Arabic in Semitic Linguistic History

By Mendenhall, George E. | The Journal of the American Oriental Society, January-March 2006 | Go to article overview
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Arabic in Semitic Linguistic History

Mendenhall, George E., The Journal of the American Oriental Society


The nineteenth-century classification of Arabic and Ethiopic as a separate, South Semitic, category of the Semitic languages has had serious deleterious effects upon progress in Semitic historical linguistics. In recognition of this, some scholars recently have begun placing it instead alongside the various Northwest Semitic languages in a category labeled "Central Semitic." It is the purpose of the present paper to point out manifold connections between Arabic and what is usually termed Northwest Semitic, connections that call into question the established tradition (embedded in the standard textbooks and handbooks) of treating Arabic as a South Semitic language. At the same time it calls for a drastic overhaul of present ideas about Semitic social and linguistic history, and the placement of Arabic in that history.

The fact that the various languages of the Semitic family have common features that make the classification possible implies also the necessity of recognizing the fact that at some time and place in linguistic history those various populations had been in verbal contact with each other. In the nineteenth century the theoretical "common Semitic" or Ursemitisch furnished the point of contact, but only in theory. Some scholars today are beginning to move away from the idea that there ever was any such thing as a coherent and uniform "Primitive Semitic." Regardless, it is a theory that has only limited usefulness in accounting for the observed diversity within the Semitic family of languages. There is now a need for a much more historically oriented method of research. This process is long overdue, and is made possible now because of a number of discoveries and developments in the past several decades. However, in some circles a major handicap to progress is the persistence of the old nineteenth-century obsession with nomads, and the concomitant idea that the Semitic language population groups originated in nomadic tribes of the Arabian Peninsula (Kupper 1957: xiv-xv). This misguided idea doubtless originated from the observation of Herodotus who reported that:

  According to the Persians best informed in history, the Phoenicians
  began the quarrel. This people, who had formerly dwelt on the shores
  of the Red Sea, having migrated to the Mediterranean and settled in
  the parts which they now inhabit ...

For centuries scholars have jumped to the conclusion that if the Phoenicians came from Arabia, then the other speakers of Semitic languages, Akkadians, Babylonians, Assyrians, Arameans, and Hebrews, must also have migrated to their respective parts of the Near East from the Arabian homeland. This old nineteenth-century theory of successive waves of nomads each bringing a new Semitic language from the Arabian desert was seen to be ridiculous by Albert Clay already in 1919, yet some scholars still hold to it, perhaps because so far there has not been a plausible alternative available. Recent attempts to redirect the search for the "homeland" of the Semitic languages from Arabia to Africa (see Lipiriski 1997: 44) merely substitute one weak explanation for another while ignoring the abundance of evidence demonstrating influences on East and North Africa from Western Asia over the course of millennia.

No one could question the importance of Arabia for the history of the Semitic languages, but it is now clear--or it should be--that its importance lies on a plane drastically different from that which nineteenth-century scholars posited. It has been known for decades (Parr et al. 1968) that there was no perceptible population in the northwestern Arabian peninsula contiguous to the Syro-Palestinian region of Northwest Semitic until near the end of the Late Bronze Age, when five walled towns suddenly appeared in the northwestern Hejaz, while there are more settlements in EB Palestine and Syria than in any other period until the Byzantine era.

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