Afroasiatic languages

Afroasiatic languages
Horn of Africa, North Africa, Sahel, and Middle East[1]
Linguistic classification: One of the world's major language families
Proto-language: Proto-Afroasiatic
Omotic group (inclusion debated)[2]
ISO 639-2 and 639-5: afa

The Afroasiatic languages (alternatively Afro-Asiatic), also known as Hamito-Semitic,[1] constitute one of the world's largest language families, with about 375 living languages.[3] The phylum is spoken by 200 to 300 million people primarily spread throughout the Middle East, North Africa, the Horn of Africa, and parts of the Sahel.[1]

The most widely-spoken Afroasiatic language is Arabic, including all its colloquial varieties, with 230 million native speakers, spoken mostly in the Middle East and North Africa.[4] The second most spoken Afroasiatic language is the Berber language, with all of its dialects, which is spoken in Morocco, Algeria, Libya and across the rest of North Africa and the Sahara Desert. Berber is spoken by about 25 to 35 million people. Amharic, the national language of Ethiopia, with 18 million native speakers; Somali, spoken by around 12 million in Greater Somalia; and Hausa, which serves as a lingua franca in large parts of the Sahel, with 25 million speakers.[3] In addition to languages now spoken, Afroasiatic includes several ancient languages, such as Ancient Egyptian, Biblical Hebrew, and Akkadian.



The term "Afroasiatic" (often now spelled as Afro-Asiatic) was coined by Maurice Delafosse (1914). It did not come into general use until it was adopted by Joseph Greenberg (1950) to replace the earlier term "Hamito-Semitic", following his demonstration that Hamitic is not a valid grouping. The term "Hamito-Semitic" remains in use in the academic traditions of some European countries. Some authors now replace "Afro-Asiatic" with "Afrasian", or, reflecting an opinion that it is more African than Asian, "Afrasan". Individual scholars have called the family "Erythraean" (Tucker 1966) and "Lisramic" (Hodge 1972).

Distribution and branches

Some linguists' proposals for grouping within Afroasiatic

The Afroasiatic language family is usually considered to include the following branches:

While there is general agreement on these six families, there are some points of disagreement among linguists who study Afroasiatic. In particular:

  • The Omotic language branch is the most controversial member of Afroasiatic since the grammatical formatives which most linguists have given greatest weight in classifying languages in the family "are either absent or distinctly wobbly" (Hayward 1995). Greenberg (1963) and others considered it a subgroup of Cushitic, while others have raised doubts about it being part of Afroasiatic at all (e.g. Theil 2006).[2]
  • The Afroasiatic identity of Ongota is also broadly questioned, as is its position within Afroasiatic among those who accept it, due to the "mixed" appearance of the language and a paucity of research and data. Harold Fleming (2006) proposes that Ongota constitutes a separate branch of Afroasiatic.[5] Bonny Sands (2009) believes the most convincing proposal is by Savà and Tosco (2003), namely that Ongota is an East Cushitic language with a Nilo-Saharan substratum. In other words, the Ongota people would appear to have once spoken a Nilo-Saharan language but then shifted to speaking a Cushitic language, while retaining some characteristics of their earlier Nilo-Saharan language.[2]
  • Beja is sometimes listed as a separate branch of Afroasiatic but is more often included in the Cushitic branch, which has a high degree of internal diversity.
  • Whether the various branches of Cushitic actually form a language family is sometimes questioned, but not their inclusion in Afroasiatic itself.
  • There is no consensus on the interrelationships of the five non-Omotic branches of Afroasiatic (see "Overview of classifications" below). This situation is not unusual, even among long-established language families: there are also many disagreements concerning the internal classification of the Indo-European languages, for instance.

Classification history

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. He defined it as consisting of a Semitic group plus a "Hamitic" group containing Egyptian, Berber, and Cushitic; he excluded the Chadic group. These classifications relied in part on non-linguistic anthropological and racial arguments that have largely been discredited (see Hamitic hypothesis).

Leo Reinisch (1909) proposed linking Cushitic and Chadic, while urging a more distant affinity to Egyptian and Semitic, thus foreshadowing Greenberg, but his suggestion found little resonance.

Marcel Cohen (1924) rejected the idea of a distinct Hamitic subgroup and included Hausa (a Chadic language) in his comparative Hamito-Semitic vocabulary.

Joseph Greenberg (1950) strongly confirmed Cohen's rejection of "Hamitic", added (and sub-classified) the Chadic branch, and proposed the new name "Afroasiatic" for the family. Nearly all scholars have accepted Greenberg's classification.

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.


