Afroasiatic (Afro-Asiatic), also known as Afrasian and in older sources as Hamito-Semitic (Chamito-Semitic) or Semito-Hamitic, is a large language family of about 300 languages. It includes languages spoken predominantly in West Asia, North Africa, the Horn of Africa and parts of the Sahel.
Afroasiatic languages have over 495 million native speakers, the fourth largest number of any language family (after Indo-European, Sino-Tibetan and Niger–Congo). The phylum has six branches: Berber, Chadic, Cushitic, Egyptian, Omotic and Semitic.
By far the most widely spoken Afroasiatic language or dialect continuum is Arabic. A de facto group of distinct language varieties within the Semitic branch, the languages that evolved from Proto-Arabic have around 313 million native speakers, concentrated primarily in West Asia and North Africa.
Other widely spoken Afroasiatic languages include:
In addition to languages spoken today, Afroasiatic includes several important ancient languages, such as Ancient Egyptian, which forms a distinct branch of the family, and Akkadian, Biblical Hebrew and Old Aramaic, all of which are from the Semitic branch.
The original homeland of the Afroasiatic family, and when the parent language (i.e. Proto-Afroasiatic) was spoken, are yet to be agreed upon by historical linguists. Proposed locations include North Africa, the Horn of Africa, the Eastern Sahara and the Levant (see below).
|Horn of Africa, North Africa, Sahel, West Asia|
|Linguistic classification||One of the world's primary language families|
|ISO 639-2 / 5||afa|
Distribution of the Afro-Asiatic languages; pale yellow signifies areas without any languages in that family
During the early 1800s, linguists grouped the Berber, Cushitic and Egyptian languages within a "Hamitic" phylum, in acknowledgement of these languages' genetic relation with each other and with those in the Semitic phylum. The terms "Hamitic" and "Semitic" were etymologically derived from the Book of Genesis, which describes various Biblical tribes descended from Ham and Shem, two sons of Noah. By the 1860s, the main constituent elements within the broader Afroasiatic family had been worked out.
Friedrich Müller introduced the name "Hamito-Semitic" for the entire family in his Grundriss der Sprachwissenschaft (1876). Maurice Delafosse (1914) later coined the term "Afroasiatic" (often now spelled "Afro-Asiatic"). However, it did not come into general use until Joseph Greenberg (1950) formally proposed its adoption. In doing so, Greenberg sought to emphasize the fact that Afroasiatic spanned the continents of both Africa and Asia.
Individual scholars have also called the family "Erythraean" (Tucker 1966) and "Lisramic" (Hodge 1972). In lieu of "Hamito-Semitic", the Russian linguist Igor Diakonoff later suggested the term "Afrasian", meaning "half African, half Asiatic", in reference to the geographic distribution of the family's constituent languages.
The term "Hamito-Semitic" remains in use in the academic traditions of some European countries.
Scholars generally treat the Afroasiatic language family as including the following branches:
Although there is general agreement on these six families, linguists who study Afroasiatic raise some points of disagreement, in particular:
In the 9th century, the Hebrew grammarian Judah ibn Quraysh of Tiaret in Algeria was the first to link two branches of Afroasiatic together; he perceived a relationship between Berber and Semitic. He knew of Semitic through his study of Arabic, Hebrew, and Aramaic.
In the course of the 19th century, Europeans also began suggesting such relationships. In 1844, Theodor Benfey suggested a language family consisting of Semitic, Berber, and Cushitic (calling the latter "Ethiopic"). In the same year, T.N. Newman suggested a relationship between Semitic and Hausa, but this would long remain a topic of dispute and uncertainty.
Friedrich Müller named the traditional Hamito-Semitic family in 1876 in his Grundriss der Sprachwissenschaft ("Outline of Linguistics"), and defined it as consisting of a Semitic group plus a "Hamitic" group containing Egyptian, Berber, and Cushitic; he excluded the Chadic group. It was the Egyptologist Karl Richard Lepsius (1810–1884) who restricted Hamitic to the non-Semitic languages in Africa, which are characterized by a grammatical gender system. This "Hamitic language group" was proposed to unite various, mainly North-African, languages, including the Ancient Egyptian language, the Berber languages, the Cushitic languages, the Beja language, and the Chadic languages. Unlike Müller, Lepsius considered that Hausa and Nama were part of the Hamitic group. These classifications relied in part on non-linguistic anthropological and racial arguments. Both authors used the skin-color, mode of subsistence, and other characteristics of native speakers as part of their arguments that particular languages should be grouped together.
