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Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature

Shemitic Languages.

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I. Among the peoples of Hither Asia lay the root stem of these languages which are denominated "Shemitic," or "Semitic" according to the French, which is supposed to have been spoken by the descendants of Shem. The ordinary denomination of thee languages, in earlier times, was "the Oriental languages." This was employed by Jerome, and is still used to some extent in modern times. As long as the other languages of the East, which do not belong to the Shemitic stock, were not known in the West, this term was perfectly satisfactory, and the more so when Hebrew was viewed as the mother of all languages. Now, however, that an acquaintance with the Eastern languages is more developed, and a scientific study of them has spread so widely and extended itself especially in the academies, not only to the Persian, but also to the Egyptian, Chinese, Armenian and especially the Indian (Sanskrit), it naturally follows that all these languages belonging to different stems are comprehended under the name "Oriental," so that this has now become an unsuitable term. The necessity arose to find a proper appellation which would distinguish that stem, forming now the Shemitic languages, from the other Oriental languages; and thus different suggestions were made. Leibnitz, e.g., suggested "Arabic;" Hupfeld (Hebr. Gram. p. 2) proposed "Hither-Asiatic" languages; Renan thinks that, in analogy to Indo-European, "Le veritable nom des langues qui nous occupent serait Syro-arabes." Neither of these suggestions prevailed; but the term "Shemitic," proposed by Schlozer in 1781, and recommended by Eichhorn (Allgem. Bibl. der bib. Lit. 6, 50, 772 sq.), has come into use. This latter term is based on the fact that in Genesis 10:21-31 the Hebrews, together with the other tribes belonging to this stem, are derived from Shem. But, like the former terms, the latter was also opposed, especially by Stange in his Theol. Symmikta (1802), pt. 1, p. 1-39. "And, indeed," says Bleek, "it must be acknowledged that if we regard this catalogue of nations as its groundwork, there is not quite so much to be said in favor of it. We there read (Genesis 10:22).

The children of Shem. Elam, and Asshur, and Arphaxad, and Lud, and Aram. Of these, Arphaxad is described as the grandfather of Eber, and Eber as the father" of Peleg and Joktan, the latter of whom is mentioned in the following verses as the head of many Arabian tribes; while Peleg is spoken of in ch. 11 as the great-great-grandfather of Terah, the father of Abraham, so that Arphaxad may be regarded as the progenitor of the Hebrews and of other tribes related to them by language. Aram, also as the progenitor of the Aramaeans would belong to this language stem. On the other hand, Elam certainly does not belong to it, but to the same stem as the Persians; the same may probably be said of Asshur and, also of Lud, whom we may, with Josephus, regard as the parent of the Lydians. On the other side, however, we find the Canaanites and Phoenicians (10, 15-19), the Ethiopians (Cush [Genesis 10:6-7]), and several Arabian tribes traced up to Ham, although there is no doubt that so far as language is concerned they belong to the same stem as the Hebrews and Aramaeans. From Bleek's statement it will be seen that the term "Shemitic" does not serve all purposes. True as this is, yet, in default of a better term, the name Shemitic languages has been retained, and is now current, with the distinct understanding of its being a false and merely conventional expression.

II. Division. Viewing the Shemitic languages from a geographical point of view, they may be divided into three principal branches. Thus we a have: (a) The Northern or Northeastern branch, the Aramaic; (b) The Southern, among which the Arabic is the chief dialect, and with which the Ethiopic is also connected; (c) The Middle, the Hebrew, with which the Canaanitish and Phoenician (Punic) nearly coincide. With this a division, Renan says corresponds the one which we may call the historical, according to which the Hebraic would assume the first place, extending from the earliest. times of our knowledge of it down to the 6th century B.C., when the Aramaic begins to take the lead, and the field of Hebrew and Phoenician (the chief representatives of Hebraic) becomes more and more restricted. The Aramaic, again, would be followed by the Arabic period, dating from the time of Mohammed, when the Islam and its conquests spread the language of the Koran, not merely over the whole Shemitic territory, but over a vast portion of the inhabited globe. But this division, as M. Renan remarks, "ne doit etre prise que dans un sens general, et avec trois restrictions importantes.

