1. The Hebrew language is one branch of a great family of languages in Western Asia which was indigenous in Palestine, Phoenicia, Syria, Mesopotamia, Babylonia, Assyria, and Arabia, that is to say, in the countries extending from the Mediterranean to the other side of the Euphrates and Tigris, and from the mountains of Armenia to the southern coast of Arabia. In early times, however, it spread from Arabia over Abyssinia, and by means of Phoenician colonies over many islands and sea-boards of the Mediterranean, as for instance to the Carthaginian coast. No comprehensive designation is found in early times for the languages and nations of this family; the name Semites or Semitic languages (based upon the fact that according to Gn 10:21 ff. almost all nations speaking these languages are descended from Shem) is, however, now generally accepted, and has accordingly been retained here.
2. The better known Semitic languages may be subdivided as follows:—
1. The South Semitic or Arabic branch. To this belong, besides the classical literary language of the Arabs and the modern vulgar Arabic, the older southern Arabic preserved in the Sabaean inscriptions (less correctly called Himyaritic), and its offshoot, the Geʿez or Ethiopic, in Abyssinia.
II. The Middle Semitic or Canaanitish branch. To this belongs the Hebrew of the Old Testament with its descendants, the New Hebrew, as found especially in the Mishna (see below, §3a), and Rabbinic; also Phoenician, with Punic (in Carthage and its colonies), and the various remains of Canaanitish dialects preserved in names of places and persons, and in the inscription of Mêšaʿ, king of Moab.
III. The North Semitic or Aramaic branch. The subdivisions of this are—
(1) The Eastern Aramaic or Syriac, the literary language of the Christian Syrians. The religious books of the Mandaeans (Nasoraeans, Sabians, also called the disciples of St. John) represent a very debased offshoot of this. A Jewish modification of Syriac is to be seen in the language of the Babylonian Talmud.
(2) The Western or Palestinian Aramaic, incorrectly called also ‘Chaldee’. This latter dialect is represented in the Old Testament by two words in Gn 31:47, by the verse Jer 10:11, and the sections Dn 2:4; Ezr 4:8 to 6:18, and Ezr 7:12,7:26 as well as by a number of non-Jewish inscriptions and Jewish papyri (see below, under m), but especially by a considerable section of Jewish literature (Targums, Palestinian Gemara, &c.). To the same branch belongs also the Samaritan, with its admixture of Hebrew forms, and, except for the rather Arabic colouring of the proper names, the idiom of the Nabataean inscriptions in the Sinaitic peninsula, in the East of Palestine, &c.
For further particulars about the remains of Western Aramaic (including those in the New Testament, in the Palmyrene and Egyptian Aramaic inscriptions) see Kautzsch, Gramm. des Biblisch-Aramäischen, Lpz. 1884, p. 6 ff.
IV. The East Semitic branch, the language of the Assyrio-Babylonian cuneiform inscriptions, the third line of the Achaemenian inscriptions.
On the importance of Assyrian for Hebrew philology especially from a lexicographical point of view cf. Friedr. Delitzsch, Prolegomena eines neuen hebr.-aram. Worterbuchs zum A.T., Lpz. 1886; P. Haupt, ‘Assyrian Phonology, &c.,’ in Hebraica, Chicago, Jan. 1885, vol. i. 3; Delitzsch, Assyrische Grammatik, 2nd ed., Berlin, 1906.
If the above division into four branches be reduced to two principal groups, No. 1, as South Semitic, will the contrasted with the three North Semitic branches.
All these languages stand to one another in much the same relation as those of the Germanic family (Gothic, Old Norse, Danish, Swedish; High and Low German in their earlier and later dialects), or as the Slavonic languages (Lithuanian, Lettish; Old Slavonic, Serbian, Russian; Polish, Bohemian). They are now either wholly extinct, as the Phoenician and Assyrian, or preserved only in a debased form, as Neo-Syriac among Syrian Christians and Jews in Mesopotamia and Kurdistan, Ethiopic (Geʿez) in the later Abyssinian dialects (Tigre, Tigriña, Amharic), and Hebrew among some modern Jews, except in so far as they attempt a purely literary reproduction of the language of the Old Testament. Arabic alone has not only occupied to this day its original abode in Arabia proper, but has also forced its way in all directions into the domain of other languages.
