Afro-Asiatic languages

Afro-Asiatic languages

Infobox Language family
region=Horn of Africa, North Africa, Southwest Asia
family=One of the World's major language families
child2=Berber group
child3=Chadic group
child4=Cushitic group
child5=Semitic group
child6=Omotic group (debated) [ Is Omotic Afro-Asiatic?] by Rolf Theil]
child7=? "Ongota" (unclassified)

Distribution of Afro-Asiatic shown in yellow
The Afro-Asiatic languages constitute a language family with about 375 languages (SIL estimate) and more than 300 million speakers spread throughout North Africa, the Horn of Africa, northern West Africa, northern Central Africa, and Southwest Asia (including some 200 million speakers of Arabic).

The term "Afroasiatic" was coined by Joseph Greenberg to replace the earlier term "Hamito-Semitic" after his demonstration that Hamitic is not a valid language family (Greenberg 1963:50). It is now most often spelled "Afro-Asiatic", though both spellings are in use.

The family is sometimes called "Afrasian". Other names that have been given to it are "Erythraean" (Tucker 1966) and "Lisramic" (Hodge 1972).

The Afro-Asiatic language family includes the following subfamilies:

* Berber
* Chadic
* Egyptian
* Semitic
* Cushitic
* Omotic (sometimes classified as part of Cushitic; inclusion within Afro-Asiatic disputed by some)

The position of Beja is controversial; it is sometimes listed as an independent branch but is widely included within the diverse Cushitic branch. The position of Ongota within the Afro-Asiatic family, and even whether it is Afro-Asiatic, is likewise uncertain, partly for lack of data. Harold Fleming tentatively suggests Ongota constitutes a branch of its own. []

Classification history

Medieval scholars sometimes linked two or more branches of Afro-Asiatic together. As early as the 9th century, the Hebrew grammarian Judah ibn Quraysh of Tiaret in Algeria perceived a relationship between Berber and Semitic. The latter group was known to him through 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 (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 languages, and proposed the new name "Afroasiatic" for the family. Nearly all scholars have accepted Greenberg's classification.

In 1969, Harold Fleming proposed the recognition of Omotic as a fifth branch, rather than, as previously believed, a subgroup of Cushitic. This proposal has met with general acceptance. Several scholars, including Fleming and Robert Hetzron, have since questioned the traditional inclusion of Beja in Cushitic, but this view has yet to gain general acceptance.


Little agreement exists on the subgrouping of the five or six branches of Afro-Asiatic — Berber, Chadic, Egyptian, Semitic, Cushitic, and Omotic (if Omotic is not included in Cushitic). 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 Afro-Asiatic.

*Harold Fleming (1981) divided 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 Ongotá as a new third branch of Erythraean. He thus divided Afro-Asiatic into two major branches, Omotic and Erythraean, with Erythraean consisting of three sub-branches, Cushitic, Chadic-Berber-Egyptian-Semitic-Beja, and Ongotá.

*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 Afro-Asiatic, viewing Cushitic as a Sprachbund rather than a language family.

*Ehret (1995) groups Egyptian, Berber, and Semitic together in a "North Afro-Asiatic" subgroup.

*Lionel Bender (1997) groups Berber, Cushitic, and Semitic together as "Macro-Cushitic". He regards Chadic and Omotic as the branches of Afro-Asiatic 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.

*Rolf Theil (2006), in line with the noted Chadicist Paul Newman, excludes Omotic from Afro-Asiatic. He proposes that it be treated instead as an independent language family on the basis that no closer genetic relations have been demonstrated between Omotic and Afro-Asiatic than between Omotic and any other language family.

Position among the world's languages

Afro-Asiatic 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 also spoken outside of Africa.

There are no generally accepted relations between Afro-Asiatic and any other language family. However, several proposals grouping Afro-Asiatic 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 Hamito-Semitic (the term subsequently replaced by Afro-Asiatic) and the Indo-European languages. This proposal was accepted by some linguists (e.g. Holger Pedersen and Louis Hjelmslev) but has little currency today.

*Apparently influenced by Möller (a colleague of his at the University of Copenhagen), Holger Pedersen included Hamito-Semitic in his proposed Nostratic language family (cf. Pedersen 1931), which also included the Indo-European, Uralic, Altaic, and Eskimo languages. This inclusion was retained by subsequent Nostraticists, starting with Vladislav Illich-Svitych and Aharon Dolgopolsky. Like all aspects of the Nostratic hypothesis, it is highly controversial.Fact|date=June 2008

*Joseph Greenberg (2000-2002) did not reject a relationship of Afro-Asiatic to these other languages, but he considered it more distantly related to them than they were to each other, proposing instead to group these other languages in a separate language family, which he termed Eurasiatic.

