LINGUIST List 24.33

Tue Jan 08 2013

Review: Historical Linguistics; Sociolinguistics: Weninger et al. (2011)

Editor for this issue: Monica Macaulay <>

Date: 08-Jan-2013
From: Adam McCollum <>
Subject: The Semitic Languages: An International Handbook
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EDITOR: Stefan Weninger; in collaboration with Geoffrey Khan, Michael P.Streck, and Janet C.E. WatsonTITLE: The Semitic Languages: An International HandbookSERIES: Handbooks of Linguistics and Communication Science 36 [Handbücher zurSprach- und Kommunikationswissenschaft 36]PUBLISHER: De Gruyter MoutonYEAR: 2011

Adam C. McCollum, Hill Museum & Manuscript Library, Saint John’s University,Collegeville, Minnesota, USA


The beginning of the study of comparative Semitic linguistics lies especiallywith scholars -- either Jewish writers writing in Arabic or European Christianwriters writing in Latin -- familiar with Hebrew, Aramaic, and Arabic. Out ofthis confluence of at least trilingual familiarity first came scatteredremarks on orthography, phonology, or lexicography, and subsequently morededicated investigations of relationships among those three languages andeventually others in the same family, generally on par with new textualarchaeological discoveries and subsequent decipherment (Akkadian, Ugaritic,etc.) and with developing interest in contemporary spoken (and sometimeswritten) languages (Amharic, Neo-Aramaic dialects, Arabic dialects, etc.). Thepresent tome -- there is no other way to name a book of almost 1,300 pages --takes its place in a unique and up-to-date way among the well-known standardworks of Brockelmann 1908-1913, Bergsträsser 1983, and Moscati et al. 1964,along with the more recent treatments of Hetzron 1997, Lipiński 1997, Kienast2001, Haelewyck 2006, and Rubin 2010a, with all of which it has bothsimilarities and differences. In its comprehensiveness, the new book bringstogether much of the best of these various prior approaches to questions ofthe Semitic language family. As the editors say, “This volume focuses on thestructure of the Semitic languages themselves, their history and their rootsin societies” (p. 4), a remark that highlights both its inclusion of topicstraditionally covered in language surveys as well as its uniqueness fortreating language contact and sociolinguistic issues.

As just mentioned, this is a big book. There are a total of seventy-fourchapters, and it thus dwarfs in size any semi-comparable volume for thislanguage family. (Brockelmann’s two-volume “Grundriß” is also large, but of adifferent nature and purpose than this book.) The introduction provides anadmirably concise orientation to the book, the sections of which are asfollows: Semitic in an Afroasiatic Context (chs. 2-5), ReconstructingProto-Semitic and Models of Classification (chs. 6-9), The Semitic Languagesand Dialects I: Their Typology (chs. 10-11), The Semitic Languages andDialects II: East Semitic (chs. 12-17), The Semitic Languages and DialectsIII: North-West Semitic (chs. 18-43), The Semitic Languages and Dialects IV:Languages of the Arabian Peninsula (chs. 44-64), and The Semitic Languages andDialects V: Ethio-Semitic Languages (chs. 65-74). The length of the chaptersvaries greatly, with some very short (e.g. W. Röllig, “Phoenician and Punic,”pp. 472-479; M. Bar-Asher, “Mishnaic Hebrew,” pp. 515-522; S. Talay, “ArabicDialects of Mesopotamia,” pp. 909-920) and others quite long (L. Kogan,“Proto-Semitic Phonetics and Phonology,” pp. 54-151; L. Kogan, “Proto-SemiticLexicon,” pp. 179-258; M.-C. Simeone-Senelle, “Modern South Arabian,” pp.1073-1113). An index concludes the book.

