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Proto-semitic languages

4 March 2011

Another interesting article I picked up from Mathilda (see http://mathildasanthropologyblog/2010/05/16/bayesian-phylogenetic-analysing-of-semitic-languages-identifies-an-early-bronze-age-origin-of-semitic-in-the-near-east/ which may also interest SIS members – who were the semites and where did they come from? Language is used to define the Egyptians and their origins as some language experts are of the opinion semitic has its roots in Africa. Mathilda is sceptic of this idea  and she insists that the main language transfer took place with the introduction of the Neolithic – and presumably an intrusive population. The former hunter-gatherer languages would have died out and she gives the spread of Bantu languages as an example of the process. Basically, Nubian is a stranded language and presumably African in origin. Nubians are an important element in the make-up of ancient Egyptians. However, she is actually commenting on an article (pdf version available to download) that says the Semitic languages evolved just 5750 years ago in the Levant and Ethiosemitic languages in Africa reflect a single introduction from South Arabia approximately 2800 years ago. Presumably this is a reference to the known migration of Saba in Ethiopia/Sudan from Sab'a (what is now the Yemen). The author of this particular article still wanted to keep the option open for an African origin for certain types of language groups – but Mathilda does not agree. She points out there were two major influxes of humans from Asia into North Africa – and these are i) the Capsian Culture, a movement that took place in the early Holocene, and ii) an expansion of Neolithic Y chromosomes six or seven thousand years ago. They introduced Asian species of cattle, goats and sheep and were an off-shoot of the Neolithic Fertile Crescent zone. Proto-semitic, or the language known as such rather than an ethnic definition, shows a close proximity to Sumerian and the Indo European languages spoken by Neolithic Anatolians, she says. Here, she appears to accept the theory that Indo European language is the tongue of the first farmers, which is why it spread west into Europe and east into India. That makes sense but she also fails to mention Arabia. I had always imagined Arabia was the homeland of Semitic language – or perhaps that is narrow and only applies to the ethnic element. Hence, what she is saying is that Semitic was introduced into the Fertile Crescent and absorbed earlier languages – so, why is it sometimes associated with the Ubaid Culture? I shall have to follow her blog and pick her brains a bit I think but a fascinating subject. It seems she is suggesting that African languages with semitic parallels were introduced by the Asian group that brought cattle and other domesticated animals to North Africa – long before the Early Bronze Age. 

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