Northwest Semitic languages

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Northwest Semitic
Levantine
Geographic
distribution:
concentrated in the Middle East
Linguistic classification: Afro-Asiatic
Subdivisions:
Glottolog: nort3165[1]

Northwest Semitic is a division of the Semitic language family, comprising the ancient languages of today's Lebanon, Israel, western Syria, and western Jordan, along with their modern descendants.

Traditionally Northwest Semitic is divided into two sub-groups: one of which is Aramaic, and the other comprises Canaanite (including Ugaritic, Phoenician and Hebrew). In this reckoning Northwest Semitic itself is one of three divisions of Semitic along with East Semitic (Akkadian) and South Semitic (Arabic, South Arabian, and the Semitic languages of Ethiopia).

However revisions of both the larger Semitic divisions and the place of Northwest Semitic within them have been proposed in recent years.

Common elements are to separate Ugaritic from Canaanite within Northwest Semitic, and to group Northwest Semitic with Arabic (but not South Arabian) in a higher Central Semitic grouping. This Central Semitic may be a top-level division of Semitic, or itself a subdivision of a West Semitic.[2]

The influential SIL language institute goes further to eliminate Northwest Semitic entirely, joining Canaanite and Arabic in a South-Central group, equal with Aramaic, to form Central Semitic.[3] As SIL only treats living languages, the position of the extinct Ugaritic is undefined.

Historical development[edit]

The time period for the split of Northwest Semitic from Proto-Semitic or from other Semitic groups is uncertain. The first attestation of a Northwest Semitic language is of Ugaritic in the 14th century BC.

During the early 1st millennium, the Phoenician language was spread throughout the Mediterranean by Phoenician colonists, most notably to Carthage in today's Tunisia. The Phoenician alphabet is of fundamental importance in human history, as the source of the Greek alphabet and later Latin alphabet, and of the Aramaic/Square Hebrew and Arabic writing systems as well.

By the 6th century BC, the use of Aramaic spread throughout the Northwest Semitic region (see Imperial Aramaic), largely driving the other Northwest Semitic languages to extinction. The ancient Judaeans adopted Aramaic for daily use, and parts of the Old Testament are written in it. Hebrew was preserved, however, as a Jewish liturgical language and language of scholarship, and resurrected in the 19th century, with modern adaptations, to become the Modern Hebrew language of today's Israel.

With the Muslim expansion in the 7th century AD, Arabic largely replaced Aramaic throughout the region. Aramaic survives today as the liturgical language of the Syriac Christian Church, and is spoken in modern dialects by small and endangered populations scattered throughout the Middle East.

Phonological characteristics[edit]

Phonologically, Ugaritic lost the sound *ṣ́, replacing it with /sˤ/ () (the same shift occurred in Canaanite and Akkadian). That this same sound became /ʕ/ in Aramaic (although in Ancient Aramaic, it was written with qoph), suggests that Ugaritic is not the parent language of the group. An example of this sound shift can be seen in the word for earth: Ugaritic /ʔarsˤ/ (’arṣ), Hebrew /ʔɛrɛsˤ/ (’ereṣ) and Aramaic /ʔarʕaː/ (’ar‘ā’).

The vowel shift from *aː to /oː/ distinguishes Canaanite from Ugaritic. Also, in the Canaanite group, the series of Semitic interdental fricatives become sibilants: (), () and *θ̣ () became /z/, /ʃ/ (š) and /sˤ/ () respectively. The effect of this sound shift can be seen by comparing the following words:

shift Ugaritic Aramaic Biblical Hebrew translation
()→/z/ ḏhb דהב
/dəhab/
(dəhaḇ)
זהב
/zaˈhav/
zahav
gold
()→/ʃ/ (š) ṯlṯ תלת
/təlaːt/
(təlāṯ)
שלוש/שלש
/ʃaˈloʃ/
šaloš
three
*θ̣ ()→/sˤ/ () ṱw טור
/tˤuːr/
(ṭûr)
צור
/sˤur/
çur (ṣur)
mountain

See also[edit]

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ Nordhoff, Sebastian; Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds. (2013). "Northwest Semitic". Glottolog 2.2. Leipzig: Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology. 
  2. ^ Linguist List Central Semitic composite tree (with Aramaic and Canaanite grouped together in Northwest Semitic, and Arabic and Old South Arabian as sisters)
    Linguist List bibliography of sources for composite tree
    Rubin, Aaron D. 2007. The Subgrouping of the Semitic Languages, Language and Linguistics Compass, vol. 1.
    Huehnergard, John. 2004. "Afro-Asiatic," The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the World's Ancient Languages (Cambridge, pp. 138-159).
    Faber, Alice. 1997. "Genetic Subgrouping of the Semitic Languages," The Semitic Languages (Routledge, pp. 3-15)
    Huehnergard, John. 1991. "Remarks on the Classification of the Northwest Semitic Languages," The Balaam Text from Deir 'Alla Re-evaluated (Brill, pp. 282-293).
    Huehnergard, John. 1992. "Languages of the Ancient Near East," The Anchor Bible Dictionary, Volume 4, pp. 155-170.
    Voigt, Rainer M. 1987. "The Classification of Central Semitic," Journal of Semitic Studies 32:1-19.
    Goldenberg, Gideon. 1977. "The Semitic Languages of Ethiopia and Their Classification," Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies 40:461-507.
    Ethnologue Central Semitic entry (with Arabic and Canaanite grouped together against Aramaic)
    The Ethnologue classification is based on Hetzron, Robert. 1987. "Semitic Languages," The World's Major Languages (Oxford, pp. 654-663).
    The older grouping of Arabic with South Semitic was "based on cultural and geographical principles", not on principles of empirical historical linguistics (Faber, 1997, pg. 5). "However, more recently, [Arabic] has been grouped instead with Canaanite and Aramaic, under the rubric Central Semitic..., and this classification is certainly more appropriate for Ancient North Arabian" (Macdonald, M.C.A. 2004. "Ancient North Arabian," The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the World's Ancient Languages Cambridge, pp. 488-533. Quote on pg. 489).
  3. ^ "Semitic". Ethnologue. SIL International. Retrieved 2014-06-02. 

Bibliography[edit]

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