Two especially welcome features of the work that reflect its currency withpresent scholarship are its attention to the Semitic languages as belonging tothe Afroasiatic macrofamily (but the Nostratic hypothesis is rightly eschewed)and its treatment of some language-contact situations that concern certainSemitic languages. The chapters focused on specific languages, which make upthe bulk of the book, generally include remarks on the language’s history andthe surviving corpus, as well as a few charts of typical morphologicalpatterns. The chapters are self-standing, with their own abbreviations (butsome chapters lack a list!) and reference list given at the end, but theintroductory chapters for each section listed above need be consulted for thebest grasp of any particular chapter within that section. This independencefor each chapter is especially useful given the current scholarly necessity,especially in a book of this kind and cost, of getting and using individualchapters, rather than the entire book, through interlibrary loan or othermeans. Many of the articles will be understandable with little difficulty bygeneral linguists or other readers unfamiliar with the Semitic languages (cf.p. 2).

Among Semitists the Aramaist is in for a particular treat in this volume witheighteen chapters touching on Aramaic dialects and more general relevantlinguistic approaches, including chapters on Akkadian-Aramaic (ch. 17),Aramaic-Iranian (ch. 42), and Aramaic-Arabic (ch. 43) language contact; onemisses, though, a chapter on Hebrew-Aramaic (in both directions). Arabists,too, will find the nineteen chapters touching on their field plentiful andvaluable, with coverage not only of the expected and well-recognized literaryand dialectal varieties and periods, but also the just-mentioned chapter onAramaic-Arabic language contact, along with others on the creation of ModernStandard Arabic, sociolinguistics, urban vernaculars, pidgins and creoles, andlanguage contact between Berber and Arabic, Arabic and Persian, and Arabic andEuropean languages. For the more widely attested (and studied) languages (e.g.Akkadian, Arabic, Ethio-Semitic), there are introductory chapters that givethe general layout of dialects, etc., followed by more focused chapters onindividual dialects or languages. Since the later nineteenth centuryespecially, scholars have given more and more attention to modern Semiticlanguages and dialects, and this volume very appropriately devotesconsiderable space to them, both in individual language-specific chapters andin the comparative chapters at the beginning of the work.

In order to offer a better picture of the book’s content from a more focusedpoint of view, I turn to three chapters of different types for a closersummary. First, in ch. 11 Michael Waltisberg examines the “Syntactic Typologyof Semitic” (pp. 303-329). This chapter belongs to the introductory part ofthe book and is meant as a look across all of the Semitic languages. It iswholly synchronic and, as expected there are many well-documented examplesfrom across the entire language family. Naturally, the topic is one that mighteasily fill an entire book, and so the author acknowledges the confinements ofspace and hence the incompleteness of coverage. While the approach andpresentation of this chapter is synchronic, the study yields a distinctionbetween the older languages, which show “a rather uniform character with onlyminor deviations from a common type,” and the modern languages with their“typologically multi-faceted picture” (p. 303). The chapter’s presentation isdivided into noun phrase, simple clause, and complex sentence, each withseveral subheadings. Under a discussion of the general structure of the nounphrase, the author considers left- and right-branching, the order ofmodifiers, and the position of demonstratives and numerals. Also treated undernoun phrase are definiteness, two kinds of attribution (1. genitive and 2.apposition and adjective), quantifiers, relative clauses, and pronouns. Thestudy of the simple clause covers the basic nucleus, issues of agreement,valency alongside related questions that the author puts under the title“Relational behavior”, case and adpositional phrase functions, reflexivity,TAM (tense-aspect-mood), negation, pragmatics (for example, on particles), andlinearization (on constituent order). The last section (the complex sentence)deals with parataxis vs. hypotaxis, the position of the dependent clause(closely related to the structure of the noun phrase), nominal subordination(examples of masdar, converb, and participle), and raising. Unsurprisingly,there is meaningful overlap across several of these subheadings. The chapterconcludes with a list of abbreviations and a reference list.