The Semitic family of languages is bounded on the East and North by another of still wider extent, which reaches from India to the western limits of Europe, and is called Indo-Germanic since it comprises, in the most varied ramifications, the Indian (Sanskrit), Old and New Persian, Greek, Latin, Slavonic, as well as Gothic and the other Germanic languages. With the Old Egyptian language, of which Coptic is a descendant, as well as with the languages of north-western Africa, the Semitic had from the earliest times much in common, especially in grammatical structure; but on the other hand there are fundamental differences between them, especially from a lexicographical point of view; see Erman, ‘Das Verhältnis des Aegyptischen zu den semitischen Sprachen,’ in the ZDMG. xlvi, 1892, p. 93 ff., and Brockelmann, Grundriss, i. 3.
3. The grammatical structure of the Semitic family of languages, as compared with that of other languages, especially the Indo-Germanic, exhibits numerous peculiarities which collectively constitute its distinctive character, although many of them are found singly in other languages. These are—
(a) among the consonants, which in fact form the substance of these languages, occur peculiar gutturals of different grades; the vowels are subject, within the same consonantal framework, to great changes in order to express various modifications of the same stem-meaning;
(b) the word-stems are almost invariably triliteral, i.e. composed of three consonants;
(c) the verb is restricted to two tense-forms, with a peculiarly regulated use;
(d) the noun has only two genders (masc. and fem.); and peculiar expedients are adopted for the purpose of indicating the case-relations;
(e) the oblique cases of the personal pronoun, as well as all the possessive pronouns and the pronominal object of the verb, are denoted by forms appended directly to the governing word (suffixes);
(f) the almost complete absence of compounds both in the noun (with the exception of many proper names) and in the verb;
(g) great simplicity in the expression of syntactical relations, e.g. the small number of particles, and the prevalence of simple co-ordination of clauses without periodic structure. Classical Arabic and Syriac, however, form a not unimportant exception as regards the last-mentioned point
4. From a lexicographical point of view also the vocabulary of the Semites differs essentially from that of the Indo-Germanic languages, although there is apparently more agreement here than in the grammar. A considerable number of Semitic roots and stems agree in sound with synonyms in the Indo-Germanic family. But apart from expressions actually borrowed (see below, under i), the real similarity may be reduced to imitative words (onomatopoetica), and to those in which one and the same idea is represented by similar sounds in consequence of a formative instinct common to the most varied families of language. Neither of these proves any historic or generic relation, for which an agreement in grammatical structure would also be necessary.
Comp. Friedr. Delitzsch, Studien über indogermanisch-semitische Wurzelverwandtschaft, Lpz. 1873; Nöldechen, Semit. Glossen zu Fick und Curtius, Magdeb. 1876 f.; McCurdy, Aryo-Semiiic Speech, Andover, U. S. A., 1881. The phonetic relations have been thoroughly investigated by H. Möller in Semitisch und Indogermanisch, Teil i, Konsotianten, Copenhagen and Lpz. 1907, a work which has evoked considerable criticism.
As onomatopoetic words, or as stem-sounds of a similar character, we may compare, e.g. לָקַק, לָחַךְ λείχω, lingo, Skt. lih, Eng. to lick, Fr. lécher, Germ. lecken; גָּלַל (cf. אָגַל, עָגַל) κυλίω, volvo, Germ. quellen, wallen, Eng. to well; גָּרַד, חָרַט, חָרַת χαράττω, Pers. khârîdan, Ital. grattare, Fr. gratter, Eng. to grate, to scratch, Germ. kratzen; פָּרַק frango, Germ. brechen, &c.; Reuss, Gesch. der hl. Schriften A.T.’s, Braunschw. 1881, p. 38, draws attention moreover to the Semitic equivalents for earth, six, seven, horn, to sound, to measure, to mix, to smell, to place, clear, to kneel, raven, goat, ox, &c. An example of a somewhat different kind is am, ham (sam), gam, kam, in the sense of the German samt, zusammen, together; in Hebrew אָמַם (whence אֻמָּה people, properly assembly), עִם (with) samt, גַּם also, moreover, Arab. גּמע to collect; Pers. ham, hamah (at the same time); Skt. samâ (with), Gk. ἅμα (ἅμφω), ὁμός, ὁμόῦ (ὅμιλος, ὅμαδος), and harder ἅμφω, Lat. cum, cumulus, cunctus; with the corresponding sibilant Skt. sam, Gk. σύν, ξύν, ξυνός = κοινός, Goth. sama, Germ. samt, sammeln; but many of these instances are doubtful.
