North Africa, Europe, Middle East, Indian subcontinent
Linguistic classificationIf it were true, Afroasiatic

The Indo-Semitic hypothesis maintains that a genetic relationship exists between Indo-European and Semitic and that the Indo-European and the Semitic language families both descend from a common root ancestral language. The theory has never been widely accepted by contemporary linguists in modern times, but historically it had a number of supporting advocates and arguments, particularly in the 19th and 20th centuries.

History of the term and of the idea

The term "Indo-Semitic" was first used by Graziadio Ascoli (Cuny 1943:1), a leading advocate of this relationship. Although this term has been used by a number of scholars since (e.g. Adams and Mallory 2006:83), there is no universally accepted term for this grouping at the present time. In German the term indogermanisch-semitisch, 'Indo-Germanic–Semitic', has often been used (as by Delitzsch 1873, Pedersen 1908), in which indogermanisch is a synonym of "Indo-European".

Several phases in the development of the Indo-Semitic hypothesis can be distinguished.

A proposed relationship between Indo-European and Semitic

In a first phase, a few scholars in the 19th century argued that the Indo-European languages were related to the Semitic languages. The first to do so was Johann Christoph Adelung in his work Mithridates. However, the first to do so in a scientific way was Richard Lepsius in 1836.[1] The arguments presented for a relationship between Indo-European and Semitic in the 19th century were commonly rejected by Indo-Europeanists, including W.D. Whitney (1875) and August Schleicher.[citation needed]

The culmination of this first phase in Indo-Semitic studies was Hermann Möller's comparative dictionary of Indo-European and Semitic, first published in Danish in 1909 (but usually cited in its German edition of 1911).

A succinct history of the Indo-Semitic hypothesis is provided by Alan S. Kaye (1985:887) in a review of Allan Bomhard's Toward Proto-Nostratic:

A proposed relationship between Indo-European and Semitic goes back some 125 years to R. von Raumer [note: Lepsius, though, is earlier than that]; but it was G.I. Ascoli who, after examining many items, declared in 1864 that these language families were genetically related. However, A. Schleicher denied the relationship. Scholars waited for a systematic study of IE-Semitic vocabulary until 1873, when F. Delitzsch published his Studien über indogermanisch-semitische Wurzelverwandtschaft; this was followed in 1881 by J. McCurdy's Aryo-Semitic Speech. C. Abel's 400-page dictionary of Egyptian-Semitic-IE roots appeared in 1884. Work by 20th century linguists who have investigated the problem more thoroughly with Afro-Asiatic and/or Semitic data include H. Möller, A. Cuny (in a series of publications from 1912 through 1946, all used by Bomhard), L. Brunner, C. Hodge, S. Levin, A. Dolgopol′skij, V.M. Illič-Svityč, and K. Koskinen.

A larger grouping

In the mid-19th century, Friedrich Müller argued that the Semitic languages were related to a large group of African languages, which he termed Hamitic. This implied a larger grouping, Indo-European—Hamito-Semitic. However, the concept of Hamitic was deeply flawed, relying in part on racial criteria rather than linguistic ones. In 1950, Joseph Greenberg showed that the Hamitic grouping needed to be split up, with only some of the languages it concerned groupable with Semitic. He named this greatly modified grouping Afroasiatic. In principle, then, Indo-European—Hamito-Semitic was replaced by Indo-European—Afroasiatic.

However, Greenberg also argued that the relevant question was not whether Indo-European was related to Afroasiatic but how it was related (2005:336-338). Did the two form a valid node in a family tree of languages, or were they only more distantly related, with many other languages in between? Since the 1980s, adherents of the controversial Nostratic hypothesis, who accept a relationship between Indo-European and Afroasiatic, have begun to move away from the view that Indo-European and Afroasiatic share an especially close relationship, and to consider that they are only related at a higher level (ib. 332-333).

Continued comparison of Indo-European and Semitic

Although it might seem that the logical connection to pursue was that between Indo-European and Hamito-Semitic or, later, Indo-European and Afroasiatic (ib. 336), in practice scholars interested in this comparison continued to compare Indo-European and Semitic directly (e.g. Möller 1911, Cuny 1943, Bomhard 1975, Levin 1995). One reason for this seems to be that the study of Semitic had progressed far beyond that of "Hamitic" or, later, Afroasiatic. According to Albert Cuny (1943:2), who accepted the validity of the Hamito-Semitic grouping (ib. 3):

[I]n the Semitic field, the exact knowledge that now exists ... makes it possible to deal with questions of vocalism almost as well as in the field of Indo-European. This is the justification for the present study.

Direct comparison of Indo-European and Afroasiatic

A new departure was represented by the first installment of Vladislav Illich-Svitych's Nostratic dictionary in 1971, edited by Vladimir Dybo after Illich-Svitych's untimely death. Rather than comparing Indo-European to Semitic, Illich-Svitych compared it to Afroasiatic directly (Greenberg 2005:336), using his reconstruction of Afroasiatic phonology. This approach has been taken subsequently by other Nostraticists (e.g. Bomhard 2008).

Incorporation of Indo-European into a larger language family (Eurasiatic)

In the 1980s, some linguists, notably Joseph Greenberg and Sergei Starostin, began to identify Afroasiatic as a language family considerably more ancient than Indo-European, directly related not to Indo-European but to an earlier grouping from which Indo-European was descended, which Greenberg termed Eurasiatic. This view has been accepted by several Nostraticists, including Allan Bomhard (2008).


The Indo-Semitic hypothesis has thus undergone a paradigm shift. From Lepsius in 1836 through the mid-20th century, the question asked was whether Indo-European and Semitic are related or unrelated, and in attempting to answer this question Indo-European and Semitic were compared directly. This now appears naive, and the relevant units of comparison instead appear to be Eurasiatic and Afroasiatic, the immediate precursors of Indo-European (controversially) and Semitic (uncontroversially). This revised schema still has a long road to go if it is to win general acceptance from the linguistic community.

See also


  1. ^ Compare the leading specialist of Afroasiatic Carleton T. Hodge (1998:318): "The positing of a genetic connection between Indo-European and Semitic goes back at least as far as Richard Lepsius (1836)".
  • Adams, Douglas Q. and James Mallory. 2006. The Oxford Introduction to Proto-Indo-European and the Proto-Indo-European World. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Greenberg, Joseph H. 1950. "Studies in African linguistic classification: IV. Hamito-Semitic". Southwestern Journal of Anthropology 6.1, 47–63.
  • Greenberg, Joseph H. 2005. Genetic Linguistics: Essays on Theory and Method, edited by William Croft. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Whitney, William Dwight. 1875. The Life and Growth of Language: An Outline of Linguistic Science. New York: D. Appleton & Co.

Bibliography of Indo-Semitic studies