1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Semitic Languages

SEMITIC LANGUAGES, the general designation of a group of Asiatic and African languages, some living and some dead, namely Assyrian, Hebrew, Phoenician, Aramaic, Arabic, Ethiopic, Mahri-Socotri. The name, which was introduced by Schlözer, is derived from the fact that most nations which speak or spoke these languages are descended, according to Genesis, from Shem, son of Noah.[1] But the classification of nations in Genesis x. is founded neither upon linguistic nor upon ethnographical principles: it is determined rather by geographical and political considerations. For this reason Elam and Lud are also included among the children of Shem; but neither the Elamites (in Susiana) nor the Lydians appear to have spoken a language connected with Hebrew. On the other hand, the Phoenicians (Canaanites), whose dialect closely resembled that of Israel, are not counted as children of Shem. Moreover, the compiler of the list in Genesis x. had no clear conceptions about the peoples of south Arabia and Ethiopia. Nevertheless it would be undesirable to give up the universally received terms “Semites” and “Semitic.”

The connexion of the Semitic languages with one another is somewhat close, in any case closer than that of the Mutual connexion. Indo-European languages. The more ancient Semitic tongues differ from one another scarcely more than do the various Teutonic dialects. Hence even in the 17th century such learned Orientalists as Hottinger, Bochart, Castell and Ludolf had a tolerably clear notion of the relationship between the different Semitic languages with which they were acquainted; indeed the same may be said of some Jewish scholars who lived many centuries earlier, as, for instance, Jehuda ben Koreish. It is not difficult to point out a series of characteristic marks common to these languages,—the predominance of triconsonantal roots, or of roots formed after the analogy of such, similarity in the formation of nominal and verbal stems, a great resemblance in the forms of the personal pronouns and in their use for the purpose of verbal inflection, the two principal tenses, the importance attached to the change of vowels in the interior of words, and lastly, considerable agreement with regard to order and the construction of sentences. Yet even so ancient a Semitic language as the Assyrian appears to lack some of these features, and in certain modern dialects, such as New Syriac, Mahri and more particularly Amharic, many of the characteristics of older Semitic speech have disappeared. And the resemblance in vocabulary generally diminishes in proportion to the modernness of the dialects. Still we can trace the connexion between the modern and the ancient dialects, and show, at least approximately, how the former were developed out of the latter. Where a development of this kind can be proved to have taken place, there a relationship must exist, however much the individual features may have been effaced. The question here is not of logical categories but of organic groups.

All these languages are descendants of a primitive Semitic language which has long been extinct. Of course this should not be taken literally as implying an absolute unity. If, in the strictest sense of the words, no two men ever speak the same language, it must apply with still greater force to any considerable mass of men not living in the closest conjunction; and as such we must conceive the ancient Semites, so soon as they had severed themselves from other races. As long as the primitive Semitic people occupied no great extent of territory, many linguistic differences existent in their midst might still be reconciled. Other differences, however, might even then have formed the germs of the subsequent dialectical distinction. Thus, if the gradual, or sudden, separation of individual sections of the people led to alienation on a large scale, their dialects must necessarily have developed decided lines of cleavage and become finally distinct languages. With all this, it is still possible that, even in that pre-historic era, peaceful or warlike intercourse may have exercised an influence tending to assimilate these languages once again. Within the limitations which we have intimated rather than discussed, the expression “proto-Semitic language” is thoroughly justifiable.

Many of its most important features may be reconstructed with at least tolerable certainty, but we must beware of attempting too much in this respect. When the various cognate languages of a group diverge in essential points, it is by no means always possible to determine which of them has retained the more primitive form. The history of the development of Primitive Semitic language. these tongues during the period anterior to the documents which we possess is often extremely obscure in its details. Even when several Semitic languages agree in important points of grammar we cannot always be sure that in these particulars we have what is primitive, since in many cases analogous changes may have taken place independently. To one who should assert the complete reconstruction of the primitive Semitic language to be possible, we might put the question, Would the man who is best acquainted with all the Romance languages be in a position to reconstruct their common mother, Latin, if the knowledge of it were lost? And yet there are but few Semitic languages which we can know as accurately as the Romance languages are known. As far as the vocabulary is concerned, we may indeed maintain with certainty that a considerable number of words which have in various Semitic languages the form proper to each were a part of primitive Semitic speech. Nevertheless even then we are apt to be misled by independent but analogous formations and by words borrowed at a very remote period.[2] Each Semitic language or group of languages has, however, many words which we cannot point out in the others. Of such words a great number no doubt belonged to primitive Semitic speech, and either disappeared in some of these languages or else remained in use, but not so as to be recognizable by us. In the case of certain proto-Semitic words, we can even yet observe how they gradually recede from the foreground. So, for instance, in Hebrew, Aramaic and Arabic, the common designation of the lion, laith, has disappeared, almost before our eyes, in order to make room for other expressions. Yet many isolated words and roots may in very early times have been borrowed by the Hebrew, the Aramaic, the Ethiopic, &c., perhaps from wholly different languages, of which no trace is left. To what extent the separate languages created new roots is an extremely obscure problem.

The question which of the known Semitic dialects most resembles the primitive Semitic language is less important than one might at first suppose, since the question is one not of absolute but only of relative priority. After scholars had given up the notion (which, however, was not the fruit of scientific research) that all Semitic languages, and indeed all the languages in the world, were descendants of Hebrew or of Aramaic, it was long the fashion to maintain that Arabic bore a close resemblance to the primitive Semitic language.[3] But, just as it is now recognized with ever-increasing clearness that Sanskrit is far from having retained in such a degree as was even lately supposed the characteristics of primitive Indo-European speech, so in the domain of the Semitic tongues we can assign to Arabic only a relative antiquity. It is true that in Arabic very many features are preserved more faithfully than in the cognate languages,—for instance, nearly all the original abundance of consonants, the short vowels in open syllables, particularly in the interior of words, and many grammatical distinctions which in the other languages are more or less obscured. On the other hand, Arabic has coined, simply from analogy, a great number of forms which, owing to their extreme simplicity, seem at the first glance to be primitive, but which nevertheless are only modifications of the primitive forms; whilst perhaps the other Semitic languages exhibit modifications of a different kind. In spite of its great wealth, Arabic is characterized by a certain monotony, which can scarcely have existed from the beginning. Both Hebrew and even Aramaic are in many respects more ancient than Arabic. This would no doubt be far more apparent if we knew Hebrew more completely and according to the original pronunciation of its vowels, and if we could discover how Aramaic was pronounced about the 13th century before our era. It must always be borne in mind that we are far more fully and accurately acquainted with Arabic than with the other Semitic languages of antiquity. The opinion sometimes maintained by certain over-zealous Assyriologists, that Assyrian is the “Sanskrit of the Semitic world,” has not met with the approval even of the Assyriologists themselves, and is unworthy of a serious refutation.

A comparative grammar of the Semitic languages must of course be based upon Arabic, but must in every matter of detail take into consideration all the cognate languages, as far as they are known to us. In the reconstruction of the primitive Semitic tongue Hebrew might perhaps afford more assistance than Ethiopic; but Aramaic, Assyrian, and even the less known and the more modern dialects might furnish valuable materials.

The method by which these younger languages, especially the dialects of to-day, have received their present form, may be traced with tolerable comprehensiveness. Thus we gain valuable analogies for determining the genetic process in the older tongues. At the same time, a conscientious investigation forces upon us the conviction that there are many and important phenomena which we are powerless to explain; and this applies, in part, to cases where, at first, the solution appears perfectly simple. So, although we have seen that the main features of the correspondence between the Semitic languages have long been definitely established—years before Bopp scientifically demonstrated the connexion of the Indo-European tongues—still in our domain it is a task of extreme difficulty to create a comparative grammar which shall be minutely exact and yield permanent results. Only the most accomplished philologist could attempt the task, and it is very doubtful whether the time is yet ripe for such an attempt.[4] Much careful and minute investigation is still indispensable. One great obstacle lies in the fact, that, in most Semitic languages, the sounds are very inadequately transmitted. It would probably be easier to give a comparative presentment of Semitic syntax than of Semitic phonetics and the theory of Semitic forms.

It is not a formidable undertaking to describe in general terms the character of the Semitic mind, as has been done, for Character of Semitic mind. example, by Lassen (Indische Altertumskunde, i. 414 sq.) and by Renan in the introduction to his Histoire des langues sémitiques.[5] But still there is a danger of assuming that the most important characteristics of particular Semitic peoples, especially of the Israelites and of the Arabs, are common to all Semites, and of ascribing to the influence of race certain striking features which are the result of the external conditions of life, and which, under similar circumstances, are also developed among non-Semitic races. And, though it is said, not without reason, that the Semites possess but little talent for political and military organization on a large scale, yet we have in the Phoenicians, especially the Carthaginians, in Hamilcar and in Hannibal, a proof that under altered conditions the Semites are not incapable of distinguishing themselves in these domains. It is a poor evasion to deny that the Phoenicians are genuine Semites, since even our scanty sources of information suffice to show that in the matter of religion, which among Semites is of such supreme importance, they bore a close resemblance to the ancient Hebrews and Aramaeans. In general descriptions of this kind it is easy to go too far. But to give in general terms a correct idea of the Semitic languages is a task of very much greater difficulty. Renan's brilliant and most interesting sketch is in many respects open to serious criticism. He cites, for example, as characteristic of the Semitic tongues, that they still retain the practice of expressing psychological processes by means of distinct imagery. In saying this he is taking scarcely any language but Hebrew into account. But the feature to which he here alludes is owing to the particular stage of intellectual development that had been reached by the Israelites, is in part peculiar to the poetical style, and is to be found in like manner among wholly different races. That the Semitic languages are far from possessing the fixity which Renan attributes to them we shall see below. But, however this may be, certain grammatical peculiarities of the Semitic languages—above all, the predominance of triliteral roots—are so marked that it is scarcely possible to doubt whether any language with which we are tolerably well acquainted is or is not Semitic. Only when a Semitic language has been strongly influenced not only in vocabulary but also in grammar by some non-Semitic speech, as is the case with Amharic, can such a doubt be for a moment entertained.

Many attempts have been made, sometimes in a very superficial fashion and sometimes by the use of scientific methods, Relations with other families of speech. to establish a relationship between the Semitic languages and the Indo-European. It was very natural to suppose that the tongues of the two races which, with the single exceptions of the Egyptians and the Chinese, have formed and moulded human civilization, who have been near neighbours from the earliest times, and who, moreover, seem to bear a great physical resemblance to one another, can be nothing else than two descendants of the same parent speech. But all these endeavours have wholly failed. It is indeed probable that the languages, not only of the Semites and of the Indo-Europeans, but also those of other races, are derived from the same stock, but the separation must have taken place at so remote a period that the changes which these languages underwent in prehistoric times have completely effaced what features they possessed in common; if such features have sometimes been preserved, they are no longer recognizable. It must be remembered that it is only in exceptionally favourable circumstances that cognate languages are so preserved during long periods as to render it possible for scientific analysis to prove their relationship with one another.[6]

On the other hand, the Semitic languages bear so striking a resemblance in some respects to certain languages of northern Africa that we are forced to assume the existence of a tolerably close relationship between the two groups. We allude to the family of languages known in modern times as the “Hamitic,” and composed of the Egyptian, Berber, Beja (Bishārī, &c.), and a number of tongues spoken in Abyssinia and the neighbouring countries (Agaw, Galla, Danḳali, &c.). It is remarkable that some of the most indispensable words in the Semitic vocabulary (as, for instance, “water,” “mouth” and certain numerals) are found in Hamitic also, and that these words happen to be such as cannot well be derived from triliteral Semitic roots, and are more or less independent of the ordinary grammatical rules. We notice, too, important resemblances in grammar—for example, the formation of the feminine by means of a t prefixed or affixed, that of the causative by means of s, similarity in the suffixes and prefixes of the verbal tenses, and, generally, similarity in the personal pronouns, &c. It must be admitted that there is also much disagreement—for instance, the widest divergence in the mass of the vocabulary; and this applies to the Semitic languages as compared not only with those Hamitic languages that are gradually becoming known to us at the present day, but with the Egyptian, of which we possess documents dating from the fourth and perhaps fifth millennium before the Christian era. The question is here involved in great difficulties. Some isolated resemblances may, improbable as it appears, have been produced by the borrowing of words. Uncivilized races, as has been proved with certainty, sometimes borrow from others elements of speech in cases where we should deem such a thing impossible—for example, numerals and even personal sufixes. But the great resemblances in grammatical formation cannot be reasonably explained as due to borrowing on the part of the Hamites, more especially as these points of agreement are also found in the language of the Berbers, who are scattered over an enormous territory, and whose speech must have acquired its character long before they came into contact with the Semites. We are even now but imperfectly acquainted with the Hamitic languages; and the relation in which Egyptian stands to Berber on the one hand and to the south Hamitic languages on the other requires further elucidation. The attempt to write a comparative grammar of the Semitic and Hamitic languages would be, to say the least, very premature.[7]

The connexion between the Semitic languages and the Hamitic appears to indicate that the primitive seat of the Semites is to be Original seat of Semites. sought in Africa; for it can scarcely be supposed that the Hamites, amongst whom there are gradual transitions from an almost purely European type to that of the Negroes, are the children of any other land than “the dark continent.” There seems, moreover, to be a considerable physical resemblance between the Hamites and the Semites, especially in the case of the southern Arabs; we need mention only the slight development of the calf of the leg, and the sporadic appearance amongst Semites of woolly hair and prominent jaws.[8] But both Semites and Hamites have been mingled to a large extent with foreign races, which process must have diminished their mutual similarity. All this, however, is offered not as a definite theory, but as a modest hypothesis.

