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Review of  Semitic Languages

Reviewer: Adam C McCollum
Book Title: Semitic Languages
Book Author: Gideon Goldenberg
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Linguistic Field(s): General Linguistics
Historical Linguistics
Language Documentation
Language Family(ies): Semitic
Issue Number: 25.676

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I remember first studying Gideon Goldenberg’s long treatment of the “tautological infinitive” (1971) and then some of his articles on Syriac syntax (1983, 1990, 1991, 1995) when I was making my way into advanced Syriac grammar. Those papers called for close concentration but they repaid the needed effort. The book under review was published just before the author’s death, and it makes a fitting capstone for his many years of comparative elucidation of (to paraphrase the title of one of those aforementioned studies) the niceties of Semitic, especially Aramaic and Ethiopian, linguistic features. (See an announcement of his death at, and a list of publications at


The book consists of sixteen chapters, including the introduction. The introduction presents material that will be well known to students and scholars of the Semitic languages. Here as elsewhere in the book Goldenberg does well in briefly summarizing previous work on the topics under discussion. This chapter covers the attention that general linguists have paid to Semitic languages, an overview of the individual chapters that follow, a statement of the way the book does linguistics, and then takes care of some practical matters, such as remarks on transcriptions and glossing. Here, too, the author affirms reliance only on a close analysis of “data taken from connected discourse in actual use,” such close analysis requiring -- and, we might add, developing -- a thorough familiarity “like that of the old masters of linguistics” (5).

After the introductory chapter itself, three more preliminary chapters follow. These are a survey of the languages (Ch. 2), where they have been or are spoken (Ch. 3), and writing systems for Semitic languages, especially as the vehicles for the linguistic record (Ch. 4). While Goldenberg rightly characterizes his book as of a different kind than the more comprehensive surveys of the past few decades, these three chapters are akin to such handbooks.

The theme of Ch. 5 is the classification of the languages, a subject with dense scholarly activity (Kienast 2001: 11-20; Huehnergard and Rubin 2011; Gragg and Hoberman 2012: §4.2-3). With some caveats about genetic classification generally (§5.1), Goldenberg turns the focus on features he considers especially relevant for the question of classification: internal plural formation (or broken plurals; known in Arabic, South-Arabian, and some Ethio-Semitic languages), derived stems with internal vowel lengthening (Arabic and Ethio-Semitic), the vowel (a or e) before the third radical of active perfects, the number of circumfix conjugations (one or two), the leveling of afformatives in the perfect (-k-, -t-) in comparison with the Akkadian stative, the adoption of -na to mark the feminine plural of the circumfix conjugation, and finally, the isogloss /p/ and /f/. There is also discussion of what is known as Central Semitic. Alternative explanations and discussion of certain problems in some of the subgroups (Canaanite, Aramaic, Arabic, and South Semitic) round out the investigation. In the end, he opts for an arrangement as follows: a main division into East and West Semitic, the latter divided into Northwest and South, South divided into Modern South Arabian and Ethiopian, which is itself further broken into four groups: 1. Gǝʿǝz, Tigre, Tigrinya; 2. Amharic-Argobba; 3. Gafat-Kǝstane; 4. Harari. Arabic is “left non-committal as to specific affiliation” but in the diagram is placed without any connecting lines between Northwest and South Semitic. The division of Ethio-Semitic into North and South, sometimes (especially formerly) found in the literature, has been abandoned, and he does not consider Eblaite, Ugaritic, and Epigraphic (as opposed to Modern) South Arabian in his final classification.

Ch. 6 is titled “Special Achievement of Semitic Linguistic Traditions,” and here Goldenberg highlights the theoretical contributions of the Arabic linguistic tradition, beginning in the eighth century. This tradition Goldenberg calls “one of the thoroughest, profoundest, most elaborated and sophisticated of its type” (58). The chapter does not, however, focus only on Arabic, but rather shows how the contributions of participants within this tradition have illuminated Arabic as well as other Semitic languages. The topics are substantive form and clause, adjective form and clause, adjective form as a transposed relative in Ethio-Semitic, verb form as a dimorphemic complex, segmental vowel length, the “weak quiescent” and Hebrew grammar, and finally, Comparative Semitics, thanks to medieval Hebrew grammarians having at their ready disposal Hebrew, Aramaic, and Arabic, and having been schooled in the praised Arabic linguistic tradition.

The material of Ch. 8, called “Closed-class Morphemes,” is function words broadly considered. Here Goldenberg surveys personal pronouns, reflexive and reciprocal expressions, interrogative pro-words, demonstratives, pronominal heads in adjectival constructions and “complementizers” (e.g. Arabic ḏu, Gǝʿǝz zä), basic adpositions, and numerals. An excursus on dual marking and another on indefinites augment the chapter. The discussion here of personal pronouns is full and far-reaching, including, for example, pronominal suffixes, independent oblique pronouns in Akkadian (yâti, yâšim, etc.), and object markers in various languages. The discussion of demonstratives naturally includes the pronouns (this, that, etc.), but also adverbs (here!, here, hither, there, now, then, yesterday, etc.)

