|North Africa, Western Asia, Horn of Africa, Sahel, and Malta|
|Linguistic classification||One of the world's primary language families|
|ISO 639-2 / 5||afa|
Distribution of the Afro-Asiatic languages
The Afroasiatic languages (or Afro-Asiatic), also known as Hamito-Semitic, or Semito-Hamitic, and sometimes also as Afrasian or Erythraean, are a language family of about 300 languages that are spoken predominantly in Western Asia, North Africa, the Horn of Africa, and parts of the Sahara/Sahel. With the exception of its Semitic branch, all other branches of the Afroаsiatic family are spoken exclusively on the African continent.
Afroasiatic languages have over 500 million native speakers, which is the fourth-largest number of native speakers of any language family (after Indo-European, Sino-Tibetan, and Niger–Congo). The phylum has six branches: Berber, Chadic, Cushitic, Egyptian, Semitic, and Omotic. The most widely spoken modern Afroasiatic language or dialect continuum by far is Arabic, a de facto group of distinct language varieties within the Semitic branch. The languages that evolved from Proto-Arabic have around 313 million native speakers, concentrated primarily in the Middle East and North Africa.
In addition to the languages spoken today, Afroasiatic includes several important ancient languages, such as Egyptian, which forms a distinct branch of the family; and within the Semitic family, Akkadian, Biblical Hebrew, and Old Aramaic. While there is no consensus among historical linguists concerning the original homeland of the Afroasiatic family or the period when the parent language (i.e. Proto-Afroasiatic) was spoken, most agree that it was located within a region of Northeast Africa. Proposed specific locations include the Horn of Africa, Egypt, the eastern Sahara, and the Levant.
In the early 19th century, linguists grouped the Berber, Cushitic and Egyptian languages within a "Hamitic" phylum, in acknowledgement of these languages' genetic relation with each other and with those in the Semitic phylum.[failed verification] The terms "Hamitic" and "Semitic" were etymologically derived from the Book of Genesis, which describes various Biblical tribes descended from Ham and Shem, two sons of Noah. By the 1860s, the main constituent elements within the broader Afroasiatic family had been worked out.
Friedrich Müller introduced the name "Hamito-Semitic" for the entire language family in his Grundriss der Sprachwissenschaft (1876). Maurice Delafosse (1914) later coined the term "Afroasiatic" (often now spelled "Afro-Asiatic"). However, it did not come into general use until Joseph Greenberg (1950) formally proposed its adoption. In doing so, Greenberg sought to emphasize the fact that 'Hamitic' was not a valid group and that language cladistics did not reflect race.[page needed] In current scholarly usage, the most commonly used names are "Afroasiatic", "Hamito-Semitic", and "Semito-Hamitic".
Individual scholars have also called the family "Erythraean" (Tucker 1966) and "Lisramic" (Hodge 1972). In lieu of "Hamito-Semitic", the Russian linguist Igor Diakonoff later suggested the term "Afrasian", meaning "half African, half Asiatic", in reference to the geographic distribution of the family's constituent languages.
Scholars generally treat the Afroasiatic language family as including at least the following five branches:
A sixth family's inclusion in Afroasiatic is disputed by a minority of scholars:
Although there is general agreement on these six families, linguists who study Afroasiatic raise some points of disagreement, in particular:
In descending order of the number of speakers, widely-spoken Afroasiatic languages include:
In the 9th century the Hebrew grammarian Judah ibn Quraysh of Tiaret in Algeria became the first to link two branches of Afroasiatic together; he perceived a relationship between Berber and Semitic. He knew of Semitic through his study of Arabic, Hebrew, and Aramaic. In the course of the 19th century, Europeans also began suggesting such relationships. In 1844, Theodor Benfey proposed a language family consisting of Semitic, Berber, and Cushitic (he called the latter "Ethiopic"). In the same year T.N. Newman suggested a relationship between Semitic and Hausa, but this would long remain a topic of dispute and uncertainty.
Friedrich Müller named the traditional Hamito-Semitic family in 1876 in his Grundriss der Sprachwissenschaft ("Outline of Linguistics"), and defined it as consisting of a Semitic group plus a "Hamitic" group containing Egyptian, Berber, and Cushitic; he excluded the Chadic group. It was the Egyptologist Karl Richard Lepsius (1810–1884) who restricted Hamitic to the non-Semitic languages in Africa, which are characterized by a grammatical gender system. This "Hamitic language group" was proposed to unite various, mainly North-African, languages, including the Ancient Egyptian language, the Berber languages, the Cushitic languages, the Beja language, and the Chadic languages. Unlike Müller, Lepsius saw Hausa and Nama as part of the Hamitic group. These classifications relied in part on non-linguistic anthropological and racial arguments. Both authors used the skin-color, mode of subsistence, and other characteristics of native speakers as part of their arguments for grouping particular languages together.