It was once the custom to maintain that the Semites came originally from certain districts in Armenia. This supposition was founded on the book of Genesis, according to which several of the Semitic nations are descended from Arphaxad, i.e. the eponym of the district of Arrapachitis, now called Albak, on the borders of Armenia and Kurdistan. It was also thought that this region was inhabited by the primitive race from which both the Semites and the Indo-Europeans derived their origin. But, as we saw above, this ancient relationship is a matter of some doubt; in any case, the separation does not date from a period so recent that the Semites can be supposed to have possessed any historical tradition concerning it. There cannot be a greater mistake than to imagine that nations have been able to preserve during long ages their recollection of the country whence their supposed ancestors are said to have emigrated. The fantastic notion once in vogue as to the permanence of historical memories among uncivilized races must be wholly abandoned. The period in which the Hebrews, the Arabs and the other Semitic nations together formed a single people is so distant that none of them can possibly have retained any tradition of it. The opinion that the Hebrews and the tribes most closely related to them were descendants of Arphaxad is apparently due to the legend that Noah's ark landed near this district. The notion has therefore a purely mythical origin. Moreover, in Genesis itself we find a totally different account of the matter, derived from another source, which represents all nations, and, therefore, the Semites among them, as having come from Babylon. Scarcely any man of science now believes in the northern origin of the Semites.

Some prominent scholars consider the birthplace of the Semitic race to have been in Arabia. There is much that appears to support this theory. History proves that from a very early period tribes from the deserts of Arabia settled on the cultivable lands which border them and adopted a purely agricultural mode of life. Various traces in the language seem to indicate that the Hebrews and the Aramaeans were originally nomads, and Arabia with its northern prolongation (the Syrian desert) is the true home of nomadic peoples. The Arabs are also supposed to display the Semitic character in its purest form, and their language is, on the whole, nearer the original Semitic than are the languages of the cognate races. To this last circumstance we should, however, attach little importance. It is by no means always the case that a language is most faithfully preserved in the country where it originated. The Romance dialect spoken in the south of Sardinia is far more primitive than that spoken at Rome; and of all living Teutonic languages the most ancient is the Icelandic. Besides, we cannot unreservedly admit that the Arabs display the Semitic character in its purest form; it would be more correct to say that, under the influence of a country indescribably monotonous and of a life ever changing yet ever the same, the inhabitants of the Arabian deserts have developed most exclusively certain of the principal traits of the Semitic race. All these considerations are indecisive; but we willingly admit that the theory which regards Arabia as the primitive seat of all Semites is by no means untenable.

Finally, one of the most eminent of contemporary Orientalists, Ignazio Guidi,[9] has attempted to prove that the home of the Semites is on the lower Euphrates. He contends that the geographical, botanical and zoological conceptions which are expressed in the various Semitic languages by the same words, preserved from the time of the dispersion, correspond to the natural characteristics of no country but the above-mentioned. Great as are the ingenuity and the caution which he displays, it is difficult to accept his conclusions. Several terms might be mentioned which are part of the common heritage of the northern and the southern Semites, but which can scarcely have been formed in the region of the Euphrates. Moreover, the vocabulary of most Semitic languages is but very imperfectly known, and each dialect has lost many primitive words in the course of time. It is therefore very unsafe to draw conclusions from the fact that the various Semitic tongues have no one common designation for many important local conceptions, such as “mountain.” The ordinary words for “man,” “old man,” “boy,” “tent,” “block,” “to beat,” &c., are quite different in the various Semitic languages, and yet all these are ideas for which the primitive Semites must have had names.

It is not very easy to settle what is the precise connexion between the various Semitic languages, considered individually. Connexions between the Semitic languages. In this matter one may easily be led to hasty conclusions by isolated peculiarities in vocabulary or grammar. Each of the older Semitic languages occasionally agrees in grammatical points with some other to which in most respects it bears no very close resemblance, while dialects much more nearly related to it are found to exhibit different formations. Each Semitic tongue also possesses features peculiar to itself. For instance, the Hebrew-Phoenician group and the Arabic have a prefixed definite article (the etymological identity of which is, however, not very probable); the dialect nearest to Arabic, the Sabaean, expresses the article by means of a suffixed n; the Aramaic, which in general more closely resembles Hebrew than idoes the Arabic group, expresses it by means of a suffixed ā; whereas the Assyrian in the north and the Ethiopic in the south have no article at all. Of the termination n for the definite article there is no certain trace in either Arabic or Hebrew; the Sabaean, the Ethiopic, and the Aramaic employ it to give emphasis to demonstrative pronouns; and the very same usage has been detected in a single Phoenician inscription.[10] In this case, therefore, Hebrew and Arabic have, independently of one another, lost something which the languages most nearly related to them have preserved. In like manner, the strengthening of the pronoun of the third person by means of t (or ) is only found in Ethiopic, Sabaean and Phoenician and perhaps in some Arabic particles too. Aramaic alone has no certain trace of the reflexive conjugation formed with prefixed n; Hebrew alone has no certain trace of the causative with sha.[11] In several of the Semitic languages we can see how the formation of the passive by means of internal vocal change (as kullima, “he was addressed,” as distinguished from kallama, “he addressed”) gradually dropped out of use; in Ethiopic this process was already complete when the language first became literary; in Aramaic it was not wholly so and in most modern Arabic dialects the old passive forms have nearly or totally disappeared. In a few cases phonetic resemblances have been the result of later growth. For example, the termination of the plural masculine of nouns is in Hebrew īm, in Aramaic īn, as in Arabic. But we know that Aramaic also originally had m, whereas the ancient Arabic forms have after the n an a, which appears to have been originally a long ā (ūna, īna); in this latter position (that is, between two vowels) the change of m into n is very improbable.[12] These two similar terminations were therefore originally distinct. We must indeed be very cautious in drawing conclusions from points of agreement between the vocabularies of the various Semitic tongues. The Ethiopians and the Hebrews have the same word for many objects which the other Semites call by other names—for instance, “stone,” “tree,” “enemy,” “enter,” “go out”; and the same may be said of Hebrew as compared with Sabaean. But to build theories upon such facts would be unsafe, since the words cited are either found, though with some change of meaning, in at least one of the cognate languages, or actually occur, perhaps quite exceptionally and in archaic writings, with the same signification. The sedentary habits of the Ethiopians and the Sabaeans may possibly have rendered it easier for them to retain in their vocabulary certain words which were used by the civilized Semites of the north, but which became obsolete amongst the Arabian nomads. To the same cause we may attribute the fact that in religion the Sabaeans seem to resemble the northern Semites more closely than do the tribes of central Arabia; but these considerations prove nothing in favour of a nearer linguistic affinity.

One thing at least is certain, that Arabic (with Sabaean, Mahri and Socotri) and Ethiopic stand in a comparatively close Northern and Southern groups. relationship to one another, and compose a group by themselves, as contrasted with the other Semitic languages, Hebraeo-Phoenician, Aramaic and Assyrian. Only in these southern dialects do we find, and that under forms substantially identical, the important innovation known as the “broken plurals,” consisting in the employment of certain forms, denoting abstracts, for the expression of plurals. They agree, moreover, in employing a peculiar development of the verbal root, formed by inserting an ā between the first and second radicals (qātala, taqātala), in using the vowel a before the third radical in all active perfects—for example, (h)aqtala, qattala, instead of the haqtil, qattil of the northern dialects—and in many other grammatical phenomena. This is not at all contradicted by the fact that certain aspirated dentals of Arabic (th, dh, z) are replaced in Ethiopic, as in Hebrew and Assyrian, by pure sibilants—that is, s (Hebrew and Assyrian sh), z, —whereas in Aramaic they are replaced by simple dentals (t, d, ), which seem to come closer to the Arabic sounds. Still, after the separation of the northern and the southern groups, we suppose, the Semitic languages possessed all these sounds, as the Arabic does, but afterwards simplified them, for the most part, in one direction or the other. Hence there resulted, as it were by chance, occasional similarities. Even in many modern Arabic dialects th, dh become t, d.[13] Ethiopic, moreover, has kept , the most peculiar of Arabic sounds, distinct from , whereas Aramaic has confounded it with the guttural ‘ain, and Hebrew and Assyrian with . It is therefore evident that all these languages once possessed the consonant in question as a distinct one. One sound, sīn, appears only in Hebrew, in Phoenician, and in the older Aramaic. It must originally have been pronounced very like sh, since it is represented in writing by the same character; in later times it was changed into an ordinary s. Assyrian does not distinguish it from sh.[14] The division of the Semitic languages into the northern group and the southern is therefore justified by facts. Even if We were to discover really important grammatical phenomena in which one of the southern dialects agreed with the northern, or vice versa, and that in cases where such phenomena could not be regarded either as remnants of primitive Semitic usage or as instances of parallel but independent development, we ought to remember that the division of the two groups was not necessarily a sudden and instantaneous occurrence, that even after the separation intercourse may have been carried on between the various tribes who spoke kindred dialects and were therefore still able to understand one another, and that intermediate dialects may once have existed, perhaps such as were in use amongst tribes who came into contact sometimes with the agricultural population of the north and sometimes with the nomads of the south (see below). All this is purely hypothetical, whereas the division between the northern and the southern Semitic languages is a recognized fact. It is perfectly certain, moreover, that Hebraeo-Phoenician and Aramaic are closely related with each other, and form a group of their own, distinct even from Assyrian. In fact, Assyrian seems to be so completely sui generis that we should be well advised to separate it from all the cognate languages, as an independent scion of proto-Semitic. We should classify these languages consequently in the following order: (1) Assyrian; (2) the remaining Semitic languages, viz.: A. Hebraeo-Phoenician and Aramaic, B. the southern Semitic tongues.

Although we cannot deny that there may formerly have existed Semitic languages quite distinct from those with which Lost Semitic languages. we are acquainted, yet that such was actually the case cannot be proved. Nor is there any reason to think that the domain of the Semitic languages ever extended very far beyond its present limits. Some time ago many scholars believed that they were once spoken in Asia Minor and even in Europe, but, except in the Phoenician colonies, this notion rested upon no solid proof. It cannot be argued with any great degree of plausibility that even the Cilicians, who from a very early period held constant intercourse with the Syrians and the Phoenicians, spoke a Semitic language.


Long before there existed any other Semitic culture, there flourished on the Lower Euphrates a sister language which has been preserved to us in the cuneiform inscriptions. It is usually called the Assyrian, after the name of the country where the first and most important excavations were made; but the term “Babylonian” would be more correct, as Babylon was the birthplace of this language and of the civilization to which it belonged. Certain Babylonian inscriptions go back to the fourth millennium before our era; but the great mass of these cuneiform inscriptions date from between 1000 and 500 B.C.

Assyrian differs in many respects from all the cognate languages. The ancient perfect has wholly disappeared, or left but few traces, Assyrian. and the gutturals, with the exception of the hard kh, have been smoothed down to a degree which is only paralleled in modern Aramaic dialects. So at least it would appear from the writing, or rather from the manner in which Assyriologists transcribe it. The Babylonian form bēl (occurring in Isa. xlvi. 1; Jer. l. 2 and li. 44—passages all belonging to the 6th century B.C., and in many other ancient monuments), the name of the god who was originally called ba‘l, is a confirmation of this; but, on the other hand, the name of the country where Babylon was situated, viz. Shin‘ar, and that of a Babylonian god, ‘Anammelek (2 Kings xvii. 31), as well as those of the tribes Shō‘a and Qō‘a (Ezek. xxiii. 23) who inhabited the Assyrio-Babylonian territory, seem to militate against this theory, as they are spelt in the Old Testament with ‘ain. So, too, is the biblico-Aramaic word ṭe‘em, ṭa‘am, “order,” “decree,” which is derived from the Assyrian; and we may also compare some Babylonian local names, e.g. ‘Anat. H is found in the name of the town Hīt, and in the name of a man, written in Aramaic characters but formed quite in the Babylonian manner, Hadadnadinakh. Thus the Babylonians may have pronounced some gutturals, though they did not write them, precisely as the Persian cuneiform inscriptions omit many h's, which, no doubt, were audible. The Assyrian system of writing is so complicated, and, in spite of its vast apparatus, is so imperfect an instrument for the accurate representation of sounds, that we are hardly yet bound to regard the transcriptions of contemporary Assyriologists as being in all points of detail the final dictum of science. However this may be, the present writer does not feel able to speak at greater length upon Assyrian. Attention may, however, be called to the fact, that, as might have been expected from the important role played by the Babylonians and Assyrians in the history of civilization and of peoples, many words passed over from their language into Hebrew and, more especially, into Aramaic, some of which attained a still wider vogue.[15] (Compare the article Cuneiform.)


