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Review of  The Semitic Languages

Reviewer: Adam C McCollum
Book Title: The Semitic Languages
Book Author: Stefan Weninger
Publisher: De Gruyter Mouton
Linguistic Field(s): Historical Linguistics
Language Family(ies): Semitic
Issue Number: 24.33

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EDITOR: Stefan Weninger; in collaboration with Geoffrey Khan, Michael P. Streck, and Janet C.E. Watson
TITLE: The Semitic Languages: An International Handbook
SERIES: Handbooks of Linguistics and Communication Science 36 [Handbücher zur Sprach- und Kommunikationswissenschaft 36]
PUBLISHER: De Gruyter Mouton
YEAR: 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 especially with scholars -- either Jewish writers writing in Arabic or European Christian writers writing in Latin -- familiar with Hebrew, Aramaic, and Arabic. Out of this confluence of at least trilingual familiarity first came scattered remarks on orthography, phonology, or lexicography, and subsequently more dedicated investigations of relationships among those three languages and eventually others in the same family, generally on par with new textual archaeological discoveries and subsequent decipherment (Akkadian, Ugaritic, etc.) and with developing interest in contemporary spoken (and sometimes written) languages (Amharic, Neo-Aramaic dialects, Arabic dialects, etc.). The present 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 standard works of Brockelmann 1908-1913, Bergsträsser 1983, and Moscati et al. 1964, along with the more recent treatments of Hetzron 1997, Lipiński 1997, Kienast 2001, Haelewyck 2006, and Rubin 2010a, with all of which it has both similarities and differences. In its comprehensiveness, the new book brings together much of the best of these various prior approaches to questions of the Semitic language family. As the editors say, “This volume focuses on the structure of the Semitic languages themselves, their history and their roots in societies” (p. 4), a remark that highlights both its inclusion of topics traditionally covered in language surveys as well as its uniqueness for treating language contact and sociolinguistic issues.

As just mentioned, this is a big book. There are a total of seventy-four chapters, and it thus dwarfs in size any semi-comparable volume for this language family. (Brockelmann’s two-volume “Grundriß” is also large, but of a different nature and purpose than this book.) The introduction provides an admirably concise orientation to the book, the sections of which are as follows: Semitic in an Afroasiatic Context (chs. 2-5), Reconstructing Proto-Semitic and Models of Classification (chs. 6-9), The Semitic Languages and Dialects I: Their Typology (chs. 10-11), The Semitic Languages and Dialects II: East Semitic (chs. 12-17), The Semitic Languages and Dialects III: North-West Semitic (chs. 18-43), The Semitic Languages and Dialects IV: Languages of the Arabian Peninsula (chs. 44-64), and The Semitic Languages and Dialects V: Ethio-Semitic Languages (chs. 65-74). The length of the chapters varies 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, “Arabic Dialects of Mesopotamia,” pp. 909-920) and others quite long (L. Kogan, “Proto-Semitic Phonetics and Phonology,” pp. 54-151; L. Kogan, “Proto-Semitic Lexicon,” 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 with present scholarship are its attention to the Semitic languages as belonging to the Afroasiatic macrofamily (but the Nostratic hypothesis is rightly eschewed) and its treatment of some language-contact situations that concern certain Semitic languages. The chapters focused on specific languages, which make up the bulk of the book, generally include remarks on the language’s history and the surviving corpus, as well as a few charts of typical morphological patterns. The chapters are self-standing, with their own abbreviations (but some chapters lack a list!) and reference list given at the end, but the introductory chapters for each section listed above need be consulted for the best grasp of any particular chapter within that section. This independence for each chapter is especially useful given the current scholarly necessity, especially in a book of this kind and cost, of getting and using individual chapters, rather than the entire book, through interlibrary loan or other means. Many of the articles will be understandable with little difficulty by general 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 with eighteen chapters touching on Aramaic dialects and more general relevant linguistic approaches, including chapters on Akkadian-Aramaic (ch. 17), Aramaic-Iranian (ch. 42), and Aramaic-Arabic (ch. 43) language contact; one misses, though, a chapter on Hebrew-Aramaic (in both directions). Arabists, too, will find the nineteen chapters touching on their field plentiful and valuable, with coverage not only of the expected and well-recognized literary and dialectal varieties and periods, but also the just-mentioned chapter on Aramaic-Arabic language contact, along with others on the creation of Modern Standard Arabic, sociolinguistics, urban vernaculars, pidgins and creoles, and language contact between Berber and Arabic, Arabic and Persian, and Arabic and European languages. For the more widely attested (and studied) languages (e.g. Akkadian, Arabic, Ethio-Semitic), there are introductory chapters that give the general layout of dialects, etc., followed by more focused chapters on individual dialects or languages. Since the later nineteenth century especially, scholars have given more and more attention to modern Semitic languages and dialects, and this volume very appropriately devotes considerable space to them, both in individual language-specific chapters and in the comparative chapters at the beginning of the work.

