The New International Encyclopædia/Semitic Languages

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The New International Encyclopædia
Semitic Languages
Edition of 1905. Written by Morris JastrowSee also Semitic languages on Wikipedia, and the disclaimer.

SEMITIC LANGUAGES. The current designation of a group of languages sharply marked off from other groups by certain characteristic features pertaining both to morphology and to lexicography. The name Semitic is an unfortunate one, derived from the classification of nations in the tenth chapter of Genesis. (See Semites.) In retaining it we must not only bear in mind that it is a purely conventional designation for a certain group of languages, but also distinguish between its ethnic and linguistic applications. It does not follow that nations speaking the same languages belong necessarily to the same stock.

Confining ourselves to the linguistic application, we may distinguish two chief branches of Semitic speech — a northern and a southern. To the northern branch belong (1) the Babylono-Assyrian; (2) the Aramaic, subdivided into a western and an eastern branch (see Aramaic); (3) Hebræo-Phœnician. To the southern branch belong (1) the Arabic, which again is divided into north and south Arabic, and (2) Ethiopic.

In comparison with the territory throughout which the Indo-Germanic languages are spoken the area of Semitic speech is exceedingly limited. Excluding the modern Hebrew and modern Arabic, which have been carried by Jews and Arabs to distant parts, the Mediterranean and the Euphrates, the Indian Ocean and the Taurus range represent the western, eastern, southern, and northern boundaries for the groups of Semitic languages. As a direct consequence of these narrow confines, the relationship of the various Semitic languages to one another is much closer than is the case with the various Aryan groups (e.g. Persian and Teutonic); it is almost justifiable to call them dialects rather than separate languages.

The chief traits characterizing the Semitic languages are: (1) Within the historical period of the languages, the triliteral character of most of the stems underlying both nouns and verbs; (2) in the morphology, the constant character of the consonants forming the stems, the vowels being used to indicate the variations on the main theme; (3) substantial agreement in the noun and verb formation; (4) the arrested development in the expression of time relation in the case of the verb, which does not pass beyond the differentiation between a completed and an incompleted act: (5) the use of certain consonants in all the languages (particularly h, n, sh, t) for pronominal prefixes and suffixes and for indication of plural and feminine, as well as variations of the verbal stem corresponding in a measure to modes in Indo-Germanic languages. Other traits might be mentioned, such as the paucity of auxiliary particles, more particularly conjunctions; and it should be noted that while the Semitic languages agree closely in having the same words for common terms (such as father, mother, brother, water, food, deity, heaven, etc.), there are, however, notable exceptions (e.g. man); and in the case of verbs there is considerable individuality manifested in the specific meanings developed by each language from the very general one which is usually attached to a particular stem.

In the form of writing employed there is even more variation, no less than three distinct species being employed in the groups comprising the Semitic languages: (a) the cuneiform characters of Babylonia and Assyria, which, originating in a pictorial script, became linear or wedge-shaped (see Cuneiform Inscriptions); (b) the Phœnician and its derivatives, Hebrew, the various Aramaic alphabets, and further derivatives from the latter; the Syriac and Arabic alphabets; the Phœnician itself may revert to the characters found in the south-Arabic inscriptions; (c) the Ethiopic, which may likewise be a derivative of the ancient south-Arabic (Sabæan and Himyaritic) alphabet, though other factors have entered into the production of some of the peculiarities presented by the Ethiopic alphabet. See Alphabet; Inscriptions.

Of the various groups of the Semitic languages, the Babylono-Assyrian merits the first place by virtue of the antiquity of its literature. The excavations in Babylonia and Assyria (q.v.) have brought to light inscriptions that date back to about B.C. 4500 and as early as B.C. 2500 there appears to have existed quite an extensive literature, chiefly historical, legal, and religious. Later we find other branches like medicine and astronomy represented. Assyria adopted the script together with the general culture of Babylonia, and while it made few contributions to the literature outside of annals, prayers, and incantations, great care was taken by some of the kings to copy and preserve the literature produced in the south. The cuneiform characters in various modifications continued in use in Mesopotamia until a few decades prior to the present era.