1. Les idiomes remplaces par un autre, l'Hebreu par l'Arameen, le Syriaque par l'Arabe, ne disparaissent pas pour cela entierement: ils restent langue savante et sacree, et, a ce titre, continuent d'etre cultives longtemps apres avoir cesse d'etret vulgaires.

2. Cette succession des trois langies Semitiques ne peut signifier que chacune d'elles ait ete parlee en meme temps dans toute l'etendue des pays occupes par la race Semitique elle signifie seulement que chacun de ces trois dialectes fut tour a tour dominant, et representa, a son jour, le plus haut developpement de l'esprtit Semitique. Toute l'histoire intellectuelle des Semites, en effet, se partage, comme l'histoire des langues Semitiques elles-memes, en trois phases Hebraique, Chaldeo-Syriaque, et Arabe.

3. Cette division, enfin, ne doit point etre entendue d'une maneire absolue, mais seulement par rapport a l'etat de nos connaissances" (Histoire des Lang. Sem. p. 108). The writer of the art. Shemitic Languages in Kitto's Cyclopedia, Mr. E. Deutsch, seems to have known M. Renan's work and those of others holding the same view for he says that these authors "had to hedge it in with many and variegated restrictions." But any one reading the remarks of M. Renan will hardly understand the unnecessary zeal exhibited by the writer in Kitto when he says, "But we further protest all the more strongly against it, as it might easily lead to the belief that the one idiom gradually merged into the other."

Out of the three principal branches, in the course of time, others developed themselves. The following table, taken from Prof. M. Muller's Science of Language, 1, 396 (Amer. ed.), exhibits them in a genealogical way:


III. Characteristics of the Shemitic Languages. Not only are all these languages (with the exception of the Ethiopic and Amharic) written from right to left, but they are related to each other in much the same manner as those of the Germanic family (Gothic, Old Northern, Danish, Swedish High and Low German, in the earlier and later dialects), or as those of the Slavic tongues (Lithuanian, Lettish; Old Slavic, Servian, Russian, Polish, Bohemian), bearing in mind, however, that the relationship in the former case is more thorough and complete than in the latter.

In the first place, the whole of the Shemitic dialects agree substantially with regard to the root words and their meaning; the only difference being that one language, the Arabic, is comparatively far richer than the other dialects. Thus, e.g., the Arabic possesses nearly 6000 roots and about 60,000 words, while in Hebrew only about 2000 roots and 6000 words are known to us. Or, again, the Arabic philologists quote 1000 different terms for a sword, 500 for a lion, 200 for a serpent, 400 for misfortune. But we must take this into consideration, that in the other dialects only a small number, of literary records, comparatively speaking, have been preserved and that the Arabic, as a living language, is known to us in a far later development than the Hebrew. But by far the larger part of the root words which are found in Hebrew appear also in the other dialects, and in essentially the same or only a slightly modified signification. Besides, in, the present form of the language in all these dialects, nearly all the stem words are composed of three consonants. In all the Shemitic dialects the consonants are seen to be far more essential than the vowels. The former almost alone determine the essential meaning of the word, while the differences of the vowels do no more than give the different references and modifications of this meaning.

