South Semitic

South Semitic languages are a branch of the Semitic languages. In their turn Semitic languages belong to the linguistic superfamily called Afroasiatic.

The following languages belong to the South Semitic branch of the Semitic languages:
  1. Arabic
    - Pre-islamic Arabic forms
    - all forms of spoken Arabic
    - Classical and Modern Standard Arabic

  1. Ten South Semitic languages of the southern half of the Arab peninsula (mostly modern Yemen and Oman):

    2a. From epigraphic sources we distinguish at least four languages:
    - Minaean
    - Qatabanian,
    - Hadrami

    2b. Six South Semitic languages of Oman and Yemen that are still spoken today, generally known under the misleading name "Modern South Arabian languages":- 
    - Mehri
    - Harsusi,
    - Soqotri, the language of the island of Soqotra
    - Jibbali, Oman
    - Hobyot, on the Yemen-Oman border
    - Bathari, very few speakers in Oman

  1. The at least ten South Semitic languages of Ethiopia (depending on the number of languages in the Gurage group):

    - Classical Ethiopic or Ge'ez, the language of the Ethiopian Christian Church but also the language of early epigraphical records.
    Amharic, in number of speakers (15 - 20 million) the second Semitic language in the world and national language of Ethiopia.
    - Tigrinya, (some 4 million speakers) a language strongly related to Classical Ethiopic.
    - Tigre, (1-2 million speakers) a language strongly related to Classical Ethiopic.
    - Gurage languages, a complicated cluster of probably some two or more separate languages (dialect-clusters).
    - Harari, the language of the town of Harar.
    - Zway, closely related to Gurage.
    - Gafat, extinct.
    - Argobba, extinct.

Classical Ethiopic has a long academic history. It is studied since the 17th century and still today it is present at all universities in Europe and North-America with a focus on Semitic languages. Besides, it profited from the steady influx of theology students with an interest in the Ethiopian Christian Church (approximately 16 million believers). This explains why Classical Ethiopic also functions as one of the options within the study of Eastern Christianity at Leiden University.

Classical Ethiopic may be studied because of the culture that it represents. This language has a rich literature of a predominantly religious inspiration, comparable, in content and quantity, to Syriac, Coptic, Armenian literature. Besides works of religious nature we find works that can be placed in a wider context of early Middle Eastern literatures. For instance the Kebra Nagast, "the greatness of Kings", the national epic of Ethiopia, giving us the story of the liaison of the Queen of Sheba with King Solomon. We find references to Solomon and the Queen of Sheba in the Old Testament and in the Koran.

Similar remarks can be made for the cycle of, for instance, Alexander the Great with is Syriac, Coptic and Arabic parallels.

The study of Classical Ethiopic is important for the Semitist who wants to study a related language such as Epigraphic South Arabian (Sabaean). Classical Ethiopic may present solutions for problems in Sabaean phonology, morphology and lexicon. If one turns to modern Ethio-Semitic languages, it is obvious that Classical Ethiopic will be of great use in the reconstruction of their linguistic past.

Sabaean epigraphy (Epigraphic South Arabian) developed into one of the most important Semitic epigraphic disciplines: in terms of number of inscriptions it is defeated only by the epigraphic records in Assyro-Babylonian.
The number of Sabaean inscriptions increases every day. Recent discoveries include the inscriptions on wood. These inscriptions, today approximately 5000 to 6000 and most of them unpublished, contain a cursive script derived from the script used in the monumental inscriptions on stone.
The study of these inscriptions is of great importance for at least two reasons. Firstly it may lead to new linguistic insights concerning the earlier stages of South Semitic languages and their relations to the modern South Semitic languages in Yemen and Oman and the South Semitic languages of modern Ethiopia. Secondly, these inscriptions on stone and wood are the only trustworthy witnesses of pre-islamic society and culture. They picture for us a society in which, eventually, Islam developed. A number of rituals and ceremonies in Islam can be traced back into pre-islamic society.