In 1912, Carl Meinhof published Die Sprachen der Hamiten ("The Languages of the Hamites"), in which he expanded Lepsius's model, adding the Fula, Maasai, Bari, Nandi, Sandawe and Hadza languages to the Hamitic group. Meinhof's model was widely supported in the 1940s. Meinhof's system of classification of the Hamitic languages was based on a belief that "speakers of Hamitic became largely coterminous with cattle herding peoples with essentially Caucasian origins, intrinsically different from and superior to the 'Negroes of Africa'." However, in the case of the so-called Nilo-Hamitic languages (a concept he introduced), it was based on the typological feature of gender and a "fallacious theory of language mixture". Meinhof did this although earlier work by scholars such as Lepsius and Johnston had substantiated that the languages which he would later dub "Nilo-Hamitic" were in fact Nilotic languages, with numerous similarities in vocabulary to other Nilotic languages.
Leo Reinisch (1909) had already proposed linking Cushitic and Chadic while urging their more distant affinity with Egyptian and Semitic. However, his suggestion found little acceptance. Marcel Cohen (1924) rejected the idea of a distinct "Hamitic" subgroup and included Hausa (a Chadic language) in his comparative Hamito-Semitic vocabulary. Finally, Joseph Greenberg's 1950 work led to the widespread rejection of "Hamitic" as a language category by linguists. Greenberg refuted Meinhof's linguistic theories and rejected the use of racial and social evidence. In dismissing the notion of a separate "Nilo-Hamitic" language category, in particular, Greenberg was "returning to a view widely held a half-century earlier". He consequently rejoined Meinhof's so-called Nilo-Hamitic languages with their appropriate Nilotic siblings. He also added (and sub-classified) the Chadic languages, and proposed a new name, "Afroasiatic", for the family. Almost all scholars have accepted this classification as the new and continued consensus.
Greenberg developed his model fully in his book The Languages of Africa (1963), in which he reassigned most of Meinhof's additions to Hamitic to other language families, notably Nilo-Saharan. Following Isaac Schapera and rejecting Meinhof, he classified the Khoekhoe language as a member of the Khoisan languages, a grouping that has since proven inaccurate and excessively motivated on the presence of click sounds. To Khoisan he also added the Tanzanian Hadza and Sandawe, though this view has been discredited as linguists working on these languages regard them as linguistic isolates. Despite this, Greenberg's classification remains a starting point for modern work on many languages spoken in Africa, and the Hamitic category (and its extension to Nilo-Hamitic) has no part in this.
Since the three traditional branches of the Hamitic languages (Berber, Cushitic and Egyptian) have not been shown to form an exclusive (monophyletic) phylogenetic unit of their own, separate from other Afroasiatic languages, linguists no longer use the term in this sense. Each of these branches is instead now regarded as an independent subgroup of the larger Afroasiatic family.
In 1969, Harold Fleming proposed that what had previously been known as Western Cushitic is an independent branch of Afroasiatic, suggesting for it the new name "Omotic". This proposal and name have met with widespread acceptance.
Based on typological differences with the other Cushitic languages, Robert Hetzron proposed that Beja has to be removed from Cushitic, thus forming an independent branch of Afroasiatic. Most scholars, however, reject this proposal, and continue to group Beja as the sole member of a Northern branch within Cushitic.[page needed]
Glottolog does not accept that the inclusion or even unity of Omotic has been established, nor that of Ongota or the unclassified Kujarge. It therefore splits off the following groups as small families: South Omotic, Mao, Dizoid, Gonga–Gimojan (North Omotic apart from the preceding), Ongota, and Kujarge.
|Greenberg (1963)||Newman (1980)||Fleming (post-1981)||Ehret (1995)|
|Orel & Stolbova (1995)||Diakonoff (1996)||Bender (1997)||Militarev (2000)|
Little agreement exists on the subgrouping of the five or six branches of Afroasiatic: Semitic, Egyptian, Berber, Chadic, Cushitic, and Omotic. However, Christopher Ehret (1979), Harold Fleming (1981), and Joseph Greenberg (1981) all agree that the Omotic branch split from the rest first.