The Aramaic branch is distinguished by the large number of its subdivisions and dialects and by the large territory over which these subdivisions and dialects are spread at a comparatively early period. The extensive sway of Aramaic is almost coequal with the range of Semitic speech, and some of the Aramaic dialects developed sufficiently distinct traits to fall within the category of separate languages. By far the most important representative of the group is the Syriac, or the Aramaic dialect spoken in Edessa, Harran, Nisibis, and other places in Mesopotamia. The Babylonian dialect of the Aramaic was adopted by the Jews of the Exile: its form in the period A.D. 250-450 may be seen in the Babylonian Talmud. A similar dialect, though less exposed to foreign influence, was the Mandaic. The Aramaic dialect spoken in Judea has been preserved in the Bible (portions of Ezra and Daniel) and in the earlier Targums. Another Aramaic offshoot is the Samaritan, being the dialect spoken in the district of Shechem, and of importance as the tongue of the Samaritan community. The Galilean dialect, as it was spoken in the third century A.D. and later, has been preserved in many Targums and in the Babylonian Talmud. For further detail concerning these languages and their literatures, see the articles Aramaic; Syriac; Mandæans; Samaritans.

In the Hebræo-Phœnician group, the Hebrew merits the first place by virtue of the fact that the bulk of the Old Testament is written in this language. (See article Jews, sections Hebrew History and Language and Literature; also Hexateuch; Pentateuch.) Hebrew literature is also represented by the older division of the Talmud known as the Mishna (q.v.). containing the codification of the Rabbinical laws. This section of Hebrew literature was edited about A.D. 200. A number of Midrashim are likewise written in this Neo-Hebraic speech. By this time Hebrew had long ceased to be the current speech of Jews, who in Palestine had adopted Aramaic, and outside of Palestine the language of the countries in which they were settled, but Hebrew still maintained its sway as the tongue of sacred writ and as the official language of the synagogue. In view of this it continued to be cultivated not only by the learned, but by the masses as well, so that from time to time Hebrew witnessed literary revivals. Such a revival took place in Spain in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, and again in Russia and Eastern Europe in the nineteenth century, so that numerous works in Hebrew continue to be published up to the present time. The Hebrew of the Middle Ages and the Neo-Hebrew are modeled entirely upon the biblical style; and, since it is artificially cultivated and nowhere used as the sole language of interchange, it can hardly be designated as one of the living Semitic languages. Hebrew being merely the Canaanitish speech adopted by the Israelites upon taking possession of Canaan, it follows that it is practically identical in its earliest form with Phœnician, since the Phœnicians are merely Canaanites who settled on the shore instead of in the interior of Palestine. The Phœnicians do not appear to have developed any literature, and the language is known to us only from the vast number of mortuary and votive and commemorative inscriptions found in Phœnicia itself, and in even larger quantities in the colonies of the Phœnicians, notably in Cyprus, Northern Africa, Sardinia, Malta, Southern Spain, and Southern France. These inscriptions cover the long period from about the eighth century B.C. up to the end of the second century of our era. Their interest is chiefly (1) epigraphical in enabling us to trace the development and modifications of the Phœnician script, and (2) linguistic as furnishing the means to the study of a Semitic tongue that was the first to spread outside of Semitic territory. (See Phœnicia.) Presenting only slight variations from the Hebrew and Phœnician is the Moabitic, represented by a single inscription of the Moabitic King Mesha (see Moabite Stone), and which is of special interest as representing the oldest alphabetical inscription in ancient Phœnician or Canaanitish script.