In 1912, Carl Meinhof published Die Sprachen der Hamiten ("The Languages of the Hamites"), in which he expanded Lepsius's model, adding the Fula, Maasai, Bari, Nandi, Sandawe and Hadza languages to the Hamitic group. Meinhof's model was widely supported into the 1940s. Meinhof's system of classification of the Hamitic languages was based on a belief that "speakers of Hamitic became largely coterminous with cattle herding peoples with essentially Caucasian origins, intrinsically different from and superior to the 'Negroes of Africa'." However, in the case of the so-called Nilo-Hamitic languages (a concept he introduced), it was based on the typological feature of gender and a "fallacious theory of language mixture." Meinhof did this although earlier work by scholars such as Lepsius and Johnston had substantiated that the languages which he would later dub "Nilo-Hamitic" were in fact Nilotic languages, with numerous similarities in vocabulary to other Nilotic languages.
Leo Reinisch (1909) had already proposed linking Cushitic and Chadic, while urging their more distant affinity with Egyptian and Semitic. However, his suggestion found little acceptance. Marcel Cohen (1924) rejected the idea of a distinct "Hamitic" subgroup, and included Hausa (a Chadic language) in his comparative Hamito-Semitic vocabulary. Finally, Joseph Greenberg's 1950 work led to the widespread rejection of "Hamitic" as a language category by linguists. Greenberg refuted Meinhof's linguistic theories, and rejected the use of racial and social evidence. In dismissing the notion of a separate "Nilo-Hamitic" language category in particular, Greenberg was "returning to a view widely held a half century earlier." He consequently rejoined Meinhof's so-called Nilo-Hamitic languages with their appropriate Nilotic siblings. He also added (and sub-classified) the Chadic languages, and proposed the new name Afroasiatic for the family. Almost all scholars have accepted this classification as the new and continued consensus.
Greenberg's model was fully developed in his book The Languages of Africa (1963), in which he reassigned most of Meinhof's additions to Hamitic to other language families, notably Nilo-Saharan. Following Isaac Schapera and rejecting Meinhof, he classified the Khoekhoe language as a member of the Khoisan languages, a grouping that has since proven inaccurate and excessively motivated on the presence of click sounds. To Khoisan he also added the Tanzanian Hadza and Sandawe, though this view has been discredited as linguists working on these languages consider them to be linguistic isolates. Despite this, Greenberg's classification remains a starting point for modern work of many languages spoken in Africa, and the Hamitic category (and its extension to Nilo-Hamitic) has no part in this.
Since the three traditional branches of the Hamitic languages (Berber, Cushitic and Egyptian) have not been shown to form an exclusive (monophyletic) phylogenetic unit of their own, separate from other Afroasiatic languages, linguists no longer use the term in this sense. Each of these branches is instead now regarded as an independent subgroup of the larger Afroasiatic family.
In 1969, Harold Fleming proposed that what had previously been known as Western Cushitic is an independent branch of Afroasiatic, suggesting for it the new name Omotic. This proposal and name have met with widespread acceptance.
Several scholars, including Harold Fleming and Robert Hetzron, have since questioned the traditional inclusion of Beja in Cushitic.
Glottolog does not accept that the inclusion or even unity of Omotic has been established, nor that of Ongota or the unclassified Kujarge. It therefore splits off the following groups as small families: South Omotic, Mao, Dizoid, Gonga–Gimojan (North Omotic apart from the preceding), Ongota, Kujarge.
|Greenberg (1963)||Newman (1980)||Fleming (post-1981)||Ehret (1995)|
|Orel & Stobova (1995)||Diakonoff (1996)||Bender (1997)||Militarev (2000)|
Little agreement exists on the subgrouping of the five or six branches of Afroasiatic: Semitic, Egyptian, Berber, Chadic, Cushitic, and Omotic. However, Christopher Ehret (1979), Harold Fleming (1981), and Joseph Greenberg (1981) all agree that the Omotic branch split from the rest first.
Afroasiatic is one of the four major language families spoken in Africa identified by Joseph Greenberg in his book The Languages of Africa (1963). It is one of the few whose speech area is transcontinental, with languages from Afroasiatic's Semitic branch also spoken in the Middle East and Europe.
