The term "Afroasiatic" was coined by Joseph Greenberg to replace the earlier term "Hamito-Semitic" after his demonstration that Hamitic is not a valid language family (Greenberg 1963:50). It is now most often spelled "Afro-Asiatic", though both spellings are in use.
The family is sometimes called "Afrasian". Other names that have been given to it are "Erythraean" (Tucker 1966) and "Lisramic" (Hodge 1972).
The Afro-Asiatic language family includes the following subfamilies:
The position of Beja is controversial; it is sometimes listed as an independent branch but is widely included within the diverse Cushitic branch. The position of Ongota within the Afro-Asiatic family, and even whether it is Afro-Asiatic, is likewise uncertain, partly for lack of data. Harold Fleming tentatively suggests Ongota constitutes a branch of its own.
Medieval scholars sometimes linked two or more branches of Afro-Asiatic together. As early as the 9th century, the Hebrew grammarian Judah ibn Quraysh of Tiaret in Algeria perceived a relationship between Berber and Semitic. The latter group was known to him through Arabic, Hebrew, and Aramaic.
In the course of the 19th century, Europeans also began suggesting such relationships. In 1844, Theodor Benfey suggested a language family consisting of Semitic, Berber, and Cushitic (calling the latter "Ethiopic"). In the same year, T.N. Newman suggested a relationship between Semitic and Hausa, but this would long remain a topic of dispute and uncertainty.
Friedrich Müller named the traditional "Hamito-Semitic" family in 1876 in his Grundriss der Sprachwissenschaft. He defined it as consisting of a Semitic group plus a "Hamitic" group containing Egyptian, Berber, and Cushitic; he excluded the Chadic group. These classifications relied in part on non-linguistic anthropological and racial arguments (see Hamitic hypothesis).
Leo Reinisch (1909) proposed linking Cushitic and Chadic, while urging a more distant affinity to Egyptian and Semitic, thus foreshadowing Greenberg, but his suggestion found little resonance.
Marcel Cohen (1924) rejected the idea of a distinct Hamitic subgroup and included Hausa (a Chadic language) in his comparative Hamito-Semitic vocabulary.
Joseph Greenberg (1950) strongly confirmed Cohen's rejection of "Hamitic", added (and sub-classified) the Chadic languages, and proposed the new name "Afroasiatic" for the family. Nearly all scholars have accepted Greenberg's classification.
In 1969, Harold Fleming proposed the recognition of Omotic as a fifth branch, rather than, as previously believed, a subgroup of Cushitic. This proposal has met with general acceptance. Several scholars, including Fleming and Robert Hetzron, have since questioned the traditional inclusion of Beja in Cushitic, but this view has yet to gain general acceptance.
Little agreement exists on the subgrouping of the five or six branches of Afro-Asiatic — Berber, Chadic, Egyptian, Semitic, Cushitic, and Omotic (if Omotic is not included in Cushitic). However, Christopher Ehret (1979), Harold Fleming (1981), and Joseph Greenberg (1981) all agree that the Omotic branch split from the rest first.
| Orel & Stobova|
| • Berber-Chadic|
• Cushitic (excludes Omotic
| • Omotic|
• ? Ongotá
| • Omotic|
| • Berber-Semitic|
Afro-Asiatic is one of the four language families of Africa identified by Joseph Greenberg in his book The Languages of Africa (1963). It is the only one also spoken outside of Africa.
There are no generally accepted relations between Afro-Asiatic and any other language family. However, several proposals grouping Afro-Asiatic with one or more other language families have been made. The best-known of these are the following:
No agreement exists on where Proto-Afro-Asiatic speakers lived (i.e. the Afro-Asiatic Urheimat), though the language is generally believed to have originated in Northeast Africa. Some scholars (such as Igor Diakonoff and Lionel Bender) have proposed Ethiopia, because it includes the majority of the diversity of the Afro-Asiatic language family and has very diverse groups in close geographic proximity, often considered a telltale sign for a linguistic geographic origin. Other researchers (such as Christopher Ehret) have put forward the western Red Sea coast and the Sahara. A minority suggests a linguistic homeland in the Levant (for instance Alexander Militarev; specifically, he identifies Afro-Asiatic with the Natufian culture), with Semitic being the only branch to stay put.
