Encyclopedia  |   World Factbook  |   World Flags  |   Reference Tables  |   List of Lists     
   Academic Disciplines  |   Historical Timeline  |   Themed Timelines  |   Biographies  |   How-Tos     
Sponsor by The Tattoo Collection
Afro-Asiatic languages
Main Page | See live article | Alphabetical index

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 considered to be Afro-Asiatic, but its classification within the family remains controversial (partly for lack of data.)

It is not generally agreed on where Proto-Afro-Asiatic was spoken; Africa (eg 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 (eg Christopher Ehret.) Alexander Militarev suggests that their homeland was in the Levant.

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, eg A. Murtonen (1967), dispute this view, suggesting that Semitic may have originated in Ethiopia.)

Table of contents
1 Common features and cognates
2 Classification history
3 Sources

Common features and cognates

Common features of the Afro-Asiatic languages include:

Some cognates are: 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 containg 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 opposed to 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.

In his landmark classification of African languages, Joseph H. Greenberg (1950) rejected the idea of a "Hamitic" subgroup (as some, notably Marcel Cohen, had done previously), added Chadic, and proposed the new name Afro-Asiatic; 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 widely 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; Fleming grouped together Beja, Chadic, Berber, and Egyptian against Cushitic and Semitic; 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) opt for more rather than fewer branches, and split Cushitic into five or more independent subfamilies of Afro-Asiatic.

Some of the main sources for Afroasiatic etymologies include:


See also: African Languages