The Semitic languages are named after Shem or Sem, the oldest son of Noah, from whom most of the languages' speakers were said to be descended. These languages are believed to have evolved from a hypothetical parent tongue, proto-Semitic. The place of origin of proto-Semitic is still disputed: Africa, Arabia, and Mesopotamia are the most probable locations. The Semitic subfamily may be divided into North Semitic and South Semitic. The former has the subdivisions Northeast Semitic and Northwest Semitic, while the latter is made up of Southeast Semitic and Southwest Semitic.
A distinctive feature of the Semitic languages is the triliteral or triconsonantal root, composed of three consonants separated by vowels. The basic meaning of a word is expressed by the consonants, and different shades of this basic meaning are indicated by vowel changes. The plural can be formed either by adding a suffix to the singular or by an internal vowel change, as in Arabic kitab, book, but kutub, books. Two genders, masculine and feminine, are found in Semitic languages. The feminine is often indicated by the suffixes -t or -at. The Semitic verb is distinguished by its ability to form from the same root a number of derived stems that express new meanings based on the fundamental sense, such as passive, reflexive, causative, and intensive.
An example of a Northeast Semitic language is Akkadian, also called Assyro-Babylonian. The principal subdivisions of the Northwest Semitic group are Canaanite, Ugaritic, and Aramaic (which embraced many dialects in the course of its long history, including Syriac). The term Canaanite is derived from Canaan, the name for the ancient region that comprised Palestine, Phoenicia, and part of Syria. Included among the Canaanite languages are Phoenician, Moabite, and Hebrew. Phoenician, a dead language, was the tongue of the Phoenician people. The earliest inscriptions in Phoenician that can be deciphered are dated c.10th cent. B.C. The language is also preserved in inscriptions from ancient Phoenician colonies, especially Carthage, whose language was a variant of Phoenician known as Punic. The existence of Moabite is known from a single inscription in that language dating from about the 9th cent. B.C., from proper names that occur in the Old Testament, and from the inscriptions of other peoples. The Ugaritic language was first encountered in 1929 at Ras Shamra, Syria, a village where ancient clay tablets with writing in this tongue were found. Since Ras Shamra, which flourished before the 12th cent. B.C., was called Ugarit in antiquity, the language discovered there was named after that ancient city. The Ugaritic language has variously been regarded as an early form of Hebrew, an early form of Phoenician, an early dialect of Canaanite, and an independent dialect of Northwest Semitic. Its classification is still unresolved. The writings in Ugaritic are important in the study of the Hebrew language and biblical literature of the early period.
To the Southwest Semitic group belong both classical Arabic and the modern Arabic dialects. Southeast Semitic is represented by the South Arabic language of ancient South Arabia, which is preserved in inscriptions, and by the Semitic languages of Ethiopia, such as classical Ethiopic or Geez, Amharic, Tigre, and Tigrinya. About 5,000 stone inscriptions in South Arabic (or Himyaritic) were found in what is now Yemen. Ancient South Arabic had two principal dialects, Sabaean and Minaean. Sabaean inscriptions were also discovered in parts of Ethiopia. The earliest Minaean inscriptions belong to the 8th cent. B.C. or even earlier; the Sabaean inscriptions are of a later date. Some dialects spoken today in parts of S Arabia are called Modern South Arabic. Their relationship to the ancient South Arabic dialects of the inscriptions has not yet been determined. A Semitic language (or languages) was brought from S Arabia to Ethiopia during the first millennium B.C. by Semites. At that time the native languages of Ethiopia were Cushitic, and these languages strongly influenced the imported Semitic tongues. The Semitic languages of Ethiopia are classified as North Ethiopic (to which Geez or classical Ethiopic, Tigre, and Tigrinya belong) and South Ethiopic (consisting of Amharic, Harari, Gurage, and others).
The writing used for Semitic languages is either cuneiform or alphabetic writing. The latter has two principal divisions, the North Semitic script and the South Semitic script. The oldest known writing system employed by Semitic-speaking peoples is cuneiform. It was adopted by the Akkadians from the Sumerians , whose language was not a Semitic tongue. The Sumerian cuneiform goes back to about 4000 B.C., and it was used by various peoples until about the 2d cent. B.C. Babylonian and Assyrian, which were later dialects of Akkadian, also employed cuneiform. At first cuneiform was written from top to bottom in vertical rows, with the first row at the right, but at a later date the direction of writing was reversed, that is, it was written in horizontal rows from left to right. The North Semitic and South Semitic scripts are thought by some scholars to go back to a common source, a hypothetical proto-Semitic writing system. Others dispute this and regard the origin of the South Semitic alphabet as a still unsolved problem. The source of the proto-Semitic alphabetic script has been variously conjectured to be Egyptian hieroglyphics, Babylonian cuneiform, or other writing systems.
The North Semitic writing is alphabetic in that each sign or symbol represents a consonantal sound of the language. Vowels for some time were omitted. Symbols of various kinds to indicate the vowels for Hebrew, Arabic, and Syriac probably date from the 8th cent. A.D. The North Semitic script consists of a Canaanite branch and an Aramaic branch. The Canaanite branch gave rise to Early Hebrew writing and Phoenician writing. Another descendant of the Canaanite branch is the Greek alphabet, which is the parent of all modern European alphabets, including the Roman and the Cyrillic. According to a Greek tradition the Phoenicians passed on their alphabet to the Greeks. The oldest extant Early Hebrew text is dated at about the 11th or 10th cent. B.C. Early Hebrew writing was the alphabet of the Jews until they adopted Aramaic instead of Hebrew as their spoken language sometime before the Christian era, when they also began to use the Square Hebrew letters derived from the Aramaic writing. The only descendant of the Early Hebrew alphabet still in use is the Samaritan writing. Records of the Aramaic script go back to the 9th cent. B.C. After about 500 B.C. the Aramaic alphabet was used throughout the Middle East. In addition to being the parent of Square Hebrew letters, from which evolved modern Hebrew writing, the Aramaic alphabet is the ancestor of Arabic writing, the Syriac scripts, and other Semitic alphabets. Aramaic writing probably also gave rise to the significant alphabetic writing systems of Asia, such as the Devanagari alphabet so widely used in India.
As Islam spread to various nations in Africa and Asia, it was accompanied by the Arabic alphabet. For example, Arabic writing was adapted for Persian, Pushtu, Urdu, Malay, the Berber languages, Swahili, Hausa, and Turkish. (Since 1928, however, the Roman alphabet has been used for Turkish.) The South Arabic inscriptions mentioned earlier employed the South Semitic alphabet, which is no longer used on the Arabian peninsula. This alphabet was taken to Ethiopia during the first millennium B.C. and is still used there, in modified form, for the Ethiopic languages. In fact, the sole noteworthy South Semitic script to survive until modern times is the one employed for the Ethiopic languages. All other known alphabets are believed to be derived from North Semitic writing. Although the South Arabic letters form a consonantal alphabet, the Ethiopic writing is syllabic in nature. Ethiopic consonants have six or more forms, each depending on the vowel following the consonant, but this may be a later development. In any case, the origin of the syllabic nature of the Ethiopic script is an unsolved problem. All Semitic languages are writtten from right to left except Ethiopic, Assyrian, and Babylonian, which are written from left to right.