All In The Language Family: The Semitic Languages

What are the Semitic languages, and what languages belong to this family? We cover that and more down below.
April 2, 2020
All In The Language Family: The Semitic Languages

The Semitic languages are a group of related languages spoken across North and East Africa and the Arabian Peninsula, and one of the major language groups that descended from the larger family of Afroasiatic languages. We’ll take a look at which modern day languages are part of this family, how many people speak them and how similar they are to each other.

What Are The Semitic Languages?

The Semitic language family consists of dozens of distinct languages and modern day dialects, but the major Semitic languages are Arabic, Amharic (spoken in Ethiopia), Tigrinya (spoken in Ethiopia and Eritrea), Hebrew, Tigre (spoken in Sudan), Aramaic (spoken in Lebanon, Syria, Israel, Iraq and Iran) and Maltese.

Arabic is by far the most widely spoken of the Semitic languages, with around 300 million native speakers spread across the vast majority of North Africa and throughout the Arabian Peninsula. Although the variation in dialects (which include differences in grammar, pronunciation and vocabulary) across the Arabic speaking world is considerable, all 30 varieties are still considered part of one language. This is because most educated native speakers are capable of switching between their regional variety and Modern Standard Arabic, thereby having mutually intelligible conversations.

Despite having many fewer speakers, Hebrew is probably the other most well-known Semitic language. It has around 5 million native speakers, with an additional 4 million second language speakers, and it’s one of the only languages spoken today to have been revived from a dead language

How Many People Speak Semitic Languages?

All together, there are currently around 380 million native speakers of Semitic languages in the world, with the vast majority of those being speakers of Arabic. Amharic, the official language of Ethiopia, is the next most spoken Semitic language with around 65 million native speakers. Maltese is one of the least-spoken Semitic languages with around 490,000 native speakers, but has the distinction of being the only Semitic language written with the Roman alphabet, as well as being the only one to be an official language of the European Union.

Beyond North and East Africa and the Arabian Peninsula, there are significant populations of speakers of this language family in Europe, North America and Australasia. For example, there are around 6 million Arabic speakers in the European Union, 200,000 Hebrew speakers in the USA, and around 20,000 Amharic speakers in Australia.

Why Are They Called Semitic Languages?

The term “Semitic” was coined by German linguist Johann Gottfried Eichhorn in the late 18th century. He took it from biblical texts, where Shem is one of Noah’s three sons from the Book of Genesis, and the Greek version of his name is Sēm. Eichhorn published a paper in 1795 called Semitische Sprachen (literally: “Semitic languages”) which launched the term into modern scholarship, and it has stuck around ever since.

How Similar Are The Languages In This Family?

As with other languages of one family, it’s tempting to think that once you learn one of them, you’ll magically be able to understand all the others. While there is certainly a lot of overlap with Semitic languages — and there are many common words since they evolved from the same origin — the picture isn’t quite so simple.

One big difference between many of the Semitic languages is that they use various writing systems: Arabic uses the Arabic alphabet (written right to left), Amharic, Tigrinya and Tigre are all written with the Ge’ez syllabary (a writing system where one symbol represents one syllable, written left to right), Hebrew uses the Hebrew alphabet (written right to left) and Maltese is written with the Roman alphabet (written left to right).

In spoken form, on the other hand, the common origin of these languages is much easier to notice. For example, take the word “peace.” It is salām in Arabic, šlām-āʼ in Aramaic, šālôm in Hebrew and sliem in Maltese. “House” is another good example, as it’s bayt– in Arabic, bayt-āʼ in Aramaic, báyiṯ in Hebrew and bejt in Maltese.

Are These Languages Mutually Intelligible?

But are languages in this family actually mutually intelligible with each other? (For example, if an Arabic speaker and a Hebrew speaker tried to talk to each other in their own native languages, would they be able to successfully communicate?)

The short answer is no. While there are many very similar words between the languages, there are also many words in each language which are completely different. This is because words might have a very narrow meaning in one language and a much broader one in the other, or because one language has borrowed foreign words from totally unrelated languages. Arabic, for example, has many borrowed words from French, Turkish and Farsi.

For a European comparison, we could say that Arabic and Hebrew are about as similar to each other as English and German: There are clearly common words that sound similar, but there are also a lot of differences, and simply speaking English to a German speaker (who doesn’t speak English) definitely won’t result in flawless communication!

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Author Headshot
Sam Wood
Sam is a vegan travel blogger, freelance writer, social media manager, former English teacher, linguist and occasional guest university lecturer from London, now living in Berlin. He is fascinated with the phonetics of the many varieties of English from all over the world, both from a pedagogical and historical point of view and as well speaks German, Spanish and French plus smatterings of Swedish, Mandarin, Arabic and Japanese. In his free time he enjoys watching Star Trek, doing yoga, baking delicious vegan cakes and performing as a drag queen.
Sam is a vegan travel blogger, freelance writer, social media manager, former English teacher, linguist and occasional guest university lecturer from London, now living in Berlin. He is fascinated with the phonetics of the many varieties of English from all over the world, both from a pedagogical and historical point of view and as well speaks German, Spanish and French plus smatterings of Swedish, Mandarin, Arabic and Japanese. In his free time he enjoys watching Star Trek, doing yoga, baking delicious vegan cakes and performing as a drag queen.

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