The Semitic languages are a branch of the Afro-Asiatic language family. The main and most well known Semitic languages are Hebrew, Aramaic (Syriac), Arabic, and Amharic. But modern versions of dialects of some of these languages show intermingling with and influence by some Indo-European languages.
Semitic languages are "root" languages - with basic meanings of words derived from the consonants. This is different than English and other Indo-European languages where the vowels have equal weight as the consonants. Thus, in Hebrew, the consonants KTB (or V) have something to do with "writing". From this basic root, there is derived KoTeV=writing or author, KaTTav= reporter, KaTuV=written, K'TuVim= Scriptures, KaTaVti= I wrote, eK(kh)ToV=I will write, K'ToVet=inscription or address, and so on. This "root" aspect of Hebrew is common to all Semitic languages. Thus, in Arabic, KTB appears in KaTaBa= "he wrote", maKTuB= "letter", KaaTiB= author, KuTiBat=it (fem.) was written, etc. In Aramaic, KTB appears in KeTaV= "he wrote", KaTVat= "she wrote", KeTuBa= "marriage contract", KeTiVat= was written (feminine), KaaTiV= writing. (In Aramaic the definite article for "the" is A (Aleph) added at the end of a noun rather than at the front. Thus the Hebrew "HaMeLeKH"= the King, becomes in Aramaic MaLKA)
The following examples of Semitic language structure use Hebrew, in the main, as examples to differentiate from IndoEuropean language, but other Semitic languages follow the same pattern.
Noun, Adjective and Verb in singular
1. Hebrew expresses the basic meaning of the word in consonants (capital letters in this article). Y,L,D are the 3 consonants for "child", "boy". YeLeD is a boy. The feminine is formed usually by adding an "ah" sound (some of the inner vowels may change). YaLDah is a girl.
2. Verbs follow the same pattern: QaM means "gets up", "arises" for masculine; QaMah is for feminine.
Ha means "the", and it is attached to the word.
HaYeLeD QaM means "The boy gets up". HaYaLDah QaMah means "The girl gets up".
3. There is no word in Hebrew for "is" and "are" in the present tense. Therefore, HaYeled Qam also means "The boy is getting up"; HaYaLDah QaMah also means "The girl is getting up".
Tov means "good". HaYeLeD Tov means "The boy is good", HaYaLDah ToVah means "The girl is good".
Noun, Adjective and Verb in plural
1. Masculine nouns, adjectives and verbs usually are made plural by adding the sound "im" (the i sounds "ee") to the end for masculine, and the sound "ot" to the end for feminine (some of the inner vowels may change). In Aramaic, plural of masculine nouns is "in" and of feminine nouns is "at" or "an"/.
Hebrew: HaYeLaDim ToVim means "The boys are good". HaYelaDot ToVot means " The girls are good".
1. The adjective goes after the noun in Hebrew instead of before the noun as in English. (You must put the Ha in front of the adjective, as well as in front of the noun).
Example: GaDoL means "big". If you want to say "The big boy is good", you must say: HaYeLeD HaGadol Tov. (It is like you are saying: The boy, the big one, is good.) The big girl is good, Ha YaLDah HaGeDoLah ToVah. The big boys are good, Ha Yeladim HaGeDoLim ToVim. The big girls are good, Ha YeLaDot HaGeDoLot ToVot.
That Semitic language places the adjective after the noun ("The grass, the tall, the green ones") it modifies or describes, rather than as in Emglish placing the adjective before the noun ("The tall, green grass") suggests to some a difference of mental approach between English and Semitic language speakers. The Semitic wants to know first of all what or who, and then what about. Whereas the English speaker first approaches through qualities and aspects and then grasps the what or whom. But this understanding is conjecture. Greek, the prime example of Indo-European, is comfortable both ways - o anthropos o agathos = the good man and o agathos anthropos = the good man.
The word "in", and "in" with the word "the"
1. The consonant B means "in" (It has only the slightest vowel sound). It is attached to the next word. Hebrew has no way of saying the word "a". You just leave it out.
Example: House is BaYiT. The big girl is in a house, HaYaLDah HaGeDoLah BBaYiT.
2. When you want to say "in the" it should be BeHa. But this is shortened and becomes Ba.
The big girl is in the house, HaYaLDah HaGeDoLah BaBaYiT. The good children are in the house, Ha YeLaDim HaToVim BaBaYit.
The Hebrew Script
The present day Hebrew alphabet is based on the old Aramaic alphabet, which in turn was based on the Phoenician alphabet. The term "alphabet" is something of a misnomer here, though, as Hebrew script is not in fact an alphabet, but an abjad; that is, a script with only consonants. Diacritics in the form of dots, called "niqqud" (נִקּוּד), are used to indicate vowels. However, the Hebrew script is not a pure abjad, either, and the characters alef, he, vav, and yod are sometimes (in the case of vav and yod, frequently) used to represent vowels. When consonantal letters are used in this fashion, they are called matres lectionis (Latin, "mothers of reading").