Hebrew and Phoenician are but dialects of one and the same language. It is only as the language of the people of Israel that Hebrew can be known with any precision. Since in the Old Testament a few of the neighbouring peoples are represented as being descended from Eber, the eponym of the Hebrews, that is, are regarded as nearly related to the latter, it was natural to suppose that they likewise spoke Hebrew—a supposition which, at least in the case of the Moabites, has been fully confirmed by the discovery of the Mesha inscription (date, soon after 900 B.C.). The language of this inscription scarcely differs from that of the Old Testament; the only important distinction is the occurrence of a reflexive form (with t after the first radical), which appears also in Arabic and Assyrian. We may remark in passing that the style of this inscription is quite that of the Old Testament, and enables us to maintain with certainty that a similar historical literature existed amongst the Moabites. But it must be remembered that ancient Semitic inscriptions exhibit, in a sense, nothing but the skeleton of the language, since they do not express the vowels at all, or do so only in certain cases; still less do they indicate other phonetic modifications, such as the doubling of consonants, &c. It is therefore very possible that to the ear the language of Moab seemed to differ considerably from that of the Judaeans.

The Mesha inscription is the only non-Israelite source from which any knowledge of ancient Hebrew can be obtained. Still several Ancient Hebrew. Hebrew words occur even in the Tellel-Amarna letters, discovered in Egypt, and written in the Babylonian language by princes of Palestine during the second millennium B.C. They clearly show that the “Hebrew” language existed in Palestine even before the migration of the Israelites into Canaan. Some fragments in the Old Testament belong to the last centuries of the second millennium before our era—particularly the song of Deborah (Judges v.), a document which, in spite of its many obscurities in matters of detail, throws much light on the condition of the Israelites at the time when the Canaanites were still contending with them for the possession of the country. The first rise of an historical literature may very probably date from before the establishment of the monarchy. Various portions of the Old Testament belong to the time of the earlier kings; but it was under the later kings that a great part of extant Hebrew literature came into shape. To this age also belong the Gezer and the Siloam inscriptions and a daily increasing number of seals and gems bearing the names of Israelites.

The Hebrew language is thus known to us from a very ancient period. But we are far from being acquainted with its real phonetic Pronunciation. condition in the time of David or Isaiah. For, much as we owe to the labours of the later Jewish schools, which with infinite care fixed the pronunciation of the sacred text by adding vowels and other signs, it is evident that even at the best they could only represent the renunciation of the language in its latest stage, not that of very early ages. Besides, their object was not to exhibit Hebrew simply as it was, but to show how it should be read in the solemn chant of the synagogue. Accordingly, the pronunciation of the older period may have differed considerably from that represented by the punctuation. Such differences are now and then indicated by the customary spelling of the ancient texts,[16] and sometimes the orthography is directly at variance with the punctuation.[17] In a few rare cases we may derive help from the somewhat older tradition contained in the representation of Hebrew words and proper names by Greek letters, especially in the ancient Alexandrine translation of the Bible (the so-called Septuaint). It is of particular importance to remark that this older tradition still retains an original a in many cases where the punctuation has the later i or e. We have examined this point somewhat in detail, in order to contradict the false but ever-recurring notion that the ordinary text of the Bible represents without any essential modification the pronunciation of ancient Hebrew, whereas in reality it expresses (in a very instructive and careful manner, it is true) only its latest development, and that for the purpose of solemn public recitation. A clear trace of dialectal differences within Israel is found in Judges xii. 6, which shows that the ancient Ephraimites pronounced samek instead of shīn.

The destruction of the Judaean kingdom dealt a heavy blow to the Hebrew language. But it is going too far to suppose that it Period of exile in Babylon. was altogether banished from ordinary life at the time of the exile, and that Aramaic came into use among all the Jews. In the East even small communities, especially if they form a religious body, often cling persistently to their mother-tongue, though they may be surrounded by a population of alien speech; and such was probably the case with the Jews in Babylonia. See Hebrew Language. Even so late as the time of Ezra, Hebrew was in all probability the ordinary language of the new community. In Neh. xiii. 24 we find a complaint that the children of Jews by wives from Ashdod and other places spoke half in the “Jewish” language and half in the language of Ashdod, or whatever else may have been the tongue of their mothers. No one can suppose that Nehemiah would have been particularly zealous that the children of Jews should speak an Aramaic dialect with correctness. He no doubt refers to Hebrew as it was then spoken—a stage in its development of which, Nehemiah's own work gives a very fair idea.

After the time of Alexander large bodies of the Jewish population were settled in Alexandria and other western cities, and were very Hebrew supplanted by Aramaic. rapidly Hellenized. Meanwhile the principal language of Syria and the neighbouring countries, Aramaic, which had already become the language of the older Jewish colonies in Egypt (see below), and the influence of which may be perceived even in some pre-exilic writings, began to spread more and more among the Jews of Palestine. Hebrew gradually ceased to be the language of the people and became that of religion and the schools. The book of Daniel, written in 167 or 166 B.C., begins in Hebrew, then suddenly passes into Aramaic, and ends again in Hebrew. Similarly the redactor of Ezra (or more correctly of the Chronicles, of which Ezra and Nehemiah form the conclusion) borrows large portions from an Aramaic work, in most cases without translating them into Hebrew. No reason can be assigned for the use of Aramaic in Jewish works intended primarily for Jerusalem, unless it were already the dominant speech, whilst, on the other hand, it was very natural for a pious Jew to write in the ancient “holy” language even after it had ceased to be spoken. Esther, Ecclesiastes, and a few Psalms, which belong to the 3rd and 2nd centuries before our era, are indeed written in Hebrew, but are so strongly tinctured by the Aramaic influence as to prove that the writers usually spoke Aramaic. It is certain, of course, that there were still many Jews capable both of writing and speaking Hebrew. So the Book of Sirach, composed shortly after 200 B.C., was written in an almost absolutely pure Hebrew, as is proved by the portions of the original, amounting to about two thirds of the whole, which have come to light in our day. But we are not likely to be far wrong in saying that in the Maccabean age Hebrew had died out among the Jews as a current popular language, and there is nothing to show that it survived longer among any of the neighbouring peoples.

But in the last period of the history of Jerusalem, and still more after the destruction of the city by Titus, the Jewish schools played so important a part that the life of the Hebrew language was in a manner prolonged. The lectures and discussions of the learned were carried on in that tongue. We have very extensive specimens of this more modern Hebrew in the Mishnah and other works, and scattered pieces throughout both Talmuds. But, just as the “classical” Sanskrit, which has been spoken and written by the Brahmans during the last twenty-five centuries, differs considerably from the language which was once in use among the people, so this “language of the learned” diverges in many respects from the “holy language”; and this distinction is one of which the rabbis were perfectly conscious. The “language of the learned” borrows a great part of its vocabulary from Aramaic,[18] and this exercises a strong influence upon the grammatical forms. The grammar is perceptibly modified by the peculiar style of these writings, which for the most part treat of legal and ritual questions in a strangely laconic and pointed manner. But, large as is the proportion of foreign words and artificial as this language is, it contains a considerable number of purely Hebrew elements which by chance do not appear in the Old Testament. Although we may generally assume, in the case of a word occurring in the Mishnah but not found in the Old Testament, that it is borrowed from Aramaic, there are several words of this class which, by their radical consonants, prove themselves to be genuine Hebrew. And even some grammatical phenomena of this language are to be regarded as a genuine development of Hebrew, though they are unknown to earlier Hebrew speech.

From the beginning of the middle ages down to our own times the Jews have produced an enormous mass of writings in Hebrew, Medieval and Modern Hebrew. sometimes closely following the language of the Bible, sometimes that of the Mishnah, sometimes introducing in a perfectly inorganic manner a great quantity of Aramaic forms, and occasionally imitating the Arabic style. The study of these variations has but little interest for the linguist, since they are nothing but a purely artificial imitation, dependent upon the greater or less skill of the individual. The language of the Mishnah stands in much closer connexion with real life, and has a definite raison d'être; all later Hebrew is to be classed with medieval and modern Latin. The dream of some Zionists, that Hebrew—a would-be Hebrew, that is to say—will again become a living, popular language in Palestine, has still less prospect of realization than their vision of a restored Jewish empire in the Holy Land. Much Hebrew also was written in the middle ages by the hostile brethren of the Jews, the Samaritans; but for the student of language these productions have, at the most, the charm attaching to curiosities.

The ancient Hebrew language, especially in the matter of syntax, has an essentially primitive character. Parataxis of sentences Character of ancient Hebrew. prevails over hypotaxis to a greater extent than in any other literary Semitic language with which we are well acquainted. The favourite method is to link sentences together by means of a simple “and.” There is a great lack of particles to express with clearness the more subtle connexion of ideas. The use of the verbal tenses is in a great measure determined by the imagination, which regards things unaccomplished as accomplished, and the past as still present. There are but few words or inflexions to indicate slight modifications of meaning, though in ancient times the language may perhaps have distinguished certain moods of the verb somewhat more plainly than the present punctuation does. But in any case this language was far less suited for the definite expression of studied thought, and less suited still for the treatment of abstract subjects, than for poetry. We must remember, however, that as long as Hebrew was a living language it never had to be used for the expression of the abstract. Had it lived somewhat longer it might very possibly have learnt to adapt itself better to the formulating of systematic conceptions. The only book in the Old Testament which attempts to grapple with an abstract subject in plain prose—namely, Ecclesiastes—dates from a time when Hebrew was dying out or was already dead. That the gifted author does not always succeed in giving clear expression to his ideas is partly due to the fact that the language had never been employed for any scientific purposes whatsoever. With regard to grammatical forms, Hebrew has lost much that is still preserved in Arabic; but the greater richness of Arabic is in part the result of later development.

The vocabulary of the Hebrew language is, as we have said, known but imperfectly. The Old Testament is no very large work; Vocabulary. it contains, moreover, many repetitions, and a great number of pieces which are of little use to the lexicographer. On the other hand, much may be derived from certain poetical books, such as Job.[19] The numerous ἅπαξ λεγόμενα are a sufficient proof that many more words existed than appear in the Old Testament, the writers of which never had occasion to use them. Were we in possession of the whole Hebrew vocabulary in the time of Jeremiah, for example, we should be far better able to determine the relation in which Hebrew stands to the other Semitic languages, the Old Testament would be far more intelligible to us, and it would be very much easier to detect the numerous corrupt passages in our text.


The Phoenician dialect closely resembles Hebrew, and is known to us from only one authentic source, namely, inscriptions, some of Phoenician. which date from about 600 B.C. or earlier; but the great mass of them begin with the end of the 5th century before our era. These inscriptions[20] we owe to the Phoenicians of the mother-country and the neighbouring regions (Cyprus, Egypt and Greece), as well as to the Phoenicians of Africa, especially Carthage. Inscriptions are, however, a very insufficient means for obtaining the knowledge of a language. The number of subjects treated in them is not large; many of the most important grammatical forms and many of the words most used in ordinary life do not occur. Moreover, the “lapidary style” is often very hard to understand. The repetition of obscure phrases, in the same connexion, in several inscriptions does not help to make them more intelligible. Of what use is it to us that, for instance, thousands of Carthaginian inscriptions begin with the very same incomprehensible dedication to two divinities? The difficulty of interpretation is greatly increased by the fact that single words are very seldom separated from one another, and that vowel-letters are used extremely sparingly. We therefore come but too often upon very ambiguous groups of letters. In spite of this, our knowledge of Phoenician has made considerable progress of late. Some assistance is also got from Greek and Latin writers, who cite not only many Phoenician proper names, but single Phoenician words: Plautus in particular inserts in the Poenulus whole passages in Punic, some of which are accompanied by a Latin translation. This source of information must, however, be used with great caution. It was not the object of Plautus to exhibit the Punic language with precision, a task for which the Latin alphabet is but ill adapted, but only to make the populace laugh at the jargon of the hated Carthaginians. Moreover, he had to force the Punic words into Latin senarii; and finally the text, being unintelligible to copyists, is terribly corrupt. Much ingenuity has been wasted on the Punic of Plautus; but the passage yields valuable results to cautious investigation which does not try to explain too much.[21]

In its grammar Phoenician closely resembles Hebrew. In both dialects the consonants are the same, often in contrast to Aramaic and other cognate languages.[22] As to vowels, Phoenician seems to diverge rather more from Hebrew. The connecting of clauses is scarcely carried farther in the former language than in the latter. A slight attempt to define the tenses more sharply appears once at least in the joining of kān (fuit) with a perfect, to express complete accomplishment (or the pluperfect).[23] One important difference is that the use of wāw conversive with the imperfect—so common in Hebrew and in the inscription of Mesha—is wanting in Phoenician. The vocabulary of the language is very like that of Hebrew, but words rare in Hebrew are often common in Phoenician. For instance, “to do” is in Phoenician not ‘as ā but pa‘al (the Arabic fa‘ala), which in Hebrew occurs only in poetry and elevated language. “Gold” is not (zahab as in most Semitic languages), but ḥarūṣ (Assyrian ḥurāṣ), which is used occasionally in Hebrew poetry. Traces of dialectical distinctions have been found in the great inscription of Byblus, the inhabitants of which seem to be distinguished from the rest of the Phoenicians in Josh. xiii. 5 (and 1 Kings v. 32? [A.V. v. 18]). It is probable that various differences between the language of the mother-country and that of the African colonies arose at an early date, but our materials do not enable us to come to any definite conclusion on this point. It is tolerably certain that the language of Carthage possessed many dull vowels which were strange to Greek and Latin, so that the manner in which they are reproduced in proper names by the Greeks and Romans shows great diversity. In the later African inscriptions there appear certain phonetic changes, especially in consequence of the softening of the gutturals—changes which show themselves yet more plainly in the so-called Neo-Punic inscriptions (beginning with the 1st, if not the 2nd, century before our era). In these the gutturals, which had lost their real sound, are frequently interchanged in writing; and other modifications may also be perceived. Unfortunately the Neo-Punic inscriptions are written in such a debased indistinct character that it is often impossible to discover with certainty the real form of the words. This dialect was still spoken about 400, and perhaps long afterwards, in those districts of North Africa which had once belonged to Carthage. It would seem that in the mother-country the Phoenician language withstood the encroachment of Greek on the one hand and of Aramaic on the other somewhat longer than Hebrew did.


