Northwest Semitic languages
Northwest Semitic is a division of the Semitic languages comprising the indigenous languages of the Levant. It emerged from Proto-Semitic in the Early Bronze Age. It is first attested in proper names identified as Amorite in the Middle Bronze Age. The oldest coherent texts are in Ugaritic, dating to the Late Bronze Age, which by the time of the Bronze Age collapse are joined by Old Aramaic, and by the Iron Age by the Canaanite languages (Phoenician and Hebrew).[1]
Northwest Semitic
concentrated in the Middle East
Linguistic classificationAfro-Asiatic
Northwest Semitic
The term was coined by Carl Brockelmann in 1908,[2] who separated Fritz Hommel's 1883 classification of West Semitic languages[2] into Northwest (Canaanite and Aramaic) and Southwest (Arabic and Abyssinian).[3]
Brockelmann's Canaanite sub-group includes Ugaritic, Phoenician and Hebrew. Some scholars would now separate Ugaritic as a separate branch of Northwest Semitic alongside Canaanite.
Central Semitic is a proposed intermediate group comprising Northwest Semitic and Arabic. Central Semitic is either a subgroup of West Semitic or a top-level division of Semitic alongside East Semitic and South Semitic.[4] SIL Ethnologue in its system of classification (of living languages only) eliminates Northwest Semitic entirely by joining Canaanite and Arabic in a "South-Central" group which together with Aramaic forms Central Semitic.[5] The Deir Alla Inscription and Samalian have been identified as language varieties falling outside Aramaic proper but with some similarities to it, possibly in an "Aramoid" or "Syrian" subgroup.[6][7]
It is clear that Taymanitic script expressed a distinct linguistic variety that is not Arabic and not closely related to Hismaic or Safaitic, while it can tentatively be suggested that it was more closely related to Northwest Semitic.[8]
Historical development

Aramaic alphabets

Phoenician alphabets
Comparison of Northwest Semitic scripts, by Mark Lidzbarski in 1898
Charles Morton's 1759 updated version of Edward Bernard's "Orbis eruditi",[9] comparing all known alphabets as of 1689, including Northwest Semitic which is described as "Adami, Noachi, Nini, Abrahami, Phoenicum et Samaritarum ante Christe (5509) a nummis Iudaicis Africanisque Pentateucho Mosis"
The time period for the split of Northwest Semitic from Proto-Semitic or from other Semitic groups is uncertain, it has been recently suggested by Richard C. Steiner that the earliest attestation of Northwest Semitic is to be found in snake spells from Egyptian pyramid texts dating to the mid-third millennium BCE.[10] Amorite personal names and words in Akkadian and Egyptian texts from the late third millennium to the mid-second millennium BCE and the language of the Proto-Sinaitic inscriptions dated to the first half of the second millennium otherwise constitute the earliest traces of Northwest Semitic, the first Northwest Semitic language attested in full being Ugaritic in the 14th century BCE.[11]
During the early 1st millennium, the Phoenician language was spread throughout the Mediterranean by Phoenician colonists, most notably to Carthage in today's Tunisia. The Phoenician alphabet is of fundamental importance in human history as the source and ancestor of the Greek alphabet, the later Latin alphabet, the Aramaic (Square Hebrew), Syriac, and Arabic writing systems, Germanic runes, and ultimately Cyrillic.
By the 6th century BC, the use of Aramaic spread throughout the Northwest Semitic region (see Imperial Aramaic), largely driving the other Northwest Semitic languages to extinction. The ancient Judaeans adopted Aramaic for daily use, and parts of the Tanakh are written in it. Hebrew was preserved, however, as a Jewish liturgical language and language of scholarship, and resurrected in the 19th century, with modern adaptations, to become the Modern Hebrew language of the State of Israel.
After the Muslim conquests of the 7th century, Arabic began to gradually replace Aramaic throughout the region. Aramaic survives today as the liturgical language of the Syriac Christian Church, and is spoken in modern dialects by small and endangered populations scattered throughout the Middle East. There is also an Aramaic substratum in Levantine Arabic.
Sound changes
Phonologically, Ugaritic lost the sound *ṣ́, replacing it with /t͡s/ () (the same shift occurred in Canaanite and Akkadian). That this same sound became /ʕ/ in Aramaic (although in Ancient Aramaic, it was written with qoph), suggests that Ugaritic is not the parent language of the group. An example of this sound shift can be seen in the word for earth: Ugaritic /ʔart͡s/ (’arṣ), Punic /ʔart͡s/ (arṣ), Hebrew /ʔɛrɛt͡s/ (’ereṣ) and Aramaic /ʔarʕaː/ (’ar‘ā’).