In order to offer a better picture of the book’s content from a more focused point of view, I turn to three chapters of different types for a closer summary. First, in ch. 11 Michael Waltisberg examines the “Syntactic Typology of Semitic” (pp. 303-329). This chapter belongs to the introductory part of the book and is meant as a look across all of the Semitic languages. It is wholly synchronic and, as expected there are many well-documented examples from across the entire language family. Naturally, the topic is one that might easily fill an entire book, and so the author acknowledges the confinements of space and hence the incompleteness of coverage. While the approach and presentation of this chapter is synchronic, the study yields a distinction between the older languages, which show “a rather uniform character with only minor deviations from a common type,” and the modern languages with their “typologically multi-faceted picture” (p. 303). The chapter’s presentation is divided into noun phrase, simple clause, and complex sentence, each with several subheadings. Under a discussion of the general structure of the noun phrase, the author considers left- and right-branching, the order of modifiers, and the position of demonstratives and numerals. Also treated under noun phrase are definiteness, two kinds of attribution (1. genitive and 2. apposition and adjective), quantifiers, relative clauses, and pronouns. The study 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), and linearization (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 chapter concludes with a list of abbreviations and a reference list.

The next example chapter for summary is ch. 21, Wolfgang Röllig’s brief look at “Phoenician and Punic” (pp. 472-479). Rather than offer a skeleton grammar (which several other chapters in the book have), this chapter focuses more on highlights of Phoenician and Punic within the context of the Northwest Semitic languages. There are no morphological charts or lists, but a few of the more salient features are given in the description. The author points to our evidence of the stages of the language and the places where it was used from “city-states on the Lebanese shore” followed by westward expansions to colonies in the Mediterranean. In addition to Phoenician inscriptions, sources for the language include names in Assyrian royal inscriptions as well as scattered places in Greek and Latin writers. Other Northwest Semitic languages, especially Hebrew, are used for some elucidation, and knowledge of Hebrew seems to be assumed on the reader’s part. For later stages of Phoenician (i.e. Punic), the author advises caution with the data due to the wide geographical spread and the long period over which it was used. A few very general remarks are offered on the famous section of Plautus’ “Poenulus” that has Punic speech. At the beginning of the chapter is a paragraph on script, in which the author notes its distinction from Aramaic practice in the non-use of certain letters as vowel markers (matres lectionis). Before the reference list, the chapter closes with a statement of three desiderata of future research: 1. A standardized presentation in a single place of all Phoenician 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, with careful attention to the times and places of their occurrence.

Finally, we turn to ch. 68, on Tigrinya, by Rainer Voigt (pp. 1142-1169). This chapter is a presentation of phonology, morphology, and syntax, and the following chapter, by the same author, offers a more sociolinguistic consideration of Tigrinya. The language is spoken in Eritrea and the Tigray province (northern Ethiopia) by over five million speakers and belongs with Tigre and Gǝʿǝz to a group of languages now or formerly spoken in northern Ethiopia. (Voigt rejects the often encountered division of Ethio-Semitic into northern [the aforementioned languages] and southern [Amharic and the rest] branches). The chapter begins with a relatively detailed presentation of phonology and transliteration (the language is written, like Amharic, with a supplemented 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, pronominal suffixes attached to the noun, object suffixes attached to verbs, demonstrative pronouns (near and far), and relative pronouns. Under the subheading of nouns, the author discusses plural formation, noun patterns (along with prefixes and affixes), and prepositions. The next section covers verbs, and while much will be familiar to readers who have studied other Ethio-Semitic languages, Voigt does not assume such knowledge and describes Tigrinya in and of itself. The stems, forms, and conjugational morphemes are laid out in charts, and he then treats the so-called weak verbs, irregular verbs, negation, conjunctions (particles which subordinate one verb to another), and periphrastic verbal constructions. Before a brief reference list, the chapter ends with a few remarks on syntactic features (on constituent order and cleft sentences).