Proposed Afro-Asiatic sub-divisions
Greenberg (1963) Newman (1980) Fleming (post-1981) Ehret (1995)
  • Semitic
  • Egyptian
  • Berber
  • Cushitic
    • Western Cushitic
      (equals Omotic)
  • Chadic
  • Berber-Chadic
  • Egypto-Semitic
  • Cushitic

(excludes Omotic)

  • Omotic
  • Erythraean:
    • Cushitic
    • Ongota
    • Non-Ethiopian:
      • Chadic
      • Berber
      • Egyptian
      • Semitic
      • Beja
  • Omotic
  • Cushitic
  • Chadic
  • North Afro-Asiatic:
    • Egyptian
    • Berber
    • Semitic
Orel & Stobova (1995) Diakonoff (1996) Bender (1997) Militarev (2000)
  • Berber-Semitic
  • Chadic-Egyptian
  • Omotic
  • Beja
  • Agaw
  • Sidamic
  • East Lowlands
  • Rift
  • East-West Afrasian:
    • Berber
    • Cushitic
    • Semitic
  • North-South Afrasian:
    • Chadic
    • Egyptian

(excludes Omotic)

  • Omotic
  • Chadic
  • Macro-Cushitic:
    • Berber
    • Cushitic
    • Semitic
  • North Afrasian:
    • African North Afrasian:
      • Chado-Berber
      • Egyptian
    • Semitic
  • South Afrasian:
    • Omotic
    • Cushitic

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.


  • Paul Newman (1980) groups Berber with Chadic and Egyptian with Semitic, while questioning the inclusion of Omotic in Afroasiatic. Rolf Theil (2006) concurs with the exclusion of Omotic, but does not otherwise address the structure of the family.[6]
  • Harold Fleming (1981) divides non-Omotic Afroasiatic, or "Erythraean", into three groups, Cushitic, Semitic, and Chadic-Berber-Egyptian. He later added Semitic and Beja to Chadic-Berber-Egyptian and tentatively proposed Ongota as a new third branch of Erythraean. He thus divided Afroasiatic into two major branches, Omotic and Erythraean, with Erythraean consisting of three sub-branches, Cushitic, Chadic-Berber-Egyptian-Semitic-Beja, and Ongota.
  • Vladimir Orel and Olga Stolbova (1995) group Berber with Semitic and Chadic with Egyptian. They split up Cushitic into five or more independent branches of Afroasiatic, viewing Cushitic as a Sprachbund rather than a language family.
  • Christopher Ehret (1995) groups Egyptian, Berber, and Semitic together in a "North Afro-Asiatic" subgroup.
  • Igor M. Diakonoff (1996) subdivides Afroasiatic in two, grouping Berber, Cushitic, and Semitic together as East-West Afrasian (ESA), and Chadic with Egyptian as North-South Afrasian (NSA). He excludes Omotic from Afroasiatic.
  • Lionel Bender (1997) groups Berber, Cushitic, and Semitic together as "Macro-Cushitic". He regards Chadic and Omotic as the branches of Afroasiatic most remote from the others.
  • Alexander Militarev (2000), on the basis of lexicostatistics, groups Berber with Chadic and both more distantly with Semitic, as against Cushitic and Omotic. He places Ongota in South Omotic.

Position among the world's languages

Afroasiatic is one of the four language families of Africa identified by Joseph Greenberg in his book The Languages of Africa (1963). It is the only one that extends outside of Africa, via the Semitic branch.

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:

  • Hermann Möller (1906) argued for a relation between Semitic and the Indo-European languages. This proposal was accepted by some linguists (e.g. Holger Pedersen and Louis Hjelmslev) but has no currency today. Möller made his proposal before the relationship between the Semitic and the other Afroasiatic languages was observed.
  • Apparently influenced by Möller (a colleague of his at the University of Copenhagen), Holger Pedersen included Hamito-Semitic (the term replaced by Afroasiatic) in his proposed Nostratic macro-family (cf. Pedersen 1931:336–338), which also included the Indo-European, Finno-Ugric, Samoyed, Turkish, Mongolian, Manchu, and Yukaghir languages. This inclusion was retained by subsequent Nostraticists, starting with Vladislav Illich-Svitych and Aharon Dolgopolsky.
  • Joseph Greenberg (2000–2002) did not reject a relationship of Afroasiatic to these other languages, but he considered it more distantly related to them than they were to each other, grouping instead these other languages in a separate macro-family, which he called Eurasiatic, and to which he added Chukotian, Gilyak, Korean, Japanese-Ryukyuan, Eskimo–Aleut, and Ainu.
  • Most recently, Sergei Starostin's school has accepted Eurasiatic as a subgroup of Nostratic, with Afroasiatic, Dravidian, and Kartvelian in Nostratic outside of Eurasiatic. An even larger Borean group would contain Nostratic as well as Dene–Caucasian and Austric.
  • As of 2011, there is no consensual dictionary of Afroasiatic roots (Christopher Ehret's dictionary and the one published by Orel-Stolbova are divergent and disagree). Until a reconstructed set of Afroasiatic roots is agreed upon, it is difficult to classify Afroasiatic within a bigger frame, or to compare it with established proto-languages.

