Semitic branch languages

Semitic Branch

Semitic languages constitute a the most populous branch of the Afro-Asiatic language family. They are spoken by more than 500 million people across the Middle East, North Africa, and the Horn of Africa. They are believed to have evolved from a hypothetical common ancestor called *Proto-Semitic whose place of origin is still disputed: Africa, Arabian Peninsula, and Mesopotamia are the most probable locations. The Semitic branch can be divided into East, West (or Central), and South (or Ethiopic) Semitic. The term “Semitic” is thought to have come from Shem, one of the three sons of Noah (Gen. x:21-30), regarded in biblical literature as the ancestor of the Semites.

Today, the Semitic branch includes 77 languages that are spoken by more than 500 million people across the Middle East, and North and East Africa. The most widely spoken Semitic language today is Arabic, followed by Amharic, Tigrinya, and Hebrew. The table below lists the most populous Semitic languages.

East Semitic
ancient Mesopotamia (in present-day Iraq)
West Semitic
Iraq, Turkey, Iran, Syria
Arabic (35 varieties)
c. 500 million (all varieties)
Middle East, North and East Africa.
5 million
17.5 million
Tigrinya (Tigrigna)
4.5 million
Tigré (Xasa)


  • Arabic
    It is estimated that there are over 400 million first- and over 240 million second-language speakers of the 35 varieties of Arabic (Ethnologue). A significant proportion of them can speak and understand Modern Standard Arabic. Classical Arabic is the official language of all Arab countries and is the only form of Arabic taught in at all levels of education.Arabic is the official or co-official language of 25 countries that include, among others, Algeria, Bahrain, Chad, Djibouti, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Morocco, Oman, Palestinian West Bank and Gaza, Qatar, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia, Mauritania, United Arab Emirates, and Yemen. In addition to the Arab countries, in which Arabic speakers are concentrated, large numbers of Arabic speakers live in Iran and France (about 600,000 speakers each), and a substantial number of speakers live in Israel and parts of Africa (Ethnologue).
  • Amharic
    Amharic, with 17 million first- and 4 million second-language speakers, is the official working language of Ethiopia, along with English and Tigrinya. It is used in government, public media, national commerce, and in education up to the seventh grade. It has been the working language of government, the military, and of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church throughout modern times. Many speakers of Amharic also use English, Arabic, Afaan Oromo, and Tigrinya.
  • Tigrinya
    Tigrinya is a national language of Ethiopia where it is spoken by 3.2 million people as a first language and by 147,000 people as a second language. It is the third most spoken language, after Amharic and Oromo. Tigrinya serves as a lingua franca among different ethnic groups and has the status of national language. It is used in the mass media , in schools, and in government and non-governmental agencies (Ethnologue). Tigrinya is spoken by 1.2 million people in Eritrea which does not have an official language. It is the most spoken language and is used in the mass media , in schools, and in government and non-governmental agencies (Ethnologue). There are 10,000 speakers of Tigrinya in Israel (Ethnologue).
  • Hebrew
    Hebrew is spoken by about 5 million people in Israel. In addition, it is spoken by several hundred thousand speakers in the Palestinian territories and expatriot Jewish communities around the world (Ethnologue). It became an official language of British Palestine in 1922. Today, it is the dominant official language of the State of Israel, along with Arabic and English, and remains the liturgical language of Jews worldwide. It is used for official, public and private purposes throughout Israel, with the exception of the Arab sector, where Arabic is used. Government schools teach in either Hebrew or Arabic, however, Hebrew is a compulsory subject through the tenth grade in all schools, even the Arabic ones. Hebrew is the medium of instruction at the university level as well. It is the language of most newspapers, books, magazines, radio, and television.
  • Aramaic
    Aramaic, once used as a lingua franca throughout the Mediterranean, is now spoken by some 500,00 people scattered throughout northern Iraq, eastern Turkey, northwestern Irn, and Syria. Syriac, an older descendant of Aramaic, is used as a liturgical language by Iraqi Christians. It does not have official status in any country.
  • Ge’ez
    The now extinct Ge’ez, attested between the 4th-9th centuries AD, is still used as the liturgical language of the Ethiopian Coptic Church.