The next example chapter for summary is ch. 21, Wolfgang Röllig’s brief lookat “Phoenician and Punic” (pp. 472-479). Rather than offer a skeleton grammar(which several other chapters in the book have), this chapter focuses more onhighlights of Phoenician and Punic within the context of the Northwest Semiticlanguages. There are no morphological charts or lists, but a few of the moresalient features are given in the description. The author points to ourevidence of the stages of the language and the places where it was used from“city-states on the Lebanese shore” followed by westward expansions tocolonies in the Mediterranean. In addition to Phoenician inscriptions, sourcesfor the language include names in Assyrian royal inscriptions as well asscattered places in Greek and Latin writers. Other Northwest Semiticlanguages, especially Hebrew, are used for some elucidation, and knowledge ofHebrew seems to be assumed on the reader’s part. For later stages ofPhoenician (i.e. Punic), the author advises caution with the data due to thewide geographical spread and the long period over which it was used. A fewvery general remarks are offered on the famous section of Plautus’ “Poenulus”that has Punic speech. At the beginning of the chapter is a paragraph onscript, in which the author notes its distinction from Aramaic practice in thenon-use of certain letters as vowel markers (matres lectionis). Before thereference list, the chapter closes with a statement of three desiderata offuture research: 1. A standardized presentation in a single place of allPhoenician and Punic source texts, 2. A comprehensive study of paleography,with the hope of solidifying our ability to date inscriptions, and 3. A“thesaurus” that includes both the language’s lexicon and onomastic data, withcareful attention to the times and places of their occurrence.

Finally, we turn to ch. 68, on Tigrinya, by Rainer Voigt (pp. 1142-1169). Thischapter is a presentation of phonology, morphology, and syntax, and thefollowing chapter, by the same author, offers a more sociolinguisticconsideration of Tigrinya. The language is spoken in Eritrea and the Tigrayprovince (northern Ethiopia) by over five million speakers and belongs withTigre and Gǝʿǝz to a group of languages now or formerly spoken in northernEthiopia. (Voigt rejects the often encountered division of Ethio-Semitic intonorthern [the aforementioned languages] and southern [Amharic and the rest]branches). The chapter begins with a relatively detailed presentation ofphonology and transliteration (the language is written, like Amharic, with asupplemented form of the old Ethiopic abugida), with sections on consonants,vowels, junctures, laryngeal (h, ħ, ʾ, ʿ) rules, and shortening rules.Pronominal morphology is covered for the independent pronouns, pronominalsuffixes attached to the noun, object suffixes attached to verbs,demonstrative pronouns (near and far), and relative pronouns. Under thesubheading of nouns, the author discusses plural formation, noun patterns(along with prefixes and affixes), and prepositions. The next section coversverbs, and while much will be familiar to readers who have studied otherEthio-Semitic languages, Voigt does not assume such knowledge and describesTigrinya in and of itself. The stems, forms, and conjugational morphemes arelaid out in charts, and he then treats the so-called weak verbs, irregularverbs, negation, conjunctions (particles which subordinate one verb toanother), and periphrastic verbal constructions. Before a brief referencelist, the chapter ends with a few remarks on syntactic features (onconstituent order and cleft sentences).


The blurb on the book’s back cover claims that the work offers an “unbiaseddescription of the state of the art in Semitics.” I cannot find much faultwith that claim, but readers will naturally disagree in places with the degreeof attention or inattention given to their own areas of specialty. Even thoughthe editors have brought together a large, seemingly comprehensive volume,they are aware that they have not included everything (pp. 4-5). There is, forexample, no chapter covering the history of Semitic studies; this topic mightwell, of course, cover an equally large volume in and of itself. Dedicated andstrict attention to writing systems used for Semitic languages is also absent,but it does figure here and there in certain chapters. Lastly, there is littleon the study of onomastics in the Semitic languages. For all of these areas,however, the editors do suggest further reading, including several chaptersfrom other publications in the same series as this book.

