A Unique Ancestral Root of Two Semitic Languages

The concept of a language family refers to a group of languages that are related and share a common origin. The Semitic languages, which are the parts of one of the largest families, include those spoken by the Hebrews and Phoenicians, the Arabs, the Babylonians, and the Assyrians in the north and north-east, the Southern Arabians, and the Abyssinians in the south (Volck & Welton, 1886, p. 148). Language has been seen as a vehicle to help the achievement of unity, which is an ideal that all societies aspire to (Luoch, 2015, p. 155). In this sense, the case of Hebrew and Arabic is different. Unlike the others, the communities speaking these languages are marked by the disagreements and dynamics of their relationship. Today, these two different societies speaking similar languages have different religions and political views. This article explores the common roots of Arabic and Hebrew by discussing their similarities.


“All the Semitic languages constitute a strictly peculiar and individual family, which is most sharply distinguished from all other human tongues by definite laws and peculiarities” (Schodde, 1885, p. 247). They all are perceived to be daughters of one mother, of one primitive Semitic language (Volck & Welton, 1886, p. 149). In the fifteenth century BC, the Proto-Canaanite script gave rise to the Phoenician alphabet. Apart from what can be learned from the El-Amarna letters that Canaanite monarchs wrote, there is almost no information about the Canaanite language. Phoenician first appeared in the region that is now Lebanon, Syria, and Israel, back when it was still known as Pūt. Up to the second century AD, the language was spoken throughout the Mediterranean, especially in Tunisia, Malta, southern France, the southern Iberian peninsula, and Sicily. Even though this language has spread across such a large area, there are few Phoenician texts that have survived, but its great influence on linguistics is evident.

Figure 1: Early “ABCs” Identified on Artifact From an Egyptian Tomb

Byblos is the location of the earliest Phoenician alphabet writings, which date around 1000 BC. The Phoenicians used the cuneiform script to write before that, because of the significant influence of Egypt on the Phoenician language, culture, and writing. The major evolutionary change from pictogram to alphabet came from the Phoenicians, with their scribes extracting out of the existing array of more than 700 hieroglyphsphs a parsimonious set of 22 letters (Bichakjian, 2017, p. 124). These were all consonants – more was not needed since Phoenician, being a Semitic language, consigns meaning mainly to sets of consonants and uses diacritic marks for vowels (Bichakjian, 2017, p. 124). In this system called abjad, writing always proceeds from right to left with 22 consonant letters, and the pronunciation clarifies the meaning. Because it was simpler to use than other languages at the time, it was also easier for regular people to learn to read and write. This significantly undermined the idea that literacy was the domain of the elite and clergy, who exploited their control on the profession to rule the populace.

From a comparison of these languages in terms of their richness of words and their grammar, it is inferred that all these languages referred to as Semitic as well as their speaking nations once formed a unity (Volck & Welton, 1886, p. 148). During the later stages, they divided themselves into new families with new dialects through emigration, eventually becoming new nations with new languages. (Volck & Welton, 1886, p. 148). The Aramaeans adopted the Phoenician alphabet in the ninth century BCE and added symbols for long vowels and the letter "aleph". Aramaic alphabet eventually evolved into current Arabic and it was also transformed into various scripts such as the Jewish square script.

Figure 2: Pedestal with a Phoenician inscription from findings found in Ibiza, Balearic Islands

Arabic and Hebrew display considerable similarities in syntax, sounds, vocabulary, and grammar, which can be illustrated by comparing some words of Arabic and Hebrew (Ghazzawi, 1986, p. 1). “The word for "peace" in Arabic is salaam and in Hebrew shalom; the word for "tongue, language" in Arabic is lisaan and in Hebrew lashon; and the word for "year" in Arabic is sana and in Hebrew shana” (Ghazzawi, 1986, p. 1). Not all words in the two languages are this much alike, of course, but there are enough similar ones to make the relationship unmistakable (Ghazzawi, 1986, p. 1). Other than this, in Hebrew and Arabic, words are constructed by combining a consonantal root that carries most of the semantic information and a word pattern that includes vowels as well as consonants, and provides information about the word class and its morphological status, as well as the complete unequivocal structure of the word. (Ibrahim, 2006, p. 566). Thus, every Hebrew or Arabic word is at least bimorphemic but no single morpheme constitutes a word in itself.