There are no generally accepted relations between Afroasiatic and any other language family. However, several proposals grouping Afroasiatic with one or more other language families have been made. The best-known of these are the following:
The earliest written evidence of an Afroasiatic language is an Ancient Egyptian inscription dated to c. 3400 BC (5,400 years ago). Symbols on Gerzean (Naqada II) pottery resembling Egyptian hieroglyphs date back to c. 4000 BC, suggesting an earlier possible dating. This gives us a minimum date for the age of Afroasiatic. However, Ancient Egyptian is highly divergent from Proto-Afroasiatic (Trombetti 1905: 1–2), and considerable time must have elapsed in between them. Estimates of the date at which the Proto-Afroasiatic language was spoken vary widely. They fall within a range between approximately 7,500 BC (9,500 years ago), and approximately 16,000 BC (18,000 years ago). According to Igor M. Diakonoff (1988: 33n), Proto-Afroasiatic was spoken c. 10,000 BC. Christopher Ehret (2002: 35–36) asserts that Proto-Afroasiatic was spoken c. 11,000 BC at the latest, and possibly as early as c. 16,000 BC. These dates are older than those associated with other proto-languages.
The term Afroasiatic Urheimat (Urheimat meaning "original homeland" in German) refers to the hypothetical place where Proto-Afroasiatic language speakers lived in a single linguistic community, or complex of communities, before this original language dispersed geographically and divided into distinct languages. Afroasiatic languages are today primarily spoken in West Asia, North Africa, the Horn of Africa, and parts of the Sahel. Their distribution seems to have been influenced by the Sahara pump operating over the last 10,000 years.
There is no agreement when or where the original homeland of this language family existed. The main theories of Urheimat are the Levant, the Eastern Sahara, North Africa and the Horn of Africa.
H. Ekkehard Wolff proposes that Proto-Afroasiatic arose in the Fertile Crescent between 15,000 and 9,000 years BC during the Neolithic revolution, then migrated to Africa around 8,000 BC to develop into the Egyptian, Chadic, Omotic, Cushitic and Berber branches.
|↓ Number||Language →||Arabic||Coptic||Kabyle||Somali||Beja||Hausa|
Widespread (though not universal) features of the Afroasiatic languages include:
One of the most remarkable shared features among the Afroasiatic languages is the prefixing verb conjugation (see the table at the start of this section), with a distinctive pattern of prefixes beginning with /ʔ t n y/, and in particular a pattern whereby third-singular masculine /y-/ is opposed to third-singular feminine and second-singular /t-/.
According to Ehret (1996), tonal languages appear in the Omotic and Chadic branches of Afroasiatic, as well as in certain Cushitic languages. The Semitic, Berber and Egyptian branches generally do not use tones phonemically.
|*Ɂân- / *Ɂîn- or *ân- / *în- ‘I’ (independent pronoun)||*in- ‘I’ (Maji (NOm))||*Ɂâni ‘I’||*nV ‘I’||ink, *ʲānak 'I'||*Ɂn ‘I’||nek / nec ‘I, me’|
|*i or *yi ‘me, my’ (bound)||i ‘I, me, my’ (Ari (SOm))||*i or *yi ‘my’||*i ‘me, my’ (bound)||-i, *-aʲ (1s. suffix)||*-i ‘me, my’||inu / nnu / iw ‘my’|
|*Ɂǎnn- / *Ɂǐnn- or *ǎnn- / *ǐnn- ‘we’||*nona / *nuna / *nina (NOm)||*Ɂǎnn- / *Ɂǐnn- ‘we’||—||inn, *ʲānan ‘we’||*Ɂnn ‘we’||nekni / necnin / neccin ‘we’|
|*Ɂânt- / *Ɂînt- or *ânt- / *înt- ‘you’ (sing.)||*int- ‘you’ (sing.)||*Ɂânt- ‘you’ (sing.)||—||nt-, *ʲānt- ‘you’ (sing.)||*Ɂnt ‘you’ (sing.)||netta "he" (keyy / cek "you" (masc. sing.))|
|*ku, *ka ‘you’ (masc. sing., bound)||—||*ku ‘your’ (masc. sing.) (PSC)||*ka, *ku (masc. sing.)||-k (2s. masc. suffix)||-ka (2s. masc. suffix) (Arabic)||inek / nnek / -k "your" (masc. sing.)|
|*ki ‘you’ (fem. sing., bound)||—||*ki ‘your’ (fem. sing.)||*ki ‘you’ (fem. sing.)||-ṯ (fem. sing. suffix, < *ki)||-ki (2s. fem. sing. suffix) (Arabic)||-m / nnem / inem "your" (fem. sing.)|
