The Online Encyclopedia and Dictionary






Afro-Asiatic languages

The Afro-Asiatic languages are a language family of about 240 languages and 285 million people widespread throughout North Africa, East Africa, the Sahel, and Southwest Asia. Other names sometimes given to this family include "Afrasian", "Hamito-Semitic" (deprecated), "Lisramic" (Hodge 1972), "Erythraean" (Tucker 1966.)

The following language subfamilies are included:

The Ongota language is often considered to be Afro-Asiatic, but its classification within the family remains controversial (partly for lack of data). Harold Fleming tentatively suggests that it is an independent branch of non-Omotic Afro-Asiatic.

It is not generally agreed on where Proto-Afro-Asiatic was spoken; Africa (e.g., Igor Diakonoff , Lionel Bender ) has often been suggested, particularly Ethiopia based on the high diversity of its Afro-Asiatic languages, but the western Red Sea coast and the Sahara have also been put forward (e.g., Christopher Ehret). Alexander Militarev suggests that their homeland was in the Levant (specifically, he identifies them with the Natufian culture).

The Semitic languages are the only Afro-Asiatic subfamily based outside of Africa; however, in historical or near-historical times, some Semitic speakers crossed from South Arabia back into Ethiopia, so some modern Ethiopian languages (such as Amharic) are Semitic rather than belonging to the substrate Cushitic or Omotic groups. (A minority of academics, e.g. A. Murtonen (1967), dispute this view, suggesting that Semitic may have originated in Ethiopia.)

Tonal languages are found in the Omotic, Chadic, and South & East Cushitic branches of Afro-Asiatic, according to Ehret (1996). The Semitic, Berber and Egyptian branches are not tonal.


Common features and cognates

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 prefixes and suffixes.

Some cognates are:

  • b-n- "build" (Ehret: *bĭn), attested in Chadic, Semitic (*bny), Cushitic (*mĭn/*măn "house") and Omotic (Dime bin- "build, create");
  • m-t "die" (Ehret: *maaw), attested in Chadic (eg Hausa mutu), Egyptian (mwt, mt, Coptic mu), Berber (mmet, pr. yemmut), Semitic (*mwt), and Cushitic (Proto-Somali *umaaw/*-am-w(t)- "die")
  • s-n "know", attested in Chadic, Berber, and Egyptian;
  • l-s "tongue" (Ehret: *lis' "to lick"), attested in Semitic (*lasaan/lisaan), Egyptian (ns, Coptic las), Berber (iles), Chadic (eg Hausa harshe), and possibly Omotic (Dime lits'- "lick");
  • s-m "name" (Ehret: *sŭm / *sĭm), attested in Semitic (*sm), Berber (isem), Chadic (eg Hausa suna), Cushitic, and Omotic (though the Berber form, isem, and the Omotic form, sunts, are sometimes argued to be Semitic loanwords.) The Egyptian smi "report, announce" may also be cognate.
  • d-m "blood" (Ehret: *dîm / *dâm), attested in Berber (idammen), Semitic (*dam), Chadic, and arguably Omotic. Cushitic *dîm/*dâm, "red", may be cognate.

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

English Arabic (Semitic) Kabyle (Berber) Saho (Cushitic; verb is "kill") Beja (verb is "arrive")
he dies yamuutu yemmut yagdifé iktim
she dies tamuutu temmut yagdifé tiktim
they (m.) die yamuutuuna mmuten yagdifín iktimna
you (m. sg.) die tamuutu temmuteḍ tagdifé tiktima
you (m. pl.) die tamuutuuna temmutem tagdifín tiktimna
I die ˀamuutu mmuteγ agdifé aktim
we die namuutu nemmut nagdifé niktim

A causative affix s is widespread (found in all its subfamilies), but is also found in other groups, such as the Niger-Congo languages.

The possessive pronoun suffixes are supported by Semitic, Berber, Cushitic (including Beja), and Chadic.