Aramaic is nearly related to Hebraeo-Phoenician; but there is nevertheless a sharp line of demarcation between the two groups. Geographical extent of Aramaic. Of its original home nothing certain is known. In the Old Testament “Aram” appears at an early period as a designation of certain districts in Syria (“Aram of Damascus,” &c.) and in Mesopotamia (“Aram of the Two Rivers”). The language of the Aramaeans gradually spread far and wide, and occupied all Syria, both those regions which were before in the possession of the Kheta, probably a non-Semitic people, and those which were most likely inhabited by Canaanite tribes; last of all, Palestine became Aramaized. Towards the east this language was spoken on the Euphrates, and throughout the districts of the Tigris south and west of the Armenian and Kurdish mountains; the province in which the capitals of the Arsacids and the Sassanids were situated was called “the country of the Aramaeans.” In Babylonia and Assyria a large, or perhaps the larger, portion of the population were most probably Aramaeans, even at a very early date, whilst Assyrian was the language of the government.

The oldest extant Aramaic documents consist of inscriptions on monuments and on seals, weights and gems. Latterly, a very remarkable inscription of a king of Ḥamāth[24] belonging to the 8th century B.C. has been found in Central Syria, and a few years before excavations in the extreme north of Syria (Zengīrli and district; Nērab) brought to light some not less remarkable inscriptions which go back to the same century. The language of all these inscriptions is Aramaic, though in certain places it agrees with Hebrew. It is especially surprising that in the case of the Arabic sounds th, dh, , they have not t, d, t,—as Aramaic generally has,—but sh, z, , as is the rule in Hebrew and Assyrian. It is extremely strange, however, that, in place of the Arabic , ‘ain does not appear, as elsewhere in Aramaic, nor yet as in Hebrew and Assyrian,—and, in isolated cases, even in Aramaic,—but q. These phenomena may be observed on several smaller monuments. We have no entirely satisfactory explanation at our disposal: perhaps Assyrian influence has been at work. Individual monuments prove, however, that the phonetic system of general Aramaic was already in existence in the period of our inscriptions: it would seem, therefore, that we must assume a dialectical cleavage, perhaps originated by the influence of Hebrew or Canaanean. Particularly remarkable is the use of the waw consecutivum in the inscriptions of the king of Ḥamāth hitherto only known from Hebrew. Traces of the divergent phonetic treatment are found in the Hellenistic era, and—here and there—even later. Still, at the most, these can scarcely be more than conscious archaisms,—a view which is particularly corroborated by the fact, that, in certain Aramaic documents of the Persian period, both forms are used interchangeably, e.g. arqā, “earth,” and ar‘ā. The latter orthography doubtless represents the actual pronunciation of the writer. It is to be observed, however, that for , held its ground with especial tenacity as a form of the relative pronoun and in other capacities. In the Persian period Aramaic was the official language of the provinces west of the Euphrates; and this explains the fact that coins which were struck by governors and vassal princes in Asia Minor, and of which the stamp was in some cases the work of skilled Greek artists, bear Aramaic inscriptions, whilst those of other coins are Greek. This, of course, does not prove that Aramaic was ever spoken in Asia Minor and as far north as Sinope and the Hellespont. In Egypt some Aramaic inscriptions have been found of the Persian period, one bearing the date of the fourth year of Xerxes (482 B.C.). We possessed, even before this, a few official documents and other written pieces in Aramaic, inscribed upon papyrus, and dating from this period, but unfortunately in a very dilapidated condition. Latterly, however, we have had a whole series of similar documents of the 5th century B.C., in a very good state of preservation, bearing upon the affairs of Jewish colonists in the far south of Egypt. In that country, where the native writing was so formidable to the learner, the Aramaic language and script may well have appeared peculiarly serviceable. Thus they were employed, and frequently, even by indigenous Egyptians. But we need not doubt that, in Egypt, Aramaic was also spoken by many who had migrated from Syria; and this must be assumed to have been the case with the Jewish colonists mentioned. The fact is now established that these Jews who had come to Egypt before the Persian period were military colonists, and were often referred to in documents as “Aramaeans.” According to Deut. xvii. 16, the kings of Judah sold their subjects to the kings of Egypt, who at that time obtained numbers of warriors from foreign countries, instead of employing their own unwarlike subjects. The Syrian kings also sent soldiers to Egypt, from whom the Jews learned Aramaic. That this was used not only as an official language, but also as a vernacular, is shown by the fact that fragments of ordinary speech are found in Judaeo-Aramaic papyri. That the Egyptian-Aramaic documents exhibit traces of Hebrew and Phoenician influence is a matter for no surprise. Probably the preference shown by the Persians for Aramaic originated under the Assyrian empire, in which a very large proportion of the population spoke Aramaic, and in which this language would naturally occupy a more important position than it did under the Persians. We therefore understand why it was taken for granted that a great Assyrian official could speak Aramaic (2 Kings xviii. 26; Isa. xxxvi. 11), and for the same reason the dignitaries of Judah appear to have learned the language (ibid.), namely, in order to communicate with the Assyrians. The short dominion of the Chaldaeans very probably strengthened this preponderance of Aramaic. A few ancient Aramaic inscriptions have been discovered far within the limits of Arabia, in the palm oasis of Teimā (in the north of the Ḥijāz); the oldest and by far the most important of these was very likely made before the Persian period. We may presume that Aramaic was introduced into the district by a mercantile colony, which settled in this ancient seat of commerce, and in consequence of which Aramaic may have remained for some time the literary language of the neighbouring Arabs.

The Aramaic portions of the Old Testament show us the form of the language which was in use among the Jews of Palestine. Isolated Biblical Aramaic. passages in Ezra perhaps belong to the Persian period, but have certainly been remodelled by a later writer.[25] Yet in Ezra we find a few antique forms which do not occur in Daniel. The Aramaic pieces contained in the Bible have the great advantage of being furnished with vowels and other orthographical signs, though these were not inserted until long after the composition of the books, and are sometimes at variance with the text itself. But, since Aramaic was still a living language when the punctuation came into existence, and since the lapse of time was not so very great, the tradition ran less risk of corruption than in the case of Hebrew. Its general correctness is further attested by the innumerable points of resemblance between this language and Syriac, with which we are accurately acquainted. The Aramaic of the Bible still exhibits various antique features, found in the Egyptian papyri too, which afterwards disappeared,—for example, the formation of the passive by means of internal vowel-change, and the causative with ha instead of with a,—phenomena which have been falsely explained as Hebraisms. Biblical Aramaic agrees in all essential points with the language used in the numerous inscriptions of Palmyra (beginning soon before the Christian era and extending to about the end of the 3rd century), and on the Nabataean coins and stone monuments (concluding about the year 100). Aramaic was the language of Palmyra, the aristocracy of which were to a great extent of Arabian extraction. In the northern portion of the Nabataean kingdom (not far from Damascus) there was probably a large Aramaic population, but farther south Arabic was spoken. At that time, however, Aramaic was highly esteemed as a cultivated language, for which reason the Arabs in question made use of it, as their own language was not reduced to writing, just as in those ages Greek inscriptions were set up in many districts where no one spoke Greek. That the Nabataeans were Arabs is sufficiently proved by the fact that, with the exception of a few Greek names, almost all the numerous names which occur in the Nabataean inscriptions are Arabic, in many cases with distinctly Arabic terminations. A further proof of this is that in the great inscriptions over the tombs of Ḥejr (not far from Teimā) the native Arabic continually shows through the foreign disguise,—for instance, in the use of Arabic words whenever the writer does not happen to remember the corresponding Aramaic terms, in the use of the Arabic ghair, “other than,” and in several syntactic features. The great inscriptions cease with the overthrow of the Nabataean kingdom by Trajan (105); but the Arabian nomads in those countries, especially in the Sinaitic peninsula, often scratched their names on the rocks down to a later period, adding some benedictory formula in Aramaic. We know hundreds of these Sinaitic inscriptions.[26] In any case Aramaic then exercised an immense influence. This is also proved by the place which it occupies in the strange Pahlavi writing, various branches of which date from the time of the Parthian empire (see Pahlavi). Biblical Aramaic, as also the language of the Palmyrene and Nabataean inscriptions, may be described as an older form of Western Aramaic. The opinion that the Palestinian Jews brought their Aramaic dialect direct from Babylon—whence the incorrect name “Chaldee”—is altogether untenable.

We may now trace somewhat farther the development of Western Aramaic in Palestine; but unhappily few of the sources from which Aramaic of Targums, etc. we derive our information can be thoroughly trusted. In the synagogues it was necessary that the reading of the Bible should be followed by an oral “targum” or translation into Aramaic, the language of the people. The Targum was at a later period fixed in writing, but the officially sanctioned form of the Targum to the Pentateuch (the so-called Targum of Onkelos) and of that to the prophets (the so-called Jonathan) was not finally settled till the 4th or 5th century, and not in Palestine, but in Babylonia. The redactors of the Targum preserved on the whole the older Palestinian dialect; yet that of Babylon, which differed considerably from the former, exercised a vitiating influence. The text of the Targums was punctuated later in Babylonia, in the supra-linear system there prevalent. Although this task was performed carefully, the punctuation is hardly as trustworthy as that of the Aramaic pieces of the Bible,—much less the transcriptions in the known Tiberian system used in the European Targum manuscripts. The language of Onkelos and Jonathan differs but little from Biblical Aramaic. The language spoken some time afterwards by the Palestinian Jews, especially in Galilee, is exhibited in a series of rabbinical works, the so-called Jerusalem Targums (of which, however, those on the Hagiographa are in some cases of later date), a few Midrashic works, and the Jerusalem Talmud. Unfortunately all these books, of which the Midrashim and the Talmud contain much Hebrew as well as Aramaic, have not been handed down with care, and require to be used with great caution for linguistic purposes. Moreover, the influence of the older language and orthography has in part obscured the characteristics of these popular dialects; for example, various gutturals are still written, although they are no longer pronounced. The adaptation of the spelling to the real pronunciation is carried farthest in the Jerusalem Talmud, but not in a consistent manner. Besides, all these books are without vowel-points; but the frequent use of vowel-letters in the later Jewish works renders this defect less noticeable. Attempts have been made latterly to utilize the above mentioned books as a means of reconstructing to some extent the dialect spoken by Jesus and the Apostles, and of retranslating the utterances of Jesus into their original Galilaean form. This, however, is a far too venturesome undertaking. How far these Jewish works actually exhibit the Galilean language can hardly be definitely determined; and to this must be added the inexactitude of the traditional text, and, finally, the by no means inconsiderable difference in time.

Not only the Jews, but also the Christians of Palestine retained their native dialect for some time as an ecclesiastical and literary Christian-Palestine dialect. language. We possess translations of the Gospels and fragments of other works in this dialect by the Palestinian Christians dating from about the 5th century, partly accompanied by a scanty punctuation which was not added till some time later. This dialect closely resembles that of the Palestinian Jews, as was to be expected from the fact that those who spoke it were of Jewish origin.

Finally, the Samaritans, among the inhabitants of Palestine, translated their only sacred book, the Pentateuch, into their own Samaritan dialect. dialect. The critical study of this translation proves that the language which lies at its base was very much the same as that of the neighbouring Jews. Perhaps, indeed, the Samaritans may have carried the softening of the gutturals a little farther than the Jews of Galilee. Their absurd attempt to embellish the language of the translation by arbitrarily introducing forms borrowed from the Hebrew original has given rise to the false notion that Samaritan is a mixture of Hebrew and Aramaic. The introduction of Hebrew and even of Arabic words and forms was practised in Samaria on a still larger scale by copyists who lived after Aramaic had become extinct. The later works written in the Samaritan dialect are, from a linguistic point of view, as worthless as the compositions of Samaritans in Hebrew; the writers, who spoke Arabic, endeavoured to write in languages with which they were but half acquainted.

All these Western Aramaic dialects, including that of the oldest inscriptions, have this feature among others in common, that they form the third person singular masculine and the third person plural masculine and feminine in the imperfect by prefixing y, as do the other Semitic languages. And in these dialects the termination ā, (the so-called “status emphaticus”) still retained the meaning of a definite article down to a tolerably late period.