Not the less do we find in the whole grammatical construction, as well as in particular instances of grammatical formation and structure, the greatest and most surprising agreement between the various Shemitic languages or dialects thus we have but two genders, and these are also distinguished in the second and third persons of the verb. In the inflection of verbs they have only two moods (commonly considered to be tenses); but these are strongly contrasted by the position of the marks of the persons at the end or at the beginning the so called perfect for the completed or actual, and the imperfect for the incomplete or hypothetical, without decidedly giving expression to the tenses by peculiar forms. Nouns are not declined by means of case endings, but the genitive is expressed by closely combining two words, and other cases by using prepositions, while the pronouns have mere suffixes for the oblique cases. Finally, they are characterized by poverty in the particles, and consequently they have their clauses formed with extreme simplicity and they are defective in the structure of sentences, at least if they are judged by the standard of the Latin and the German languages. Considering all these facts, they plainly show that one original language lies at the foundation of them all that in early times anterior, however, to all our historical knowledge of them these nations certainly all spoke one language, which has in later periods, as they separated one from the other, developed into these various dialects" (Bleek).

IV Comparison of the Shemitic Languages with One Another. When we enter on the consideration of the mutual relation, we find that by far the richest and most developed of the Shemitic languages is that of the South, known to us as

1. The Arabic. Referring the reader to the art. (See ARABIC LANGUAGE) in this Cyclopedia, we will only make a few general remarks. Before the time of Mohammed it was confined to Arabia, and scarcely cultivated except in poetry; but along with Islam it has spread itself over the greater part of Asia and Africa, and has unfolded its great wealth in a very comprehensive literature, which extends to almost all the domains of knowledge.

Even in the earliest times it is possible that this dialect was separated from those with which it is allied, though the traces of this are few. The most marked is the form אּלְמוֹדִד ּ (Genesis 10:26), the designation of a district of Arabia Felix, having the article prefixed, which has also been preserved elsewhere in some Hebrew documents, as in Proverbs 30:31, אלְקו, Joshua 15:30, comp. 1 Chronicles 4:29. We know, also, that already in the time of Solomon the wisdom of the Arabs was highly prized; and that enigmas, and so, at least, the beginning of poesy, were to be found in Yemen, or rather in Sabaea: (1 Kings 4:30; 1 Kings 10:1 sq.).

In the beginning it probably had forms which were simpler and more like the Hebrew than those in which it is known to us, which have been cultivated to the very uttermost; but soon the one language fell to pieces, as the many independent tribes formed their several dialects, of which the Himyeritic in Yemen was strongly marked by differences from the language of Central Arabia, being simpler, and so more nearly allied to the Hebrew. But when the Himyarites kingdom fell, this dialect was compelled to yield to that of Mecca (the Modarensitic or Koraishitic), which had become a written form of speech before Mohammed's time, and is in the Koran (Sura 16:103) named the Arabic language, κατ ἐξοχήν . In this dialect the entire Arabic literature is composed. Then it was gradually supplanted by the present commonly spoken language, which has not only adopted many foreign words, Turkish especially, but has also lost the variety of forms which it possessed and the very capacity for forming others, and thus has returned nearer to the ancient simplicity as well as to the Hebrew and Aramaic.

From the intimate connection from the earliest times between South Arabia and Ethiopia it has arisen that we have in the Ethiopic language (q.v.) a remnant of the old Himyeritic dialect, lost even to the Arabic itself. In this ancient written language (the Geez) we possess a translation of the Bible and other ecclesiastical writings, of which the most important is the translation of the book of Enoch. The language has a simpler character than the more cultivated Arabic, and approaches more to the Hebrew and Aramaic idiom. In the 14th century it was supplanted by Amharic, and is now only a learned language.

The literature of the Arabic language being very rich, we shall only mention here, by way of supplement to the article ARABIC LANGUAGE in this Cyclopedia, the works published recently in so far as they have come under our observation