Important extinct Semitic languages

In addition to the 77 living Semitic languages, there are some important extinct tongues, some of which are listed below:

  • Akkadian is an extinct Semitic language that was spoken in Mesopotamia from the 3rd to the 1st millennium BC. Last written records of Akkadian date to 1st century AD. Akkadian was forgotten but rediscovered in the 19th century and its cuneiform script was deciphered.
  • Canaanite languages that include Hebrew, Phoenician, and Punic, were spoken in Palestine, Syria, and in scattered communities around the Mediterranean. All these languages are extinct, except Hebrew, which was revived as a spoken language only in the 19th and 20th centuries.
  • Phoenician is an ancient Semitic language that was originally spoken in today’s Lebanon. It is attested through inscriptions from the 12th century BC to the 2nd century AD. Phoenician traders established settlements all over the Mediterranean. The Phoenician consonantal script, written from right to left and consisting of 22 letters, is almost identical with the Old Hebrew script. It is the ancestor of the Greek and Latin alphabets.
  • Punic, a later stage of Phoenician, was the language of Carthage and the Carthaginian empire. It was influenced by the surrounding Berber languages. Punic became extinct by the 6th century AD.
  • Syriac was a Christian literary and liturgical language from the 3rd through the 7th century AD. It was based on an East Aramaic dialect. Today, it is still used as a liturgical language by Iraqi Christians.

Semitic words in English

English has directly or indirectly borrowed many words from Semitic languages, mostly from Hebrew and Arabic. In some cases, the Arabic and Hebrew words themselves came from other languages.

English word
amen Hebrew ‘truth’
behemoth Hebrew b’hemoth, plural of b’hemah ‘beast.’ The Hebrew word is most likely a folk etymology of Egyptian pehemau, literally ‘water-ox,’ the name for the hippopotamus.
camel Hebrew or Phoenician gamal’
camphor Arabic kafur, from Malay kapur, ‘camphor tree’
cipher Arabic sifr, ‘zero’
giraffe Arabic zarafa, probably from an African language
jubilee Hebrew yobhel, ‘jubilee’
mattress Arabic al-matrah, ‘the cushion’
schwa Hebrew shewa, ‘a neutral vowel quality,’ literally, ’emptiness’


Sound system

The sound systems of modern Semitic languages share many features.


  • The number of vowels in Semitic languages ranges from three in Modern Standard Arabic, six in Hebrew, and seven in Amharic and Tigrinya.
  • Vowels can be long or short. Vowel length distinguises word meaning.


  • There is an opposition between voiced, voiceless plain and voiceless emphatic consonants which are produced with the root of the tongue retracted, resulting in pharyngealization, a secondary articulation by which the pharynx is constricted during the articulation of the consonant.
  • All Semitic languages feature a wealth of consonants produced at the back of the oral cavity, i.e., velar, uvular, pharyngeal, and glottal sounds.
  • There is an opposition between single and geminated (double) consonants;


Hebrew stress normally falls on the penultimate syllable with some exceptions. Other Semitic languages have mobile stress, i.e., stress that can fall on any syllable of a word.


The grammatical systems of Semitic languages share many common features. 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. For instance, the triconsonantal root K-T-B in Arabic serves the basis for the following words: kitāb, ‘book,’ kutub, ‘books,’ kitaba ‘writing,’ kātib ‘writer.’

Nouns, adjectives and pronouns

  • There are two genders, masculine and feminine. Masculine nouns have no special markers, whereas feminine nouns are often indicated by the suffixes –t or –at.
  • There are two numbers: singular and plural. The plural is usually formed by either adding a suffix and/or by an internal vowel change (broken plural), e.g., Arabic dinaar ‘dinar’ (singular) –danaaniir ‘dinar’ (plural), kitāb, ‘book,’ kutub, ‘books.’ Some languages have retained the dual number, e.g., Modern Standard Arabic dinaar (singular) – diinaareen (dual, i.e., ‘two dinars’) – danaaniir (plural).
  • The cases have disappeared in spoken varieties of Semitic languages. Modern Standard Arabic has retained three cases: nominative, genitive and accusative, but only educated speakers of the language master their use. Modern Hebrew uses the prepositions to mark grammatical relations, e.g.,shel, ‘of,’ as in ha-dal shel ha-beyt, ‘the door of the house.’
  • Nouns are marked for definiteness, e.g., in Arabic sefiniteness is marked by the article ‘al-, while indefiniteness is usually indicated by the suffix -nwhich follows the case marker. Ths category is present in all dialects of Arabic. In Modern Hebrew, the definite article ha– is placed both before the adjective and the noun, hence ‘the big camel’ is ha-yeled ha-gadol, literally ‘the boy the big.’
  • There is a category of ‘state’ which, depending on the language, may include the construct state (for nouns attached to a noun in the genitive), pronominal state (used before possessive suffixes, the predicative state, the emphatic state (for definite nouns) and the absolute state (for everything else).
  • Adjectives agree with the nouns they modify in gender and number.
  • There is no gender distinction in the 1st person pronouns but the 2nd and 3rd person pronouns have a masculine and a feminine form.
  • There are three sets of personal pronouns: independent ones used as subjects or predicates, possessive pornouns attached to nouns or prepositions, e.g., Amharic bet-e ‘house my,’ and object pronouns attached to verbs.