As early as the 7th century the conquests of the Moslems greatly circumscribed the domain of Aramaic and a few centuries later it was almost completely supplanted in the west by Arabic. For the Christians of those countries, who, like every one else, spoke Arabic, the Palestinian dialect was no longer of importance, and they adopted as their ecclesiastical language the dialect of the other Aramaean Christians, the Syriac (or Edessene). The only localities where a Western Aramaic dialect, much changed from the old language, still survives are a few villages in Anti-Libanus.

The popular Aramaic dialect of Babylonia from the 4th to the 6th century of our era is exhibited in the Babylonian Talmud, in Babylonian and Mandaean dialects. which, however, as in the Jerusalem Talmud, there is a constant mingling of Aramaic and Hebrew passages. To a somewhat later period, and probably not to exactly the same district of Babylonia, belong the writings of the Mandaeans (q.v.), a strange sect, half Christian and half heathen, who from a linguistic point of view possess the peculiar advantage of having remained almost entirely free from the influence of Hebrew, which is so perceptible in the Aramaic writings of Jews as well as of Christians. The orthography of the Mandaeans comes nearer than that of the Talmud to the real pronunciation, and in it the softening of the gutturals is most clearly seen. In other respects there is a close resemblance between Mandaean and the language of the Babylonian Talmud. The forms of the imperfect which we have enumerated above take in these dialects n or l. In Babylonia, as in Syria, the language of the Arabic conquerors rapidly drove out that of the country. The latter has long been totally extinct, unless possibly a few surviving Mandaeans still speak among themselves a more modern form of their dialect.

At Edessa, in the west of Mesopotamia, the native dialect had already been used for some time as a literary language, and had Syriac or Edessan Aramaic. been reduced to rule through the influence of the schools (as is proved by the fixity of the grammar and orthography) even before Christianity acquired power in the country in the 2nd century. At an early period the Old and New Testaments were here translated, with the help of Jewish tradition. This version and its transformations became the Bible of Aramaean Christendom, and Edessa became its capital. Thus the Aramaean Christians of the neighbouring countries, even those who were subjects of the Persian empire, adopted the Edessan dialect as the language of the church, of literature, and of cultivated intercourse. Since the ancient name of the inhabitants, “Aramaeans,” just like that of Ἕλληνες, had acquired in the minds of Jews and Christians the unpleasant signification of “heathens,” it was generally avoided, and in its place the Greek terms “Syrians” and “Syriac” were used. But “Syriac” was also the name given by the Jews and Christians of Palestine to their own language, and both Greeks and Persians designated the Aramaeans of Babylonia as “Syrians.” It is therefore, properly speaking, incorrect to employ the word “Syriac” as meaning the language of Edessa alone; but, since it was the most important of these dialects, it has the best claim to this generally received appellation. It has, as we have said, a shape very definitely fixed; and in it the above-mentioned forms of the imperfect take an n. As in the Babylonian dialects, the termination ā has become so completely a part of the substantive to which it is added that it has wholly lost the meaning of the definite article, whereby the clearness of the language is perceptibly impaired. The influence exercised by Greek is very apparent in Syriac. From the 3rd to the 7th century an extensive literature was produced in this language, consisting chiefly, but not entirely, of ecclesiastical works. In the development of this literature the Syrians of the Persian empire took an eager part. In the eastern Roman empire Syriac was, after Greek, by far the most important language; and under the Persian kings it virtually occupied a more prominent position as an organ of culture than the Persian language itself. The conquests of the Arabs totally changed this state of things. But meanwhile, even in Edessa, a considerable difference had arisen between the written language and the popular speech, in which the process of modification was still going on. About the year 700 it became a matter of absolute necessity to systematize the grammar of the language and to introduce some means of clearly expressing the vowels. The principal object aimed at was that the text of the Syriac Bible should be recited in a correct manner. But, as it happened, the eastern pronunciation differed in many respects from that of the west. The local dialects had to some extent exercised an influence over the pronunciation of the literary tongue; and, on the other hand, the political separation between Rome and Persia, and yet more the ecclesiastical schism—since the Syrians of the east were mostly Nestorians, those of the west Monophysites and Catholics—had produced divergences between the traditions of the various schools. Starting, therefore, from a common source, two distinct systems of punctuation were formed, of which the western is the more convenient, but the eastern the more exact and generally the more in accordance with the ancient pronunciation; it has, for example, ā in place of the western ō, and ō in many cases where the western Syrians pronounce ū. In later times the two systems have been intermingled in various ways.

Arabic everywhere put a speedy end to the predominance of Aramaic—a predominance which had lasted for much more than a thousand years—and soon began to drive Syriac out of use. At the beginning of the 11th century the learned metropolitan of Nisibis, Elias bar Shinnāyā, wrote his books intended for Christians either entirely in Arabic or in Arabic and Syriac arranged in parallel columns, that is, in the spoken and in the learned language. Thus, too, it became necessary to have Syriac-Arabic glossaries. Up to the present day Syriac has remained in use for literary and ecclesiastical purposes, and may perhaps be even spoken in some monasteries and schools; but it has long been a dead language. When Syriac became extinct in Edessa and its neighbourhood is not known with certainty (see Syriac Language).

This language, called Syriac par excellence, is not the immediate source whence are derived the Aramaic dialects still surviving in the northern districts. In the mountains known as the Ṭūr ‘Abdīn in Mesopotamia, in certain districts east and north of Mosul, in the neighbouring mountains of Kurdistan, and again beyond them on the western coast of the Lake of Urmia, Aramaic dialects are spoken by Christians and occasionally by Jews, and some of these dialects we know with tolerable precision. The dialect of Ṭūr ‘Abdīn differs considerably from all the rest; the country beyond the Tigris is, however, divided, as regards language, amongst a multitude of local dialects. Among these, that of Urmia has become the most important, since American missionaries have formed a new literary language out of it. Moreover, the Roman Propaganda has printed books in two of the Neo-Syriac dialects. All these dialects exhibit a complete transformation of the ancient type, to a degree incomparably greater than is the case, for example, with Mandaean. In particular, the ancient verbal tenses have almost entirely disappeared, but have been successfully replaced by new forms derived from participles. There are also other praiseworthy innovations. The dialect of Ṭūr ‘Abdīn has, for instance, again coined a definite article. By means of violent contractions and phonetic changes some of these dialects, particularly that of Urmia, have acquired a euphony scarcely known in any other of the Semitic languages, with their “stridentia anhelantiaque verba” (Jerome). These Aramaeans have all adopted a motley crowd of foreign words, from the Arabs, Kurds, Persians and Turks, on whose borders they live and of whose languages they can often speak at least one.

Aramaic is frequently described as a poor language. This is an opinion which we are unable to share. It is quite possible, even Characteristics of Aramaic. now, to extract a very large vocabulary from the more ancient Aramaic writings, and yet in this predominantly theological literature a part only of the words that existed in the language have been preserved. It is true that Aramaic, having from the earliest times come into close contact with foreign languages, has borrowed many words from them, firstly from Assyrian, later from Persian and Greek; but, if we leave out of consideration the fact that many Syrian authors are in the habit of using, as ornaments or for convenience (especially in translations), a great number of Greek words, some of which were unintelligible to their readers, we shall find that the proportion of really foreign words in older Aramaic books is smaller than the proportion of Romance words in German or Dutch. The influence of Greek upon the syntax and phraseology of Syriac is not so great as that which it has exercised, through the medium of Latin, upon the literary languages of modern Europe. The literal reproduction of Greek phraseology and Greek construction is contrary to the whole spirit of the language. With regard to sounds, the most characteristic feature of Aramaic (besides its peculiar treatment of the dentals) is that it is poorer in vowels than Hebrew, not to speak of Arabic, since nearly all short vowels in open syllables either wholly disappear or leave but a slight trace behind them (the so-called shĕwā). In this respect the punctuation of Biblical Aramaic agrees with Syriac, in which we are able to observe from very early times the number of vowels by examining the metrical pieces constructed according to the number of syllables, and with the Mandaean, which expresses every vowel by means of a vowel-letter. When several distinct dialects so agree, the phenomenon in question must be of great antiquity. There are nevertheless traces which prove that the language once possessed more vowels, and the Aramaeans, for instance, with whom David fought may have pronounced many vowels which afterwards disappeared. Another peculiarity of Aramaic is that it lends itself far more readily to the linking together of sentences than Hebrew and Arabic. It possesses many conjunctions and adverbs to express slight modifications of meaning. It is also very free as regards the order of words. That this quality, which renders it suitable for a clear and limpid prose style, is not the result of Greek influence may be seen by the Mandaean, on which Greek has left no mark. In its attempts to express everything clearly Aramaic often becomes prolix,—for example, by using additional personal and demonstrative pronouns. The contrast between Aramaic as the language of prose and Hebrew as the language of poetry is one which naturally strikes us, but we must beware of carrying it too far. Even the Aramaeans were not wholly destitute of poetical talent. Although the religious poetry of the Syrians has but little charm for us, yet real poetry occurs in the few extant fragments of Gnostic hymns. Moreover, in the modern dialects popular songs have been discovered which, though very simple, are fresh and full of feeling. It is therefore by no means improbable that in ancient times Aramaic was used in poems which, being contrary to the theological tendency of Syrian civilization, were doomed to total oblivion.


The southern group of Semitic languages consists of Arabic, Ethiopic and Mahri-Socotri. Arabic, again, is subdivided into the Early Arabic Inscriptions. dialects of the larger portion of Arabia and those of the south (the Sabaean). At a very much earlier time than we were but lately justified in supposing, some of the northern Arabs reduced their language to writing. For travellers have recently discovered at al Ula in the northern Ḥijāz inscriptions in a hitherto unknown character, derived from the Sabaean (see below), which appear to have been Thamudic (Lihyānī) Inscriptions. written before our era. Since it is probable that Tlmj, the name of two kings mentioned in them, is Πτολεμαῖος, we are directed to the Hellenistic period, and other circumstances confirm this conjecture. These inscriptions have been called “Thamudic,” because they were found in the country of the Thamud; but this designation is scarcely a suitable one, because during the period when the power of the Thamud was at its height, and when the buildings mentioned in the Koran were hewn in the rocks, the language of this country was Nabataean (see above). A more commendable proposal is to call the inscriptions Lihyānī, since the tribe of Lihyān is sometimes mentioned in them. Unfortunately the inscriptions hitherto discovered are all short and for the most part fragmentary, and consequently furnish but little material to the student of languages. But there can be no doubt that they are written in an Arabic dialect. The treatment of the dentals, among other things, is a sufficient proof of this.

In some districts of the northern Ḥijāz and the neighbouring portion of Nejd, other brief inscriptions, for the most part cursorily scratched upon rocks, have been discovered. These have been—not very happily—named “Proto-Arabic,” while the title Thamudic has been proposed for them also. Their writing is a somewhat later form of the Lihyānī, and the dialect, as well, seems to be very similar to Lihyānī. Unfortunately, the brevity of the inscriptions, which generally contain only proper names, together with the incertitude of the meaning of many, does not allow an accurate insight into their language.

To the first centuries of the Christian era belong the thousands of Arabic inscriptions, found in the wild, rocky districts south-east of Damascus, which are commonly termed Safaitic, after Safa, a locality in their neighbourhood. For the most part, these also are short fugitive pieces scratched on rough stones, though a few of them show more careful execution. Their writing is, again, a later stage of development of the Sabaean. The task of decipherment was at first rendered extremely difficult by the scanty number of exemplars and the lack of perfectly exact facsimiles. To this must be added the fact that the Safaites insert extraordinarily few vowel letters. But the zeal of several scholars and the ever increasing number of good copies have rapidly brought us farther towards the goal; and we now know the language of the Safa inscriptions much better than that of the Lihyānī and “Proto-Arabic,”—to which it stands in a close relationship. Although the inscriptions yield us no information as to unknown events of importance, still they teach us much with regard to the life and occupation of Arabian tribes who seem to have been subsequently displaced by others. The great mass of proper names, alone, is enough to make them of value to the philologist.

The Arabs who inhabited the Nabataean kingdom wrote in Aramaic, but, as has been remarked above, their native language, Arabic, often shows through the foreign disguise. We are thus able to satisfy ourselves that these Arabs, who lived a little before and a little after Christ, spoke a dialect closely resembling the later classical Arabic. The nominative of the so-called “triptote” nouns has, nearly as in classical Arabic, the termination ū or ō; the genitive has ī (the accusative therefore probably ended in ā), but without the addition of n. Generally speaking, those proper names which in classical Arabic are “diptotes” are here devoid of any inflexional termination. The ū of the nominative appears also in Arabic proper names belonging to more northern districts, as, for example, Palmyra and Edessa. All these Arabs were probably of the same race. It is possible that the inscription of Nemāra, south-east of Damascus, Arabic, but in Nabataean letters, dating from A.D. 328, and the two oldest known specimens of distinctively Arabic writing—namely, the Arabic portion of the trilingual inscription of Zabad, south-east of Haleb (Aleppo), written in Syriac, Greek and Arabic, and dating from 512 or 513 A.D., and that of the bilingual inscription of Harrān, south of Damascus, written in Greek and Arabic, of 568—represent nothing but a somewhat more modern form of this dialect. In these inscriptions proper names take in the genitive the termination ū, which shows that the meaning of such inflexions was no longer felt. The three inscriptions have not yet been satisfactorily interpreted in all their details.

