Semitic Languages That Shaped Our Modern-Cultural Landscape
By: Wael Sultan/Arab America Contributing Writer
How does one describe a thought? In fact, what is a conscious thought or idea? When we think of an object in space, do we examine the words, or does the object just-BOOM! Pop up in our mind? The dictionary translates a “thought” as the process of using your conscious mind to consider something. It can also be the product of that process: an idea or simply just the thing you’re thinking about.” If you were deaf, is it possible to think? How about our early ancestors? How did they perceive the world and express their needs? Trippy stuff, amirite? But that’s because language itself is a trippy and fascinating topic.
There are approximately 5000 languages spoken in the world today; in fact, a third of them in Africa. Scholars group them into relatively few collective families linked to each other by shared words or sounds or even grammatical constructions. The theory is that each linguistic group member has descended from one language, a common ancestor.
Today’s most widespread group of languages is the Indo-European, spoken by nearly half the world’s population. This entire diverse group of people, ranging from Persian and Hindi to English and Norwegian, is believed to descend from the language of a tribe of nomads roaming the plateaus of eastern Europe and western Asia (Modern-day Ukraine) as recently as about 3000 BC.
Few ancient languages survived the ancient world, and most of them are concentrated around in the cradle of civilizations.
The Semitic languages have the most extended recorded history of any language family tree. Spanning roughly 4,500 years and have played notable roles in the Middle East’s linguistic and cultural landscape.
By 3,000 BC, Semitic languages are spoken over a large span of desert territory from southern Arabia and all the way to Syria. Several notable Semitic peoples play a prominent part in the region’s early civilization, from the Hebrews and Phoenicians to the Babylonians and Assyrians. One Semitic language, Aramaic, was the Lingua franca of the Middle East.
Most scripts used in writing Semitic languages are Abjads, a type of alphabetic script that omits some or all vowels. This is feasible for these language groups because consonants are the primary carriers of meaning in Semitic languages. Among them are the Phoenician, Aramaic, Hebrew, Syriac, Ugaritic, Arabic, and ancient South Arabian alphabets
Although having its roots in the Arabian peninsula, the Arabic language initially emerged in written form between the 1st to 4th centuries CE in the southern regions of present-day Jordan, Syria, and Palestine. With the arrival of the early Muslim conquests of the seventh and eighth centuries, Classical Arabic eventually took over. It replaced many (but not all) of the Near East’s indigenous Semitic languages and cultures.
Near East and North Africa saw a flood of Muslim Arabs from the Arabian Peninsula, followed later by non-Semitic Muslim Iranian and Turks. The previously dominant Aramaic dialects preserved by the Assyrians, Babylonians, and Persians gradually began to be neglected; however, Eastern Aramaic’s descendant dialects managed to survive. Among the Assyrians of northern Iraq, northwestern Iran, northeastern Syria, and southeastern Turkey, up to a million fluent speakers.
The Arabs spread their Central Semitic roots to North Africa (Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Morocco, Algeria, Mauritania, and Sudan), where it gradually replaced Egyptian Coptic and many Berber languages (although Berber is still largely kept in many areas) and for a time to the Iberian Peninsula and Malta.
Even though they are no longer regularly spoken, several Semitic languages retain great significance because of their religious culture expression roles—such as Biblical Hebrew in Judaism, Geʿez in Ethiopian Christianity, and Syriac in Chaldean and Assyrian Christianity. In addition to the critical position that it occupies in Arabic-speaking societies, literary Arabic exerts a significant influence throughout the world as the medium of Islamic religion and civilization.
In the 21st century, the most important Semitic language was Arabic in terms of speakers’ number. Standardized Arabic is spoken as a first language by more than 200 million people, spanning from the Atlantic coast of northern Africa to western Iran. Additionally, 250 million people speak Standard Arabic as a secondary language. Most of the written and broadcast communication and media in the Arab world are conducted in this uniform literary language. However, numerous local Arabic dialects, often differing profoundly from one another, are used to communicate day-to-day interactions.
Arabic is the liturgical language (holy language) of 1.8 billion Muslims and is one of the United Nations’ official languages.
Today, Arabic is the official language of Algeria (with Tamazight), Bahrain, Chad (with French), Djibouti (with French), Egypt, Iraq (with Kurdish), Jordan, Kuwait, Libya, Lebanon, Mauritania (where Arabic, Fula [Fulani], Soninke, and Wolof have the status of national languages), Morocco, Oman, the Palestinian Authority, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Somalia (with Somali), Sudan (with English), Syria, Tunisia, the United Arab Emirates, and finally Yemen.
Semitic Languages have a fascinating history in shaping our modern cultural landscape. What started as multiple ancient languages in the region all got swallowed by Islam and Arabization. Even with Arabic being the main language in the region, there are still different dialects that each region speaks and maintains its distinct identity.
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