Hamito-Semitic languages and peoples of Africa II
By Jide Uwechia
Hamito-Semitic languages are a family of languages spoken by more than 200 million people in N Africa; much of the Sahara; parts of East, Central, West Africa; and W Asia (especially the Arabian Peninsula, Iraq, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, and Israel).
Four of the Hamito-Semitic tongues, Arabic, Hebrew, Coptic, and Syriac, are the languages of Islam, Judaism, and two sects of the Christian faith respectively. Accordingly, the language family reaches many millions in addition to its native speakers.
Hamitic and Semitic language families are closely related possessing a number of grammatical similarities and larger common vocabulary lexical and phonological resemblances than borrowing would account for.
The languages of the Hamito-Semitic family are thought to have first been spoken along the shores of the Red Sea coast of Africa. This theory is highly plausible for only in Africa are all its members found, aside from some Semitic dialect/languages encountered in W Asia.
The existence of the Semitic languages in West Asia is explained by assuming that the Semites of Africa migrated from East Africa to West Asia in very ancient times. Since then, the intermingling of Africans and West Asians has remained a continuous phenomenon up to the present times.
AFRICAN SEMITES -II
There are several languages in the Hamito-Semitic (Afro-Asiatic) group of language. All these languages are indigenous Africa languages, developed and spoken in Africa, by the Africans types normally described as the “Sub-Saharan African type”.
Some of these languages subsequently expanded into the Middle East as a consequence of immigration of original African populations. Thus the original Semites and the original Semitic homeland lie in the so-called Black Africa. It is no wonder then the strange and obscure biblical notation in Genesis Chapter 13 verse 1 – 3 that Abraham went up out and Egypt, traveling south (inside Africa) even to Beth-El (or house of the Lord), unto the place where his tent (home) has originally been at the beginning.
Although racist scholarship has confused and conflated rational discourse in this area, it appears that classical sources and recent discoveries have jointly confirmed the “negritude” of the original Semites. The proto-Semitics, the Natufians, the Mushabeans, the Ugaritic, are all known to be African groups that migrated from the continent into West Asia at different pre-historical and historical epochs.
The connection between Africa and West Asia persists. The fact that it persists so obviously after hundreds of years of efforts to erase it suggests that in a literal sense, the connection is rooted firmly in the history and consciousness of the African continent.
A classification of the various sub-groups of languages that make up the Hamito-Semitic group of language is described in the paragraphs that follow. Since the focus of this paper is on the Semitic sub-group of language, it will be treated in more details.
The Berber Languages
Some 12 million persons consider the Berber languages as their mother tongues. It is spoken in enclaves throughout many nations of N Africa such as Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Mauritania, Mali, Chad, and Niger. Many Berbers are bilingual, speaking also Arabic.
Grammatically, gender and number are indicated by prefixes and suffix. In written form the Arabic alphabet is employed, except in these of the Tamazight and Tamasheq dialects, which continue to use an ancient Berber alphabet known as Tifinagh.
The modern Berber variants include Tamazight, Tachelhit (Tashalit), Kabyle, Shawiya (Tashawit), Tamasheq (Taureg), Rif (Tarifit), Siwi, Zenaga, and others.
The Cushitic and Omotic Languages
Oromo, the language of more than 20 million people in Ethiopia and Kenya, and Somali which is spoken by some 9 million people in Somalia, Ethiopia, and Djibouti are the two principal Cushitic languages.
Among the many other Cushitic languages are Agaw, Bedawi, Burji, Daasanach, Komso, Saho-Afar and Sidamo. Oromo has a written Ethiopic script, whereas Somali is written in the Roman alphabet.
The Omotic languages are spoken by perhaps 3 million people who live in SW Ethiopia in the Omo River region. Dizi, Gonga, Gimira, Janjero, Kaficho, and Walamo are among the Omotic languages. They had been classified as Cushitic at one time.
The Chadic Languages
Among the Chadic group of languages which dispersed from the area around Lake Chad in central Africa, the most important tongue is Hausa, a West Chadic language spoken by more than 25 million people. Of that number about 19 million live in Northern Nigeria, 1 million in Sudan, 5 million in Niger, and 1 million in Cameroon, Togo, and Benin.
Hausa is a truly international inner African language. Very rich and elegant, it is a language easily used for prose and poetry. It is widely used as a lingua franca in West Africa and certain parts of Central Africa and Sudan.
Hausa has a written alphabet based on Arabic although in recent times it has developed a system based on Roman characters as well. Among the many other Chadic tongues are Angas, Bole, Gwandara, Ron, and other West Chadic languages; the Masa languages; Kera, Mubi, Nancere, Tobanga, and other East Chadic languages; and Kamwe, Kotoko, Mandara, and other Biu-Mandara languages.
