Family of Afro-Asiatic languages spoken by more than 200 million people in northern Africa and South Asia. No other language family has been attested in writing over a greater time span—from the late 3rd millennium BCE to the present. Both traditional and some recent classifications divide the family into an eastern and western group. Until recently the sole known East Semitic language was Akkadian; now some scholars add Eblaite, the language of a cuneiform archive found at the ancient city of Ebla, with documents dating from circa 2300 to 2250 BCE. West Semitic contains as one major subgroup Northwest Semitic, which includes Ugaritic, known from alphabetic cuneiform texts of circa 1400–1200 BCE; the closely related Canaanite languages (including Moabite, Phoenician, and Ancient Hebrew); and Aramaic. Further subgrouping is controversial; traditionally, Arabic was placed in a distinct South Semitic subgroup of West Semitic, though a more recent classification puts it together with Northwest Semitic. The South Semitic languages include Epigraphic South Arabian; Modern South Arabian (or Modern South Arabic), a group of six languages spoken in eastern Yemen, southwestern Oman, and the island of Socotra; and Ethiopic.
Learn more about Semitic languages with a free trial on Britannica.com.
Family of about 250 languages spoken in North Africa, parts of sub-Saharan African, and the Middle East. It includes such languages as Arabic, Hebrew, Amharic, and Hausa. The total number of speakers is estimated to be more than 250 million. The major branches of Afro-Asiatic are Semitic, Berber, Egyptian, Cushitic, Omotic, and Chadic. Berber languages are spoken by perhaps 15 million people in enclaves scattered across North Africa from Morocco to northwestern Egypt and in parts of the western Sahara. Cushitic consists of some 30 languages spoken by more than 30 million people in northeastern Sudan, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Somalia, Djibouti, Kenya, and a few areas of northeastern Tanzania. Omotic, formerly classified as part of Cushitic, is a cluster of perhaps more than 30 languages spoken by 2–3 million people, most of whom live near the Omo River in southwestern Ethiopia. Chadic comprises about 140 languages (most of which are poorly known to linguists), spoken in northern Nigeria, southern Niger, southern Chad, and northern Cameroon; except for Hausa, it is likely that no individual Chadic language has more than half a million speakers.
Learn more about Afro-Asiatic languages with a free trial on Britannica.com.
In linguistics and ethnology, Semitic (from the Biblical "Shem", Hebrew: שם, translated as "name", Arabic: ساميّ) was first used to refer to a language family of largely Middle Eastern origin, now called the Semitic languages. This family includes the ancient and modern forms of Akkadian, Amharic, Arabic, Aramaic, Ge'ez, Hebrew, Maltese, Phoenician, Tigre and Tigrinya among others.
As language studies are interwoven with cultural studies, the term also came to describe the extended cultures and ethnicities, as well as the history of these varied peoples as associated by close geographic and linguistic distribution. The late 19th century term "anti-Semitism" refers incorrectly to hostility toward Jews specifically, further complicating the understood meaning and boundaries of the term.
The word "Semitic" is an adjective derived from Shem, one of the three sons of Noah in the Bible (Genesis 5.32, 6.10, 10.21), or more precisely from the Greek derivative of that name, namely Σημ (Sēm); the noun form referring to a person is Semite.
The term "anti-Semitic" (or "anti-Semite") usually refers to Jews only. It was coined in 1873 by German journalist Wilhelm Marr in a pamphlet called, "The Victory of Jewry over Germandom". Using ideas of race and nationalism, Marr argued that Jews had become the first major power in the West. He accused them of being liberals, a people without roots who had Judaized Germans beyond salvation. In 1879 Marr founded the "League for Anti-Semitism".
The concept of "Semitic" peoples is derived from Biblical accounts of the origins of the cultures known to the ancient Hebrews. Those closest to them in culture and language were generally deemed to be descended from their forefather Shem. Enemies were often said to be descendants of his cursed nephew, Canaan. In Genesis 10:21-31, Shem is described as the father of Aram, Asshur, and Arpachshad: the Biblical ancestors of the Arabs, Aramaeans, Assyrians, Babylonians, Chaldeans, Sabaeans, and Hebrews, etc., all of whose languages are closely related; the language family containing them was therefore named Semitic by linguists. However, the Canaanites and Amorites also spoke a language belonging to this family, and are therefore also termed Semitic in linguistics, despite being described in Genesis as sons of Ham (See Sons of Noah). Shem is also described in Genesis as the father of Elam and Lud, although the Elamites and Lydians usually thought to descend from these spoke languages that were not Semitic.
The hypothetical Proto-Semitic language, ancestral to historical Semitic languages in the Middle East, is thought to have been originally from either the Arabian Peninsula (particularly around Yemen) or the adjacent Ethiopian highlands, but its region of origin is still much debated and uncertain. The Semitic language family is also considered a component of the larger Afro-Asiatic macro-family of languages. Identification of the hypothetical proto-Semitic region of origin is therefore dependent on the larger geographic distributions of the other language families within Afro-Asiatic.
