A Brief Digression on Semitic Languages

Scholars date the origins of Semitic languages to about 3800 BCE. They arose in the broad area of the eastern Mediterranean and northern Africa known as the Levant. The earliest has been identified as Akkadian, spoken in ancient Mesopotamia. The evolving languages eventually produced Aramaic, Phoenician (the precursor of Greek), Arabic, and Hebrew, among others.

There’s a terrible irony in the linguistic closeness of Hebrew and Arabic, despite the ancient antipathy between speakers of the two languages. Here are a couple of relatives:

HEBREW                                                ARABIC
melech–king                                         malik–king
midrash
–study, interpretation         madrassa–school
menorah–lamp                                    minaret–tower (call to prayer )
kabbalah–esoteric wisdom               kibla--facing Mecca
rosh–head, first                                    ras--ruler

The revolutionary invention of writing appears to have originated in Mesopotamia (those Sumerians again!), perhaps to keep records. The wedge shaped figures incised on wet clay are known as cuneiform (public domain image).

1-Ritmal-Cuneiform_tablet_-_Kirkor_Minassian_collection_-_Library_of_Congress-001

Unlike Asian written languages, which evolved using images to represent things, Western writing used images to represent sounds. The Phoenician script from which our alphabet is drawn may have borrowed the images from Egyptian hieroglphs. For example, the Egyptian heiroglyph for head–a sketch of a head–may have been abstracted to a backwards P to represent the sound that began Ras, or head. This image by HoremWeb shows a possible route from a heiroglph to Phoenician and onto (in modern forms), Arabic and Hebrew.

Initially, Semitic languages were written without vowels (“adjabic” as distinct from “alphabetic” languages). Words were represented by letters for consonants only. For example, the letters SLM meant (Hebrew Shalom, Arabic Salaam). You might have noted that God’s call to Abraham, Lech Lecha, rendered in premodern Hebrew, uses the same characters for both words.

1-Slide18

It’s as if “English words are odd” were written as “NGLSH WRDS R DD”. If you were fairly familiar with the written language, you could probably figure out the actual words and extract meaning.

And this is why the introduction of letters for vowels was revolutionary. Some thinkers associate it with the invention of democracy. Now that the vowels were there, it was easier to sound out the words. Many more people could read.

 

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