Semitic languages have dominated the Near East since the dawn of recorded history. As early as 2900 BC Akkadian names are attested on Sumerian clay tablets and around the same time Canaanite snake spells were written down in Saqqara, which indicates that Semitic languages had spread to both Egypt and Mesopotamia by 3000 BC. Later Semitic speakers founded the world’s first empire, which would guarantee the political dominance of Akkadian speaking groups over the Near East for millennia to come. Semitic speakers are also found throughout Arabia and as far south as Ethiopia. In this article I will attempt to identify the original homeland of the proto-Semitic speakers and reconstruct the routes by which the Semitic languages descendants spread.
Since the earliest Semitic writings date to the early third millennium BC, by which time the proto-language had already split up into a western and an eastern branch, the proto-language should be dated no later than 3000 BC. A recent study by Kitchen et al. (2009) dates proto-Semitic quite precisely between 3800 and 3500 BC. This conclusion is based on the fact that Semitic languages have a common word for the donkey, an African animal that wasn’t introduced into the Near East until 3800 BC, while they do not have common words relating to wheeled vehicles, which spread across the Near East around 3500 BC. A date between 3800 and 3500 is reliabe overall, but if the proto-Semites were from Africa they may have known the donkey earlier than 3800 BC and similarly they may not have known wheeled vehicles as early as 3500 BC. However it may be, a date between 3800 and 3500 is probably not far off.
Locating proto-Semitic – The Arabian hypothesis
The homeland of proto-Semitic speakers is still controversial, but there is a growing consensus that it was somewhere in the Levant. An old and generally discarded theory places proto-Semitic in the Arabian Peninsula. This theory went nearly uncontested until the early twentieth century and is still very popular among Arabs. Much of this theory is based on a somewhat romaticized view of the proto-Semites as ancient bedouins. However, a true bedouin lifestyle was not feasable prior to the domestication of the camel around 1000 BC. Another argument against a bedouin origin of proto-Semitic is the common agricultural vocabulary among its descendants, as has been pointed out by Edward Lipinski, which indicates that the proto-Semites were mostly a sedentary agricultural people. Moreover, common Semitic words for oak trees and even ice indicates a relatively northern origin.
Locating proto-Semitic – The African hypothesis
The Semitic languages are a branch of the ancient Afro-Asiatic macrofamily. Proto-Afro-Asiatic was most likely spoken somewhere in Africa, so the pre-proto-Semitic language must have come from Africa as well. Although Lionel Bender proposes an early introduction of pre-proto-Semitic into Yemen from Ethiopia in his article ‘Upside-down Afrasian’ (1997), the consensus is that pre-proto-Semitic was introduced into the Levant via the Sinai route. Whether the proto-Semitic language (i.e. the language from which all currently identified Semitic languages are descend) was spoken in Africa or in Asia is up to debate. According to the aforementioned Lipinski the proto-Semites lived on the savannahs of the then still green Sahara before 3900 BC, when the Sahara region rapidly reverted back to a desert climate. The desiccation of the Sahara drove the proto-Egyptians to the Nile Valley, the proto-Berbers to the Mediterranean coast, the proto-Chadic people to Lake Chad and the proto-Semites to the Levant. I am inclined to believe that the desiccation of the Sahara did play a role in the distribution of Afro-Asiatic languages, but the question is whether the people who brought Afro-Asiatic to the Levant were proto-Semites or pre-proto-Semites. Since proto-Semitic probably had words for oak tree and ice, it seems more likely that the proto-Semites had already settled in Asia, although their ancestors must have come from Africa not too long before.
Locating proto-Semitic – the Levantine hypothesis
To conclude, the Levant seems to be the most likely homeland for proto-Semitic. A Mesopotamian homeland is also a slight possibility, but less likely in my opinion. First of all, we know that southern Mesopotamia was dominated by Sumerian speakers and northern Mesopotamia was probably home to Hurrian speakers. A good candidate for a proto-Semitic civilization is the Ghassulian culture that existed between 3800 and 3350 BC, although the proto-Semites may also have been the ones responsible for the decline of this culture. The Ghassulian culture was located in the modern Palestine and Jordan region and consisted mostly of small farming settlements. The collapse of this civilization may have led to a further diffusion of Semitic languages.
East Semitic migrations
The earliest split in the Semitic family is one between East and West. To the eastern branch belong Akkadian, Eblaite and Mariote, to the western branch belong all other Semitic languages. Although the first East Semitic names are attested in the Sumerian records of southern Mesopotamia, East Semitic dialects were also spoken in northern Syria. Both the city of Ebla in northwestern Syria, founded in the late fourth millennium BC, and the city of Mari in northeast Syria have given rise to East Semitic dialects that are distinguishable from the Akkadian language spoken in southern Mesopotamia. This indicates that proto-East Semitic was probably spoken in the Levant. The early East Semites were probably a semi-nomadic pastoralist section of Ghassulian civilization that spread across the Syrian steppes after the decline of its ancestral culture. The East Semites were concentrated in Syria, as Igance Gelb has pointed out, but some of them spread to southern Mesopotamia, especially the region around the city of Kish, where they were integrated in Sumerian society. Eventually Semitic speakers rose to political prominence under Sargon of Akkad, who made Akkadian the lingua franca of Mesopotamia for almost 2000 years to come. Eblaite and Mariote eventually passed into obscurity and are sometimes mistakenly seen as dialects of Akkadian.