The earliest written evidence of an Afroasiatic language is an Ancient Egyptian inscription dated to c. 3400 BC (5,400 years ago). Symbols on Gerzean (Naqada II) pottery resembling Egyptian hieroglyphs date back to c. 4000 BC, suggesting an earlier possible dating. This gives us a minimum date for the age of Afroasiatic. However, Ancient Egyptian is highly divergent from Proto-Afroasiatic, and considerable time must have elapsed in between them. Estimates of the date at which the Proto-Afroasiatic language was spoken vary widely. They fall within a range between approximately 7500 BC (9,500 years ago), and approximately 16,000 BC (18,000 years ago). According to Igor M. Diakonoff (1988: 33n), Proto-Afroasiatic was spoken c. 10,000 BC. Christopher Ehret (2002: 35–36) asserts that Proto-Afroasiatic was spoken c. 11,000 BC at the latest, and possibly as early as c. 16,000 BC. These dates are older than those associated with other proto-languages.
Main article: Afroasiatic Urheimat
The Afroasiatic urheimat, the hypothetical place where Proto-Afroasiatic language speakers lived in a single linguistic community, or complex of communities, before this original language dispersed geographically and divided into distinct languages, is unknown. Afroasiatic languages are today primarily spoken in West Asia, North Africa, the Horn of Africa, and parts of the Sahel. Their distribution seems to have been influenced by the Sahara pump operating over the last 10,000 years.
While there is no definitive agreement on when or where the original homeland of this language family existed, some link the first speakers to the first farmers in the Levant who would later spread to North and East Africa. Others argue the first speakers were pre-agricultural and based in Northeast Africa.
Shared features with Indo-European languages in West Asia related to food production are suggested by some scholars to support a Levantine origin for Afroasiatic languages. The Levantine hypothesis does not account for the domestication of plants endemic to the Horn of Africa such as teff, ensete, and niger seed, nor does it account for the lack of evidence for intrusive agricultural populations or the cultivation of wheat, barley, or sorghum there prior to 3000 B.C. A Northeast African origin is supported by the majority of scholars today. This region includes the majority of the diversity of the Afroasiatic language family and has very diverse groups in close geographic proximity, sometimes considered a telltale sign for a linguistic geographic origin. Christopher Ehret argues that Proto-Afroasiatic speakers in Northeast Africa developed subsistence patterns of intensive plant collection and pastoralism, giving the population an economic advantage which impelled the expansion of the Afroasiatic languages. Ehret suggests that a Proto-Semitic or Proto-Semito-Berber-speaking population migrated from Northeast Africa to the Levant during the late Paleolithic and eventually gave rise to the Natufian culture. Linguist Roger Blench proposed southwestern Ethiopia as the most likely homeland of Afroasiatic, due in part to the high internal diversification of the Omotic branch spoken in that region.
Various scholars have hypothesized on the origins of Afroasiatic based on genetic evidence. Y Haplogroup E-M215 is common among modern Afroasiatic-speaking groups and has been associated with an ancestral Afroasiatic population in Northeast Africa. In a 2014 autosomal DNA study, Hodgson et al. postulate that the Afroasiatic languages may have been spread by an ancestral population(s) carrying a newly identified non-African genetic component, which the researchers dub the "Ethio-Somali". This genetic component is prevalent among modern Afroasiatic-speaking populations, found at its highest levels among those in the Horn of Africa. The researchers suggest that the original Ethio-Somali carrying population(s) probably migrated from the Near East to Northeast Africa in the pre-agricultural period (~12–23 ka), and a descendant population migrated back to the Levant prior to 4000 BC and developed the Semitic branch of Afroasiatic.
|↓ Number||Language →||Arabic||Kabyle||Somali||Beja||Hausa|
Widespread (though not universal) features of the Afroasiatic languages include:
One of the most remarkable shared features among the Afroasiatic languages is the prefixing verb conjugation (see the table at right), with a distinctive pattern of prefixes beginning with /ʔ t n j/, and in particular a pattern whereby third-singular masculine /j-/ is opposed to third-singular feminine and second-singular /t-/.
According to Ehret (1996), tonal languages appear in the Omotic and Chadic branches of Afroasiatic, as well as in certain Cushitic languages. The Semitic, Berber and Egyptian branches generally do not use tones phonemically.
The Berber and Semitic branches share certain grammatical features (e.g. alternative feminine endings *-ay/*-āy; corresponding vowel templates for verbal conjugations) which can be reconstructed for a higher-order proto-language (provisionally called "Proto-Berbero-Semitic" by Kossmann & Suchard (2018) and Putten (2018)). Whether this proto-language is ancestral to Berber and Semitic only, or also to other branches of Afroasiatic, still remains to be established.
See also: § Etymological bibliography