|*kūna ‘you’ (plural, bound)||—||*kuna ‘your’ (pl.) (PSC)||*kun ‘you’ (pl.)||-ṯn, *-ṯin ‘you’ (pl.)||*-kn ‘you, your’ (fem. pl.)||-kent, kennint "you" (fem. pl.)|
|*si, *isi ‘he, she, it’||*is- ‘he’||*Ɂusu ‘he’, *Ɂisi ‘she’||*sV ‘he’||sw, *suw ‘he, him’, sy, *siʲ ‘she, her’||*-šɁ ‘he’, *-sɁ ‘she’ (MSA)||-s / nnes / ines "his/her/its"|
|*ma, *mi ‘what?’||*ma- ‘what?’ (NOm)||*ma, *mi (interr. root)||*mi, *ma ‘what?’||m ‘what?’, ‘who?’||mā (Arabic, Hebrew) / mu? (Assyrian) ‘what?’||ma? / mayen? / min? "what?"|
|*wa, *wi ‘what?’||*w- ‘what?’||*wä / *wɨ ‘what?’ (Agaw)||*wa ‘who?’||wy ‘how ...!’||mamek? / mamec? / amek? "how?|
|*dîm- / *dâm- ‘blood’||*dam- ‘blood’ (Gonga)||*dîm- / *dâm- ‘red’||*d-m- ‘blood’ (West Chadic)||i-dm-i ‘red linen’||*dm / dǝma (Assyrian) / dom (Hebrew) ‘blood’||idammen "bloods"|
|*îts ‘brother’||*itsim- ‘brother’||*itsan or *isan ‘brother’||*sin ‘brother’||sn, *san ‘brother’||aẖ (Hebrew) "brother"||uma / gʷma "brother"|
|*sǔm / *sǐm- ‘name’||*sum(ts)- ‘name’ (NOm)||*sǔm / *sǐm- ‘name’||*ṣǝm ‘name’||smi ‘to report, announce’||*ism (Arabic) / shǝma (Assyrian) ‘name’||isen / isem "name"|
|*-lisʼ- ‘to lick’||litsʼ- ‘to lick’ (Dime (SOm))||—||*alǝsi ‘tongue’||ns, *nīs ‘tongue’||*lsn ‘tongue’||iles "tongue"|
|*-maaw- ‘to die’||—||*-umaaw- / *-am-w(t)- ‘to die’ (PSom-II)||*mǝtǝ ‘to die’||mwt ‘to die’||*mwt / mawta (Assyrian) ‘to die’||mmet "to die"|
|*-bǐn- ‘to build, to create; house’||bin- ‘to build, create’ (Dime (SOm))||*mǐn- / *mǎn- ‘house’; man- ‘to create’ (Beja)||*bn ‘to build’; *bǝn- ‘house’||—||*bnn / bani (Assyrian) / bana (Hebrew) ‘to build’||*bn(?) (esk "to build")|
There are two etymological dictionaries of Afroasiatic, one by Christopher Ehret, and one by Vladimir Orel and Olga Stolbova. The two dictionaries disagree on almost everything. The following table contains the thirty roots or so (out of thousands) that represent a fragile consensus of present research:
|4||*(ʔa-)dVm||land, field, soil||✔||✔|
|6||ʔigar/ *ḳʷar-||house, enclosure||✔||✔||✔||✔||✔|
|18||*ḳa(wa)l-/ *qʷar-||to say, call||✔||✔|
|30||*šun||to sleep, dream||✔||✔|
Some of the main sources for Afroasiatic etymologies include:
Baldemu, or Mbazlam, is a nearly extinct Afro-Asiatic language spoken in northern Cameroon. Speakers have been shifting to Fulfulde.Bathari language
Bathari is an Afro-Asiatic language of Oman, located on the southeast coast facing the Khuriya Muriya Islands (17°40′46″N 55°22′19″E). The language is very similar to Mehri and some members of the Bathari tribe speak Mehri instead of Bathari.The first westerner to discover the existence of Bathari was Bertram Thomas in 1929.Betanure Jewish Neo-Aramaic
Betanure Jewish Neo-Aramaic, the local dialect of Betanure, is among the rarest and most seriously endangered varieties of Aramaic spoken at the present time. It is also one of the most conservative of the Jewish Neo-Aramaic languages, and among the Northeastern Aramaic languages.Bohtan Neo-Aramaic
Bohtan Neo-Aramaic is a modern Eastern Neo-Aramaic language, one of a number spoken by the Assyrians. Originally, Bohtan Neo-Aramaic was spoken on the Plain of Bohtan in Şırnak Province of southeastern Turkey as well in the town of Gardabani, near Rustavi in Georgia, Göygöl and Ağstafa in Azerbaijan. However it is now spoken in Moscow, Krymsk and Novopavlosk, Russia. It is considered to be a dialect of Assyrian Neo-Aramaic since it is a northeastern Aramaic language and its speakers are ethnically Assyrians.Chadic languages
The Chadic languages form a branch of the Afroasiatic language family. They are spoken in parts of the Sahel. They include 150 languages spoken across northern Nigeria, southern Niger, southern Chad, Central African Republic and northern Cameroon. The most widely spoken Chadic language is Hausa, a lingua franca of much of inland Eastern West Africa.Hértevin language