South Semitic migrations
While East Semitic speakers settled in Mesopotamia, West Semitic speakers continued to dominate the Levant. Most of them lived in urban communities along the coast or in small farming communities further inland. There also was a small pastoralist component among the West Semites, that gradually adopted a semi-nomadic lifestyle. These pastoralists would give rise to a new branch of the Semitic family: the South Semitic branch. This South Semitic branch split off from the West Semitic branch somewhere in the third millennium BC, when the South Semitic speakers migrated south along the Red Sea and eventually settled on the highlands of Yemen. This region was relatively fertile and luxuries like myrrh and frankincense grew there abundantly. Over the course of the second millenniun BC several South Semitic kingdoms arose on the southern end of the Arabian Peninsula, like Saba, Ma’in, Qataban and Hadhramauth. Around 1000 BC they domesticated the camel, which allowed them to cross the Arabian desert more easily and to open up trade routes to Mesopotamia and the Levant. Around the same time South Semitic speakers crossed over to Ethiopia, where they founded the kingdom of Da’amot. The holy Ge’ez language and Amharic, which is still one of the most widely spoken languages in Ethiopia, are both descended from these early migrants. The kingdom of Aksum was also led by a Semitic speaking elite.
Up until 2200 BC most West Semitic speakers still lived and thrived in their urban communities along the Mediterranean coast and farming communities further inland. However, around 2200 BC a great drought struck the region. Not long after this date the Amorites, a West Semitic group from northern Syria, starts to migrate towards Mesopotamia. Akkadian sources depict these Amorites as nomads who do not even know how to farm, which is very unlike the West Semites that we know from the Levant. Perhaps these Amorites had turned to a semi-nomadic pastoralist lifestyle because of the long drought, first moving into northern Syria and replacing the remaining East Semitic speakers before moving on to Mesopotamia. In the early second millennium BC Amorite dynasties came to power in several Mesopotamian cities, including Ashur and Babylon, where they founded the earliest Assyrian and Babylonian empires. The Amorites were soon assimilated into Akkadian culture, however, and only a small kingdom along the Syrian coast preserved the name ‘Amorite’.
Around the same time that the Amorites invaded Mesopotamia other West Semitic pastoralists took to the steppes on the edges of the Arabian desert, where some settled in the oasis settlements. These pastoralists gave rise to the Central Semitic branch, from which all Modern Arabic dialects are descended. The Arabs originally inhabited only the Hejaz region, but after the domestication of the camel around 1000 BC they gradually colonized all of the Arabian Peninsula. It wasn’t until the third to fourth century AD, however, before Arabic dialects would replace the South Semitic languages of Yemen. Today, only a few isolated South Semitic dialects remain in the Arabian Peninsula.
While the Amorites had assimilated into Akkadian society and the Central Semitic speakers had moved into the Arabian Peninsula, the remaining West Semitic groups, now known as Northwest Semitic groups, remained in the Levant. Throughout the second millennium BC Northwest Semitic city states thrived along the Mediterranean coast under the protection of the Egyptians or the Hittites. By this time the coastal populations became known as the Canaanites, whereas their semi-nomadic cousins from the highlands became known as the Aramaeans. Both Canaanite and Aramaic were no monolithic languages, but groups of closely related dialects. Canaanite, for example, included among others the archaic language of Ugaritic, spoken in the far north of Syria, Biblical Hebrew (originally known as Judaic), and Punic (the language of Carthage). Around 1200 BC, following the famous Bronze Age Collapse, Aramaic groups came to dominate Syria and also settled in Mesopotamia. Due to Assyrian deportation policies Aramaic speakers eventually came to dominate Mesopotamia, replacing Akkadian as the lingua franca. Canaanite spread, along with Phoenician settlers, along the North African coast, where people spoke a dialect of Canaanite until the time of St. Augustine.
The Arab conquests
The most important diffusion of Semitic languages was brought about by the Arab muslims who conquered much of the Middle East after AD 632. What was originally just one dialect among many Central Semitic dialects became the new lingua franca in an area stretching from the Iberian Peninsula to Khorasan. Arabic replaced many of the older Semitic languages, like Aramaic and Canaanite. Aramaic is now spoken only among a few isolated Christian groups and Canaanite was practically dead until it was revived as Modern Hebrew in the nineteenth century. The second largest Semitic language is Amharic, one of the most important languages of Ethiopia with about 22 million native speakers. Over the last 1400 years Quranic Arabic has split up into so many highly divergent dialects that these dialects have practically become separate languages. This makes Arabic practically a language family rather than just one language. The development of Arabic reminds us once again that the same thing is true for all proto-languages. Proto-Semitic must also have been a regional dialect at one point, surrounded by many related dialects that have left us no trace.