Ch. 11 mostly focuses on the Semitic case system, but it begins with a look at three kinds of “syntactical bonds” (140-142). These are predicative, attributive, and completive, and after a brief mention here, they become the topics, respectively, of chapters 12, 14, and 15, the series being interrupted by a chapter (13) on the verbal system. His look at the case system includes a warning to “the enthusiastic comparativist” against “excessive indulgence in detecting apparent inconsistencies, looking for traces of former systems, or trying to reconstruct prehistoric ‘ergative’ constructions nowhere attested in any Semitic language” (142-143, with n. 2). The ternary case-marking system (nominative in -u, genitive in -i, and accusative in -a) is well-represented in Akkadian and Classical Arabic, and Goldenberg’s discussion starts there. His presentation in this chapter also includes adverbial endings not belonging to the aforementioned ternary system, such as Akkadian -iš (terminative-adverbial) and -um/ūm (locative-adverbial), with the latter of which he compares Arabic words like qablu, baʕdu, taḥtu (with the same forms even following the preposition min) having “a non-nominative ending -u” (147). Consideration of -u leads to a critique of assertions of ergativity in Semitic, and the chapter concludes with a paragraph on the replacement in many Semitic languages of morphological case-marking by prepositions.

Chapters 12 and 14-15 cover certain kinds of syntactic relationships in detail. These are advanced topics on which Goldenberg had written before, but even where the views are the same, here the scope is generally broader, with a view to the Semitic languages as a whole.

The author’s tone is one of reasoned certainty in most places, and he speaks definitively. This includes the clear rejection of approaches deemed unfit, both in the text and notes, sometimes in strong language; for example on 268, n. 59, one scholar who “mainly makes a declaration of his theoretical credo, promulgating authoritatively a prolix new set of latinized technical terms” is called “[u]nconversant with the specialist scholarly literature.” In the same note, he critiques general linguistic studies on the naʕt sababī (indirect epithet) as remaining “on the level of elementary school grammar.” On another point he says, “Attempts of scholars to explain why one form or the other should be regarded as more authentic or original are really pointless” (309).

Goldenberg distinguishes his book from the various “historical-comparative outlines,” such as the recent book edited by Weninger (2011). Goldenberg’s work “aims to expose the reader to a well reasoned and fully documented discussion of central issues of linguistic interest in Semitic” (xv). On the issue of using Semitic languages in general linguistic research, Goldenberg had written in some detail before (1987-1988, 1993, 2002). He continues, “The book thus offers a critical study, rather than a comprehensive overview of the current state of the art...,” and “ general, the geographical, historical, political, or social circumstances of the use of the languages are not the subject of this book” (xv-xvi). Goldenberg eschews a comprehensive survey executed on comparative or historical grounds. Building upon centuries of scholarship that in many cases touches at least two Semitic languages, the book is informed by the “genetic-genealogical comparative method,” but, he says, “it is not my main intention to indulge in historical reconstructions...” (98). Indeed, Goldenberg claims as his tendency the avoidance of this or that particular theoretical framework and opts merely to follow in this regard the great Antoine Meillet: “ordonner les faits linguistiques au point de vue de la langue même” (4, quoted from Meillet 1921: viii). He further describes his approach as “ideally ... prejudice-free, non-aprioristic, and empirically-based, intended to describe each language in its own terms, but with close attention to analogous features and intrinsic typological affinities; synchronic, but never dissociated from the areal and historical contexts” (4). As espousers of this kind of approach he points first back to H.J. Polotsky, and more recently to Dixon (2009-2012), Haspelmath (2010), and Frajzyngier (2010). Here and there throughout the book, Goldenberg offers some typological consideration of languages beyond Semitic, both Indo-European and otherwise (e.g. Turkish, Egyptian).


The foregoing paragraph shows how Goldenberg saw his book and a reader having finished the book will not disagree much. His approach, not to mention even the subtitle, are accurately borne out in the book. Strict historical linguists and comparativists will not find a steady diet here, although they will naturally find bits and pieces of cumulative interest to them. The book’s intended audience is apparently general linguists. A fair amount of linguistic know-how and terminology is assumed and it is certain that a reader without some experience in linguistic literature, no matter their knowledge of Semitic languages, would find parts of the book slow-going. That said, for general linguists, there are occasional places where experience in the literature of Semitic linguistic research, as well as the broader field of Ancient Near Eastern studies, is necessary: for example, an explanation of the term “Sumerogram” (31) would smooth over what might be an unfamiliar concept for some readers. A glossary would be a boon, and given the book’s relatively small size, it would hardly make it unwieldy.