I now turn to some quibbles and some more significant criticisms. First, someof the English phraseology will occasionally strike native speakers as beingnot quite right (e.g. p. 243, “spent to” for “spent on”). Naturally, this veryrarely, if at all, obscures meaning, but one is struck by the book’s havingescaped the eyes of a careful proofreader, a fact all the more obvious for thefollowing glaring problems. The most disconcerting aspect of this new volumeis the proportion of mistakes, which include errors of typography,inconsistency, and simple accuracy. I will mention only a few among them asexamples, but the margins of my copy have more indicated; there are, in fact,so many errors that it is extremely doubtful that anyone read carefullythrough the proofs as a whole. Two striking errors -- one surprising for itsoutrageousness, the other for its unintended humor -- serve as the vanguard ofthese slips. The next to last line of p. 337, which consists of nineteenwords, has not a single space in its entire length! Next, few readers willpass over the reference on p. 575 (line 10 from the bottom) to /r/ as a“dental thrill” without wondering if their phonological analyses have not beenlacking some stimulation that other linguists have enjoyed. Here are a fewother errors and seeming infelicities from throughout the book (in thefollowing, the sign > means “correct to…”):2, line 10: “ch. 7” > “ch. 11”3, line 13: “or” > “and”6, the reference in the bibliography should be to “Günther” (not “Gnther”)7, lines 1-2 from bottom: the word “comparative” is split over two lines butnot hyphenated10, line 15: “sw” should be italicized35: next-to-last paragraph should be numbered 5.1 (it is not numbered), andthe following one should be 5.2 (it is numbered 5.1)124, line 11 from bottom: “and fall” > “to fall”159, line 4: should not be indented348, line 3 from bottom: “typ” > “type”350, line 1 from bottom: “non” > “not”352, line 1: “ist” > “is”352, line 7 from bottom: “/bētis” > “/bētiś/”377, line 5: add closing parenthesis after “confirm”378: the quotation marks on this page are all of the German type („‟ insteadof “”)381, line 9 from bottom: “Ich” > “I”560, line 17 from bottom: “in” > “into”595, line 12 from bottom: “hmrkryʿ” with final ʿayin should have final ʾalef662, line 3 from bottom: בולי should be כוליOn a typographic note, ch. 36 sometimes, not always, has the šewa with yoddirectly under the letter, rather than beneath the line, which is the usualpractice.672, line 10 from bottom: “indicate” > “indicates”819, line 13 from bottom: “text” should be “texts”822, line 21 from bottom: “general” should be “generally”824, line 14: “elnar” should be italicized830: second paragraph not indented833: the items Khan 1992a and 1992b are the same article835: in the item Somekh 1993, read “fuṣḥā” for “fuḥṣā”837, line 8 from bottom: “Aperςu” > “Aperçu” (also in this ch. is the use of ğinstead of ǧ)910, last line: “upto” > “up to”911, line 5: “have” > “has”930, line 5: “form” should be capitalizedThe “Oxford comma” is sometimes present, sometimes not. B.C. and A.D. are usedinstead of B.C.E. and C.E. in many places, but not throughout. There isinconsistent use of italics: e.g. in ch. 28, Reichsaramäisch is italicized,but not in ch. 29. There are also different spellings in the book, such asSaqqāra (p. 575) and Saqqarah (p. 588), in chapters by different authors, butthe second author also has Saqqara (p. 589); similarly Jemdet Nasr on p. 331,but Ǧamdat Naṣr on p. 341; on p. 863 we find “grammaticalisation” usuallyspelled with “s” but once with “z”; on p. 910 there is “1930s” followed by“1990ies”; the last major section of the book has “Ethio-Semitic” in the titlebut chs. 70 and 74 use “Ethiosemitic”; and the former chapter also has“Gǝʕǝz”, while elsewhere it is “Gǝʿǝz”. These errors and inconsistencies mightbe more easily overlooked, for better or worse, on a website, in a draftversion, or in a very inexpensive volume, but there really is no excuse forthe publication of so error-laden a book as this, and the fact that it is anexpensive book makes these mistakes all the more objectionable.