Original homeland ("Urheimat") and date

No agreement exists on where Proto-Afro-Asiatic speakers lived (i.e. the Afro-Asiatic "Urheimat"), though the language is generally believed to have originated in Northeast Africa [ [ The Origins of Afroasiatic - Ehret et al. 306 (5702): 1680c - Science ] ] [] . Some scholars (such as Igor Diakonoff and Lionel Bender) have proposed Ethiopia, because it includes the majority of the diversity of the Afro-Asiatic language family and has very diverse groups in close geographic proximity, often considered a telltale sign for a linguistic geographic origin. Other researchers (such as Christopher Ehret) have put forward the western Red Sea coast and the Sahara. A minority suggests a linguistic homeland in the Levant (for instance Alexander Militarev; specifically, he identifies Afro-Asiatic with the Natufian culture), with Semitic being the only branch to stay put. []

The Semitic languages form the only Afro-Asiatic subfamily extant outside of Africa. Some scholars believe that, in historical or near-historical times, Semitic speakers crossed from South Arabia back into Eritrea. Others, such as A. Murtonen, dispute this view, suggesting that the Semitic branch may have originated in Ethiopia [Fleming, Harold C. (1968), "Ethiopic language history: testing linguistic hypotheses in an archaeological and documentary context" in "Ethnohistory", Vol. 15, No. 4 (Autumn), pp. 353-388] . A third view, based upon similarities between Semitic and Ancient Egyptian, is that the two languages developed from a common ancestral tongue along the Nile, crossing the Sinai with the dry phase from 6000-5800 BCE, at the end of the Pre-Pottery Neolithic B phase in the Levant [Midant-Reynes, Beatrix (2000), "The Prehistory of Egypt: From the First Egyptians to the First Pharaohs" (Blackwell) pp. 73-75] . Hunter-gatherers of the El-Harif Mesolithic culture, crossing the Sinai and from Northern Egypt, and adopting animal domestication but not agriculture, could then have created what Juris Yarins calls the Syro-Arabian nomadic pastoralism complex, spreading south along the shores of the Red Sea and northeast around the edge of the "Fertile Crescent". In the Levant this development appears as the Minhata culture and later as the Yarmoukian culture, which came from the same semi-arid zone as the later Ghassulian and Semitic Amorite cultures [Perrot J. (1964), "Les deux premières campagnes de fouilles à Munhata", "Syria" XLI, pp. 323-345] [Mellaart, James (1975), "The Neolithic of the Near East" (London: Thames and Hudson), pp. 239-241] .

Given the high diversity within the Afro-Asiatic family and the absence of a common vocabulary for agricultural items, it is suggested that the languages dispersed before the commencement of the Neolithic. Ehret [Ehret, Christopher (1982), "On the antiquity of agriculture in Ethiopia" "Journal of African History" (Univ. of Calif. Berkeley Press)] suggests that early Afro-Asiatic languages were involved in the domestication of Ethiopian food crops, but this is disputed by others who suggest that the words concerned are found only in the Cushitic and possibly Omotic families and that common cognates for agriculture are not present.

The finding of a common vocabulary for pottery containers, however, suggests that this technology was known. For example: Proto-Semitic "*k'ad-ah-" 'vessel', found in Arabic "kadah" 'drinking bowl, cup, goblet, glass, tumbler'; Sabaean "m-kdh(m,n)" 'cup'; Ethiopic / Geez "kadho" 'vessel, gourd', "ma-kdeht" 'jar, jug, bucket'; Lowland East Cushitic "*k'adad-" 'vessel, gourd'; Oromo "k'odaa" 'vessel, gourd'; Egyptian "qd" 'pot'; Lowland East Cushitic "*k'od-" 'receptacle'; Oromo "k'odaa" 'receptacle'; West Chadic "*k'wad-" 'calabash'; Dangla "koda" 'pot' (Bomhard 1996). Bomhard reconstructs these forms to a Proto-Afro-Asiatic "*k'ud- / *k'od-" 'vessel, pot'.