A. Grammars of both the Ancient and Modern Arabic Bresuier, Cours Pratique et Theorique de la Langue Arabe, etc. (Alger. 1855); id. Grammaire Arabe Elementaire, etc. (ibid. 1866); Mohamed Cadi, La Langue Arabe, etc. (Cairo, 1862, 3 vols.) Caspari, Grammatik der arab Sprache (Leips. 1866); Fahrat, Grammaire Arabe (Beirut, 1865); Faris-el- Shidiak, A Practical Grammar of the Arabic Language, etc. (Lond. 1866); Freytag, Einleitung in das Studium der arab. Sprache (Bonn, 1861); Goldenthal, Grammaire Arabe ecrite en Hebreu, etc. (Vienna, 1857); Gorguos, Cours d'Arabe Vulgaire (Paris, 1864, 2 pts.); Hassan, Kurzgefasste Grammatik der vulgar-arabischen Sprache (Vienna, 1869); Leitner, Introduction to a Philosophical Grammar of Arabic (Lahore, 1870); Mallouf, Fevay de Charquive, ou Abrege de Grammaire Arabe, etc. (Smyrna, 1854); Narul Kira, Nasif El Yazighy (Beirut, 1863), an Arabic grammar in Arabic; Newman, A Handbook of Modern Arabic (Lond. 1866); Raabe, Gemeinschaftliche Grammatik der arabischen u. der semitischen Sprachen (Leips. 1874); Sapeto, Grammatica Araba Volgare (Florence, 1867); Schier, Grammaire Arabe (Leips. 1862); Zschokke, Institiutiones Fundamentales Linguoe Arabicoe (Vienna, 1869); Wolff, Arabischer Dragoman (Leips. 1867).

B. Dictionaries. Bochtor, Dictionnaire Francais-Arabe, etc. (Paris, 1S64); Butrus a Bustany (Beirut, 1866-70, 2 vols. fol., an abridged edition, ibid. 1867-70), an Arabic dictionary explained in Arabic; Calligaris, Le Compagnon de Tous, ou Dictionnaire Polyglotte, etc. (Turin, 1864-70, 2 vols.); Cherbonneau, Dictionnaire Francais-Arabe (Par. 1872); Helot, Dictionnaire de Poche Francais-Arabe et Arabe-Francais (Alger. 1870); Henry, Dictionnaire Francais-Arabe (Beirut, 1867); Kazimirski, Dictionnaire Arabe-Francais, etc. (Paris, 1860, 2 vols.); Marcel, Dictionnaire Francais-Arabe des Dialectes Vulgaires (ibid. 1869); Newman, A Dictionary of Modern Arabic (Lond. 1870, 2 vols.): Paulmier, Dictionnaire Francais-Arabe (Paris, 1872); Roland de Bussy, Petit Dictionnaire Francais-Arabe et Arabe-Francais (Alger. 1867); Schiaparelli, Vocabulista in Arabico (Florence, 1871); Wahrmund, Handworterbuch der arabischen und deutschen Sprache (Giessen, 1874, 2 vols.).

C. Chrestomathies. Cherbonneau. Exercises pour la Lecture de Manuscrits Arabes, etc. (Paris, 1853); id. Lecons de Lecture Arabe etc. (ibid. 1864); Combarel, Cahiers d'Ecritures Arabes, etc. (ibid. 18S 0).

2. The Syro-Chaldee. That the Arabic in the South was not the most developed of all the Shemitic languages we see in the Aramaic language (q.v.). Here, also, we cannot enter upon a minute history of that language, for which the reader is referred to the article in this Cyclopoedia. Our remarks can only be of a general character.

The countries in the north of Palestine stretching from the Tigris to the Taurus are comprehended in Scripture under the name of Aram, or Highland. Their inhabitants, the ‘Αραμαῖοι and ῎Αριμοι of the ancients (Hom. Il. 2, 783), were of different nations (even in Scripture they are distinguished as Aram-Damascus, אֲרִ םדִּמֶשֶׁק;, Padan-Aram, פִדִּןאֲרִ;. Aram-Zobah, אִרִ םצוֹבָה etc.), and they passed historically through the most diversified relations. The common language of these people, in respect of its general character, as it is of all the Shemitic dialects the most northern, so also is it the harshest (in place of the softer labials ש ז, and צ, it has ד, ת, and ט, i.e. the d and t sounds) the poorest (it wants a complete vowel system, hence as verbal form כְּתִב [Heb. כָּתִב ], noun form מְלֵך ְ [Heb. מֶלֶךְ ]); it has corresponding with this a scanty conjugation system; it possesses no vestige of the conjugation Niphal, but forms all its passives by the prefix את; it does not carefully distinguish the formation of the weaker roots, but interchanges the verbs and nouns, לא and לה, פו and פי, etc., and in general the least cultivated.