During the whole period of the preponderance of Aramaic this language exercised a great influence upon the vocabulary of the Arabs. The more carefully we investigate the more clearly does it appear that numerous Arabic words, used for ideas or objects which presuppose a certain degree of civilization, are borrowed from the Aramaeans. Hence the civilizing influence of their northern neighbours must have been very strongly felt by the Arabs, and contributed in no small measure to prepare them for playing so important a part in the history of the world.

In the 6th century the inhabitants of the greater part of Arabia proper spoke everywhere essentially the same language, which, as Classical Arabic. being by far the most important of all Arabic dialects, is known simply as the Arabic language. Arabic poetry, at that time cultivated throughout the whole of central and northern Arabia as far as the lower Euphrates and even beyond it, employed one language only. The extant Arabic poems belonging to the heathen period were not indeed written down till much later, and meanwhile underwent considerable alterations; but the absolute regularity of the metre and rhyme is a sufficient proof that on the whole these poems all obeyed the same laws of language. It is indeed highly probable that the rhapsodists and the grammarians have effaced many slight dialectical peculiarities; in a great number of passages, for example, the poems may have used, in accordance with the fashion of their respective tribes, some other case than that prescribed by the grammarians, and a thing of this kind may afterwards have been altered, unless it happened to occur in rhyme; but such alterations cannot have extended very far. A dialect that diverged in any great measure from the Arabic of the grammarians could not possibly have been made to fit into the metres. Moreover, the Arabic philologists recognize the existence of various small distinctions between the dialects of individual tribes and of their poets, and the traditions of the more ancient schools of Koran readers exhibit very many dialectical nuances. It might indeed be conjectured that for the majority of the Arabs the language of poetry was an artificial one,—the speech of certain tribes having been adopted by all the rest as a dialectus poētica. And this might be possible in the case of wandering minstrels whose art gained them their livelihood, such as Nābigha and A‘shā. But, when we find that the Bedouin goat-herds, for instance, in the mountainous district near Mecca composed poems in this very same language upon their insignificant feuds and personal quarrels, that in it the proud chiefs of the Taghlibites and the Bekrites addressed defiant verses to the king of Hīra (on the Euphrates), that a Christian inhabitant of Hīra, Adī b. Zaid, used this language in his serious poems,—when we reflect that, as far as the Arabic poetry of the heathen period extends, there is nowhere a trace of any important linguistic difference, it would surely be a paradox to assume that all these Arabs, who for the most part were quite illiterate and yet extremely jealous of the honour of their tribes, could have taken the trouble to clothe their ideas and feelings in a foreign, or even a perfectly artificial, language. The Arabic philologists also invariably regarded the language of the poets as being that of the Arabs in general. Even in the 3rd century after Mahomet the Bedouins of Arabia proper, with the exception of a few outlying districts, were considered as being in possession of this pure Arabic. The most learned grammarians were in the habit of appealing to any uneducated man who happened to have just arrived with his camels from the desert, though he did not know by heart twenty verses of the Koran, and had no conception of theoretical grammar, in order that he might decide whether in Arabic it were allowable or necessary to express oneself in this or that manner. It is evident that these profound scholars knew of only one classical language, which was still spoken by the Bedouins. The tribes which produced the principal poets of the earlier period belonged for the most part to portions of the Ḥijāz, to Najd and its neighbourhood, and to the region which stretches thence towards the Euphrates. A great part of the Ḥijāz, on the other hand, plays a very unimportant part in this poetry, and the Arabs of the north-west, who were under the Roman dominion, have no share whatever in it. The dialects of these latter tribes probably diverged farther from the ordinary language. The fact that they were Christians does not explain this, since the Taghlibites and other tribes who produced eminent poets also professed Christianity. Moreover, poets from the interior were gladly welcomed at the court of the Ghassānian princes, who were Christian vassals of the emperor residing near Damascus; in this district, therefore, their language was at least understood. It may be added that most of the tribes which cultivated poetry appear to have been near neighbours at an epoch not very far removed from that in question, and afterwards to have been scattered in large bands over a much wider extent of country. And nearly all those who were not Christians paid respect to the sanctuary of Mecca. It is a total mistake, but one frequently made by Europeans, to Dialect of the Koraish. designate the Arabic language as “the Koraishite dialect.” This expression never occurs in any Arabic author. True, in a few rare cases we do read of the dialect of the Koraish, by which is meant the peculiar local tinge that distinguished the speech of Mecca; but to describe the Arabic language as “Koraishite” is as absurd as it would be to speak of English as the dialect of London or of Oxford. This unfortunate designation has been made the basis of a theory very often repeated in modern times—namely, that classical Arabic is nothing else but the dialect of Mecca, which the Koran first brought into fashion. So far from this being the case, it is certain that the speech of the towns in the Ḥijāz did not agree in every point with the language of the poets, and, as it happens, the Koran itself contains some remarkable deviations from the rules of the classical language. This would be still more evident if the punctuation, which was introduced at a somewhat later time, did not obscure many details. The traditions which represent the Koraish as speaking the purest of all Arabic dialects are partly the work of the imagination and partly compliments paid to the rulers descended from the Koraish, but are no doubt at variance with the ordinary opinion of the Arabs themselves in earlier days. In the Koran Mahomet has imitated the poets, though, generally speaking, with little success; the poets, on the other hand, never imitated him. Thus the Koran and its language exercised but very little influence upon the poetry of the following century and upon that of later times, whereas this poetry closely and slavishly copied the productions of the old heathen period. The fact that the poetical literature of the early Moslems has been preserved in a much more authentic form than the works of the heathen poets proves that our idea of the language of its pattern, the ancient poetry, is on the whole just.

The Koran and Islam raised Arabic to the position of one of the principal languages of the world. Under the leadership of the Changes in classical Arabic. Koraish the Bedouins subjected half the world to both in their dominion and their faith. Thus Arabic acquired the additional character of a sacred language. But soon it became evident that not nearly all the Arabs spoke a language precisely identical with the classical Arabic of the poets. The north-western Arabs played a particularly important part during the period of the Omayyads. The ordinary speech of Mecca and Medina was, as we have seen, no longer quite so primitive as that of the desert. To this may be added that the military expeditions brought those Arabs who spoke the classical language into Contact with tribes from out-of-the-way districts, such as ‘Omān, Baḥrain (Bahrein), and particularly the north of Yemen. The fact that numbers of foreigners, on passing over to Islam, became rapidly Arabized was also little calculated to preserve the unity of the language. Finally, the violent internal and external commotions which were produced by the great events of that time, and stirred the whole nation, probably accelerated linguistic change. In any case, we know from good tradition that even in the 1st century of the Flight the distinction between correct and incorrect speech was in places quite perceptible. About the end of the 2nd century the system of Arabic grammar was constructed, and never underwent any essential modification in later times. The theory as to how one should express oneself was now definitely fixed. The majority of those Arabs who lived beyond the limits of Arabia already diverged far from this standard; and in particular the final vowels which serve to indicate cases and moods were no longer pronounced. This change, by which Arabic lost one of its principal advantages, was no doubt hastened by the fact that even in the classical style such terminations were omitted whenever the word stood at the end of a sentence (in pause); and in the living language of the Arabs this dividing of sentences is very frequent. Hence people were already quite accustomed to forms without grammatical terminations. But in the language of certain Bedouin tribes remnants of those terminations have been preserved down to our time.

Through the industry of Arabic philologists we are able to make ourselves intimately acquainted with the system, and still more with Vocabulary. the vocabulary of the language. Although they have not always performed their task in a critical manner, we are obliged to thank them sincerely. We should be all the more disposed to admire the richness of the ancient Arabic vocabulary when we remember how simple are the conditions of life amongst the Arabs, how painfully monotonous their country, and consequently how limited the range of their ideas must be. Within this range, however, the slightest modification is expressed by a particular word. It must be confessed that the Arabic lexicon has been greatly augmented by the habit of citing as words by themselves such rhetorical phrases as an individual poet has used to describe an object; for example, if one poet calls the lion the “tearer” and another calls him the “mangler,” each of these terms is explained by the lexicographers as equivalent to “lion.” One branch of literature in particular, namely, lampoons and satirical poems, which for the most part have perished, no doubt introduced into the lexicon many expressions coined in an arbitrary and sometime in a very strange manner. Moreover, Arabic philologists seem to have underrated the number of words which, though they occur now and then in poems, were never in general use except among particular tribes. But in spite of these qualifications it must be admitted that the vocabulary is surprisingly rich, and the Arabic dictionary will always remain the principal resource for the elucidation of obscure expressions in all the other Semitic tongues. This method, if pursued with the necessary caution, is a perfectly legitimate one.

Poems seldom enable us to form a clear idea of the language of ordinary life, and Arabic poetry happens to have been distinguished from the very beginning by a certain tendency to artificiality and mannerism. Still less does the Koran exhibit the language in its spoken form. This office is more performed by the prose of the ancient normative traditions (Ḥadīth). And the genuine accounts of the deeds of the Prophet and of his companions, and especially the stories concerning the battles and adventures of the Bedouins in the heathen period and in the earlier days of Islam, are excellent models of a prose style, although in some cases their redaction dates from a later time.

Classical Arabic is rich not only in words but in grammatical forms. The wanton development of the broken plurals, and sometimes of Grammatical forms and rules. the verbal nouns, must be regarded as an excess of wealth. The sparing use of the ancient terminations which mark the plural has somewhat obscured the distinction between plurals, collectives, abstract nouns, and feminines in general. In its manner of employing the verbal tenses genuine Arabic still exhibits traces of that poetical freedom which we see in Hebrew; this characteristic disappears in the later literary language. In connecting sentences Arabic can go much further than Hebrew, but the simple parataxis is by far the most usual construction. Arabic has, however, this great advantage, that it scarcely ever leaves us in doubt as to where the apodosis begins. The attempts to define the tenses more clearly by the addition of adverbs and auxiliary verbs lead to no very positive result (as is the case in other Semitic languages also), since they are not carried out in a systematic manner. The arrangement of words in a sentence is governed by very strict rules. As the subject and object, at least in ordinary cases, occupy fixed positions, and as the genitive is invariably placed after the noun that governs it, the use of case-endings loses much of its significance.

This language of the Bedouins had now, as we have seen, become that of religion, courts and polished society. In the streets of the Arabic of educated society. towns the language already diverged considerably from this, but the upper classes took pains to speak “Arabic.” The poets and the beaux esprits never ventured to employ any but the classical language, and the “Atticists,” with pedantic seriousness, convicted the most celebrated among the later poets (for instance, Motanabbí) of occasional deviations from the standard of correct speech. At the same time, however, classical Arabic was the language of business and of science, and at the present day still holds this position. There are, of course, many gradations between the pedantry of purists and the use of what is simply a vulgar dialect. Sensible writers employ a kind of κοινή, which does not aim at being strictly correct and calls modern things by modern names, but which, nevertheless, avoids coarse vulgarisms, aiming principally at making itself intelligible to all educated men. The reader may pronounce or omit the ancient terminations as he chooses. This language lived on, in a sense, through the whole of the middle ages, owing chiefly to the fact that it was intended for educated persons in general and not only for the learned, whereas the poetical schools strove to preserve exactly the grammar and the lexicon of the long extinct language of the Bedouins. As might be expected, this κοινή, like the κοινή of the Greeks, has a comparatively limited vocabulary, since its principle is to retain only those expressions from the ancient language which were generally understood, and it does not borrow much new material from the vulgar dialects.

It is entirely a mistake to suppose that Arabic is unsuited for the treatment of abstract subjects. On the contrary, scarcely any language is so well adapted to be the organ of scholasticism in all its branches. Even the tongue of the ancient Bedouins had a strong preference for the use of abstract verbal nouns (in striking contrast to the Latin, for example); thus they oftener said “Needful is thy sitting” than “It is needful that thou shouldest sit.” This tendency was very advantageous to philosophical phraseology. The strict rules as to the order of words, though very unfavourable to the development of a truly eloquent style, render it all the easier to express ideas in a rigidly scientific form.