The Hértevin language is a modern Eastern Aramaic or Syriac language. It was originally spoken in a cluster of villages in Siirt Province in southeastern Turkey. Speakers of Hértevin Aramaic have emigrated mostly to the West, and are now scattered and isolated from one another. A few speakers remain in Turkey.Jilbe language
Jilbe (also known as Zoulbou) is an Afro-Asiatic language spoken in a single village in Borno State, Nigeria. It is also called Zoulbou.It is spoken in Jilbe town, across the Cameroon border from Dabanga town.Judeo-Tripolitanian Arabic
Judeo-Tripolitanian Arabic (also known as Tripolitanian Judeo-Arabic, Jewish Tripolitanian-Libyan Arabic, Tripolita'it, Yudi) is a variety of Arabic spoken by Jews formerly living in Libya. Judeo-Tripolitanian Arabic differs from standard Libyan Arabic in that it closely resembles the original dialect of the sedentary population, whereas much of Libya's population now speaks Bedouin-influenced varieties of Arabic. A reference grammar is available.The vast majority of Libyan Jews have relocated to Israel and have switched to using Hebrew in as their home language. Those in Italy typically use Italian as their first language.Maslam language
Maslam is an Afro-Asiatic language spoken in northern Cameroon, with a few in southwestern Chad. Dialects are Maslam and Sao. Maslam is in rapid decline.Miltu language
Miltu (also known as Miltou) is an endangered Afro-Asiatic language spoken in southwestern Chad, in villages along the Chari River in the area of Bousso. A 1993 census reported 270 speakers. Speakers are shifting to BagirmiMser language
Mser (Msər), or Kousseri (Kuseri), is a moribund Afro-Asiatic language spoken in northern Cameroon and southwestern Chad. Dialects are Gawi, Houlouf, Kabe, Kalo, Mser (Kuseri).Nyam language
Nyam (also known as Nyambolo) is an Afro-Asiatic language spoken in one village in Nigeria.Omotic languages
The Omotic languages are group of languages spoken in southwestern Ethiopia. The Ge'ez script is used to write some of the Omotic languages, the Latin script for some others. They are fairly agglutinative and have complex tonal systems (for example, the Bench language). The languages have around 6.2 million speakers. The group is generally classified as belonging to the Afroasiatic language family, but this is disputed by some.Putai language
Putai (also known as Marghi West) is a nearly extinct Afro-Asiatic language spoken in Nigeria. The language is dying out and being replaced by Kanuri.Senaya language
The Senaya language is a modern Eastern Syriac-Aramaic language. It is the language of Assyrians originally from Sanandaj in Iranian Kurdistan. Most Senaya speakers now live in California, United States and few families still live in Tehran, Iran. They are mostly members of the Chaldean Catholic Church. Since the speakers are ethnically Assyrian, the language would be, at times, considered a dialect of Assyrian Neo-Aramaic.Siri language
Siri (Sirawa) is a highly endangered Afro-Asiatic language spoken in Bauchi State.Tumak language
Tumak, also known as Toumak, Tumag, Tummok, Sara Toumak, Tumac, and Dije, is an Afro-Asiatic language spoken in the southwestern Chadian prefectures of Moyen-Chari and Koumra. Motun (Mod) and Tumak dialects have a lexical similarity of only 70%; Blench (2006) lists Tumak, Motun, and Mawer as separate languages. Most Motun speakers use some Sara.The "Gulei" listed in Greenberg might be a dialect of Tumak.Zangwal language
Zangwal (also known as Twar or Zwangal) is an endangered language spoken in Bauchi State, Nigeria. There were approximately 100 remaining speakers in 1993.Ɓeele language
Ɓeele (also known as Bele, Àbéélé, Bellawa) is an endangered Afro-Asiatic language spoken in a few villages in Bauchi State, Nigeria.
Major Afroasiatic languages
Italics indicate extinct languages
and the Pacific