Given that wavy-line pottery is found widely in the Sahara from 8000 BCE [Barnett, William and Hoopes, John (eds.) (1995). "The Emergence of Pottery". Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press. ISBN 1-56098-517-8] , and that the Neolithic agricultural technologies arrived around 5000 BCE [Midant-Reynes, Beatrix (2000), "The Prehistory of Egypt: From the First Egyptians to the First Pharaohs" (Blackwell)] , this sets a possible context for Proto-Afro-Asiatic dispersal. As it is known that the Ethiopian farmers moved into the highlands from the direction of Nubian SudanFact|date=August 2008, and attempts to translate the Meroitic script found in this area show significant Afro-Asiatic characteristics, Lionel Bender suggests that this area of the Southern Nile was the centre from which the Afro-Asiatic languages dispersed [Bender, Lionel (1997), "Upside Down Afrasian", "Afrikanistische Arbeitspapiere" 50, pp. 19-34] . The dates of pottery and agriculture set approximate early and late dates for this linguistic dispersal. The date of Proto-Afro-Asiatic would thus lie somewhere between ca. 8000 and ca. 5000 BCE or, expressed differently, between 7,000 and 10,000 years ago.

Climatically this was the time of a "wet Sahara" phase with large rivers and lakes. The dispersal of Afro-Asiatic may thus have been a response to the recent operation of the "Sahara pump" [Fagan, Brian (2004), "The Long Hot Summer: How Climate Changed Civilisation" (London: Grant Books)] [Burroughs, William J. (2005), "Climate Change in Prehistory: The End of the Reign of Chaos" (Cambridge University Press)] .

Some scholars argue that Afro-Asiatic is considerably older than this. Carleton T. Hodge (1991:141) states:

:Archeological evidence indicates that the time depth of the proto-language involved is over 16,000 years, possibly 20,000 (Munson 1977, Hodge 1978). The proportion of items attested as having survived over 4,000 years within Egyptian (Hodge 1975) gives us confidence in the relatability of languages at the greater time depth (Swadesh 1959: 27).

According to Christopher Ehret (1997):

:Afroasiatic is a family of much greater time depth than even most of its students realize; its first divergences trace back probably at least 15,000 years ago, not just 8,000 or 9,000 as many believe. This last point imparts a ... general lesson for historical linguists: the historical comparative method, in fact, works very well farther back in time than scholars have generally allowed, provided the family in question contains a sufficiently large number of languages from which evidence can still be obtained.

Common features

Common features of the Afro-Asiatic 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, and
* a templatic morphology in which words inflect by internal changes as well as with prefixes and suffixes.

In the verbal system, Semitic, Berber, and Cushitic (including Beja) all provide evidence for a prefix conjugation:

All Afro-Asiatic subfamilies show evidence of a causative affix "s", but a similar suffix also appears in other groups, such as the Niger-Congo languages.

Semitic, Berber, Cushitic (including Beja), and Chadic support possessive suffixes.

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


Some important Afro-Asiatic 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. "yemmut"), Semitic (*"mwt"), and Cushitic (Proto-Somali *"umaaw"/*"-am-w(t)-" 'die'). Also "Mot", Canaanite god of death. (The Proto-Indo-European root "*mor-/mr-" 'die' is similar, evidence in favor of the classification of both Afro-Asiatic and Indo-European in the hypothetical Nostratic family.)
*"s-n" 'know', attested in Chadic, Berber, and Egyptian.
*"l-s" 'tongue' (Ehret: "*lis' " 'to lick'), attested in Semitic (*"lasaan/lisaan"), 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"), Chadic, and arguably Omotic. Compare Cushitic *"dîm"/*"dâm", 'red'.

See also

* Nostratic languages
* African languages
* Asian languages

Etymological bibliography

Some of the main sources for Afro-Asiatic 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. [ [ Bibliographie Linguistique - Linguistic Bibliography ] ]



* 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.

* 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.

* Greenberg, Joseph H. 1950. [ "Studies in African linguistic classification: IV. Hamito-Semitic."] "Southwestern Journal of Anthropology" 6, 47-63.

* Greenberg, Joseph H. 1963. "The Languages of Africa". Bloomington: Indiana University.

* Greenberg, Joseph H. 1966. "The Languages of Africa" (2nd ed. with additions and corrections). Bloomington: Indiana University.

* 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.

* Ruhlen, Merritt. 1991. "A Guide to the World's Languages." Stanford, California: Stanford University Press.

External links

* [ NACAL] The North American Conference on Afroasiatic Linguistics, now in its 35th year
* [ African Language History] (pdf) by Roger Blench
* [ "Chadic overview"] by Russell G. Schuh
* [ A comparison of Orel-Stolbova's and Ehret's Afro-Asiatic reconstructions]
* [ Afro-Asiatic and Semitic genealogical trees] , presented by Alexander Militarev at his talk "Genealogical classification of Afro-Asiatic languages according to the latest data" at the conference on the 70th anniversary of V.M. Illich-Svitych, Moscow, 2004; [ short annotations of the talks given there] ru icon
* [ Family tree of Afro-Asiatic] at
* [ Is Omotic Afro-Asiatic?] by Rolf Theil

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