Origins and common features

Verbal paradigms in several Afroasiatic languages:
↓ Number Language → Arabic Coptic Kabyle Somali Beja Hausa
Meaning → write die fly come eat drink
singular 1 ʼaktubu timou ttafgeɣ imaaddaa tamáni ina shan
2f taktubīna temou tettafgeḍ timaaddaa tamtínii kina shan
2m taktubu kmou tamtíniya kana shan
3f smou tettafeg tamtíni tana shan
3m yaktubu fmou yettafeg yimaadda tamíni yana shan
dual 2 taktubāni
3m yaktubāni
plural 1 naktubu tənmou nettafeg nimaadnaa támnay muna shan
2m taktubūna tetənmou tettafgem timaaddaan támteena kuna shan
2f taktubna tettafgemt
3m yaktubūna semou ttafgen yimaaddaan támeen suna shan
3f yaktubna ttafgent

Common (but not universal) features of the Afroasiatic languages include:

  • A two-gender system in the singular, with the feminine marked by the /t/ sound
  • VSO typology with SVO tendencies
  • A set of emphatic consonants, variously realized as glottalized, pharyngealized, or implosive
  • Morphology in which words inflect by changes within the root (vowel changes or gemination) as well as with prefixes and suffixes
  • All Afroasiatic subfamilies show evidence of a causative affix s. Semitic, Berber, Cushitic (including Beja), and Chadic support possessive suffixes.

Tonal languages appear in the Omotic, Chadic, and Cushitic branches of Afroasiatic, according to Ehret (1996). The Semitic, Berber, and Egyptian branches do not use tones phonemically.


Some Afroasiatic cognates are:

  • *b-n- 'build' (Ehret: *bĭn), attested in Chadic, Semitic (*bny), Cushitic (*mĭn/*măn 'house'), Berber (*bn) and Omotic (Dime bin- 'build, create').
  • *m-t 'die' (Ehret: *maaw), attested in Chadic (for example, Hausa mutu), Egyptian (mwt *muwt, mt, Coptic mu), Berber (mmet, pr. immut), Semitic (*mwt), and Cushitic (Proto-Somali *umaaw/*-am-w(t)- 'die'). Also Mot, Canaanite god of death.
  • *s-n 'know', attested in Chadic (for example, Hausa san), Berber, Egyptian and Semitic (Hebrew š-n-n 'learn, study').
  • *l-s 'tongue' (Ehret: *lis' 'to lick'), attested in Semitic (*lasaan/lisaan 'tongue'), Egyptian (ns *ls, Coptic las), Berber (ils), Chadic (for example, Hausa harshe), and possibly Omotic (Dime lits'- 'lick').
  • *s-m 'name' (Ehret: *sŭm / *sĭm), attested in Semitic (*sm), Berber (ism), Chadic (for example, Hausa suna), Cushitic, and Omotic (though some see the Berber form, ism, and the Omotic form, sunts, as Semitic loanwords.) The Egyptian smi 'report, announce' offers another possible cognate.
  • *d-m 'blood' (Ehret: *dîm / *dâm), attested in Berber (idammen), Semitic (*dam), and Chadic. Compare Cushitic *dîm/*dâm, 'red'.

Etymological bibliography

Some of the main sources for Afroasiatic etymologies include:

  • Cohen, Marcel. 1947. Essai comparatif sur le vocabulaire et la phonétique du chamito-sémitique. Paris: Champion.
  • Diakonoff, Igor M. et al. 1993–1997. "Historical-comparative vocabulary of Afrasian", St. Petersburg Journal of African Studies 2–6.
  • Ehret, Christopher. 1996. Reconstructing Proto-Afroasiatic (Proto-Afrasian): Vowels, Tone, Consonants, and Vocabulary (University of California Publications in Linguistics 126). Berkeley, California.
  • Orel, Vladimir E. and Olga V. Stolbova. 1995. Hamito-Semitic Etymological Dictionary: Materials for a Reconstruction. Leiden: Brill. ISBN 90-04-10051-2.