To turn rather to content than to form, I may be indulged to offer a few moreremarks. A basic paragraph or two on Berber and Chadic languages is missing inchs. 3 and 4; these would be helpful for a Semitic-oriented reader not asfamiliar with the rest of the Afroasiatic family. On p. 371, based on theexamples given there, instead of “Word initial /w/ becomes /u/,” it would bebetter to say initial /wa/ > /u/. On p. 380, to say that anāqātu is “< Arabic”without qualification is misleading, given what we usually mean when we referto Arabic plain and simple. In ch. 18 (p. 446, line 21 from bottom) “ox” issaid to “mean” /alp/, but, of course, in an English context it is better tosay that /alp/ means “ox”. In the abstract to ch. 34 on p. 637, Syriac is saidto be “one of the best attested of the literary dialects of Aramaic (alongsideJewish Aramaic and Mandaic).” The qualification “one of” is hardly necessary,and in any case “Jewish Aramaic” (without Palestinian, Babylonian, etc.) isnot an Aramaic dialect. On the same page the author makes clear that Ṭuroyoand North-Eastern Neo-Aramaic dialects are not included in the chapter; Ishould say not, since they are not (Classical) Syriac, the subject of thechapter, so I am not sure why the statement was thought to be of use here. Onp. 644 in the same chapter it is said that “after the 13th/14th centuriesthere are no major authors producing works in Syriac.” This is not an uncommonopinion, but one rarely finds much reasoning to back it up; it has more to do,I think, with the fact that the work of most authors who did write in Syriacafter those centuries remains in manuscript only or, if published, in booksand articles that have not been widely distributed. Also on that page, theauthor describes Syriac poetry as “often difficult or even baffling.” Thisstrikes me as far too strong an assessment, especially without mention of therich (and generally comprehensible) language and viewpoints that Syriac poets,early and late, make use of; there are cruces, to be sure, but it is hardlythe impenetrable literature that “difficult” and “baffling” imply. On p. 638it is said that “Syriac Orthodox” is the preferred ecclesiastical appellationand not “Syrian Orthodox,” but the author who makes that statement then on p.649 uses the latter (also p. 656 in the following chapter). On p. 3, line 17,the editors, looking forward to ch. 35, refer to Syriac as “the” language ofEastern Christianity, and ch. 35 is indeed so titled, but the definite articlethere is wholly out of place: just ask the Coptic, Ethiopian, Armenian,Georgian, and other Christians! On p. 669, the author says, “Since JBA [JewishBabylonian Aramaic] was in contact with Akkadian and Persian for a long periodof time...” JBA is attested from the third century CE, when Akkadian wasmoribund. While an Akkadian substrate for the ancestral Aramaic dialect of JBAwill be doubted by no one, it is misleading to say that “JBA was in contactwith Akkadian ... for a long period of time.” In §4.3 of ch. 37 we might askwhat the use is of pure Latin grammatical terminology (genera, numeri, statusabsolutus, constructus, emphaticus) when their English cousins are soregularly and appropriately encountered nowadays. On p. 678, line 2, in thesame chapter, the doubled consonant of /ḥaššẹḇ/ is said to be an example of“reduplication”; since that term is especially used for the repetition ofmonosyllabic roots in certain occurring bisyllabic (“reduplicated”) roots,such as in the Aramaic word daqdaq “small”, the term “doubling” would bebetter here. The reference on p. 1016 to “Syriac” and “Aramaic” in a list oflanguages requires more precise delineation or rephrasing. I mentioned abovethe book’s notable treatment of modern Semitic languages, but there is only asingle chapter dealing with the six Modern South Arabian languages (Mehri,Hobyōt, Ḥarsūsi, Baṭḥari, Jibbāli, Soqoṭri); a more detailed examination in adedicated chapter of at least one of the relatively better studied languageswould not have been unwelcome.

To fill in some bibliographical lacunae: To the bibliography of ch. 2 might beadded Vycichl 1959 and 1975, and Rubin 2004. To the bibliography of chs. 17and 27 should be added Kaufman 1982. To that of ch. 28 might be added theEnglish translation of Vogt’s “Lexicon linguae aramaicae veteris testamenti”(Vogt 2011, translated by Fitzmyer). Siddiqi 1919 would suitably behighlighted for ch. 60, and in ch. 63 I missed a reference to Guidi 1930,Conti Rossini 1931, and Hasselbach 2009. Rubin 2010b perhaps appeared too lateto have been mentioned in ch. 64. Since the book is aimed especially atEnglish readers, in ch. 66 Uhlig 1990 should be named in addition to thelarger German original, but also the grammars of Tropper 2002 and Procházka2004. At least one of chs. 70 and 71 would have done well to point to E.Ullendorff’s excellent lecture “The Challenge of Amharic” (1965). A book ofthis kind should not necessarily supply a comprehensive bibliography, andbibliographical selection is partly a subjective endeavor, but the fewadditions mentioned here are justly named for their intrinsic value,accessibility, or their place in the history of the field.