  • Most Semitic roots consist of three (sometimes four) consonants. These roots can form a number of derived forms that express new meanings, such as passive, reflexive, or causative, e.g., the stem K-T-B with the basic meaning of ‘write’ gives rise to words such as kataba ‘he wrote’ and kutiba ‘it was written.’
  • Verbs agree with their subjects in person and number.
  • There are two sets of conjugations: one that uses prefixes and another than uses suffixes. Prefixes and suffixes are attached to verb stems.

Word order

Word order in most modern Semitic languages is Verb- Subject-Object, as in Hebrew and Modern Standard Arabic. Modern Ethiopic Semitic languages, such as Amharic and Tigrinya, have a Subject-Object-Verb order.


Due to their common ancestry, Semitic languages share a great deal of their vocabulary. In addition, they have also borrowed words from neighboring languages, such as Berber as well as languages with which they had signifcant contacts, such as Persian, and the languages of the former colonial powers, such as French, Spanish, Portuguese and Italian. The most recent source of borrowing is English.

Below are four common words in four Semitic languages.

Modern Standard Arabic as-salaamu alaykum (greeting); Wa alaykum is-salaam (response)
Hebrew shalom
Amharic sälam
Tigrinya selam
Thank you
Modern Standard Arabic shukran
Hebrew toda
Amharic əgziabher yst’lñ
Tigrinya yekenyeley
Modern Standard Arabic naam
Hebrew ken
Amharic awon
Tigrinya uwe
Modern Standard Arabic laa
Hebrew lo
Amharic ay
Tigrinya aykonen

Below are the Arabic numerals 1-10 in four Semitic languages given in romanization.

Modern Standard Arabic




Semitic scripts are thought to have a common ancestor in a hypothetical proto-Semitic writing system. The source of the proto-Semitic alphabetic script is thought to have been Egyptian hieroglyphics, however, this has not been firmly established. Semitic scripts are often divided into North and South Semitic. All Semitic languages are writtten from right to left except Ethiopic, Assyrian, and Babylonian, which are written from left to right.

  • North Semitic writing is alphabetic in that each sign or symbol represents a consonant. At first, vowels were not represented in writing at all. Various symbols to represent the vowels for Hebrew, Arabic, and Syriac 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 and Phoenician writing. Early Hebrew writing was the alphabet of the Jews until they adopted Aramaic instead of Hebrew as their spoken language and began to use the Square Hebrew letters derived from the Aramaic writing. Square Hebrew letters are used for writing Modern Hebrew today. The oldest extant Early Hebrew text is dated at about the 11th or 10th cent. B.C. North Semitic writing was the basis for the Greek alphabet, the ancestor of both Roman and Cyrillic alphabets.
    Click here to see a comparative chart of Proto-Canaanite, Phoenician, and Greek alphabets.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, the Aramaic alphabet is the ancestor of Arabic writing, the Syriac scripts, and other Semitic alphabets. Major alphabetic writing systems of Asia, such as the Devanagari alphabet widely used in India are probably also derived from Aramaic.
  • South Semitic alphabet survived until modern times for writing Ethiopic languages. Ethiopic writing is syllabic in nature, i.e., each symbol represents a consonant plus a vowel. The origin of the syllabic nature of the Ethiopic script is a matter of dispute.

The table below shows the distribution of Semitic scripts.

Detailed description
Arabic Arabic
Hebrew Hebrew
Ancient Scripts
Amharic Ethiopic (Ge’ez)
Ancient Scripts
Tigrinya Ethiopic (Ge’ez)
Ancient Scripts
Aramaic Aramaic
Ancient Scripts
Syriac Syriac
Ancient Scripts
Ge’ez Ethiopic (Ge’ez)
Ancient Scripts


Language Difficulty
questionHow difficult is it to learn Semitic languages?
Information is available for Hebrew, a Category II and Arabic, a Category III language in terms of difficulty for speakers of English.