Semitic Languages Branch of the Afro-Asiatic Language Family

Semitic languages constitute the most populous branch of the Afro-Asiatic language family, the only branch of this family spoken in the Middle East. The term “Semitic” is thought to have come from Shem, one of the three sons of Noah (Gen. x:21-30), who is regarded in biblical literature as the ancestor of the Semites. Scholars believe that the first prehistoric speakers of the ancestral *Proto-Semitic language came from Africa. In historic times, the Semitic languages spread throughout the region via migrations from Arabia that displaced and subjugated the local populations.

Today, the Semitic branch includes 77 languages that are spoken by more than 250 million people across the Middle East, and North and East Africa. The most widely spoken Semitic language today is Arabic, followed by Amharic, Hebrew, and Tigrinya. The table below lists the most populous Semitic languages.

East Semitic
Akkadian extinct ancient Mesopotamia (in present-day Iraq)
West Semitic
Iraq, Turkey, Iran, Syria
Arabic (35 varieties)
206 million
Middle East, North and East Africa.
5 million
17.5 million
Tigrinya (Tigrigna)
4.5 million
Tigré (Xasa)


Arabic is spoken as a first or second language by an estimated 206 million people throughout North and East Africa and the Middle East. As the language of the Qur’an and as a lingua franca of the region, it is widely studied in the Moslem world. Spoken Arabic has as many as 35 regional varieties with varying degrees of mutual comprehensibility (Ethnologue). However, they are united by a linguistic similarities and a single written form, except for Maltese which has adopted a Latin-based orthography, and are, therefore, considered to be one language.

Arabic is the official or co-official language of many countries, including Algeria, Bahrain, Chad, Comoros, Djibouti, Egypt, Eritrea, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Morocco, Oman, Palestinian West Bank and Gaza, Qatar, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Tanzania, Tunisia, United Arab Emirates, and Yemen.

Hebrew, which had been extinct as a spoken language for many centuries, was revived as a spoken language at the end of the 19th century. It is the official language of the state of Israel and the liturgical language of Jews around the world. It is spoken as a first language by some 5 million people.

Aramaic, once used as a lingua franca throughout the Mediterranean, is now spoken by slightly over 400,00 people scattered throughout northern Iraq, eastern Turkey, northwestern Iran, and Syria. Syriac, an older descendant of Aramaic, is used as a liturgical language by Iraqi Christians.

Amharic is the official language of Ethiopia with 17.5 million speakers, about half of whom are Coptic Christians who speak it as their first language.

Tigrinya (Tigrigna) is one of the main working languages of Eritrea, which does not have an official language, and one of the official languages of the Tigray Region of Ethiopia. There are 4.5 million speakers of Tigrinya worldwide. It is not to be confused with Tigré (Xasa) which is also spoken in Ethiopia.

The now extinct Ge’ez, attested between the 4th-9th centuries AD, is still used as the liturgical language of the Ethiopian Coptic Church.

Important extinct Semitic languages
In addition to the 77 living Semitic languages, there are some important extinct tongues, some of which are listed below:

  • Akkadian is an extinct Semitic language that was spoken in Mesopotamia from the 3rd to the 1st millennium BC. Last written records of Akkadian date to 1st century AD. Akkadian was forgotten but rediscovered in the 19th century and its cuneiform script was deciphered.
  • Canaanite languages that include Hebrew, Phoenician, and Punic, were spoken in Palestine, Syria, and in scattered communities around the Mediterranean. All these languages are extinct, except Hebrew, which was revived as a spoken language only in the 19th and 20th centuries.
  • Phoenician is an ancient Semitic language that was originally spoken in today’s Lebanon. It is attested through inscriptions from the 12th century BC to the 2nd century AD. Phoenician traders established settlements all over the Mediterranean. The Phoenician consonantal script, written from right to left and consisting of 22 letters, is almost identical with the Old Hebrew script. It is the ancestor of the Greek and Latin alphabets.
  • Punic, a later stage of Phoenician, was the language of Carthage and the Carthaginian empire. It was influenced by the surrounding Berber languages. Punic became extinct by the 6th century AD.
  • Syriac was a Christian literary and liturgical language from the 3rd through the 7th century AD. It was based on an East Aramaic dialect. Today, it is still used as a liturgical language by Iraqi Christians.


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