The study of the South Semitic languages of Ethiopia, such as Amharic, Tigre, Tigrinya, Gurage, Harari gained momentum in the second half of the twentieth century. Since then it is considered to be one of the most important new lines of research in the field Semitic languages and linguistics.

The South Semitic languages of Oman and Yemen that are still spoken today, generally known under the name "Modern South Arabian languages" have received relatively little attention. In the beginning of the 20th century there was the Vienna Expedition to South Arabia, that gave us a wealth of information about them. Tom Johnstone, professor of Arabic at SOAS, London, studied them in the years 1965-1983. Subsequent fieldwork was done by the French scholars Marie-Claude Simeone Senelle and Antoine Lonnet, and the Russian scholars Porkhomowski and Naumkin.


The Arabist Prof. J.H. Kramers taught Classical Ethiopic at Leiden University in the fifties, thereby opening this field for young Dutch scholars.

In response to the international emergence of South Semitic Studies, Leiden University created a chair for these languages in 1968 within the Department of Languages and Cultures of the Islamic Middle East (now the Department of Languages and Cultures of the Middle East). From 1968-1992 the chair of South Semitic Studies was occupied by Prof. dr. A.J. Drewes, a specialist in Sabaean, Classical Ethiopic, Ethiopic epigraphy, Gurage languages and Comparative Semitics. Dr. H.J. Stroomer, a specialist in Sabaean epigraphy, Classical Ethiopian, Cushitic languages and Modern South Arabian, worked in the same department as a senior lecturer in this field from 1976 onwards, in association with Prof Drewes. In 2002 Stroomer was appointed professor charged with South Semitic studies (and Berber Studies) at Leiden University.

Also in other departments specialists on South Semitic languages can be found:

Dr. E. van Donzel, former director of the Netherlands Institute of the Near East (NINO) and editor in chief of the Encyclopaedia of Islam (2nd edition), worked intensively on Classical Ethiopic.

Since 1996 Azeb Amha (Department of African Languages and Cultures) teaches a course in Amharic.

From 1994 Prof. A.J. Drewes (emeritus Leiden) and Prof. J. Ryckmans (emeritus Leuven) worked on the transcription and decypherment of a collection of epigraphic texts on wood from Yemen, owned by the "Oosters Instituut" (Oriental Institute) and stored at the Leiden University Library. The results of this highly interesting research will be published in due course of time.


South Semitic Epigraphy:
Drewes, A.J.,
  1.  Inscriptions de l'Ethiopie antique, Brill, Leiden 1962.
  2.  E. Bernand, A.J. Drewes, R. Schneider, Recueil des Inscriptions de l'Ethiopie des Périodes Pré-axoumite et axoumites, Academie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres, tome I: Les documents (540 p.), tome II Les Planches (233 planches) Paris 1991; forthcoming: tome III Commentaires.

Classical Ethiopic Studies:
van Donzel, E.,
  1.  `Enbaqom, Anqasa Amin (La porte de la foi), Introduction, Texte critique, Traduction par E.J.van Donzel, Brill, Leiden.

Stroomer, Harry,
  1.  Magic parchment scrolls from Ethiopia, "Sprich doch mit deinen Knechten aramäisch, wir verstehen es!" 60 Beiträge zur Semitistik, Festschrift für Otto Jastrow zum 60. Geburtstag (Harrassowitz Verlag) Wiesbaden 2002, p. 685-695.

Modern South Arabian languages:
Hofstede, Anda,
  1.  Description of the Johnstone Papers held in the Palace Green Section of the University Library of Durham, New Arabian Studies, volume 4, 1997, p. 71-138.
  2.  A syntax of Jibbali, Ph.D. Manchester, 1998.

Stroomer, Harry,
  1.  Mehri texts from Oman, based on the field materials of Prof. T.M. Johnstone (+ 1983), Harrassowitz, Wiesbaden, (series Semitica Viva, editor Otto Jastrow) 1999, xxix + 302p.
Webredactie Geesteswetenschappen - Last Updated: 16 - 08 - 2010