In the meantime Arabic, like every other widely spread language, necessarily began to undergo modification and to split up into Minor Arabic dialects. dialects. The Arabic scholars are mistaken in attributing this development to the influence of those foreign languages with which Arabic came into contact. Such influences can have had but little to do with the matter; for were it otherwise the language of the interior of Arabia must have remained unchanged, yet even in this region the inhabitants are very far from speaking as they did a thousand years back. A person who in Arabia or elsewhere should trust to his knowledge of classical Arabic only would resemble those travellers from the north who endeavour to make themselves understood by Italian waiters through the medium of a kind of Latin. The written language has, it is true, greatly retarded the development of the dialects. Every good Moslem repeats at least a few short sūras several times a day in his prayers. Nor is this all: the sacred book meets him everywhere. Now the majority of Arabian Moslems understand something at least of the passages they recite or hear; so that the Koran was bound to exercise, on the language of the widest circles, an influence such as has been exercised by no other book in the world. The idiom of the church, of learning and of diplomacy was brought—partially at least—nearer to the average man, with the result that many of its words and locutions passed, with more or less correctitude, into the language of common life, or that its mode of expression was taken as a model, precisely as Latin, the language of the church, science and the state, exerted a powerful influence on the living Romance tongues, even before the Renaissance. Yet, in spite of this, the Arabic dialects have developed on their own lines and have diverged widely from each other. Our knowledge of them has made rapid progress in late years, and we have now good grammars of several dialects. We are best acquainted with the present speech of Egypt, and we are well posted in the dialects of the Maghrib—the African coastal lands from Tripoli to Morocco. To the Maghrib group of dialects belonged that once spoken in Sicily, of which we know little in especial, together with the Spanish Arabic of former times, which is better known to us through several literary monuments and the Grammar and Lexicon of Pedro de Alcala (1505). The shibboleth of these Western dialects is that, in the imperfect, they pronounce the 1st person plural with the ending u (as the 2nd and 3rd), and give to the 1st person singular the prefix n (as in the plural form). Maltese, also, is of the Maghrib family. This Arabic dialect, the only one spoken exclusively by Christians, is of peculiar interest to the philologist, owing to the fact that for some 900 years it has been completely withdrawn from the action of literary Arabic. On the other hand, it has been exposed to the influence of Italian. Nevertheless, it has developed in a very similar manner to the dialects of the neighbouring African coast: still it possesses many features which are peculiar to itself. Of the dialects of Syria, inner and southern Arabia, and other oriental countries, we also know more than was the case a short while ago; but the gaps in our knowledge are still too great to allow us to classify them in fixed groups. For the most part the Bedouin language is somewhat strongly distinguished from that of the sedentary tribes; but we should hardly be justified in believing that the Bedouin dialects form a contrasting unity as against the other idioms.

There can be no doubt that the development of these dialects is in part the result of older dialectical variations which were already in existence in the time of the Prophet. The histories of dialects which differ completely from one another often pursue an analogous course. In general, the Arabic dialects still resemble one another more than we might expect when we take into consideration the immense extent of country over which they are spoken and the very considerable geographical obstacles that stand in the way of communication. But we must not suppose that people, for instance, from Mosul, Morocco, Ṣan‘ā, and the interior of Arabia would be able to understand one another without difficulty. It is a total error to regard the difference between the Arabic dialects and the ancient language as a trifling one, or to represent the development of these dialects as something wholly unlike the development of the Romance languages. No living Arabic dialect diverges from classical Arabic so much as French or Rouman from Latin; but, on the other hand, no Arabic dialect resembles the classical language so closely as the Lugodoric dialect, which is still spoken in Sardinia, resembles its parent speech, and yet the lapse of time is very much greater in the case of the latter. Side by side with the poetry of the old literary language there arose, in quite early days, another school of poetry which availed itself of the younger, living dialects. So, even in the 12th century, dialectic poetry was flourishing in Spain; and down to the present day, in the most diverse quarters of the vast linguistic domain of Arabic, songs have been composed in the various dialects. But this poetry, probably with the sole exception of Maltese, stands in some connexion or other with the antique, and is subject, more or less, to the influence of the classical language. And this is still more the case in other departments of literature. Märchen, and other tales, written by the uneducated, merely show a dialectic colouring, frequently combined with a catachrestic use of the grammatical forms of classical Arabic, not the genuine aspect of the dialect itself. These features are particularly evident in works by Jews and Christians. Purely “vulgar” texts, of any magnitude, would be hard to discover. The isolated Maltese alone has succeeded in producing a new written language distinct from the classical tongue; and in this a fair amount of material has already been printed in Latin characters. In recent years, however, earnest attempts have been made to elevate the Egyptian dialect to the rank of a literary language: whether these attempts will be crowned with permanent success is a question to be resolved by time. In any case, the ancient written language, though with all kinds of modifications, will long continue to exist. The very fact that it does not express the vocalization with exactitude is an advantage; for thus the Arabs, from the Persian Gulf to the Atlantic, can recognize the same word, although they may pronounce it with different vowels.


Long before Mahomet, a peculiar and highly developed form of civilization had flourished in the table-land to the south-west of Sabaean inscriptions. Arabia. The more we become acquainted with the country of the ancient Sabaeans and with its colossal edifices, and the better we are able to decipher its inscriptions, which are being discovered in ever-increasing numbers, the easier it is for us to account for the haze of mythical glory wherewith the Sabaeans were once invested. The Sabaean inscriptions (which till lately were more often called by the less correct name of “Himyaritic”) begin long before our era and continue till the 6th century. The somewhat stiff character is always very distinct; and the habit of regularly dividing the words from one another renders decipherment easier, which, however, has not yet been performed in a very satisfactory manner, owing in part to the fact that the vast majority of the documents in question consist of religious votive tablets with peculiar sacerdotal expressions, or of architectural notices abounding in technical terms. These inscriptions fall into two classes, distinguished partly by grammatical peculiarities and partly by peculiarities of phraseology. One dialect, which forms the causative with ha, like Hebrew and others, and employs, like nearly all the Semitic languages, the termination h () as the suffix of the third person singular, is the Sabaean properly speaking. The other, which expresses the causative by sa (corresponding to the Shaphel of the Aramaeans and others), and for the suffix uses s (like the Assyrian sh), is the Minaic. To this latter branch belong the numerous South Arabic inscriptions recently found in the north of the Ḥijāz, near Ḥejr, where the Minaeans must have had a commercial settlement. On the other hand, the very old inscriptions, emanating from a colony at Jeha in Abyssinia, are Sabaean. The difference between the two classes of inscriptions is no doubt ultimately based upon a real divergence of dialect. But the singular manner in which districts containing Sabaean inscriptions and those containing Minaic alternate with one another seems to point in part to a mere hieratic practice of clinging to ancient modes of expression. Indeed it is very probably due to conscious literary conservatism that the language of the inscriptions remains almost entirely unchanged through many centuries. A few inscriptions from districts rather more to the east exhibit certain linguistic peculiarities, which, however, may perhaps be explained by the supposition that the writers did not, as a rule, speak this dialect, and therefore were but imperfectly acquainted with it.

A great hindrance to the completion of our knowledge of the Sabaean language lies in the paucity of vowel-letters in the Grammatical forms. inscriptions. The unvarying style of the inscriptions excludes further a great number of the commonest grammatical forms. Not a single occurrence of the first or second person has yet been detected, with the possible exception of one proper name, in which “our god” apparently occurs. But the knowledge which we already possess amply suffices to prove that Sabaean is closely related to Arabic as we are acquainted with it. The former language possesses the same phonetic elements as the latter. It possesses the broken plural, a dual form resembling that used in Arabic, &c. It is especially important to notice that Sabaean expresses the idea of indefiniteness by means of an appended m, just as Arabic expresses it by means of an n, which in all probability is a modification of the former sound. But we may maintain that, in the later centuries, the m had fallen away in the pronunciation, either completely or in the majority of cases. Both in this point and in some others Sabaean appears more primitive than Arabic, as might be expected from the earlier date of its monuments. The article is formed by appending an n. In its vocabulary also Sabaean bears a great resemblance to Arabic, although, on the other hand, it often approaches more nearly to the northern Semitic languages in this respect; and it possesses much that is peculiar to itself.

Soon after the Christian era Sabaean civilization began to decline, and completely perished in the wars with the Abyssinians, who several times occupied the country, and in the 6th century remained in possession of it for a considerable period. In that age the language of central Arabia was already penetrating into the Sabaean domain. It is further possible that many tribes which dwelt not far to the north of the civilized districts had always spoken dialects resembling central Arabic rather than Sabaean. About the year 600 “Arabic” was the language of all Yemen, with the exception perhaps of a few isolated districts, and this process of assimilation continued in later times. True, a few echoes of Sabaean have survived in certain grammatical forms and the vocabulary of present-day dialects in those districts; but these dialects are, on the whole, thoroughly “Arabic.” Several centuries after Mahomet, learned Yemenites were acquainted with the characters of the inscriptions which abounded in their country; they were also able to decipher the proper names and a small number of Sabaean words the meaning of which was still known to them, but they could no longer understand the inscriptions as a whole. Being zealous local patriots, they discovered in those inscriptions which they imagined themselves to be capable of deciphering many fabulous stories respecting the glory of the ancient Yemenites.

Mahrī and Socotrī.

Farther to the east, in the sea-coast districts of Shihr and Mahra, up to the borders of the barren desert of the interior, and also in the island of Socotra, dialects very unlike Arabic are still spoken. Allusions to this fact are found in Arabic writers of the 10th century. Mahrī, from which Shkhaurī forms a distinct dialect, and Socotrī are probably scions of dialects which were related to Sabaean and Minaean; but they have developed on altogether independent lines, and we can scarcely hope that they will render us any great assistance in the interpretation of the inscriptions. They certainly show the southern Semitic type in a most pronounced manner. The strange form of the words is produced, inter alia, by all manner of vowel lengthening and violent mutations of consonants (e.g. in Socotrī s frequently becomes h, a phonetic change otherwise unknown in Semitic philology). Exact investigation will undoubtedly still discover an old acquaintance in many a strange-seeming word. Here and there, however, in Mahrī we discover words which at the first glance we recognize as common in Hebrew or Aramaic, while Arabic knows them either not at all or only in derivative significations. Still, a very large part—perhaps the preponderating part—of the Mahrī vocabulary is formed by words which have been borrowed from the Arabic at different periods. Many of them have subsequently undergone drastic phonetic alterations, so that at first they might be taken for genuine Mahrī. In Socotrī, which has been more protected by its insular position, the borrowed Arabic words are rarer, but even here they are not lacking. These languages, however, especially Socotrī, still contain a number of words, with regard to which we may well doubt whether they are Semitic at all. The conjecture that Hamites also were once settled in those districts and have left traces of themselves in the language, appears to be favoured by the bodily characteristics of the inhabitants.[27]


In Abyssinia, too, and in the neighbouring countries we find languages which bear a certain resemblance to Arabic. The Geez, or Geez, or Ethiopic proper. Ethiopic[28] proper, the language of the ancient kingdom of Axūm, was reduced to writing at an early date. At first Sabaean letters were employed. But even the monument of King Aeizanas (c. A.D. 350), as is now well established, bears, in addition to the Greek inscription, one in Ethiopian. This, however, is both in Sabaean and in Geez characters, i.e. in a systematic transformation of the Sabaean. Here the Geez is still unvocalized; and some few inscriptions besides, without vowel signs, have been discovered. But two great inscriptions of the same king of Axūm—so it appears to be after the newest researches—already have the full vocalization which obtains in the Ethiopian Bible and the remaining literature: the language, too, is identically the same. The indication of the vowels gives Ethiopic an advantage over all other Semitic scripts. By whom it was introduced is unknown. Not long after the time of the inscriptions the Bible was translated into Geez from the Greek, in part by Jews; for Jews and Christians were at that time actively competing with one another, both in Arabia and in Abyssinia; nor were the former unsuccessful in making proselytes. The missionaries who gave the Bible to the Abyssinians must, at least in some cases, have spoken Aramaic as their mother-tongue, for this alone can explain the fact that in the Ethiopic Bible certain religious conceptions are expressed by Aramaic words. During the following centuries various works were produced by the Abyssinians in this language; they were all, so far as we are able to judge, of a more or less theological character, almost invariably translations from the Greek. We cannot say with certainty when Geez ceased to be the language of the people, but it was probably about a thousand years ago. From the time when the Abyssinian kingdom was reconstituted, towards the end of the 13th century, by the so-called Solomonian dynasty (which was of southern origin), the language of the court and of the government was Amharic; but Geez remained the ecclesiastical and literary language, and Geez literature even showed a certain activity in numerous translations from those Arabic and Coptic works which were in use amongst the Christians of Egypt; besides these, original writings were composed by monks and priests, namely, lives of saints, hymns, &c. This literary condition lasted till modern times. The language, which had long become extinct, was by no means invariably written in a pure form: we may often observe, inter alia, a servile imitation of Arabic modes of expression. Even in manuscripts of more ancient works we find many linguistic corruptions, which have crept in partly through mere carelessness and ignorance, partly through the influence of the later dialects. On points of detail we are still sometimes left in doubt, as we possess no manuscripts belonging to the older period.