Goldenberg was very widely read. I suspect that at least some of the names and works he mentions will be unknown even to experienced linguists, both general and Semitic. Especially noteworthy is his demonstrated familiarity with the Arabic grammatical tradition and with sources in Russian linguistics that continental and American scholars may be less familiar with. Indeed, given Goldenberg’s penchant for the old masters (not taken uncritically) along with his being well-studied in recent linguistic publications, the bibliography amounts to a recital of linguistic history, not only for the Semitic languages, but for others as well, and for general linguistics. And so, while Goldenberg’s aim is not for historical reconstruction or a diachronic presentation of the Semitic languages, his look at the topics covered offers much to those interested in the history of linguistic thought. His argumentation is clear, and he is quick to point out the work of other scholars that he has followed in his judgments, as well those with whose explanations or methods he disagrees.

The “features, structures, relations, and processes,” to use the language of the subtitle, then, are presented and explained with confidence and evidence. As with any proffered explanation of a package of linguistic ideas, there is bound to be disagreement over individual points, but what of the whole? That’s a difficult question to answer because of the type of book Goldenberg has given us. One notes immediately that there is no concluding chapter to wrap up the volume. While this is not usual, in this case the lack is not felt. The issues he discusses do not make up a comprehensive picture of the Semitic language family across its continuing history, and these topics are handled individually here briefly enough and are easy enough to find that a summary of them all would have been superfluous. (Whether credit is due the author or the publisher, the commendable practice was followed of giving two tables of contents, one concise, one full.) In other words, a required conclusion would have been a forced and detracting effort.

The many examples he offers, each in the proper place to illustrate this or that phenomenon in a particular language, go a long way toward making the book as strong as it is. Even careful explanations can benefit from a couple of examples, and Goldenberg’s habit is to give them, often more than a couple, and I, at least, did not find their number to be too great. There is a catch, though. These examples -- all, it seems, from genuine texts, including a memorable one from the Hebrew translation of Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men” -- are for the most part given without specific references. (Some references are given, e.g. on pp. 216-217, but it is not clear why those are indicated to the exclusion of the others.) Goldenberg passes over this lack with the bland suggestion, “Many of [the quotations] are retrievable by the interested reader in various ways” (6).

Given the author’s goals for the book and its character as a collection of admittedly somewhat scattered observations (and not a comprehensive presentation) accompanied by discussion in response to the literature, the work does not have many shortcomings. Each reader will naturally find some of their own, but the following interrupted my study of the book. While most of the book is closely knit within its section and perhaps chapter, and while there is usually clear evidence of the author’s having carefully thought through the relevant literature, there are parts of the book that are almost note-like, without having been properly incorporated into (or consequently omitted from) the rest of the discussion. To cite one example, the reference to Akkadian in the last paragraph of §13.3 (204), which deals exclusively with Hebrew, seems out of place, appearing from nowhere. If a connection was intended, it might have been elaborated. Elsewhere, structures under discussion would have benefited from a fuller explanation, as in his mention of phrases in Syriac like kāpray b-ṭaybūṯā (238), where it would have been well to stress that, somewhat against expectation, the first word is a bound (construct) form (cf. Nöldeke 2001: §206). The linguistic terminology pervasive throughout the book was mentioned above, and there are times that such language will cause or at least contribute to a lack of clarity for some readers, e.g. “Genitive construction, in the notional sense of genitive, is the real exponent of attributive relation, and it neutralizes, in fact, all possible semantic roles” (226). On the other end of the spectrum, some statements are rather obvious and unnecessary, such as “Tense forms and constructions have different meanings in different syntactic environments, in different text types and genres and in different varieties of speech forms within languages, and, as already mentioned, in various historical phases of development” (202). To the discussion in §15.1 the article Butts 2010 should be added. I noted a small number of errors: e.g. p. 8, the a at the bottom left of the first table should not be in italics; p. 243, line 2 of text, “šä” should be ša.

The book may not be a sufficient standalone reference for the student or scholar interested in the Semitic languages, although the preliminary chapters (1-5) help make it such. More ideal still would be this book in conjunction with at least one of the fuller survey books for the language family, books that offer what Goldenberg did not intend to offer here. The work will certainly give general linguists and typologists a critical and informed perspective on a number of phenomena in the Semitic languages, and those interested more strictly in the Semitic languages have here careful studies of some of the niceties in those languages that Goldenberg came to be known for. This book, while not imposing in size, will nonetheless stand tall among the great works on the Semitic languages for its close attention to these manifestations of the languages in that family.