Of the southern branch the chief representative is the Arabic, the Semitic language which has far exceeded all others in the wide character of its influence. It was the rise and spread of Islam that gave to Arabic as the language of the Koran its supreme importance. Previous to that time Arabic was confined to the peninsula of Arabia: several dialects prevailed, and the one that became the classical speech was the form spoken in Mecca, the birthplace of the Prophet Mohammed. Leaving southern Arabic out of account for the present, Arabic literature previous to Mohammed was confined to poetical compositions which were preserved orally. Islam marks not only a religious innovation, but was also an intellectual movement that gave rise to written literature among the Arabs, and as the Arabs came into contact through the spread of Islam with the existing Oriental and Occidental cultures, the various branches of science, medicine, philosophy, theology, mathematics, geography, history, besides poetry, were cultivated and an exceedingly extensive and important literature was produced in Arabic during the five centuries following the appearance of Mohammed. After that period a decline set in, though the literary activity of the Arabs never came to a standstill, and within the past fifty years, through contact with modern European culture, a new era of intellectual activity has been inaugurated among the Mohammedans in Turkey, Egypt, and India, which appears to be spreading to other centres of Islam. (See Arabic Language and Literature.) The culture of Southern Arabia is far older than that which arose in Central and Northern Arabia. As early at least as B.C. 1500 a powerful kingdom existed in Yemen, and although no literary remains have been preserved, inscriptions in large numbers have been found, revealing a distinctive variety of Semitic script as well as a distinctive species of Arabic which is commonly termed Sabæan or Himyaritic. The relationship of the south-Arabic script to the Phœnician is a problem that has not yet been cleared up. Much speaks in favor of regarding the former as the prototype of the latter, though the links leading from the one to the other are missing. The south-Arabic inscriptions covering a period of about 700 years (so far as they can be dated at all) are chiefly of a votive or commemorative character, and throw light upon the history and religion of the old south-Arabic kingdoms that at one time played no inconsiderable role. See Inscriptions; Minæans; Sabæans.

The Ethiopic literature in the proper sense, or the Geez (to use the native name), dates from the introduction of Christianity into Abyssinia. That literature is almost exclusively religious and consists mainly of homilies, religious poetry, and lives of saints, besides some chronicles. The language survives in several dialects (Tigre, Tigriña, Amharic) spoken in Abyssinia. The alphabet, derived from the south-Arabian script, presents the peculiarity that the vowel sounds are indicated by modifications of the consonants which they accompany. See Ethiopia; Ethiopic Writing; Amharic Language.

Many attempts have been made, sometimes in a very superficial fashion and sometimes by the use of scientific methods, to establish a relationship between the Semitic languages and the Indo-Germanic. But all these endeavors have failed. On the other hand, the Semitic languages bear so striking a resemblance in some respects to certain languages of Northern Africa, that the existence of some relationship between the two groups may be assumed. These languages belong to the family sometimes called ‘Hamitic,’ and composed of the Egyptian, Berber, Beja (Bishari, etc.), and a number of tongues spoken in Abyssinia and the neighboring countries (Agau, Galla, Dankali, etc.). Some of the indispensable words in the Semitic vocabulary (as, for instance, ‘water,’ ‘mouth,’ and certain numerals) are found in Hamitic also, and these words are such as cannot well be derived from triliteral Semitic roots, and are more or less independent of the ordinary grammatical rules. Important resemblances in grammar are also noted — for example, the formation of the feminine by means of t prefixed or suffixed, that of the causative by means of s, similarity in the suffixes and prefixes of the verbal tenses, and, generally, similarity in the personal pronouns, etc. There is also much disagreement; for instance, the widest divergence is found in the mass of the vocabulary. The question is involved in great difficulties. Isolated resemblances may have been produced by the borrowing of words. But the great resemblances in grammatical formation are harder to explain as due to borrowing on the part of the Hamites, more especially as these points of agreement are also found in the language of the Berbers, who are scattered over an enormous territory, and whose speech must have acquired its character long before they came into contact with the Semites.

Bibliography. Zimmern, Vergleichende Grammatik der semitischen Sprachen (Berlin, 1898, with bibliography); Renan, Histoire générale et système comparé des langues sémitiques (5th ed., Paris, 1878); Wright, Lectures on the Comparative Grammar of the Semitic Languages (Cambridge, 1890); Nöldeke, Die semitischen Sprachen (2d ed., Leipzig, 1899); Friedrich Müller, Die semitischen Sprachen, Grundriss der Sprachwissenschaft, iii. 2, pp. 315-419 (Vienna, 1887); Reckendorf, “Zur Karakteristik der semitischen Sprachen,” Xème Congrés des Orientalistes, sect, ii., pp. 1-9 (Leyden, 1896); Hommel, Die semitischen Völker und Sprachen (Leipzig, 1883); Lindberg, Vergleichende Grammatik der semitischen Sprachen (Göteborg, 1897).