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

I now turn to some quibbles and some more significant criticisms. First, some of the English phraseology will occasionally strike native speakers as being not quite right (e.g. p. 243, “spent to” for “spent on”). Naturally, this very rarely, if at all, obscures meaning, but one is struck by the book’s having escaped the eyes of a careful proofreader, a fact all the more obvious for the following glaring problems. The most disconcerting aspect of this new volume is the proportion of mistakes, which include errors of typography, inconsistency, and simple accuracy. I will mention only a few among them as examples, but the margins of my copy have more indicated; there are, in fact, so many errors that it is extremely doubtful that anyone read carefully through the proofs as a whole. Two striking errors -- one surprising for its outrageousness, the other for its unintended humor -- serve as the vanguard of these slips. The next to last line of p. 337, which consists of nineteen words, has not a single space in its entire length! Next, few readers will pass 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 been lacking some stimulation that other linguists have enjoyed. Here are a few other errors and seeming infelicities from throughout the book (in the following, 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 but not hyphenated
10, line 15: “sw” should be italicized
35: next-to-last paragraph should be numbered 5.1 (it is not numbered), and the 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 indented
348, 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 („‟ instead of “”)
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 ʾalef
662, line 3 from bottom: בולי should be כולי
On a typographic note, ch. 36 sometimes, not always, has the šewa with yod directly under the letter, rather than beneath the line, which is the usual practice.
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 italicized
830: second paragraph not indented
833: the items Khan 1992a and 1992b are the same article
835: in the item Somekh 1993, read “fuṣḥā” for “fuḥṣā”
837, line 8 from bottom: “Aperςu” > “Aperçu” (also in this ch. is the use of ğ instead of ǧ)
910, last line: “upto” > “up to”
911, line 5: “have” > “has”
930, line 5: “form” should be capitalized
The “Oxford comma” is sometimes present, sometimes not. B.C. and A.D. are used instead of B.C.E. and C.E. in many places, but not throughout. There is inconsistent 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 as Saqqāra (p. 575) and Saqqarah (p. 588), in chapters by different authors, but the 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” usually spelled 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 title but chs. 70 and 74 use “Ethiosemitic”; and the former chapter also has “Gǝʕǝz”, while elsewhere it is “Gǝʿǝz”. These errors and inconsistencies might be more easily overlooked, for better or worse, on a website, in a draft version, or in a very inexpensive volume, but there really is no excuse for the publication of so error-laden a book as this, and the fact that it is an expensive book makes these mistakes all the more objectionable.

