language group containing Arabic and Hebrew
The Semitic languages are a branch of the Afroasiatic language family. They are spoken by more than 330 million people across much of West Asia, the Horn of Africa, and latterly also North Africa, Malta and in small pockets in the Caucasus as well as in often large immigrant and expatriate communities in North America, Europe, and Australasia. The terminology was first used in the 1780s by members of the Göttingen School of History, who derived the name from Shem, one of the three sons of Noah in the Book of Genesis.
The most widely spoken Semitic languages today, with numbers of native speakers only, are Arabic (300 million), Amharic (~22 million), Tigrinya (7 million), Hebrew (~5 million native/L1 speakers), Gurage (1.5 million), Tigre (~1.05 million), Aramaic (575,000 to 1 million largely Assyrian speakers) and Maltese (483,000 speakers).Semitic languages occur in written form from a very early historical date in West Asia, with East Semitic Akkadian and Eblaite texts (written in a script adapted from Sumerian cuneiform) appearing from the 30th century BCE and the 25th century BCE in Mesopotamia and the north eastern Levant respectively. The only earlier attested languages are Sumerian, Elamite (2800 BCE to 550 BCE), both language isolates, Egyptian, and the unclassified Lullubi (30th century BCE). Amorite appeared in Mesopotamia and the northern Levant circa 2000 BC, followed by the mutually intelligible Canaanite languages (including Hebrew, Phoenician, Moabite, Edomite and Ammonite, as well as perhaps Ekronite, Amalekite and Sutean), the still spoken Aramaic, and Ugaritic during the 2nd millenium BC.
Most scripts used to write Semitic languages are abjads – a type of alphabetic script that omits some or all of the vowels, which is feasible for these languages because the consonants are the primary carriers of meaning in the Semitic languages. These include the Ugaritic, Phoenician, Aramaic, Hebrew, Syriac, Arabic, and ancient South Arabian alphabets. The Geʽez script, used for writing the Semitic languages of Ethiopia and Eritrea, is technically an abugida – a modified abjad in which vowels are notated using diacritic marks added to the consonants at all times, in contrast with other Semitic languages which indicate diacritics based on need or for introductory purposes. Maltese is the only Semitic language written in the Latin script and the only Semitic language to be an official language of the European Union.
The Semitic languages are notable for their nonconcatenative morphology. That is, word roots are not themselves syllables or words, but instead are isolated sets of consonants (usually three, making a so-called triliteral root). Words are composed out of roots not so much by adding prefixes or suffixes, but rather by filling in the vowels between the root consonants (although prefixes and suffixes are often added as well). For example, in Arabic, the root meaning "write" has the form k-t-b. From this root, words are formed by filling in the vowels and sometimes adding additional consonants, e.g. كتاب kitāb "book", كتب kutub "books", كاتب kātib "writer", كتّاب kuttāb "writers", كتب kataba "he wrote", يكتب yaktubu "he writes", etc.
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