Essentially different from this internal connexion is the occurrence of the same words in different languages, where one language has borrowed directly from the other. Such loan-words are—
(a) In Hebrew: some names of objects which were originally indigenous in Babylonia and Assyria (see a comprehensive list of Assyrio-Babylonian loan-words in the Hebrew and Aramaic of the Old Testament in Zimmern and Winckler, KAT.3 ii. p. 648 ff.), in Egypt, Persia, or India, e.g. יְאֹר (also in the plural) river, from Egyptian yoor, generally as the name of the Nile (late Egypt. yaro, Assyr. yaruʾu), although it is possible that a pure Semitic יאר has been confounded with the Egyptian name of the Nile (so Zimmern); אָ֫חוּ (Egyptian) Nile-reed (see Lieblein, ‘Mots égyptiens dans la Bible,’ in PSBA. 1898, p. 202 f.); פַּרְדֵּס (in Zend pairidaêza, circumvallation = παράδειδος) pleasure-garden, park; אַדַרְכּוֹן daric, Persian gold coin; תֻּכִּיִּים peacocks, perhaps from the Malabar tôgai or tôghai. Some of these words are also found in Greek, as כַּרְפַּס (Pers. karbâs, Skt. karpâsa) cotton, κάρπασος, carbasus. On the other hand it is doubtful if קוֹף corresponds to the Greek κῆπος, κῆβος, Skt. kapi, ape.
(b) In Greek, &c.: some originally Semitic names of Asiatic products and articles of commerce, e.g. בּוּץ βύσσος, byssus; לְבֹנָה, λίβανος, λιβανωτός, incense; קָנֶה κάνη, κάννα, canna, cane; כַּמֹּן κύμινον, cuminum, cumin; קְצִיעָה κασσία, cassia; גָּמָל κάμηλος, camelus; עֵֽרָּבוֹן ἀρραβών, arrhabo, arrha, pledge. Such transitions have perhaps been brought about chiefly by Phoenician trade. Cf. A. Müller, ‘Semitische Lehnworte im älteren Griechisch,’ in Bezzenberger’s Beitrage zur Kunde der Indo-germ. Sprachen, Göttingen, 1877, vol. i. p. 273 ff.; E. Ries, Quae res et vocabula a gentibus semiticis in Graeciam pervenerint, Breslau, 1890; Muss-Arnolt, ‘Semitic words in Greek and Latin,’ in the Transactions of the American Philological Association, xxiii. p. 35 ff.; H. Lewy, Die semitischen Fremdwörter im Griech., Berlin, 1895; J. H. Bondi, Dem hebr.-phöniz. Sprachzweige angehör. Lehnworter in hieroglyph, m. hieratischen Texten, Lpz. 1886.
5. No system of writing is ever so perfect as to be able to reproduce the sounds of a language in all their various shades, and the writing of the Semites has one striking fundamental defect, viz. that only the consonants (which indeed form the substance of the language) are written as real letters, whilst of the vowels only the longer are indicated by certain representative consonants (see below, §7). It was only later that special small marks (points or strokes below or above the consonants) were invented to represent to the eye all the vowel-sounds (see §8). These are, however, superfluous for the practised reader, and are therefore often wholly omitted in Semitic manuscripts and printed texts. Semitic writing, moreover, almost invariably proceeds from right to left.
With the exception of the Assyrio-Babylonian (cuneiform), all varieties of Semitic writing, although differing widely in some respects, are derived from one and the same original alphabet, represented on extant monuments most faithfully by the characters used on the stele of Mêšaʿ, king of Moab (see below, §2d), and in the old Phoenician inscriptions, of which the bronze bowls from a temple of Baal (CIS. i. 22 ff. and Plate IV) are somewhat earlier than Mêšaʿ. The old Hebrew writing, as it appears on the oldest monument, the Siloam inscription (see below, §2d), exhibits essentially the same character. The old Greek, and indirectly all European alphabets, are descended from the old Phoenician writing.