The vowel shift from *aː to /oː/ distinguishes Canaanite from Ugaritic. Also, in the Canaanite group, the series of Semitic interdental fricatives become sibilants: *ð (), *θ () and *θ̣ () became /z/, /ʃ/ (š) and /sˤ/ () respectively. The effect of this sound shift can be seen by comparing the following words:
shiftUgariticAramaicBiblical Hebrewtranslation
*ð ()→/z/𐎏𐎅𐎁
*θ ()→/ʃ/ (š)𐎘𐎍𐎘
*θ̣ ()→/sˤ/ ()𐎉𐎆
çur (ṣur)
mountain (Aramaic) or cliff (Hebrew)
  1. ^ Aaron D. Rubin (2008). "The subgrouping of the Semitic languages". Language and Linguistics Compass. 2 (1): 61–84. doi​:​10.1111/j.1749-818x.2007.00044.x​.
  2. ^ a b The Semitic Languages: An International Handbook, Chapter V, page 425
  3. ^ Kurzgefasste vergleichende Grammatik der semitischen Sprachen, Elemente der Laut- und Formenlehre (1908), quote "Das Westsemitische gliedert sich in zwei Hauptgruppen, das Nord- und das Südwestsemitische... Das Nordwestsemitische umfaßt das Kanaanäische und das Aramäische...Das Südwest semitische umfaßt das Arabische und Abessinische."
  4. ^ Linguist List Central Semitic composite tree (with Aramaic and Canaanite grouped together in Northwest Semitic, and Arabic and Old South Arabian as sisters) Archived 2009-10-14 at the Wayback Machine
    Linguist List bibliography of sources for composite tree Archived 2011-07-23 at the Wayback Machine
    Rubin, Aaron D. 2007. The Subgrouping of the Semitic Languages, Language and Linguistics Compass, vol. 1.
    Huehnergard, John. 2004. "Afro-Asiatic," The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the World's Ancient Languages (Cambridge, pp. 138-159).
    Faber, Alice. 1997. "Genetic Subgrouping of the Semitic Languages," The Semitic Languages (Routledge, pp. 3-15)
    Huehnergard, John. 1991. "Remarks on the Classification of the Northwest Semitic Languages," The Balaam Text from Deir 'Alla Re-evaluated (Brill, pp. 282-293).
    Huehnergard, John. 1992. "Languages of the Ancient Near East," The Anchor Bible Dictionary, Volume 4, pp. 155-170.
    Voigt, Rainer M. 1987. "The Classification of Central Semitic," Journal of Semitic Studies 32:1-19.
    Goldenberg, Gideon. 1977. "The Semitic Languages of Ethiopia and Their Classification," Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies 40:461-507.
    Ethnologue Central Semitic entry (with Arabic and Canaanite grouped together against Aramaic)
    The Ethnologue classification is based on Hetzron, Robert. 1987. "Semitic Languages," The World's Major Languages (Oxford, pp. 654-663).
    The older grouping of Arabic with South Semitic was "based on cultural and geographical principles", not on principles of empirical historical linguistics (Faber, 1997, pg. 5). "However, more recently, [Arabic] has been grouped instead with Canaanite and Aramaic, under the rubric Central Semitic..., and this classification is certainly more appropriate for Ancient North Arabian" (Macdonald, M.C.A. 2004. "Ancient North Arabian," The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the World's Ancient Languages Cambridge, pp. 488-533. Quote on pg. 489).
  5. ^ "Semitic". Ethnologue. SIL International. Retrieved 2014-06-02.
  6. ^ Huehnergard, John (1995). "What is Aramaic?". Aram (7): 282.
  7. ^ Kogan, Leonid (2015). Geneological Classification of Semitic. de Gruyter. p. 601.
  8. ^ Kootstra, Fokelien. "The Language of the Taymanitic Inscriptions and its Classification".
  9. ^ Edwin JEANS (1860). A Catalogue of Books, in all Branches of Literature, both Ancient & Modern ... on sale at E. Jeans's, bookseller ... Norwich. J. Fletcher. pp. 33–.
  10. ^ Steiner, Richard C. (2011). Early Northwest Semitic Serpent Spells in the Pyramid Texts. Eisenbrauns.
  11. ^ Huehnergard, John & Pat-El, Na'ama (2019). The Semitic Languages. Routledge. pp. 11–12.
Last edited on 20 April 2021, at 23:18
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