See also


  1. ^ a b c Daniel Don Nanjira, African Foreign Policy and Diplomacy: From Antiquity to the 21st Century, (ABC-CLIO: 2010).
  2. ^ a b c Sands, Bonny (2009). "Africa’s Linguistic Diversity". Language and Linguistics Compass 3/2 (2009): 559–580, 10.1111/j.1749-818x.2008.00124.x
  3. ^ a b Ethnologue family tree for Afroasiatic languages
  4. ^ Languages of the World
  5. ^ [1]
  6. ^ [2]


  • Barnett, William and John Hoopes (editors). 1995. The Emergence of Pottery. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press. ISBN 1-56098-517-8
  • Bender, Lionel et al. 2003. Selected Comparative-Historical Afro-Asiatic Studies in Memory of Igor M. Diakonoff. LINCOM.
  • Bomhard, Alan R. 1996. Indo-European and the Nostratic Hypothesis. Signum.
  • Diakonoff, Igor M. 1996. "Some reflections on the Afrasian linguistic macrofamily." Journal of Near Eastern Studies 55, 293.
  • Diakonoff, Igor M. 1998. "The earliest Semitic society: Linguistic data." Journal of Semitic Studies 43, 209.
  • Dimmendaal, Gerrit, and Erhard Voeltz. 2007. "Africa". In Christopher Moseley, ed., Encyclopedia of the world's endangered languages.
  • Ehret, Christopher. 1997. Abstract of "The lessons of deep-time historical-comparative reconstruction in Afroasiatic: reflections on Reconstructing Proto-Afroasiatic: Vowels, Tone, Consonants, and Vocabulary (U.C. Press, 1995)", paper delivered at the Twenty-fifth Annual Meeting of the North American Conference on Afro-Asiatic Linguistics, held in Miami, Florida on March 21–23, 1997.
  • Finnegan, Ruth H. 1970. "Afro-Asiatic languages West Africa". Oral Literature in Africa, pg 558.
  • Fleming, Harold C. 2006. Ongota: A Decisive Language in African Prehistory. Wiesbaden: Otto Harrassowitz.
  • Greenberg, Joseph H. 1950. "Studies in African linguistic classification: IV. Hamito-Semitic." Southwestern Journal of Anthropology 6, 47-63.
  • Greenberg, Joseph H. 1955. Studies in African Linguistic Classification. New Haven: Compass Publishing Company. (Photo-offset reprint of the SJA articles with minor corrections.)
  • Greenberg, Joseph H. 1963. The Languages of Africa. Bloomington: Indiana University. (Heavily revised version of Greenberg 1955.)
  • Greenberg, Joseph H. 1966. The Languages of Africa (2nd ed. with additions and corrections). Bloomington: Indiana University.
  • Greenberg, Joseph H. 1981. "African linguistic classification." General History of Africa, Volume 1: Methodology and African Prehistory, edited by Joseph Ki-Zerbo, 292–308. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.
  • Greenberg, Joseph H. 2000–2002. Indo-European and Its Closest Relatives: The Eurasiatic Language Family, Volume 1: Grammar, Volume 2: Lexicon. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
  • Hayward, R. J. 1995. "The challenge of Omotic: an inaugural lecture delivered on 17 February 1994". London: School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London.
  • Heine, Bernd and Derek Nurse. 2000. African Languages, Chapter 4. Cambridge University Press.
  • Hodge, Carleton T. (editor). 1971. Afroasiatic: A Survey. The Hague – Paris: Mouton.
  • Hodge, Carleton T. 1991. "Indo-European and Afro-Asiatic." In Sydney M. Lamb and E. Douglas Mitchell (editors), Sprung from Some Common Source: Investigations into the Prehistory of Languages, Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 141–165.
  • Huehnergard, John. 2004. "Afro-Asiatic." In R.D. Woodard (editor), The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the World’s Ancient Languages, Cambridge – New York, 2004, 138–159.
  • Militarev, Alexander. "Towards the genetic affiliation of Ongota, a nearly-extinct language of Ethiopia," 60 pp. In Orientalia et Classica: Papers of the Institute of Oriental and Classical Studies, Issue 5. Мoscow. (Forthcoming.)
  • Newman, Paul. 1980. The Classification of Chadic within Afroasiatic. Leiden: Universitaire Pers Leiden.
  • Ruhlen, Merritt. 1991. A Guide to the World's Languages. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press.
  • Sands, Bonny. 2009. "Africa’s linguistic diversity". In Language and Linguistics Compass 3.2, 559–580.
  • Theil, R. 2006. Is Omotic Afro-Asiatic? Proceedings from the David Dwyer retirement symposium, Michigan State University, East Lansing, 21 October 2006.

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