The Semitic branch is the most populous branch of the Afro-Asiatic language family. The Semitic languages are spoken in a wide area, including the Middle East, North Africa, and the Horn of Africa. The total population of Semitic languages speakers is estimated at more than 500 million people.
The word Semitic is believed to be a derivative from Shem – the name of one of three sons of Noah. It is interesting to know that the ancestor language of the Semitic branch and its origin is still disrupted. Some scholars believe it was spoken in Africa, some believe it came from Arabian Peninsula and some believe it was the language of Mesopotamia.
The branch is made up of about 77 languages spoken across the Middle East, and North and East Africa. The most widely spoken languages of the branch include Arabic, Amharic, Tigrinya, and Hebrew.
The Semitic branch is divided into 3 groups: the East Semitic group represented by the Akkadian language, West (or Central) Semitic group represented by Assyrian, and South (or Ethiopic) Semitic. The South (or Ethiopic) Semotoc group can be divided into South-Central Semitic subgroup represented by such languages as Arabic and Hebrew, and South Ethiopian Semitic subgroup represented by
Amharic, Tigrinya, Silt’e, and Xasa languages.
The most important languages of the Semitic group are Arabic with over 400 million first and over 240 million second-language speakers, Amharic with 17 million first and 4 million second-language speakers, Tigrinya with 3.2 million first and 147,000 second-language speakers, Hebrew with about 5 million first and about 200,000 second-language speakers, Aramaic with 500,00 speakers, and Ge’ez language used as the liturgical language of the Ethiopian Coptic Church.
There are also some important extinct tongues belonging to the Semitic branch of languages. They are: Akkadian that was forgotten but rediscovered in the 19th century; Canaanite languages that include Phoenician, Punic, and Hebrew which was revived in the 19th and 20th centuries; the Phoenician language – the ancestor of the Greek and Latin alphabets, as well as the Old Hebrew script.
Semitic languages share a great deal of their vocabulary. Also, there are borrowings from such languages as Berber, Persian, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian and English. Nevertheless, it is worth to mention that the English language also borrowed a lot from the languages of the Semitic branch, including Hebrew and Arabic.
When it comes to the written form of Semitic languages, linguists believe that all Semitic scripts have a common ancestor in a hypothetical proto-Semitic writing system. Many of them believe that Semitic scripts came from Egyptian hieroglyphics.The most distinctive feature of Semitic languages is that nearly all of them, except for Ethiopic, Assyrian, and Babylonian, are written from right to left.