The Semitic languages are part of a language family called Afro-Asiatic, which among others includes the Berber/Tamazight, Cushitic, and (ancient) Egyptian languages. The Semitic languages are assumed to have descended from a single source, which is called Proto-Semitic. There is no record of this language, but scholars have been able to piece a lot of information about it from evidence in the daughter languages.
Proto-Semitic and its close relative Proto-Berber were most likely spoken somewhere in Northeastern Africa. Around 3500 BCE, driven by the desertification that would create the Sahara Desert, the speakers of Proto-Semitic migrated east into the Levant, where their presence led to the collapse of the indigenous cultures that existed there. It seems that the Semites didn’t emigrate all at once but rather in waves. Some of them ended up in northern Syria, some in Iraq, others in the Levant and the northern Arabian Peninsula, and still others in the southern Arabian Peninsula and across the Red Sea into East Africa.
These migration patterns led to the divisions within Semitic. There are many competing theories regarding the classification of these divisions. The most common divides Semitic into East and West groups (Huehnergard and Rubin: 2011). The East group, composed of Eblaite, Akkadian, and Babylonian, died out in the 8th century BCE. The West group is divided into three subgroups. The first is Central Semitic, which is further divided into Northwest Semitic — composed of Aramaic, Ugaritic, and Canaanite, Arabic, and Ṣayhadic. The second is Ethiopic, which is composed of the Semitic languages spoken in eastern Africa. The last subgrouping is the Modern South Arabian languages, which are spoken in the southern Arabian Peninsula.
Other scholars propose theories that significantly deviate from this model. Lipiński (1997), for example, argues that there are four not two macro-divisions. According to him, the Semitic that was spoken in northern Syria developed into the North Semitic branch (composed of Ugaritic and Amorite), in Iraq into the East Semitic branch (Akkadian and Babylonian), in the Levant and northern Arabia into the West Semitic branch (e.g. Arabic, Aramaic, and Canaanite), and finally in southern Arabia and East Africa into the South Semitic branch (Ṣahyadic, Ethiopic, and Modern South Arabian). It should be noted that this is a highly idiosyncratic view that is not widely accepted.
Whichever is the correct division, the largest number of living Semitic languages can be found in East Africa, including Amharic, Gurage, Tigre, and Tigrinya. Outside of that region, the most common Semitic language is Arabic and its highly diverse spoken dialects. Additionally, there are Modern Hebrew; the Neo-Aramaic languages, like Assyro-Chaldean, Turoyo, and Neo-Mandaic; and the Modern South Arabian languages, like Soqotri, Mehri, and Shehri.
In order for a group of languages to constitute a “family,” they must share a large number of unique linguistic features that cannot be attributed to mere borrowings or simultaneous development through contact between speakers. The following is a sampling of the unique features that define Semitic languages.
All Semitic languages have or had a series of “emphatic” consonants. In proto-Semitic there were at least five ‹ṭ, ḳ, ṱ, ṣ, ṣ́›. Only (standard) Arabic has maintained this series. The Canaanite languages like Phoenician and Hebrew, only had three, having merged ‹ṱ› and ‹ṣ́› with ‹ṣ›. Ethiopic languages also merged these consonants, but many of them also developed new emphatics, such as ‹ṗ› and ‹č̣›.
The term “emphatic” is necessarily imprecise because these consonants are realized differently in the daughter languages. Originally, they were most likely ejective consonants. Only the Ethiopic and Modern South Arabian languages preserve this pronunciation today. In Arabic and most Neo-Aramaic languages, they are pharyngealized (click here to listen to the difference between plain and emphatic consonants in Arabic). In Maltese and Modern Hebrew, the emphatic consonants have been lost under the influence of European languages.
Every Semitic language has two genders, masculine and feminine. The masculine is usually the base form, while the feminine is indicated with a suffix.
THE FEMININE SUFFIX
The feminine is marked by the suffix ‹-t›. Examples include Akkadian ‹šarr-at-› “queen,” Arabic ‹bint› “daughter,” Gǝ‘ǝz ‹barakat› “blessing,” Hebrew ‹rē’šīṯ› “beginning.” Within the Afro-Asiatic family, this is not unique to Semitic languages. The Berber languages, for example, also mark the feminine with ‹t›, but there it is a circumfix (appearing at the beginning and end of the word). Thus, ‹amaziɣ› ‘Amazigh man’ is masculine, and ‹tamaziɣt› ‘Amazigh woman’ is feminine.
In a number of Central Semitic languages, like Arabic and Hebrew, this suffix was deleted in isolated words, but reappeared if the word was part of a phrase. For example, in Arabic ‘writing,’ feminine noun, is ‹kitāba›; however, ‘a boy’s writing’ is ‹kitābat walad›. Similarly, in Modern Hebrew these are ‹ktiva› and ‹ktivat yéled›.
TWO GENDERS IN THE SECOND PERSON PRONOUN
Semitic languages characteristically divide the second person pronoun into masculine and feminine forms. Examples of the singular forms of “you,” respectively, include Akkadian ‹atta, atti›, Arabic ‹’anta, ’anti›, Geʻez ‹’ānta, ’ānti›, and Hebrew ‹’attā, ’at›. Separate forms also exist in the plural pronouns.
However, in some modern languages and dialects this distinction has been lost or reduced. In many Arabic dialects and other languages like Harari, spoken in Ethiopia, the second person plural no longer distinguishes between gender. Others such as Maltese and Tunisian Arabic have lost the distinction in the singular as well.
THE ROOT-PATTERN SYSTEM
The vast majority of Semitic lexicons are composed of abstract roots of three, or sometimes four, consonants. Words are formed by applying these roots to different patterns of vowels and consonants.
For example, in Arabic the root k-t-b denotes ‘write.’ By itself, it cannot be used in a sentence. However, applying it to the pattern C₁āC₂iC₃, which means ‘doer of [root],’ results in ‹kātib› ‘writer.’ Applying it to the pattern maC₁C₂aC₃, ‘place of [root],’ results in ‹maktab› ‘desk, office’ (literally, a place where one writes). Other words formed from this root include ‹maktūb› ‘letter’; ‹kitāba› ‘writing’; ‹kātaba› ‘he corresponded (with)’; and ‹istiktāb› ‘dictation.’
This system is very flexible, and it is possible to create new roots from existing words and even from foreign languages. For example, the root ’-m-r-k originates from “America” and means “Americanize.” Thus applying it an existing verb pattern for 4-consonant roots ‹taC₁aC₂C₃aC₄a› results in ‹ta’amraka› “he became American.”
These are only a few of the features that distinguish Semitic languages. There many others, such as a verb conjugation system originally centered around aspect rather than tense; object and possessive pronouns as suffixes; and the dual number in verbs, nouns, and adjectives. These subjects are for another day perhaps.
I leave you with a side-by-side comparison of hypothesized Proto-Semitic words and their attested forms in four daughter languages (color-coded according to which branch of Semitic they belong to):
Black, J., George, A., and Postgate, N. (2000). A Concise Dictionary of Akkadian.
Huehnergard, J. and Rubin, A. (2011). “Phyla and Waves: Models of Classification of the Semitic Languages.” In S. Weninger (ed.), The Semitic Languages: An International Handbook.
Lipiński, E. (1997). Semitic Languages: Outline of a Comparative Grammar.
Leslau, W. (1989). Concise Dictionary of Geʻez.