Wildly successful as second languages far beyond their numbers of contemporary first-language speakers, a few Semitic languages today are the base of the sacred literature of some of the world's great religions, including Islam (Arabic), Judaism (Hebrew and Aramaic), and Orthodox Christianity (Aramaic and Ge'ez). Millions learn these as a second language (or an archaic version of their modern tongues): many Muslims learn to read and recite Classical Arabic, the language of the Qur'an, and many Jews all over the world outside of Israel with other first languages speak and study Hebrew, the language of the Torah, Midrash, and other Jewish scriptures.
It should be noted that Berber, Egyptian (including Coptic), Hausa, Somali, and many other related languages within the wider area of Northern Africa and the Middle East do not belong to the Semitic group, but to the larger Afro-Asiatic language family of which the Semitic languages are also a subgroup. Other ancient and modern Middle Eastern languages — Azerbaijani, Armenian, Kurdish, Persian, Gilaki, Turkish, ancient Sumerian, and Nubian — do not belong to the larger Afro-Asiatic language family.
For a complete list of Semitic languages arranged by subfamily, see list from SIL's Ethnologue
Semitic peoples and their languages, in both modern and ancient historic times, have covered a broad area bridging Africa, Western Asia and the Arabian Peninsula. The earliest historic (written) evidences of them are found in the Fertile Crescent, an area encompassing the Babylonian and Assyrian civilizations along the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, extending northwest into southern Asia Minor (modern Turkey) and the Levant along the eastern Mediterranean. Early traces of Semitic speakers are found, too, in South Arabian inscriptions in Yemen, Eritrea, Northern Ethiopia and later, in Roman times, in Nabataean inscriptions from Petra (modern Jordan) south into Arabia.
Later historical Semitic languages also spread into North Africa in two widely separated periods. The first expansion occurred with the ancient Phoenicians, along the southern Mediterranean Sea all the way to the Atlantic Ocean (colonies which included ancient Rome's nemesis Carthage). The second, a millennium later, was the expansion of the Muslim armies and Arabic in the 7th-8th centuries AD, which, at their height, controlled the Iberian Peninsula (until 1492) and Sicily. Arab Muslim expansion is also responsible for modern Arabic's presence from Mauritania, on the Atlantic coast of West Africa, to the Red Sea in the northeastern corner of Africa, and its reach south along the Nile River through traditionally non-Semitic territory, as far as the northern half of Sudan, where, as the national language, non-Arab Sudanese even farther south must learn it.
Modern Hebrew was reintroduced in the 20th century, and together with Arabic, is a national language in Israel. Western Aramaic dialects remain spoken in Malula near Damascus. Eastern Neo-Aramaic is spoken along the northern border of Syria and Iraq and in far northwestern Iran. These speakers are often called Chaldean or Neo-Assyrian. Mandean is still spoken in parts of southern Iraq. Semitic languages and peoples are also found in the Horn of Africa, especially Eritrea and Ethiopia. Tigrinya, a North Ethiopic dialect, has around six million speakers in Eritrea and Tigray. In Eritrea, Tigre is the language of around 800,000 Muslims. Amharic is the national language of Ethiopia and is spoken by at least 10 million Coptic Christians. Semitic languages today are also spoken in Malta (where an Italian-influenced language derived from Siculo-Arabic is spoken) and on the island of Socotra in the Indian Ocean between Yemen and Somalia, where a dying vestige of South Arabian is spoken in the form of Soqotri.
In Medieval Europe, all Asian peoples were thought of as descendants of Shem. By the nineteenth century, the term Semitic was confined to the ethnic groups who have historically spoken Semitic languages. These peoples were often considered to be a distinct race. However, some anti-Semitic racial theorists of the time argued that the Semitic peoples arose from the blurring of distinctions between previously separate races. This supposed process was referred to as Semiticization by the race-theorist Arthur de Gobineau. The notion that Semitic identity was a product of racial "confusion" was later taken up by the Nazi ideologue Alfred Rosenberg.
Modern science, in contrast, identifies a population's common physical descent through genetic research, and analysis of the Semitic-speaking peoples suggests that they have some common ancestry. Though no significant common mitochondrial results have been yielded, Y-chromosomal links between Semitic-speaking Near-Eastern peoples like Arabs, Assyrians and Jews have proved fruitful, despite differences contributed from other groups (see Y-chromosomal Aaron). Although population genetics is still a young science, it seems to indicate that a significant proportion of these peoples' ancestry comes from a common Near Eastern population to which (despite the differences with the Biblical genealogy) the term "Semitic" has been applied. However, this correlation should rather be attributed to said common Near Eastern origin, as for example Semitic-speaking Near Easterners from the Fertile Crescent are generally more closely related to non-Semitic speaking Near Easterners, such as Iranians, Anatolians, and Caucasians, than to other Semitic-speakers, such as Gulf Arabs, Eritrean Semites, Ethiopian Semites, and North African Arabs.