Central Semitic languages

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to navigation Jump to search
Central Semitic
Middle East
Linguistic classification Afro-Asiatic
Glottolog cent2236[1]

The Central Semitic languages[2][3] are a proposed intermediate group of Semitic languages, comprising the Late Iron Age, modern dialect of Arabic (prior to which Arabic was a Southern Semitic language[clarification needed]), and older Bronze Age Northwest Semitic languages (which include Aramaic, Ugaritic, and the Canaanite languages of Hebrew and Phoenician). In this reckoning, Central Semitic itself is one of three divisions of Semitic along with East Semitic (Akkadian and Eblaite) and South Semitic (South Arabian and the Ethiopian Semitic languages).


Distinctive features of Central Semitic languages include the following:[4]

  • The realization of the common Semitic emphatic consonants as pharyngealized rather than ejectives:
    • For example, Proto-Semitic *ṭ [tʼ] and *ṣ [tsʼ] are realized as [tˤ] and [sˤ] in Arabic and Neo-Aramaic, in contrast to remaining ejectives in South Arabian and in Ethiopian Semitic.
    • Additionally, Proto-Semitic *ḳ [kʼ] becomes a uvular stop [q].
  • An innovative negation marker *bal, of uncertain origin.
  • The generalization of t as the suffix conjugation past tense marker, levelling an earlier alternation between *k in the first person and *t in the second person.
  • A new prefix conjugation for the non-past tense, of the form ya-qtulu, replacing the inherited ya-qattal form (they are schematic verbal forms, as if derived from an example triconsonantal root q-t-l).
  • Leveling of vowels in verb prefixes. The evidence of Akkadian suggests four Proto-Semitic prefixes: *ʔa-, *ta-, *ni-, *yi-. In Central Semitic, all prefixes have the same vowel within a given verb paradigm. It, however, developed slightly differently in the different languages: Arabic has generalized a in all prefixes, but Northwest Semitic has generalized either a or i, depending on the verb stem in question. (Note that in modern dialectal Arabic all of a, i, u, and zero may be used, depending on the consonantal and vocalic pattern of the verb; again, however, the same vowel is used for all persons.)

Different classification systems disagree on the precise structure of the group. The most common approach divides it into Arabic and Northwest Semitic, while SIL Ethnologue has South Central Semitic (including Arabic and Hebrew) vs. Aramaic.

The main distinction between Arabic and the Northwest Semitic languages is the presence of broken plurals in the former. The majority of Arabic nouns (apart from participles) form plurals in this manner, whereas virtually all nouns in the Northwest Semitic languages form their plurals with a suffix. For example, the Arabic بَيْت bayt ("house") becomes بُيُوت‎‎ buyūt ("houses"); the Hebrew בַּיִת bayit ("house") becomes בָּתִּים‎ bātīm ("houses").


  • Sabatino Moscati (1980). An Introduction to Comparative Grammar of Semitic Languages Phonology and Morphology. Harrassowitz Verlag. ISBN 3-447-00689-7.