The Semitic languages form the only Afro-Asiatic subfamily extant outside of Africa. Some scholars believe that, in historical or near-historical times, Semitic speakers crossed from South Arabia back into Eritrea. Others, such as A. Murtonen, dispute this view, suggesting that the Semitic branch may have originated in Ethiopia. A third view, based upon similarities between Semitic and Ancient Egyptian, is that the two languages developed from a common ancestral tongue along the Nile, crossing the Sinai with the dry phase from 6000-5800 BCE, at the end of the Pre-Pottery Neolithic B phase in the Levant . Hunter-gatherers of the El-Harif Mesolithic culture, crossing the Sinai and from Northern Egypt, and adopting animal domestication but not agriculture, could then have created what Juris Yarins calls the Syro-Arabian nomadic pastoralism complex, spreading south along the shores of the Red Sea and northeast around the edge of the "Fertile Crescent". In the Levant this development appears as the Minhata culture and later as the Yarmoukian culture, which came from the same semi-arid zone as the later Ghassulian and Semitic Amorite cultures.
Given the high diversity within the Afro-Asiatic family and the absence of a common vocabulary for agricultural items, it is suggested that the languages dispersed before the commencement of the Neolithic. Ehret suggests that early Afro-Asiatic languages were involved in the domestication of Ethiopian food crops, but this is disputed by others who suggest that the words concerned are found only in the Cushitic and possibly Omotic families and that common cognates for agriculture are not present.
The finding of a common vocabulary for pottery containers, however, suggests that this technology was known. For example: Proto-Semitic *k'ad-ah- 'vessel', found in Arabic kadah 'drinking bowl, cup, goblet, glass, tumbler'; Sabaean m-kdh(m,n) 'cup'; Ethiopic / Geez kadho 'vessel, gourd', ma-kdeht 'jar, jug, bucket'; Lowland East Cushitic *k'adad- 'vessel, gourd'; Oromo k'odaa 'vessel, gourd'; Egyptian qd 'pot'; Lowland East Cushitic *k'od- 'receptacle'; Oromo k'odaa 'receptacle'; West Chadic *k'wad- 'calabash'; Dangla koda 'pot' (Bomhard 1996). Bomhard reconstructs these forms to a Proto-Afro-Asiatic *k'ud- / *k'od- 'vessel, pot'.
Given that wavy-line pottery is found widely in the Sahara from 8000 BCE, and that the Neolithic agricultural technologies arrived around 5000 BCE, this sets a possible context for Proto-Afro-Asiatic dispersal. As it is known that the Ethiopian farmers moved into the highlands from the direction of Nubian Sudan, and attempts to translate the Meroitic script found in this area show significant Afro-Asiatic characteristics, Lionel Bender suggests that this area of the Southern Nile was the centre from which the Afro-Asiatic languages dispersed. The dates of pottery and agriculture set approximate early and late dates for this linguistic dispersal. The date of Proto-Afro-Asiatic would thus lie somewhere between ca. 8000 and ca. 5000 BCE or, expressed differently, between 7,000 and 10,000 years ago.
Climatically this was the time of a "wet Sahara" phase with large rivers and lakes. The dispersal of Afro-Asiatic may thus have been a response to the recent operation of the "Sahara pump.
Some scholars argue that Afro-Asiatic is considerably older than this. Carleton T. Hodge (1991:141) states:
According to Christopher Ehret (1997):
Common features of the Afro-Asiatic languages include:
In the verbal system, Semitic, Berber, and Cushitic (including Beja) all provide evidence for a prefix conjugation:
|English||Arabic (Semitic)||Kabyle (Berber)||Somali (Cushitic)||Beja (verb is "arrive")||Hausa (Chadic)|
|they (m.) die||yamuutuuna||mmuten||wedimtan||iktimna||sunmutu|
|you (m. sg.) die||tamuutu||temmuteḍ||wadimate||tiktima||kamutu|
|you (m. pl.) die||tamuutuuna||temmutem||wadimatan||tiktimna||sunmutu|
All Afro-Asiatic subfamilies show evidence of a causative affix s, but a similar suffix also appears in other groups, such as the Niger-Congo languages.
Semitic, Berber, Cushitic (including Beja), and Chadic support possessive suffixes.
Some important Afro-Asiatic cognates are:
Some of the main sources for Afro-Asiatic etymologies include: