Proto-Semitic language

Proto-Semitic is the hypothetical proto-language ancestral to historical Semitic languages of the Middle East. Places which have been proposed for its original Urheimat location include northern Mesopotamia, the Arabian Peninsula, and the Levant with a 2009 study proposing that it may have originated around 3750 BCE.[1] The Semitic language family is considered a component of the larger Afroasiatic macro-family of languages.


The earliest attestations of a Semitic language are in Akkadian, dating to around the 23rd century BC (see Sargon of Akkad) and Eblaite, but earlier evidence of Akkadian comes from personal names in Sumerian texts around 2800 BC. Researchers in Egypt also claim to have discovered Canaanite snake spells that "date from between 3000 and 2400 BC".[2]

The specific appearance of the donkey (an African animal) in Proto-Semitic but total absence of any reference to wheeled vehicles dates Proto-Semitic, rather narrowly, to between 3800 BC and 3500 BC.


Semiticists have put importance in locating the Urheimat of the Proto-Semitic language since all modern Semitic languages can be traced back to a common ancestor.[3] The Urheimat of the Proto-Semites cannot be determined without considering the larger Afro-Asiatic family to which it belongs. The previously popular Arabian Urheimat hypothesis has been largely abandoned since the region could not have supported massive waves of emigration before the domestication of camels in the second millennium BC.[3]

Out of the Levant hypothesis

Some geneticists and archaeologists have argued for a back migration of proto-Afroasiatic speakers from Southwestern Asia to Africa as early as 10,000 BC. The Natufians might have spoken a proto-Afroasiatic language just prior to its disintegration into sub-languages.[4][5] The hypothesis is supported by the Afroasiatic terms for early livestock and crops in both Anatolia and Iran.[6] Recent Bayesian analysis identified an origin for Proto-Semitic language in the Levant around 3750 BC, with a later single introduction from what is now Southern Arabia into the Horn of Africa (Ethiopia) around 800 BC.[7]

Out of Africa hypothesis

One proposal of possible origin and expansion of Afroasiatic languages

According to the proponents of this theory, the non-Semitic toponyms preserved in Akkadian and Palaeosyrian languages suggest that Syria and Mesopotamia were originally inhabited by a non-Semitic population. Edward Lipinski believes that support for an African origin is provided by what he describes as a possible relationship between Afro-Asiatic and the Niger–Congo languages, whose Urheimat probably lies in Nigeria–Cameroon.[8] He states that the most numerous isoglosses and lexicostatistical convergences link proto-Semitic to Libyco-Berber and that proto-Semitic speakers were still living in the Neolithic Subpluvial in the 5th millennium BC when the Sahara was much wetter, retaining a link with Berber long after other Egyptic and Proto-Chadic separated.[8]

According to Lipinski, rock drawings attest to a Neolithic culture in the Sahara that collapsed due to desertification and climate change ca. 3500 BC, forcing the Proto-Semites to emigrate en masse through the Nile Delta to western Asia. They were probably responsible for the collapse of the Ghassulian culture in Palestine around 3300 BC.[9] Another indication of the arrival of the proto-Semitic culture is the appearance of tumuli in 4th and 3rd millennium Palestine, which were typical characteristic of Neolithic North Africa.[9] It is possible that at this point, the ancestors of the speakers of Elamite moved towards Iran, although the inclusion of Elamite in Afroasiatic is only contemplated by a tiny minority.[10] The earliest wave of Semitic speakers were the Akkadians, who entered the fertile crescent via Palestine and Syria and eventually founded the first Semitic empire at Kish. Their relatives, the Amorites, followed them and settled Syria before 2500 BC.[9] The collapse of the Bronze Age culture in Palestine led the Southern Semites southwards, where they reached the highlands of Yemen after 2000 BC. Those crossed back to the Horn of Africa between 1500–500 BC.[9]


The reconstruction of Proto-Semitic (PS) was originally based primarily on the Arabic language, whose phonology and morphology (particularly in Classical Arabic) is extremely conservative, and which preserves as contrastive 28 out of the evident 29 consonantal phonemes.[11] Thus, the phonemic inventory of reconstructed Proto-Semitic is very similar to that of Arabic, with only one phoneme fewer in Arabic than in reconstructed Proto-Semitic. As such, Proto-Semitic is generally reconstructed as having the following phonemes (as usually transcribed in Semitology):[12]


Proto-Semitic consonant phonemes
Type Labial Inter-
Palatal Velar Pharyn-
Central Lateral
Nasal *m [m]   *n [n]          
Stop voiceless *p [p]   *t [t]     *k [k]   [ʔ]
voiced *b [b]   *d [d]     *g [ɡ]    
emphatic *ṭ [tʼ]     *q [kʼ]  
voiceless   *ṯ [θ] [ʃ]
*s [s]
[ɬ]   *ḫ [x] *ḥ [ħ] *h [h]
voiced   *ḏ [ð] *z [z]     [ɣ] [ʕ]  
emphatic *ṱ [θʼ] *ṣ [sʼ] *ṣ́ [ɬʼ]        
Trill     *r [r]          
Approximant       *l [ɬ] *y [j] *w [w]    

The Proto-Semitic consonant system is based on triads of related voiceless, voiced, and "emphatic" consonants. Five such triads are reconstructed in Proto-Semitic:

The probable phonetic realization of most consonants is straightforward, and is indicated in the table with the IPA. Two subsets of consonants however call for further comment:


The sounds notated here as "emphatic" sounds occur in nearly all Semitic languages, as well as in most other Afroasiatic languages, and are generally reconstructed as glottalized in Proto-Semitic. [nb 1] Thus, *ṭ for example represents [tʼ]. (See below for the fricatives/affricates).

In modern Semitic languages, emphatics are variously realized as pharyngealized (Arabic, Aramaic, Tiberian Hebrew: e.g. [tˤ]), glottalized (Ethiopian Semitic languages, Modern South Arabian languages: e.g. [tʼ]), or as unaspirated (Turoyo of Tur-Abdin: e.g. [t˭]);[13] Ashkenazi Hebrew and Maltese are exceptions to this general retention, with all emphatics merging into plain consonants under the influence of Indo-European languages (Italian/Sicilian in Maltese, German/Yiddish in Hebrew).

An emphatic labial occurs in some Semitic languages but it is unclear whether it was a phoneme in Proto-Semitic.


The reconstruction of Proto-Semitic has nine fricative sounds that are mostly reflected as sibilants in later languages, although it is a matter of dispute whether all started as sibilants already in PS:

The precise sound of the PS fricatives, notably of , , *s, and *ṣ, remains a perplexing problem, and there are various systems of notation to describe them. The notation given here is traditional, based on their pronunciation in Hebrew, which traditionally has been extrapolated back to Proto-Semitic. The notation *s₁, *s₂, *s₃ is found primarily in the literature on Old South Arabian, although more recently it has been used by some authors discussing Proto-Semitic in order to express a non-committal view of the pronunciation of these sounds. However, the older transcription remains predominant in most literature, often even among scholars who disagree with the traditional interpretation or remain non-committal.[16]

The traditional view as expressed in the conventional transcription and still maintained by one part of the authors in the field[17][18] is that was a Voiceless postalveolar fricative ([ʃ]), *s was a voiceless alveolar sibilant ([s]) and was a voiceless alveolar lateral fricative ([ɬ]). Accordingly, *ṣ is seen as an emphatic version of *s ([sʼ]); *z as a voiced version of it ([z]); and *ṣ́ as an emphatic version of ([ɬʼ]). The reconstruction of *ś ṣ́ as lateral fricatives (or affricates) is not in doubt, despite the fact that few modern languages preserve these sounds. The pronunciation of *ś ṣ́ as [ɬ ɬʼ] is still maintained in the Modern South Arabian languages (e.g. Mehri), and evidence of a former lateral pronunciation is evident in a number of other languages. For example, Biblical Hebrew baśam was borrowed into Ancient Greek as balsamon (hence English "balsam"), and the 8th-century Arab grammarian Sībawayh explicitly described the Arabic descendant of *ṣ́ (now pronounced [dˤ] in standard pronunciation, but has merged with [ðˤ] in many bedouin influenced dialects) as a pharyngealized voiced lateral fricative [ɮˤ].[19][20]

The primary disagreements concern (1) whether all of these sounds were actually fricatives in Proto-Semitic, or whether some were affricates; and (2) whether the sound designated was pronounced [ʃ] (or similar) in Proto-Semitic, as the traditional view posits, or had the value of [s]. The issue of the nature of the "emphatic" consonants, discussed above, is partly related (though partly orthogonal) to the issues here as well.

With respect to the traditional view, there are two dimensions of "minimal" and "maximal" modifications made:

  1. In how many sounds are taken to be affricates. The "minimal affricate" position takes only the emphatic *ṣ as an affricate [tsʼ]. The "maximal affricate" position additionally posits that *s z were actually affricates [ts] [dz] while was actually a simple fricative [s].[21]
  2. In whether to extend the affricate interpretation to the interdentals and laterals. The "minimal extension" position assumes that only the sibilants were affricates, while the other "fricatives" were in fact all fricatives, while the maximal update extends the same interpretation to the other sounds. Typically this means that the "minimal affricate, maximal extension" position takes all and only the emphatics are taken as affricates, i.e. emphatic *ṣ θ̣ ṣ́ were [tsʼ tθʼ tɬʼ], while the "maximal affricate, maximal extension" position assumes not only the "maximal affricate" position for sibilants, but also assumes that non-emphatic *θ ð ś were actually affricates.

Affricates in PS were proposed long since, but the idea only seems to have met wider acceptance since the work of Alice Faber (1981) challenging the older approach. A different opinion is maintained for example by Joshua Blau (2010), who maintains that *š was indeed originally [ʃ], while also acknowledging that an affricate [tʃ] is possible.[22]

The Semitic languages that have survived to the modern day often have fricatives for these consonants. However, Ethiopic languages and Modern Hebrew (in many reading traditions) have an affricate for *ṣ.[23]

The evidence in favor of the various affricate interpretations of the sibilants consists both of direct evidence from transcriptions and of structural evidence. However, the evidence for the "maximal extension" positions that extend affricate interpretations to non-sibilant "fricatives" is largely structural. This is due both to the relative rarity of the interdentals and lateral obstruents among the attested Semitic languages, and the even greater rarity of such sounds among the various languages in which Semitic words were transcribed. As a result, even when these sounds were transcribed, the resulting transcriptions may be difficult to interpret clearly.

The narrowest affricate view (where only *ṣ was an affricate [tsʼ]) is the most accepted.[24][25] The affricate pronunciation is directly attested in the modern Ethiopic languages and Modern Hebrew, as mentioned above, but also in ancient transcriptions of numerous Semitic languages in various other languages. Some examples:

The "maximal affricate" view applied only to sibilants also has transcriptional evidence in its favor. According to Kogan, the affricate interpretation of Akkadian s z ṣ is generally accepted.[28]

There is also a good deal of internal evidence in early Akkadian for affricate realizations of s z ṣ. Examples are that underlying ||*t, *d, *ṭ + *š|| was realized as ss (which is more natural if the law was phonetically ||*t, *d, *ṭ + *s|| → [tts])[27] and that *s z ṣ shift to š before *t (which is more naturally interpreted as deaffrication).[28]

Evidence for as /s/ also exists but is somewhat less clear. It has been suggested that it is cross-linguistically rare for languages with a single sibilant fricative to have [ʃ] as this sound, and that [s] is more likely.[28] Similarly, the use of Phoenician ש as the source of Greek σ s seems easiest to explain if the phoneme had the sound of [s] at the time. The occurrence of [ʃ] for in a number of separate modern Semitic languages (e.g. Neo-Aramaic, Modern South Arabian, most Biblical Hebrew reading traditions) as well as Old Babylonian Akkadian is then suggested to result from a push-type chain shift, where the change [ts] → [s] "pushes" [s] out of the way to [ʃ] in the languages in question, while a merger of the two as [s] occurs in various other languages (e.g. Arabic, Ethiopian Semitic).

On the other hand, it has been suggested that the initial merged s in Arabic was actually a "hissing-hushing sibilant",[34] presumably something like [ɕ] (or a "retracted sibilant"), which only later became [s]. This would suggest a value closer to [ɕ] (or a "retracted sibilant") or [ʃ] for Proto-Semitic , since [ts] and [s] would almost certainly merge directly to [s]. Furthermore, there is various evidence to suggest that the sound [ʃ] for existed at a time when *s was still [ts].[35] Examples are the Southern Old Babylonian form of Akkadian, which evidently had [ʃ] along with [ts], as well as Egyptian transcriptions of early Canaanite words, where *š s are rendered as š ṯ. ( is an affricate and the consensus interpretation of š is [ʃ], as in modern Coptic.[35])

Diem (1974) suggested that the Canaanite sound change of is more natural if *š was [s], than if it was [ʃ]. However, Kogan points out numerous objections to this, among which are that *s at the time was [ts], so the change is the most likely merger regardless of the exact nature of at the time.[36]

Evidence for the affricate nature of the non-sibilants is mostly based on internal considerations. Ejective fricatives are quite rare cross-linguistically, and when a language has such sounds, it nearly always has [sʼ]. Hence if *ṣ was actually affricate [tsʼ], it would be extremely unusual if *θ̣ ṣ́ were fricative [θʼ ɬʼ] rather than affricate [tθʼ tɬʼ]. According to Rodinson (1981) and Weninger (1998), the Greek place-name Mátlia with tl used to render Ge'ez (Proto-Semitic *ṣ́) is "clear proof"[37] that this sound was affricated in Ge'ez, and thus quite possibly in Proto-Semitic as well.

The evidence for the most maximal interpretation, where all the interdentals and lateral obstruents were affricates, appears to be mostly structural (i.e. the system would be more symmetric if reconstructed this way).

The shift → h occurred in most Semitic languages (besides Akkadian, Minaian, Qatabanian) in grammatical and pronominal morphemes, and it is unclear whether reduction of began in a daughter proto-language or in PS itself. Given this, some suggest that weakened may have been a separate phoneme in PS.[38]

Correspondence of sounds with daughter languages

See Semitic languages#Phonology for a fuller discussion of the outcomes of the Proto-Semitic sounds in the various daughter languages.

Correspondence of sounds with other Afroasiatic languages

See table at Proto-Afroasiatic language#Consonant correspondences.

Comparative vocabulary and reconstructed roots

See appendix in Wiktionary

See also


  1. This explains why there is no voicing distinction in the emphatic series (which wouldn't be necessary if the emphatics were pharyngealized).


  1. Kitchen, A; Ehret, C; Assefa, S; Mulligan, CJ. (2009). "Bayesian phylogenetic analysis of Semitic languages identifies an Early Bronze Age origin of Semitic in the Near East from an originating African language.". Proc Biol Sci. 276 (1668): 2703–10. doi:10.1098/rspb.2009.0408. PMC 2839953Freely accessible. PMID 19403539.
  2. National Geographic Feb-2007. Ancient Semitic Snake Spells Deciphered in Egyptian Pyramid.
  3. 1 2 Lipiński 2001, pp. 42
  4. Dziebel, German (2007). The Genius of Kinship: The Phenomenon of Human Kinship and the Global Diversity of Kinship Terminologies. Cambria Press. p. 366. ISBN 978-1-934043-65-3. Retrieved 13 August 2013.
  5. Nöth, Winfried (1 January 1994). Origins of Semiosis: Sign Evolution in Nature and Culture. Walter de Gruyter. p. 293. ISBN 978-3-11-087750-2. Retrieved 13 August 2013.
  6. Quantitative Approaches to Linguistic Diversity: Commemorating the Centenary of the Birth of Morris Swadesh. p. 73.
  7. Kitchen, A; Ehret, C; Assefa, S; Mulligan, CJ. (2009). "Bayesian phylogenetic analysis of Semitic languages identifies an Early Bronze Age origin of Semitic in the Near East". Proc Biol Sci. 276 (1668): 2703–10. doi:10.1098/rspb.2009.0408. PMC 2839953Freely accessible. PMID 19403539.
  8. 1 2 Lipiński 2001, pp. 43
  9. 1 2 3 4 Lipiński 2001, pp. 44
  10. Blench 2006, p. 96
  11. Versteegh, Kees (2001) The Arabic language p.13
  12. Sáenz-Badillos, Angel (1993) [1988]. "Hebrew in the context of the Semitic Languages". A History of the Hebrew Language (Historia de la Lengua Hebrea). trans. John Elwolde. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. pp. 18–19. ISBN 0-521-55634-1.
  13. Dolgopolsky 1999, p. 29.
  14. Hetzron 1997, p. 147.
  15. Woodard 2008, p. 219.
  16. For an example of an author using the traditional symbols, while subscribing to the new sound values, see Hackett, Joe Ann. 2008. Phoenician and Punic. In: The Ancient Languages of Syria-Palestine and Arabia (ed. Roger D. Woodard). Likewise Huehnengard, John and Christopher Woods. 2008. Akkadian and Eblaite. In: The Ancient Languages of Mesopotamia, Egypt, and Aksum (ed. Roger D. Woodard). P.96: "Similarly, there was a triad of affricates, voiced /dz/ (< z >) voiceless /ts/ (< s >), and emphatic /tsʼ/ (< *ṣ >). These became fricatives in later dialects; the voiceless member of this later, fricative set was pronounced [s] in Babylonian, but [š] in Assyrian, while the reflex of Proto-Semitic , which was probably simple [s] originally, continued to be pronounced as such in Assyrian, but as [š] in Babylonian." Similarly, an author remaining undecided regarding the sound values of the sibilants will also use the conventional symbols, e.g. Greenberg, Joseph, The Patterning of Root Morphemes in Semitic. 1990. P.379. In: On language: selected writings of Joseph H. Greenberg. Ed. Keith M. Denning and Suzanne Kemme: "There is great uncertainty regarding the phonetic values of s, ś, and š in Proto-Semitic. I simply use them here as conventional transcriptions of the three sibilants corresponding to the sounds indicated by samekh, śin, and šin respectively in Hebrew orthography."
  17. Lipiński, Edward. 2000. Semitic languages: outline of a comparative grammar. E.g. the tables on p.113, p.131; also p.133: "Common Semitic or Proto-Semitic has a voiceless fricative prepalatal or palato-alevolar š, i.e. [ʃ] ...", p.129 ff.
  18. Macdonald, M.C.A. 2008. Ancient North Arabian. In: The Ancient Languages of Syria-Palestine and Arabia (ed. Roger D. Woodard). P.190. Likewise most other authors in that volume, who posit the traditional designations and/or sound values for the daughter languages.
  19. Ferguson, Charles (1959), "The Arabic Koine", Language, 35 (4): 630, doi:10.2307/410601.
  20. Versteegh, Kees (1997), The Arabic Language, Edinburgh University Press, ISBN 90-04-17702-7
  21. E.g. Huehnengard, John. 2008. Afro-Asiatic. In: The Ancient Languages of Syria-Palestine and Arabia (ed. Roger D. Woodard). P.229–231
  22. Blau, Joshua (2010). Phonology and Morphology of Biblical Hebrew. Winona Lake, Indiana: Eisenbrauns. p. 25–40.
  23. 1 2 Dolgopolsky 1999, p. 33.
  24. 1 2 3 Kogan, Leonid (2011). "Proto-Semitic Phonetics and Phonology". In Semitic languages: an international handbook, Stefan Weninger, ed. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter. P. 62.
  25. According to Kogan "Proto-Semitic Phonetics and Phonology" (2011), Steiner 1982a is the "classic exposition" (p. 62).
  26. Kogan, (2011), p. 63.
  27. 1 2 3 Dolgopolsky 1999, p. 32.
  28. 1 2 3 Kogan (2011), p. 66.
  29. Kogan (2011), p. 67.
  30. Kogan (2011), pp. 67-68.
  31. Kogan (2011), p. 69.
  32. Quoted in Kogan (2011), p. 68.
  33. Kogan (2011), p. 68.
  34. Kogan (2011), p. 70, quoting Martinet 1953 p. 73 and Murtonen 1966 p. 138.
  35. 1 2 Kogan (2011), p. 70.
  36. Kogan (2011), pp. 92-93.
  37. Kogan (2011), p. 80.
  38. Dolgopolsky 1999, pp. 19, 69-70


External links

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