Hebrew in the Bible
The Hebrew of the Old Testament, though "classical", is not uniform. Some of the Hebrew, as in the Song of Deborah, is very archaic. The narrative portions relating to Deborah are more "modern". The same is true of the poetic Song of Moses and its corresponding narrative. This indicates that the poetic portions were written much earlier than the narrative and very close to the time of the event itself. This suggests that the events were passed on orally and in song to the next generation before they were written down. Deuteronomy displays a type of Hebrew similar to some of the Prophetic literature. What all this indicates is the "freedom" found in the Hebrew language of the Bible. In comparative terms to our modern sense and usage, it would be as if King James English with its magnificent cadences, Revised Standard English, more accessible and approachable to the modern man, and New International English, more familiar to the "man in the street", were to be used in one and the same version of the Bible to fit different "moods" and different usages and succeeding centuries. This evinces a most convincing and natural development of the language just as there is a most convincing and natural development of the culture and of the people of the Bible. Biblical Hebrew is thus shown to be very far different from an artificial or "school room" construct. It is a living language – or, more properly, living languages – used for different purposes and at different times.
Ge'ez was a Semitic language spoken in Ethiopia, which used an alphabet based on the alphabets of the Semitic peoples. It was the language of the Kingdom of Aksum, which is located in present-day Ethiopia. It has been compared to Latin, by some, in that the three languages spoken in Ethiopia are derived from it, similar to how Latin developed into Italian, Spanish, French and other languages.
Differences between Semitic and Indo-European language structure
Unlike Greek, which has an ample vocabulary, and case endings to determine which words are to be read with which words, what parts of speech (subject, object etc.), Semitic languages are contextual languages - that is, having relatively few words but each word having a variety of meanings. This requires knowledge of the literature, and of literatures - that is, knowledge of the context to determine the precise meaning. This general rule is somewhat modified with respect to the Arabic language which does have case endings and does have a more replete vocabulary than Hebrew. (There is evidence that Hebrew and Aramaic once did have case endings but they had dropped off in time.)
Here are examples from Greek, Hebrew, and Arabic showing how case ending helps tell which is subject, which is object, etc. thereby leaving the order of the words with respect to each other (syntax) more flexible, and how the lack of case endings requires a more precise word order.
Hebrew: "Eesh Elohim" may mean " man is God (a man is God)" or "man of God". (To mean either one, "Eesh" must be placed before "Elohim", already reducing flexibility in syntax). There is nothing at the end of these words to indicate what part of speech they are. So we must look outside to the context to determine whether the meaning is, or probably is, "man is God" or "man of God" The context decides for us that 'man is God' is highly unlikely and that "man of God"is highly probable.
Greek: "anthropos" (man) has "os" attached to the root "anthrop". This "os" tells us that this word is nominative and the subject of the sentence. Theou (of God) has "ou", meaning "of", attached to the root of "The", meaning God. So there is no mistaking the meaning of "man of God", whether we have the word order of "anthropos theou" or "theou anthropos", or even separate the words by other modifying or qualifying words (Example: "What is this new being spoken by you teaching?" Acts 17:19 - bad English but good Greek). This allows for a variety of syntactical relations in Greek, and the general context is less determinative for meaning, as it is in the Semitic group of languages. In addition, either one, "theou anthropos" or "anthropos theou", is stylisticly correct, or, at least, if not equally correct, it is for reasons other than being considered now.
English: Though an Indo-European language, English words can be somewhat flexible and precise in meaning (but nevertheless stylistically stiff), by changing word order and insertion, in this case, of the word "of". Example. "the man of God" and " of God, the man" means the same thing but the latter is stilted: "man" and "God" have nothing to indicate which is subject, object, etc.
Arabic (classical), as mentioned above, does have case endings and so is an example of the mixing of root language and consonantal-determinative-for-meaning language, and more of a freedom in word order (syntax) on the "Indo-European" style. Example: "Beit" means house. "Beitu"- house is nominative - subject of sentences. "Beiti" is to or for a house, or indirect object, and "Beita" (or Beitan) is accusative or the direct object of the sentence. "Ana mawjuud filbeiti ilkabiri" - I am in the big house (in the house, the big one) indirect object. Ana ar'a' albeita alkabira I see the big house (the house, the big one) - direct object. The precision that case endings give allows flexibility with full comprehension and style no matter the positioning of the words - The big house I see. I see the big house. I, the house, the big one, see. Yet, as in Hebrew and Aramaic, the particular meaning of the words is determined by its consonental roots, rather than the vowels.
Another difference is that, at least in the classical Semitic languages, verbs were conjugated for aspect (perfect or imperfect) rather than tense. By contrast, Indo-European languages are known for verb conjugations that distinguish both aspect and tense. However, modern Semitic languages have developed ways to distinguish tense as well. For example, in Modern Hebrew, the old perfect and imperfect aspects are used as past and future tenses, respectively, while the present tense is based on a participle.
- Transmigration of Words in Religion: an essay
- First Century Aramaic Jewish Christian Gospel and poetry
- Essay: Christians and the Law of Moses