Geez is more nearly related to Sabaean than to Arabic, though scarcely to such a degree as we might expect. The historical intercourse Characteristics of Geez. between the Sabaeans and the people of Axūm does not, however, prove that those who spoke Geez were simply a colony from Sabaea; the language may be descended from an extinct cognate dialect of south Arabia, or may have arisen from a mingling of several such dialects. And this colonization in Africa probably began much sooner than is usually supposed. In certain respects Geez represents a more modern stage of development than Arabic; we may cite as instances the loss of some inflexional terminations and of the ancient passive, the change of the aspirated dentals into sibilants, &c. In the manuscripts, especially those of later date, many letters are confounded, namely, h, , and kh, s and sh, and ; this, however, is no doubt due only to the influence of the modern dialects. To this same influence, and indirectly perhaps to that of the Hamitic languages, we may ascribe the very hard sound now given to certain letters, q, , , and , in the reading of Geez. The last two are at present pronounced something like ṭs and ts (the German z). A peculiar advantage possessed by Geez and by all Ethiopic languages is the sharp distinction between the imperfect and the subjunctive: in the former a vowel is inserted after the first radical, a formation which exists also in Mahrī and Socotrī, and—though in another signification—in Assyrian as well. Geez has no definite article, but is very rich in particles. In the ease with which it joins sentences together and in its freedom as to the order of words it resembles Aramaic. The vocabulary is but imperfectly known, as the theological literature, which is for the most part very arid, supplies us with comparatively few expressions that do not occur in the Bible, whereas the more modern works borrow their phraseology in part from the spoken dialects, particularly Amharic. With regard to the vocabulary, Geez has much in common with the other Semitic tongues, but at the same time possesses many words peculiar to itself; of these a considerable proportion may be of Hamitic origin. However, the grammar shows, at most, some slight and dubious traces of Hamitic influence. Geez seems to have been originally the language of a tribe almost exempt from non-Semitic blood. But we must not suppose that all the inhabitants of the ancient kingdom of Axum were pure Semites. The immigration of the Sernites from Arabia was, in all probability, a slow process, beginning at a very ancient period, and under such circumstances there is every reason to assume that they largely intermingled with the aborigines. This opinion seems to be confirmed by anthropological facts.

Tigrē and Tigriña.

Not only in what is properly the territory of Axūm (namely, Tigrē, north-eastern Abyssinia), but also in the countries bordering upon it to the north, including the islands of Dahlak, dialects are still spoken which are but more modern forms of the linguistic type clearly exhibited in Geez, viz. that spoken in Tigrē proper and that of the neighbouring countries. In reality, the name of Tigrē belongs to both, and it would be desirable to distinguish them from one another as Northern and Southern Tigrē. But it is the custom to call the northern dialect Tigrē simply, whilst that spoken in Tigrē itself bears the name of Tigrai or, with an Amharic termination, Tigriña. Tigrē bears a somewhat closer resemblance to Geez than does Tigriña, although this latter is spoken in the very home of Geez, for Tigriña has during several centuries been very strongly influenced by Amharic, which has not been the case with Tigrē, which is spoken mostly by nomads. But Tigrē, on the other hand, seems to have been greatly influenced by Hamitic dialects. In late years careful observations on both languages have been made by scholars in loco, and we already have a number of printed texts, comprising partly original works, partly translations of Biblical books and so forth. But in this domain our knowledge still stands in great need of being perfected.


Although Tigrē and Tigriña are not free from foreign influences, yet at the core they are purely Semitic. This is not fundamentally the case with Amharic, a language of which the domain extends from the left bank of the Takkazē into regions far to the south. Although by no means the only language spoken in these countries, it always tends to displace those foreign tongues which surround it and with which it is interspersed. We here refer especially to the Agaw dialects. Although Amharic has been driven back by the invasions of the Galla tribes, it has already compensated itself to some extent for this loss, as the Yedju and Wollo Gallas, who penetrated into eastern Abyssinia, have adopted it as their language. With the exception, of course, of Arabic, no Semitic tongue is spoken by so large a number of human beings as Amharic. The very fact that the Agaw languages are being gradually, and, as it were, before our own eyes, absorbed by Amharic makes it appear probable that this language must be spoken chiefly by people who are not of Semitic race.[29] This supposition is confirmed by a study of the language itself. Amharic has diverged from the ancient-Semitic type to a far greater extent than any of the dialects which we have hitherto enumerated. Many of the old formations preserved in Geez are completely modified in Amharic. Of the feminine forms there remain but a few traces; and that is the case also with the ancient plural of the noun. The strangest innovations occur in the personal pronouns. And certainly not more than half the vocabulary can without improbability be made to correspond with that of the other Semitic languages. In this, as also in the grammar, we must leave out of account all that is borrowed from Geez, which, as being the ecclesiastical tongue, exercises a great influence everywhere in Abyssinia. On the other hand, we must make allowance for the fact that in this language the very considerable phonetic modifications often produce a total change of form, so that many words which at first have a thoroughly foreign appearance prove on further examination to be but the regular development of words with which we are already acquainted. But the most striking deviations occur in the syntax. Things which we are accustomed to regard as usual or even universal in the Semitic languages, such as the placing of the verb before the subject, of the governing noun before the genitive, and of the attributive relative clause after its substantive, are here totally reversed. Words which are marked as genitives by the prefixing of the relative particle, and even whole relative clauses, are treated as one word, and are capable of having the objective suffix added to them. It is scarcely going too far to say that a person who has learnt no Semitic language would have less difficulty in mastering the Amharic construction than one to whom the Semitic syntax is familiar. What here appears contrary to Semitic analogy is sometimes the rule in Agaw. Hence it is probable that in this case tribes originally Hamitic retained their former modes of thought and expression after they had adopted a Semitic speech, and that they modified their new language accordingly. And it is not certain that the partial Semitization of the southern districts of Abyssinia (which had scarcely any connexion with the civilization of Axum during its best period) was entirely or even principally due to influences from the north.

In spite of its dominant position, Amharic did not for several centuries show any signs of becoming a literary language. The oldest documents which we possess are a few songs of the 15th and 16th centuries, which were not, however, written down till a later time, and are very difficult to interpret. There are also a few Geez-Amharic glossaries, which may be tolerably old. Since the 17th century various attempts have been made, sometimes by European missionaries, to write in Amharic, and in modern times this language has to a considerable extent been employed for literary purposes; nor is this to be ascribed exclusively to foreign influence. A literary language, fixed in a sufficient measure, has thus been formed. Books belonging to a somewhat earlier period contain tolerably clear proofs of dialectical differences. Scattered notices by travellers seem to indicate that in some districts the language diverges in a very much greater degree from the recognized type.

The Abyssinian chronicles have for centuries been written in Geez, largely intermingled with Amharic elements. This “language of the chronicles,” in itself a dreary chaos, often enables us to discover what were the older forms of Amharic words. A similar mixture of Geez and Amharic is exemplified in various other books, especially such as refer to the affairs of the government and of the court.

Hararī and Gurāguē.

The town of Harar, situated at some distance east of Shoa, forms a Semitic island; for its language is extremely similar to Amharic. In comparison with this, it exhibits sometimes later, sometimes older formations. A few centuries ago, Hararī was perhaps a dialect only slightly divergent from Amharic. To-day, Amharians and the inhabitants of Harar can no longer understand each other, especially as the latter have drawn largely on the languages of the surrounding Hamites (Galla, Somāl, and probably also Danākil), and on Arabic, which exercises a strong influence upon them as Moslems. We may fairly regard them as an old colony of Abyssinians. As the case is with Hararī, so it is probably with the dialects of Gurāguē (south of Shoa). These dialects, which are markedly divergent from one another and have assumed a highly peculiar form, placed as they are in the midst of entirely alien idioms, yet give unmistakable signs of an origin either from Amharic or a dialect extremely close to Amharic. It is certainly a matter for desire that we should soon receive some really comprehensive and at the same time trustworthy account of Hararī and the language of Gurāguē. We repeat that the immigration of the Semites into these parts of Africa was probably no one single act, that it may have taken place at different times, that the immigrants perhaps belonged to different tribes and to different districts of Arabia, and that very heterogeneous peoples and languages appear to have been variously mingled together in these regions.

(Th. N.)

  1. In Eichhorn's Repertorium, viii. 161 (1781). Universally accepted from Eichhorn's Einleitung in das Alte Testament, 2nd ed., i. 15 (Leipzig, 1787).
  2. The more alike two languages are the more difficult it usually is to detect, as borrowed elements, those words which have passed from one language into the other.
  3. This theory is carried to its extreme limit in Olshausen's very valuable Hebrew Grammar (Brunswick, 1861).
  4. By this we do not wish to call in question the merits of the following works: William Wright, Lectures on the Comparative Grammar of the Semitic Languages (Cambridge, 1890, a posthumous work); O. E. Lindberg, Vergleichende Grammatik d. semitischen Sprachen (pt. 1, Göteborg, 1897); Heinr. Zimmern, Vergl. Gramm. d. semit. Sprachen (Berlin, 1898); C. Brockelmann, Semitische Sprachwissenschaft (Leipzig, 1906) and Grundriss der vergl. Gramm. d. semit. Sprachen, vol. i. (Berlin, 1908).
  5. Cf. Th. Nöldeke, Some Characteristics of the Semitic Races, in Sketches from Eastern History (London and Edinburgh, 1892), 1 ff.
  6. The following is an instance of the manner in which we may be deceived by isolated cases. “Six” is in Hebrew shēsh, almost exactly like the Sanskrit and modern Persian shash, the Latin sex, &c. But the Indo-European root is sweks, or perhaps even ksweks, whereas the Semitic root is shidth, so that the resemblance is a purely accidental one, produced by phonetic change.
  7. This of course applies yet more strongly to Benfey's work, Über das Verhältnis der ägyptischen Sprache zum semitischen Sprachstamm (Leipzig, 1844); but his book has the permanent merit of having for the first time examined the relationship in a scientific manner. The investigation of the relationship between Egyptian and Semitic has been greatly advanced by the distinguished Egyptologist Ad. Erman: cf. especially his treatise, “Die Flexion des ägyptischen Verbums,” in the Sitzungsberichte der Berliner Akademie der Wissenschaften (1900), xix., especially p. 34 sq. See also Hamitic Languages.
  8. Cf. G. Gerland, Atlas der Ethnographie (Leipzig, 1876), p. 40 of the text.
  9. “Della sede primitive dei popoli semitici,” in the Proceedings of the Accademia dei Lincei (1878-1879).
  10. Viz. the great inscription of Byblus, C.I.S., fasc. i. No. 1.
  11. Shalhebeth, “flame,” is borrowed from Aramaic.
  12. Arabic seems to have transplanted the termination from the verb to the noun, or to have at least modified the substantial termination in accordance with the verbal.
  13. In words borrowed from the literary language, s, z, habitually appear in place of th, dh.
  14. It is not quite certain whether all the Semitic languages originally had the hardest of the gutturals gh and kh in exactly the same places that they occupy in Arabic. In the case of kh we may assume so; since not only Arabic here agrees with Ethiopic, but Assyrian, also, has a particular guttural in roots which in Arabic have kh. But it would appear that in Hebrew and Aramaic the distinction between gh and ‘ayin, between kh and was often different from what it is in Arabic.
  15. So the Assyrian mashkēnū was adopted into Hebrew and Aramaic as miskēn; from the Aramaic it was borrowed by Arabic and Ethiopic (miskēn), and from Arabic it found its way into the Romance languages (mesquinho, mezquino, meschind, mesquin).
  16. For example, we may conclude with tolerable certainty, from the presence and absence of the vowel-letters y and w, that in older times the accented e and o were not pronounced long, and that, on the other hand, the diphthongs au and ai were used for the later ó an é.
  17. The very first word of the Bible contains an Aleph (spiritus lenis), which is required by etymology and was once audible, but which the pronunciation represented by the point-system ignores.
  18. It is a characteristic feature that “my father” and “my mother” are here expressed by purely Aramaic forms. Even the learned did not wish to call their “papas” and “mammas” by any other names than those to which they had been accustomed in infancy.
  19. The Siloam inscription affords us one new word, the original of Sirach some others. In the Gezer inscription there seem to be some new words of dubious interpretation.
  20. The scattered materials are being collected in the Corpus inscriptionum Semiticarum of the Paris Academy.
  21. See Gildemeister, in Ritschl's Plautus (vol. ii. fasc. v., Leipzig, 1884.
  22. At an early period the Phoenician pronunciation may have distinguished a greater number of original consonants than are distinguished in writing. It is at least remarkable that the Greeks render the name of the city of Ṣur (Hebrew Ṣōr), which must originally have been pronounced Ṭhurr, with a τ (Τύρος), and the name of Ṣidōn (where the radical runs through all the Semitic languages, with a σ (Σιδόν). Distinctions of this kind, justified by etymology, have perhaps been obscured in Hebrew by the imperfection of the alphabet. In the case of sīn and shīn this can be positively proved.
  23. Kān nadar, “had vowed,” Idal. 5 (C.I.S. Phoen. No. 93).
  24. The consonants of his name are ZKR; the pronunciation, perhaps, was Zakkūr.
  25. The decree which is said to have been sent by Ezra (vii. 12 sqq.) is in its present form a comparatively late production.
  26. Even to the Cosmas Indicopleustes (first half of the 6th century) the Sinaitic inscriptions, the latest of which were then no more than 200-300 years old, were described as memorials of the Israelite exodus under Moses. And similar views have been propounded down to a short while ago!
  27. What certain knowledge we possess of Mahrī and Socotrī is almost wholly based on the researches of Vienna scholars. We hope to receive from them still more light on these strange tongues.
  28. This name is due to the fact that the Abyssinians, under the influence of false erudition, applied the name Αἰθιοπία to their own kingdom.
  29. Only an advanced guard of the Agaw languages, the Bīlīn or dialect of the Bogos, is being similarly absorbed by the Tigrē.