Classification history

Medieval scholars sometimes linked two or more branches of Afro-Asiatic together; already in the 9th century, the Hebrew grammarian Judah ibn Quraysh of Tiaret, Algeria perceived a relationship between Berber and Semitic (the latter being known to him through Arabic, Hebrew, and Aramaic.)

In the 1800's, Europeans began suggesting such relationships; thus in 1844 Th. Benfey suggested a language family containing 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. The traditional "Hamito-Semitic" family was named by Friedrich Müller in 1876 in his Grundriss der Sprachwissenschaft, and defined as consisting of a Semitic group plus a "Hamitic" group containing Egyptian, Berber, and Cushitic; the Chadic group was not included. This classification was partly based on non-linguistic anthropological and racial arguments.

Leo Reinisch (1909) proposed to link Cushitic and Chadic, while urging a more distant affinity with Egyptian and Semitic, thus foreshadowing Greenberg; but his suggestion was largely ignored. Marcel Cohen (1947) 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 Afro-Asiatic for the family; his classification of it came to be almost universally accepted. In 1969, Harold Fleming proposed the recognition of Omotic as a fifth branch, rather than (as previously believed) a subgroup of Cushitic, and this has become generally accepted. Several scholars, including Harold Fleming and Robert Hetzron , have since questioned the traditional inclusion of Beja in Cushitic, but this view has yet to gain general acceptance.

There is little agreement on the subclassification of the five or six branches mentioned; however, Christopher Ehret (1979), Harold Fleming (1981), and Joseph H. Greenberg (1981) all agree that Omotic was the first branch to split from the rest. Otherwise, Ehret groups Egyptian, Berber, and Semitic together in a North Afro-Asiatic subgroup; Paul Newman (1980) groups Berber with Chadic and Egyptian with Semitic, while questioning the inclusion of Omotic; Fleming (1981) divides non-Omotic Afroasiatic, or "Erythraean", into three groups, Cushitic, Semitic, and everything else; he later added Semitic and Beja to the 'everything else', with Ongotá as a tentative third branch; and Lionel Bender (1997) advocates a "Macro-Cushitic" consisting of Berber, Cushitic, and Semitic, while regarding Chadic and Omotic as the most remote from the other branches. Vladimir Orel and Olga Stolbova (1995) group Berber with Semitic, Chadic with Egyptian, and split Cushitic into five or more independent subfamilies of Afro-Asiatic, seeing it as a Sprachbund rather than a valid subfamily. Alexander Militarev (2000), on the basis of lexicostatistics, groups Berber with Chadic and both, more distantly, with Semitic, as against Cushitic and Omotic.

Etymological bibliography

Some of the main sources for Afro-Asiatic etymologies include:

  • Marcel Cohen, Essai comparatif sur la vocabulaire et la phonétique du chamito-sémitique, Champion, Paris 1947.
  • Igor M. Diakonoff et al., "Historical-Comparative Vocabulary of Afrasian", St. Petersburg Journal of African Studies Nos. 2-6, 1993-7.
  • Christopher Ehret. Reconstructing Proto-Afroasiatic (Proto-Afrasian): Vowels, Tone, Consonants, and Vocabulary (University of California Publications in Linguistics 126), California, Berkeley 1996.
  • Vladimir E. Orel and Olga V. Stolbova, Hamito-Semitic Etymological Dictionary: Materials for a Reconstruction, Brill, Leiden 1995


  • Bernd Heine and Derek Nurse, African Languages, Cambridge University Press, 2000 - Chapter 4
  • Merritt Ruhlen, A Guide to the World's Languages, Stanford University Press, Stanford 1991.
  • Lionel Bender et al., Selected Comparative-Historical Afro-Asiatic Studies in Memory of Igor M. Diakonoff, LINCOM 2003.
  • Ethnologue
  • Russell G. Schuh, Chadic Overview.
  • African Language History (pdf), Roger Blench

External links

See also: African Languages

Last updated: 06-02-2005 05:45:46
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