The Diversity Structures of Semitic Languages

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: The Story of Human Language

By John McWhorter, Ph.D., Columbia University

Language is an imperative part of our culture and life. Just as cultures vary vastly from region to region, so do languages. English speakers, for example, often think that other languages are similar to their own, but this could not be farther from the truth. 

Set of people around the world map with speech bubbles in various languages.
There are over 6,000 recorded languages across the world, and there is an immense amount of diversity among them. (Image: Qvasimodo art/Shutterstock)

The western world comprises many languages that are a part of the Indo-European language family. As a result, westerners can think that languages from other parts of the world are also similar to English, French, or German. There are many different language systems in the world. 

An interesting language family is the Semitic language family. Technically, it is not really a family, but a subfamily belonging to the Afro-Asiatic language family. 

The Afro-Asiatic Language Family

The Afro-Asiatic is the language system which is present toward the north of Africa, while the southern part of Africa is mostly covered with the family referred to as the Niger-Congo.

Just like Indo-European, the Afro-Asiatic language family is a large language family that encompasses a lot of subsystems and languages. The language of Hausa, for instance, is part of the Chadic subfamily, which is one of the subfamilies of the Afro-Asiatic family. Similarly, Berber people speak the languages of the Berber subfamily. Somali, the language spoken in Somalia, is one of the languages of the Cushitic subfamily. 

One of the subfamilies of the Afro-Asiatic language family is the Semitic subfamily.

Learn more about Indo-European languages.

The Semitic Subfamily

The Semitic subfamily of the Afro-Asiatic family is best known by its flagship languages—Arabic and Hebrew. These two themselves are very closely related to each other. So, it is not surprising to see that there have historically been certain tensions among the speakers of the two languages, tensions of a nature that are commonly found among speakers of languages that are similar and built around common plans and words. 

Both of these languages are spoken in the Middle East, as are many other Semitic languages, such as Aramaic. There also exist records of various other extinct Semitic languages in this region, such as Akkadian and Phoenician. 

Semitic languages have certain peculiarities that place them in a niche of their own in the world. 

This is a transcript from the video series The Story of Human Language. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

Triliteral Roots in Semitic Languages

One of the most peculiar features of Semitic languages is that they base their words around the roots of three consonants. Meaning is then encoded in the words by weaving vowels between the consonants. The consonants serve just like prefixes and endings, and the vowels between the first consonant and the second consonant, and between the second and third consonant, keep changing to provide different meanings in the languages. 

For instance, there is the root K-T-B in Arabic. A lot of different words can be formed out of [k] [t] [b]. 

The word kataba means he wrote, while yaktubu means he writes, with ya- as the prefix, the K and the T stuck together, followed by [u], then B, and finally [u] again as an ending.

Similarly, the word book in Arabik is kitāb, which is a noun. A bookseller in Arabic is a kutubī. Further, derived from the same root, an office is a  maktab. The ma- acts as a prefix to make a noun, followed by the k-tab. Then, a maktub is a letter. Further, a kātib is a writer, and kitba is writing. All these words have been derived from the same root of K-T-B. 

It is imperative to remember that it is not just with K-T-B that this happens, it is a common phenomenon that takes place with hundreds of roots. 

Thus, the system created in the language is very different from the systems that English speakers are used to. This is not the only different system though: the length of a vowel can also mark a difference in the meaning of a word. This is very different from the way vowels are used in English. For instance, kataba is he wrote, but kātaba, where the first [a] is longer, is he corresponded

This triliteral kind of root is what is officially referred to as ‘non – concatenative morphology’. 

Similarities in Other Semitic Languages 

While Arabic and Hebrew are the most well known Semitic languages, they are, however, not the only ones. In fact, numerically, most Semitic languages are spoken across the Red Sea, in Ethiopia, where languages such as Amharic, and even lesser-known ones, such as Tigre and Tigrenya, are spoken. The parallels between these languages and the popular languages of Arabic or Hebrew can actually be easily seen upon scrutinizing them.
So, the word for night, which is laila in Hebrew, is leylat in Amharic. There are many other similarities as well, which show the relation of these languages, despite their having been separated for a very long time. Over the years, there have been a lot of changes, which have all but rendered these languages mutually unintelligible, to the extent where speakers themselves wouldn’t recognize the relation present between the two.

There are, however, some retentions, based on the common tri-consonantal roots. 

Take, for instance, the phrase “you’re wearing it”. In Hebrew, the phrase would be ata loveš oto, where ata is you, loveš is wear and oto is it. The loveš is, in fact, a tri-consonantal root: L-V-SH. In Amharic, the entire phrase, “Why, Darling! You’re wearing it”, becomes tilebsewalleh. While a brilliant example of how Amharic crams much more meaning into a word than Hebrew usually does, what is more to the point is the usage of b, which replaces the v because of a certain natural linguistic synergy between the two sounds, as is often also represented in the various dialects of the Spanish language. Of course, this is preceded by the l, which is the same as in Hebrew, and is followed by the suh, which is a much more intuitive extension to the Hebrew root shuh. Putting it all together, there is something akin to the sound of luhbuhshuh in both the languages, which show the relation that these languages have, albeit with the differences they have developed. 

Ancient Bible in the Amharic language
Amharic crams in a lot of meaning in its words than Western Language speakers are generally accustomed to.
(Image: Dmitry Chulov/Shutterstock)

These commonalities are some of the defining features of Semitic languages, as the system of three consonants is very rare otherwise. There are very few other languages that have such features. There may be some Native American languages in California that have tri-consonant roots, there is perhaps no relationship that drove the feature amongst the groups. 

This is how grammar and linguistics have evolved over many many centuries. There are features of the Semitic language subfamily that have literally developed in a manner that is like none other on Earth, save perhaps in certain tribal languages. And while this feature is unique to the particular subfamily, the complexity and peculiarity are inherent to the nature of language, as portrayed by the Semitic subfamily of the Afro-Asiatic family. 

Learn more about language changes.

Common Questions About Semitic Languages

Q: What are Semitic languages?

Semitic languages are a subfamily of languages that belong to the Afro-Asiatic language family. The subfamily contains languages such as Arabic, Hebrew, and Amharic.

Q: Where are Semitic languages spoken in the world?

Even though Arabic and Hebrew are the most recognized Semitic languages, numerically, the most Semitic languages are found in Ethiopia, where languages such as Amharic, and even lesser-known ones, such as Tigre, are spoken.

Q: What is non-concatenative morphology?

Non-concatenative morphology, or tri-consonantal roots, is a feature found in Semitic languages, wherein words are built around three consonants, and meaning is embedded into words by weaving in vowels between the root consonants.

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