Sunday, June 24, 2007

The Semitic and Other Afroasiatic Languages

Some of the oldest attested languages in the world, from the oldest civilizations, are in the family of the Afroasiatic languages. The oldest in the group is Ancient Egyptian, which is known from one of the earliest writing systems, hieroglyphics. All the other other languages here that are attested from ancient times are in the Semitic sub-family. The oldest of these is Akkadian, which evolved into the closely related Babylonian and Assyrian languages. The writing system of Akkadian, however, cuneiform, was not created by the speakers of that language, but by the speakers of the unrelated Sumerian. Akkadian came to prominence and, indeed, dominance with the kingdom of Sargon of Akkad. Sumerian appears to have all but died out as a spoken language by the end of the III Dynasty of Ur, c.2000 BC. Egyptian itself died out as a spoken language as recently as the 17th century AD, under the influence of Arabic and Islâm. Nevertheless, the latest form of Egyptian, Coptic, survives as the liturgical language of the Coptic Church. On the other hand, all the forms of Akkadian had died out by Late Antiquity. Egyptian is not closely related to the Semitic languages, but its other affinities are unclear. The other groups of Afroasiatic languages, Cushitic, etc., which used to be grouped together with Egyptian as the Hamitic languages, are only recently attested. Their ancient antecedents and the nature of their relationship to the rest of the language family are unknown. They now appear to be as distant from each other as from the Semitic languages, and the Hamitic category is no longer regarded as phylogenetically useful. An interesting comparison is between the verb systems of Egyptian and Semitic languages. Most Semitic languages, like Hebrew and Arabic, have two verb tenses, with prefixes for an imperfect and suffixes for a perfect. These express temporal aspect more than tense, i.e. incomplete action, in present or future, for the imperfect, and complete action, whether in present or past, for the perfect. Egyptian retains these forms, but they are little used, mostly replaced by participles with pronominal suffixes. On the other hand, the Eastern or Akkadian branch of the Semitic languages has three verbal tenses. The suffixed form is a stative, expressing states, while the "preterite" and "present" (perfect and imperfect) are both prefixed inflections. This by itself might be a clue that Egyptian is more closely related to the Western Semitic languages than to the Eastern; but it is only one indication among many, and otherwise there are many differences between Egyptian and all Semitic languages.( more from Friesian )

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