Butts, Aaron Michael. 2010. The Etymology and Derivation of the Syriac Adverbial Ending -ɔʾiθ*. Journal of Near Eastern Studies 69: 79-86.

Dixon, Robert Malcolm Ward. 2009-2012. Basic Linguistic Theory. 3 vols. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Frajzyngier, Zygmunt. 2010. Towards a Non-aprioristic Syntactic Theory. Faites de Langues. Les Cahiers: Revue de linguistique 2: 9-40.

Frajzyngier, Zygmunt. 2012. Typological Outline of the Afroasiatic Phylum. In Zygmunt Frajzyngier and Erin Shay, eds., The Afroasiatic Languages. Cambridge Language Surveys. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 505-624.

Goldenberg, Gideon. 1971. Tautological Infinitive. Israel Oriental Studies 1: 36–85.

Goldenberg, Gideon. 1983. On Syriac Sentence Structure. In Michael Sokoloff, ed., Arameans, Aramaic and the Aramaic Literary Tradition. Ramat Gan: Bar-Ilan University Press. 97–140.

Goldenberg, Gideon. 1987-1988. The Contribution of Semitic Languages to Linguistic Thinking. Jaarbericht van het Vooraziatisch-Egyptisch Genootschap Ex Oriente Lux 30: 107–115.

Goldenberg, Gideon. 1990. On Some Niceties of Syriac Syntax. In V Symposium Syriacum 1988 = Orientalia Christiana Analecta 236: 335–344.

Goldenberg, Gideon. 1991. On Predicative Adjectives and Syriac Syntax. Bibliotheca Orientalis 48: 716–726.

Goldenberg, Gideon. 1993. The Semitic Languages and the Science of Language [in Hebrew]. In Joseph Geiger, ed., Moises Starosta Memorial Lectures (First Series). Jerusalem: The School for Graduate Studies, Faculty of Humanities, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. 99-126.

Goldenberg, Gideon. 1995. Bible Translations and Syriac Idiom. In P.B. Dirksen and A. van der Kooij, eds., The Peshitta as a Translation. Monographs of the Peshitta Institute 8. Leiden: Brill. 25–39.

Goldenberg, Gideon. 1997. Conservative and Innovative Features in Semitic Languages. In Alessandro Bausi and Mauro Tosco, eds., Afroasiatica Neapolitana: Papers from the 8th Italian Meeting of Afroasiatic (Hamito-Semitic) Linguistics, Naples, January 25-26, 1996. Studi Africanistici, Serie Etiopica 6. Naples: Istituto Universitario Orientale. 3–21.

Goldenberg, Gideon. 2002. Semitic Linguistics and the General Study of Language. Israel Oriental Studies 20: 21-41.

Gragg, Gene and Robert Hoberman. 2012. Semitic. In Zygmunt Frajzyngier and Erin Shay, eds., The Afroasiatic Languages. Cambridge Language Surveys. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 145-235.

Haspelmath, Martin. 2010. Framework-free Grammatical Theory. In Bernd Heine and Heiko Narrog, eds., Oxford Handbook of Linguistic Analysis. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 341-365.

Huehnergard, John and Aaron D. Rubin. 2011. Phyla and Waves: Models and Classification of the Semitic Languages. In Weninger 2011. 259-278.

Kienast, Burkhart. 2001. Historische Semitische Sprachwissenschaft. With contributions by E. Graefe (Altaegyptisch) and G.B. Gragg (Kuschitisch). Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz.

Meillet, Antoine. 1921. Linguistique historique et linguistique générale, I. Collection linguistique publiée par la Société de linguistique de Paris 8. Paris: Champion.

Nöldeke, Theodor. 2001. Compendious Syriac Grammar. Trans. James A. Crichton. With an Appendix ed. Anton Schall, trans. Peter T. Daniels. Winona Lake, Ind: Eisenbrauns.

Weninger, Stefan. 2011. The Semitic Languages: An International Handbook. In collaboration with Geoffrey Khan, Michael P. Streck, and Janet C.E. Watson. Handbooks of Linguistics and Communication Science 36 [Handbücher zur Sprach- und Kommunikationswissenschaft 36]. Berlin: De Gruyter Mouton.
Adam Carter McCollum is Lead Cataloger of Eastern Christian Manuscripts at the Hill Museum & Manuscript Library. He has published, among other things, on Greek-Syriac translation technique and translations of Syriac and Arabic texts, and is currently working on further Syriac text editions and translations, a skeleton grammar of Gǝʿǝz with annotated reading selections, and a handbook to studying the languages of Eastern Christianity. He has interests in the languages of the eastern Mediterranean, the Caucasus, and beyond, especially in language contact and literary translation.

Format: Hardback
ISBN-13: 9780199644919
Pages: 384
Prices: U.K. £ 70.00