In the Old Test. we find this dialect denominated, in opposition to the Palestinian, the Aramaic language (ארמית, Isaiah 36:11; 2 Kings 18:26). In the time of Isaiah, as appears from the passage just cited, educated Hebrews could speak Aramaic, and, conversely, educated Arameans could speak Hebrew (Isaiah 36:4 sq.); while the common people understood only their vernacular dialect. The subsequent transportation of the Jewish people into Babylon contributed to silence more entirely the ancient vernacular in Judaea, and to render the triumph of the Aram seal in those parts more general. Finally, during the long exile of the Jews in Babylon, the language of their fatherland appears to have been altogether laid aside, so that those who at the termination of the captivity returned into Palestine brought with them the dialect of Babylon as their customary medium of speech. Among the priesthood and learned men, the Hebrew had, indeed, been retained as the language of literature and religion but so fully had it passed from the populace in general that we find them, on the reinstitution of public worship at Jerusalem, incapable of understanding the holy writings except as paraphrased in Aramaic (Nehemiah 8:8).

This was the tongue which, with a slight intermixture of Persic and Greek (in consequence of the temporary dominion of the Persians and Macedonians in Palestine), had prevailed from the period of the return from Babylon, and was still maintained in popular use at the opening of the Christian dispensation under the name of Palestinian Aramaic, or Palestinian Syriac.

This Palestinian Syriac is a language, therefore, preeminently interesting to the Christian. "It was sanctified by the lips of the Divine Redeemer. In these forms of speech he conversed with the Virgin mother, instructed his disciples, and proclaimed to myriads the promises of eternal life. In them he gave forth those sovereign mandates which controlled the tempestuous elements, dispossessed the demoniac brought health to the diseased, and a resurrection life to the dead. In this very tongue we have still the words in which he taught his people the prayer which calls upon the Almighty God as our Father in heaven. Finally, it was in this language that he himself prayed upon earth, and that the Father spoke audibly to him from the heavens. Thus consecrated, it became a celestial language, a holy tongue, a chosen vehicle which conveyed the thoughts of the uncreated mind and the purposes of eternal love to the sons of men."

The Aramaean language may be said, in general terms, to have been distinguished into the Eastern and Western Aramaic. Of these, a full account is given in this Cyclopaedia under the respective heads of CHALDEE LANGUAGE and SYRIAC LANGUAGE. We therefore here consider some of the more obscure dialects.

(1.) The Samaritan. This dialect occupies an intermediate position with reference to Hebrew and Aramaic, and is particularly characterized by changes in the guttural, also by containing many non-Shemitic (Cuthaic) words. The Samaritans have no means of distinguishing between the Hebrew letters ש ׂ and שׁ the have no final or dilatable forms, like the Hebrews, for any of the letters, but use the same form under all circumstances. The character used is the most ancient of the Shemitic characters, which the Samaritans retained when the Hebrews adopted the square character. Few remains of this dialect are extant (comp. the articles (See SAMARITAN LANGUAGE, LITERATURE), etc.).

(2.) The Sabian or Nazarean. This language, known as yet only from the Codex Nazaraeus, also called The Book of Adam (edited by M. Norberg, Gottingen, 1815-17, 3 vols.), occupies a place between the Syrian and Chaldee, makes frequent changes in gutturals and other letters, is in general incorre

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Bibliography Information
McClintock, John. Strong, James. Entry for 'Shemitic Languages.'. Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature. Harper & Brothers. New York. 1870.

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