1l See the Table of Alphabets at the beginning of the Grammar, which shows the relations of the older varieties of Semitic writing to one another and especially the origin of the present Hebrew characters from their primitive forms. For a more complete view, see Gesenius’ Scripturae linguaeque Phoeniciae monumenta, Lips. 1837, 4to, pt. i. p. 15 ff., and pt. iii. tab. 1-5. From numerous monuments since discovered, our knowledge of the Semitic characters, especially the Phoenician, has become considerably enlarged and more accurate. Cf. the all but exhaustive bibliography (from 1616 to 1896) in Lidzbarski’s Handbuch der Nordsemitischen Epigraphik, i. p. 4 ff., and on the origin of the Semitic alphabet, ibid., p. I73ff., and Ephemeris (see the heading of §1a above), i. pp. 109 ff., 142, 261 ff., and his ‘Altsemitische Texte’, pt. i, Kanaanäische Inschriften (Moabite, Old-Hebrew, Phoenician, Punic), Giessen, 1907.—On the origin and development of the Hebrew characters and the best tables of alphabets, see §5a, last note, and especially §5e.
1m 6. As regards the relative age of the Semitic languages, the oldest literary remains of them are to be found in the Assyrio-Babylonian (cuneiform) inscriptions, with which are to be classed the earliest Hebrew fragments occurring in the Old Testament .
The earliest non-Jewish Aramaic inscriptions known to us are that of זכר king of Hamath (early eighth cent. b.c.), on which see Nöldeke, ZA. 1908, p. 376, and that found at Teima, in N. Arabia, in 1880, probably of the fifth cent. b.c., cf. E. Littmann in the Monist, xiv. 4 [and Cooke, op. cit., p. 195]. The monuments of Kalammus of Samʾal, in the reign of Shalmanezer II, 859-829 b.c. (cf. A. Šanda, Die Aramäer, Lpz. 1902, p. 26), and those found in 1888-1891 at Zenjîrlî in N. Syria, including the Hadad inscription of thirty-four lines (early eighth cent. b.c.) and the Panammu inscription (740 b.c.), are not in pure Aramaic. The Jewish-Aramaic writings begin about the time of Cyrus (cf. Ezr 6:3 ff.), specially important being the papyri from Assuan ed. by Sayce and Cowley, London, 1906 (and in a cheaper form by Staerk, Bonn, 1907), which are precisely dated from 471 to 411 b.c., and three others of 407 b.c. ed. by Sachau, Berlin, 1907.
Monuments of the Arabic branch first appear in the earliest centuries a.d. (Sabaean inscriptions, Ethiopic translation of the Bible in the fourth or fifth century, North-Arabic literature from the sixth century a.d.).
It is, however, another question which of these languages has adhered longest and most faithfully to the original character of the Semitic, and which consequently represents to us the earliest phase of its development. For the more or less rapid transformation of the sounds and forms of a language, as spoken by nations and races, is dependent on causes quite distinct from the growth of a literature, and the organic structure of a language is often considerably impaired even before it has developed a literature, especially by early contact with people of a different language. Thus in the Semitic group, the Aramaic dialects exhibit the earliest and greatest decay, next to them the Hebrew-Canaanitish, and in its own way the Assyrian. Arabic, owing to the seclusion of the desert tribes, was the longest to retain the original fullness and purity of the sounds and forms of words. Even here, however, there appeared, through the revolutionary influence of Islam, an ever-increasing decay, until Arabic at length reached the stage at which we find Hebrew in the Old Testament.
1n Hence the phenomenon, that in its grammatical structure the ancient Hebrew agrees more with the modern than with the ancient Arabic, and that the latter, although it only appears as a written language at a later period, has yet in many respects preserved a more complete structure and a more original vowel system than the other Semitic languages, cf. Nöldeke, ‘Das klassische Arabisch und die arabischen Dialekte,’ in Beiträge zur semitischen Sprachwissenschaft, p. 1 ff. It thus occupies amongst them a position similar to that which Sanskrit holds among the Indo-Germanic languages, or Gothic in the narrower circle of the Germanic. But even the toughest organism of a language often deteriorates, at least in single forms and derivatives, while on the contrary, in the midst of what is otherwise universal decay, there still remains here and there something original and archaic; and this is the case with the Semitic languages.
Fuller proof of the above statements belongs to the comparative Grammar of the Semitic languages. It follows, however, from what has been said:
(1) that the Hebrew language, as found in the sacred literature of the Jews, has, in respect to its organic structure, already suffered more considerable losses than the Arabic, which appears much later on the historical horizon;
(2) that, notwithstanding this fact, we cannot at once and in all points concede priority to the latter;
(3) that it is a mistake to consider with some that the Aramaic, on account of its simplicity (which is only due to the decay of its organic structure), is the oldest form of Semitic speech.