To sum up, thanks to at least six factors, the Semitic languages serve as afascinating arena for scholars interested in various linguistic phenomena towork in, including:1. attestation over a long time period2. attestation over a broad geographic area3. attestation among a variety of religions4. relatively intense research (with some controversy) on these languages5. several examples of language contact, both with other Semitic languages andwith extra-Semitic languages6. examples of literary vs. spoken or dialectal diglossia

These and probably other reasons have made the Semitic languages a fertilefield of study and there is no indication that this will change, especially asnew material, both for ancient and modern languages, continues to come tolight and as scholars study known material more deeply or in different ways.This thick book will most certainly be a go-to resource and vademecum for allstudents and scholars who have cause or interest to study these languages. Itis only a pity that more effort was not made to properly prepare it before itspublication.


Bergsträsser, G. 1983. Introduction to the Semitic languages: text specimensand grammatical sketches. Transl. and rev. P.T. Daniels. Winona Lake, Ind.

Brockelmann, C. 1908-1913. Grundriss der vergleichenden Grammatik dersemitischen Sprachen. 2 vols. Berlin.

Conti Rossini, C. 1931. Chrestomathia arabica meridionalis epigraphica editaet glossario instructa. Rome.

Guidi, I. 1930. Summarium grammaticae veteris linguae arabicae meridionalis.Cairo.

Haelewyck, J.-Cl. 2006. Grammaire compare des langues sémitiques. Éléments dephonétique, de morphologie et de syntaxe. Brusells.

Hasselbach, R. 2009. “A1tsüdarabisch”. In H. Gzella, ed., Sprache aus der Weltdes Alten Testaments, Darmstadt. Pp. 132-159.

Hetzron, R., ed. 1997. The Semitic Languages. Routledge.

Kaufman, S.A. 1982. “Reflections on the Assyrian-Aramaic Bilingual from TellFakhariyah,” Maarav 3: 137-175.

Kienast, B. 2001. Historische Semitische Sprachwissenschaft. Withcontributions by E. Graefe (Altaegyptisch) and G.B.Gragg (Kuschitisch).Wiesbaden.

Lipiński, E. 1997. Semitic Languages: Outline of a Comparative Grammar.Leuven.

Moscati, S., Spitaler, A., Ullendorff, E., von Soden, W. 1964. An Introductionto the Comparative Grammar of the Semitic Languages: Phonology and Morphology.Wiesbaden 1964.Procházka, S. 2004. Altäthiopische Studiengrammatik. Fribourg and Göttingen.

Rubin, A. 2004. “An Outline of Comparative Egypto-Semitic Morphology”. InGábor Takács, ed. Egyptian and Semito-Hamitic (Afro-Asiatic) Studies inMemoriam Werner Vycichl. Leiden. Pp. 454-86.

Rubin, A. 2010a. A Brief Introduction to the Semitic Languages. Piscataway.

Rubin, A. 2010b. The Mehri Language of Oman. Leiden.

Siddiqi, A. 1919. Studien über die persischen Fremdwörter im klassischenArabisch. Göttingen.

Tropper, J. 2002. Altäthiopisch (Geʿez). Münster.

Uhlig, S. 1990. Introduction to Ethiopian Palaeography. Stuttgart.

Ullendorff, E. The Challenge of Amharic. London, 1965.

Vogt, E. 2011. A Lexicon of Biblical Aramaic Clarified by Ancient Documents.Trans. and rev. J.A. Fitzmyer. Rome.

Vycichl, W. 1959. “Is Egyptian a Semitic Language?” Kush 7: 27-44.

Vycichl, W. 1975. “Egyptian and the Other Semitic Languages”. In J. Bynon andT. Bynon, eds. Hamito-Semitica. The Hague/Paris. Pp. 201-212.


Adam C. McCollum is Lead Cataloger of Eastern Christian Manuscripts at theHill Museum & Manuscript Library. He has published, among other things, onGreek-Syriac translation technique and translations of Syriac and Arabictexts, and is currently working on further Syriac text editions andtranslations, a skeleton grammar of Gǝʿǝz with annotated reading selections,and a handbook to studying the languages of Eastern Christianity. He hasinterests in the languages of the eastern Mediterranean, the Caucasus, andbeyond, especially in language contact and literary translation.

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