Central Semitic languages

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Central Semitic
Middle East and North Africa
Linguistic classification: Afro-Asiatic
Glottolog: cent2236[1]

The Central Semitic languages are a proposed intermediate group of Semitic languages, comprising the Late Iron Age, modern dialect of Arabic (prior to which Arabic was a Southern Semitic language), and older Bronze Age Northwest Semitic languages (which include Aramaic, Ugaritic, and the Canaanite languages of Hebrew and Phoenician). In this reckoning Central Semitic itself is one of three divisions of Semitic along with East Semitic (Akkadian) and South Semitic (South Arabian, and the Semitic languages of Ethiopia).

Distinctive features of Central Semitic languages include the following:[2]

  • The realization of the common Semitic emphatic consonants as pharyngealized rather than ejectives:
    • E.g. Proto-Semitic *ṭ [tʼ] and *ṣ [tsʼ] are realized as [tˤ] and [sˤ] in Arabic and Neo-Aramaic, in contrast to remaining ejectives in South Arabian and in Ethiopian Semitic.
    • Additionally, Proto-Semitic *ḳ [kʼ] becomes a uvular stop [q].
  • An innovative negation marker *bal, of uncertain origin.
  • The generalization of t as the suffix conjugation past tense marker, levelling an earlier alternation between *k in the first person and *t in the second person.
  • A new prefix conjugation for the non-past tense, of the form ya-qtulu, replacing the inherited ya-qattal form (these are schematic verbal forms, as if derived from an example triconsonantal root q-t-l).
  • Levelling of vowels in verb prefixes. The evidence of Akkadian suggests four Proto-Semitic prefixes: *ʔa-, *ta-, *ni-, *yi-. In Central Semitic, all prefixes have the same vowel within a given verb paradigm. This however developed slightly differently in the different languages: Arabic has generalized a in all prefixes, while Northwest Semitic has generalized either a or i, depending on the verb stem in question.

Different classification systems disagree on the precise structure of the group. The most common approach divides it into Arabic and Northwest Semitic, while SIL Ethnologue has South Central Semitic (including Arabic and Hebrew) vs. Aramaic.

The main distinction between Arabic and the Northwest Semitic languages is the presence of broken plurals in the former. The majority of Arabic masculine non-human nouns form plurals in this manner (called inanimate plural), whereas almost all nouns in the Northwest Semitic languages form their plurals with a suffix. For example, the Arabic بيت bayt ("house") becomes بيوت buyūt ("houses"); the Hebrew בית bayit ("house") becomes בתים battīm ("houses").


  • Sabatino Moscati (1980). An Introduction to Comparative Grammar of Semitic Languages Phonology and Morphology. Harrassowitz Verlag. ISBN 3-447-00689-7.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  1. Nordhoff, Sebastian; Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds. (2013). "Central Semitic". Glottolog. Leipzig: Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  2. Faber, Alice (1997). "Genetic Subgrouping of the Semitic Languages". In Hetzron, Robert. The Semitic Languages. London: Routledge. pp. 3–15. ISBN 0-415-05767-1.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>