Indo-European, Germanic, Niger-Congo, Austronesian, Trans-New Guinea, and Sino-Tibetan are enormous. Hence it is only standard for them to contain sub-families. The sub-families are peculiar to each family; however, one of these sub-families stands out.

This language—the Semitic language family—is the Afro-Asiatic family’s sub-family.

What are Semitic Languages?

The Semitic languages are a branch of the Afro-Asiatic language family containing languages predominantly spoken in North Africa and Southwest Asia by over 380 million people.

This subfamily is the largest of the sub-families within the Afro-Asiatic languages, with about 77 living languages and millions of native speakers across the Middle East, East, and North Africa.

Back Story of the Semitic Languages

Semitic languages have been found to date back to the 30th century BCE and the 25th century BCE, with written evidence of the existence of these languages in East Semitic Akkadian and Eblaite texts discovered in Mesopotamia and the Levant.

The term “Semitic” was coined by the German linguist Johann Gottfried Eichhorn. He took the name from a biblical text, Shem, the first son of Noah, and the Greek version of his name Sēm.

The standout point with Semitic languages is their nonconcatenative morphology—their word roots are not syllables or words themselves; instead, they come from isolated sets of consonants. Once a language is analyzed and fits into this category, they are grouped as a part of the Semitic language tree.

Languages that belong to Semitic Languages

Over seventy languages belong to the Semitic language family. However, only seven of them are widely recognized, and this is due to no other reason than their massive number of native speakers and geographical positioning.

These seven most popular languages are:

Arabic

The Arabic language family is by far the most commonly spoken language of the Semitic family. It is the native tongue of over 110 million people spread across Middle Eastern countries like Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Egypt, Sudan, United Arab Emirates, Iraq, Qatar, and Kuwait, with Egypt holding the largest population of its speakers.

Amharic

This is the second most spoken on the Semitic language tree and was first spoken by the Amharas. This language, with its speaker base of 30 million people consisting of native speakers and second language speakers worldwide, is the official language in Ethiopia. However, unlike Arabic, a widely spoken language in various countries, the Amharic language is only spoken in Ethiopia and some parts of Eritrea.

Tigrinya

The Tigrinya language is an Ethiopian Semitic language spoken in some parts of Ethiopia and Eritrea as the official language of the country Eritrea for business purposes, along with Arabic.

Aramaic

The ancient language of Aramaic lives on in the modern day in the mouth of its native speakers in Iraq, Turkey, Georgia, Syria, Armenia, and Iran, but in very few numbers. The popularity of Aramaic doesn’t lie in its number of speakers; instead, it is in the history of the language, especially in the area of religion.

Maltese

Just when you think Arabic can't go further, it does. The Maltese language developed from a dialect of Arabic and a mix of the Sicilian language. This language is spoken by roughly 520,000 native speakers and is the only Arabic form written in the Latin alphabet.

Tigre

This is another Ethiopic Semitic language having over 800,000 speakers spread across Eritrea and Sudan, where the language goes by a different name, Xasa.

Hebrew

Considered a dead language for almost two thousand years, the Hebrew language made an unprecedented comeback to the world in the 19th and 20th centuries and is now the official language of the State of Israel.

Conclusion

Semitic languages have come a long way in history, some barely surviving extinction; some long thought as dead but returned to the world of modern languages.

Now, fast forward to the present times. Semitic languages are more widely spoken worldwide, with Arabic topping the chart, followed by Amharic and Hebrew.

Language Learning

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