Figure 3: Ancient Hebrew script on a wall in the Santa María la Blanca synagogue

For example, in Modern Standard Arabic: the consonantal root /ktb/ combined with the vocalic pattern CaCaCa derives the verb "kataba" "to write" (Kamir et al., 2002, p. 1). Similarly to this, in Modern Hebrew: the consonantal root /ktv/ combined with the vocalic pattern CaCaC derives the verb "katav" "to write" (Kamir et al., 2002, p. 1). The original spelling of the words, first in Arabic and latter in Hebrew, is as follows: the roots ك-ت-ب and כ-ת-ב, and the infinitive verbs كَتَبَ and לכתוב. This derivation is further inflected into forms that indicate semantic features, such as number, gender, tense: "katab-tu" "I wrote", "katab-ta" "you (sing. masc.) wrote", "katab-ti" "you (sing. fem.) wrote", "a-ktubu" "I write/will write"(Kamir et al., 2002, p. 1). Hebrew inflections are: "katav-ti" "I wrote", "katav-ta" "you (sing. masc.) wrote", "katav-t" "you (sing. fem.) wrote", "e-xtov" "I will write" (Kamir et al., 2002, p. 1). ‘In fact, morphological similarity extends much further than this general observation, and includes very specific similarities, such as usage of nominal forms to mark tenses and moods of verbs; usage of pronominal enclitics to convey direct objects, and usage of proclitics to convey some prepositions (Kamir et al., 2002, p. 2).

Figure 4: Ancient currency: glimpses of early Islamic coins

Besides sharing the same linguistic root, there are also genetic similarities between the Arabs and Hebrews. On the other hand, it is a fact that between the Semitic and the Indo-European groups no genealogical relationship exists (Schodde, 1885, p. 249). Despite the geographical distance between the two groups being considerable, the current political environment indicates closer ties between the Hebrews and some nations speaking Indo-European languages. Another similarity between Hebrews and Arabs is both of them are the pioneers of fundamental monotheistic religions. However, this similarity led to further divergence and clash of the Middle Eastern nations. In addition, as a result of the recent political process, tolerance patterns have changed among these groups, mostly determined by ongoing conflict. It illustrates the diminishing influence of geography and language as a unifying element of culture compared to religion and national interests. Despite their common roots, these two groups were irrevocably separated at some point in history, becoming a significant example of political turmoil and contradiction.



Bibliographical References

Bichakjian, B. H. (2017). Language evolution: How language was built and made to evolve. Language Sciences, 63, 119–129. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.langsci.2017.03.004 Ibrahim, R. (2006). Morpho-phonemic similarity within and between languages: A factor to be considered in processing Arabic and Hebrew. Reading and Writing, 19(6), 563–586. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11145-006-9009-y Kamir, D., Soreq, N., & Neeman, Y. (2002). A comprehensive NLP system for modern standard arabic and modern hebrew. Proceedings of the ACL-02 Workshop on Computational Approaches to Semitic Languages -. https://doi.org/10.3115/1118637.1118646 Luoch, T.O. (2015). The Myth of Language as a Unifying Factor. In: Nasong’o, W.S. (eds) The Roots of Ethnic Conflict in Africa. Palgrave Macmillan, New York. https://doi.org/10.1057/9781137555007_8

Ghazzawi, S. (1986). The Arabic Language. Center for Contemporary Arab Studies/Georgetown University. https://communitycollegeoutreach.arizona.edu/sites/communitycollegeoutreach.arizona.edu/files/instructional/Sabah%20-%20The%20Arabic%20Language.pdf Schodde, G. H. (1885). On the Semitic languages in general. Hebraica, 1(4), 247–249. https://doi.org/10.1086/368839 Volck, W., & Welton, D. M. (1886). “The Semites.” Hebraica, 2(3), 147–161. http://www.jstor.org/stable/527471


Visual Sources

Figure 1: Strudwick, N. 2018. Early “ABCs” Identified on Artifact From an Egyptian Tomb. [Image]. Retrieved from: https://www.archaeology.org/news/6627-18051-egypt-abc-sequence



Figure 2: Josep Estanyol, M. 2018. Pedestal with a Phoenician inscription from findings found in Ibiza, Balearic Islands. [Image]. Retrieved from:

https://www.ub.edu/web/ub/en/menu_eines/noticies/2018/03/018.html

Figure 3: Micromoth. March, 2016. Ancient Hebrew script on a wall in the Santa María la Blanca synagogue. [Stock Photo].Retrieved from: https://www.rgbstock.com/photo/pEQdfiW/Hebrew+script

Figure 4: Tehran Times. 2021. Ancient currency: glimpses of early Islamic coins. [Image]. Retrieved from:

https://www.tehrantimes.com/news/463847/Ancient-currency-glimpses-of-early-Islamic-coins





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Deniz Aktunç

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