To turn rather to content than to form, I may be indulged to offer a few more remarks. A basic paragraph or two on Berber and Chadic languages is missing in chs. 3 and 4; these would be helpful for a Semitic-oriented reader not as familiar with the rest of the Afroasiatic family. On p. 371, based on the examples given there, instead of “Word initial /w/ becomes /u/,” it would be better 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 refer to Arabic plain and simple. In ch. 18 (p. 446, line 21 from bottom) “ox” is said to “mean” /alp/, but, of course, in an English context it is better to say that /alp/ means “ox”. In the abstract to ch. 34 on p. 637, Syriac is said to be “one of the best attested of the literary dialects of Aramaic (alongside Jewish Aramaic and Mandaic).” The qualification “one of” is hardly necessary, and in any case “Jewish Aramaic” (without Palestinian, Babylonian, etc.) is not an Aramaic dialect. On the same page the author makes clear that Ṭuroyo and North-Eastern Neo-Aramaic dialects are not included in the chapter; I should say not, since they are not (Classical) Syriac, the subject of the chapter, so I am not sure why the statement was thought to be of use here. On p. 644 in the same chapter it is said that “after the 13th/14th centuries there are no major authors producing works in Syriac.” This is not an uncommon opinion, 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 Syriac after those centuries remains in manuscript only or, if published, in books and articles that have not been widely distributed. Also on that page, the author describes Syriac poetry as “often difficult or even baffling.” This strikes me as far too strong an assessment, especially without mention of the rich (and generally comprehensible) language and viewpoints that Syriac poets, early and late, make use of; there are cruces, to be sure, but it is hardly the impenetrable literature that “difficult” and “baffling” imply. On p. 638 it is said that “Syriac Orthodox” is the preferred ecclesiastical appellation and 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 of Eastern Christianity, and ch. 35 is indeed so titled, but the definite article there is wholly out of place: just ask the Coptic, Ethiopian, Armenian, Georgian, and other Christians! On p. 669, the author says, “Since JBA [Jewish Babylonian Aramaic] was in contact with Akkadian and Persian for a long period of time...” JBA is attested from the third century CE, when Akkadian was moribund. While an Akkadian substrate for the ancestral Aramaic dialect of JBA will be doubted by no one, it is misleading to say that “JBA was in contact with Akkadian ... for a long period of time.” In §4.3 of ch. 37 we might ask what the use is of pure Latin grammatical terminology (genera, numeri, status absolutus, constructus, emphaticus) when their English cousins are so regularly and appropriately encountered nowadays. On p. 678, line 2, in the same chapter, the doubled consonant of /ḥaššẹḇ/ is said to be an example of “reduplication”; since that term is especially used for the repetition of monosyllabic roots in certain occurring bisyllabic (“reduplicated”) roots, such as in the Aramaic word daqdaq “small”, the term “doubling” would be better here. The reference on p. 1016 to “Syriac” and “Aramaic” in a list of languages requires more precise delineation or rephrasing. I mentioned above the book’s notable treatment of modern Semitic languages, but there is only a single chapter dealing with the six Modern South Arabian languages (Mehri, Hobyōt, Ḥarsūsi, Baṭḥari, Jibbāli, Soqoṭri); a more detailed examination in a dedicated chapter of at least one of the relatively better studied languages would not have been unwelcome.

To fill in some bibliographical lacunae: To the bibliography of ch. 2 might be added Vycichl 1959 and 1975, and Rubin 2004. To the bibliography of chs. 17 and 27 should be added Kaufman 1982. To that of ch. 28 might be added the English translation of Vogt’s “Lexicon linguae aramaicae veteris testamenti” (Vogt 2011, translated by Fitzmyer). Siddiqi 1919 would suitably be highlighted 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 late to have been mentioned in ch. 64. Since the book is aimed especially at English readers, in ch. 66 Uhlig 1990 should be named in addition to the larger German original, but also the grammars of Tropper 2002 and Procházka 2004. 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 of this kind should not necessarily supply a comprehensive bibliography, and bibliographical selection is partly a subjective endeavor, but the few additions 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 a fascinating arena for scholars interested in various linguistic phenomena to work in, including:
1. attestation over a long time period
2. attestation over a broad geographic area
3. attestation among a variety of religions
4. relatively intense research (with some controversy) on these languages
5. several examples of language contact, both with other Semitic languages and with extra-Semitic languages
6. examples of literary vs. spoken or dialectal diglossia

These and probably other reasons have made the Semitic languages a fertile field of study and there is no indication that this will change, especially as new material, both for ancient and modern languages, continues to come to light 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 all students and scholars who have cause or interest to study these languages. It is only a pity that more effort was not made to properly prepare it before its publication.


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

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

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

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

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

Hasselbach, R. 2009. “Altsüdarabisch”. In H. Gzella, ed., Sprache aus der Welt des 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 Tell Fakhariyah,” Maarav 3: 137-175.

Kienast, B. 2001. Historische Semitische Sprachwissenschaft. With contributions 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 Introduction to 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”. In Gábor Takács, ed. Egyptian and Semito-Hamitic (Afro-Asiatic) Studies in Memoriam 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 klassischen Arabisch. 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 and T. Bynon, eds. Hamito-Semitica. The Hague/Paris. Pp. 201-212.

Adam C. 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.