The Semitic Languages:
There are different groups of the Semitic language branch. These groups are traditionally designated as the Southern Semitic group and the Western Semitic. The branch known as Eastern Semitic is for all practical purposes dead and forgotten, e.g. Akkadian language.
South Semitic Division
Ancient South Arabian had two principal dialects, Sabaean and Minaean. The earliest Minaean inscriptions belong to the 8th century B.C. or even earlier. The Sabaean inscriptions are of a later date.
It is interesting that the Minaeans considered themselves to be somewhat associated with Kush and Egypt because a variant of their ancient name was also known as Minaean Musraim or Egyptian Mina.
Ancient Sabaean inscriptions have also been discovered in parts of Ethiopia. It appears that there can be no meaningful distinction between the Sabaeans and the Ethiopians. The Ethiopian chronicles of kings a book with a lot of authority in Ethiopian contains the central theme of the Sheban (Sabaean) Empire of which headquarters was said to be located in Axumite – Ethiopia since 1000 BC.
The present day Ethiopians make a national fetish of the country’s ancient sway and authority. The Ethiopian national psyche could be said to be intrinsically connected with the theme of the imperial anciency and significance of the Sheban Empire. Ethiopia also contains numerous ancient sites and ruins of that once great Empire in East Africa that gave birth not only to humanity in general but to the black African Semites in particular.
To the South Semitic group belong the Semitic languages of Ethiopia, such as classical Ethiopic or Geez, Tigre, Tigrinya, Amharic, and Harari. The Semitic languages of Ethiopia are classified as North Ethiopic (to which classical Ethiopic, Tigre, and Tigrinya belong) and South Ethiopic (consisting of Amharic, Harari, Gurage, and others).
West Semitic Division:
The Columbia Encyclopedia, Sixth Edition. 2001-05, states that Canaanite, Aramaic (which embraced many dialects in the course of its long history, including Syriac), Arabic, and the unrelated Old and Modern South Arabia (sic) constitute the West Semitic Division.
The term Canaanite is derived from Canaan, the name for the ancient region that comprised Palestine, Phoenicia, and part of Syria. The Canaanite languages are supposedly Phoenician, Moabite, Ugaritic, and Hebrew.
Aramaic was the dominant language of the Middle East in the New Testament times. It appeared around 850 BC in Syria (the Tell Fekheriye stele). Thereafter, Aramaic spread rapidly, and by the 6th century BC it was the administrative language and lingua franca of the entire Middle East, all the way from Afghanistan in the Persian Empire to Egypt. Since its alphabet derives from the Canaanite Phoenician it was suggested that Aramaic was a dialect of Canaanite.
Phoenician was the tongue of the Phoenician people which scholars now considered dead and lost. The earliest inscriptions in Phoenician that can be deciphered are dated c.10th century B.C. Dialects of Phoenician language are also preserved in inscriptions from ancient Phoenician colonies, especially Carthage, whose language was a variant of Phoenician known as Punic.
Moabite another western Semitic language is known from a single inscription in that language dating from about the 9th cent. B.C. It is also preserved in proper names that occur in the Old Testament, and from the inscriptions of other peoples.
The Ugaritic language was first encountered in 1929 at Ras Shamra, Syria. The Ras Sharma text suggested that the redactors considered themselves to be from the geographical areas lying on the coast of the Eritrean (Red Sea). Ras Shamra, which flourished before the 12th century B.C., was called Ugarit in antiquity, so the text and the language discovered there were named after that ancient city.
The Ugaritic language has variously been regarded as an early form of Hebrew, an early form of Phoenician, an early dialect of Canaanite, and an independent dialect of West Semitic. Moreover, the writings in Ugaritic provide much guidance in the study of the Hebrew language and biblical literature of the early period.
The Columbia Encyclopedia, Sixth Edition. 2001-05.
The Catholic Encyclopedia on CD-ROM.
Cheik Anta Diop, The African Origin of Civilization, 1955 – 1974.
Francois Lenormant, Histoire Ancienne des Pheniciens, Paris: 1880.
M. A. Bryan, Notes on the Distribution of the Semitic and Cushitic Languages of Africa (1947); S. Moscati, ed., An Introduction to the Comparative Grammar of the Semitic Languages (1964); J. H. Greenberg, The Languages of Africa (2d ed. 1966); Leary, Comparative Grammar of the Semitic Languages (1923, repr. 1969); J. J. McCarthy, Formal Problems in Semitic Phonology and Morphology (1985); G. Khan, Studies in Semitic Syntax (1989).
April 9, 2006.