Two of the most widely spoken Semitic languages are Arabic and Hebrew, with around 300 million and 5 million speakers, respectively. The popular phrase ‘Semitic language’ comes from the Hebrew book of Genesis, referring to one of Noah’s three sons, Shem. Arabic is the official language of 22 countries. However, depending on the context in which it’s used, Arabic takes on different forms – Modern Standard Arabic (Fusha) is the most commonly used form utilized in media outlets, newspapers, radio, and other formal settings; ‘Aamiya refers to the many distinct dialects used in ordinary conversations (which varies from country to country and even from city to city), and Classical Arabic, the liturgical language of the Quran. This article will explore the history of these closely related languages, some of the basic features of both languages, similarities and differences, and interesting theories surrounding their origins.
A Brief History of the Semitic Languages
As we will see in the next section, both Hebrew and Arabic (in conjunction with a plethora of other Semitic languages) share many similarities, in both their vocabulary and morphology. Given their superficial commonalities, scholars have attempted to recover a hypothetical Proto-Semitic language in an attempt to reconstruct an ancient linguistic source. It is speculated that many centuries ago, this Proto-Semitic tongue later split up into what would eventually become modern Arabic, Hebrew, Maltese, Amharic, and more. Some have suggested that this hypothetical language arose in Northern Africa, the Arabian Peninsula, or the Levant. The earliest Semitic language that has been suggested as a common source is Akkadian, an extinct dialect that was spoken in ancient Mesopotamia, Babylonia, and Egypt [i].
It is imperative that the reader keep in mind that even though there is a group of languages designated as Semitic, this is an umbrella term which refers to the collection of Central, East, Northwest, South, West Semitic, and Ethiopian Semitic languages. Each region contains its own distinct alphabet, vocabulary, and morphology, and are not mutually intelligible, despite belonging to the same family.
Now, this begs the question: How similar was ancient Akkadian to Hebrew and Arabic? The short answer is, not at all, however this depends on what time period we’re talking about and what regions are in play. Akkadian is an extremely ancient dialect, arising about 4000 years ago, and looks very different from the other Semitic languages, but still shares many similarities to other Afroasiatic tongues. The next oldest language would be Biblical Hebrew, which arose around 3000 years ago and belongs to the Northwest Semitic language group. What is now known as Old Arabic (the precursor to Classical and Modern Standard) first emerged around the first century CE [ii].
Today, Modern Standard Arabic has developed into its own family of languages, with many varieties and dialects peppering the regions which claim it as their primary language. Modern Hebrew is extremely distinct from biblical Hebrew, given its numerous adaptations and divorce from its ancestral context. Modern Standard Arabic has retained many of the features of both Classical and Old Arabic.
A reasonable way to think about the relationship between Hebrew and Arabic would be to compare them to Greek and Latin, which share many linguistic features and have similar grammatical traditions but are, nevertheless, distinct languages from one another. In the same way that contemporary Romance and European languages share many features with Koine (or Classical) Greek, Arabic also has borrowed many features from the Hebrew language system. In many ways, they are close cousins. For instance:
The verbs in both languages rely on a unique root system based on three consonants. These groups of three letters, known as triliteral roots, are the foundations for both verbs and nouns. The stems are conjugated in patterns indicating the meaning, tense, gender, number, and person. In both Hebrew and Arabic, this system of conjugating verbs around triliteral roots is nearly identical, especially since vowels are normally not written in both. This means you’ll see the same groups of letters in clusters of words with related meaning. The conjugations for future and past tenses are extremely similar as well.
According to some estimates, Arabic and Hebrew have a lexical similarity of around 58%, which is comparable to the lexical similarity between English and German (60%). While the languages are not mutually intelligible, attentive native speakers have a good chance of picking up on some words scattered throughout the conversation here and there. For instance, the Arabic words la, salam, and hadha correspond, respectively, to the Hebrew words lo (no), salom (peace), and hazzeh (this). Furthermore, some of the letters in both alphabets are similar (i.e. shin and alef).
Arabic has Extra Letters
There are multiple letters of the Arabic alphabet that have no direct Hebrew equivalent. While both languages share letters that make guttural sounds, some Arabic letters (such as ظ, غ, ض, ذ, ث, ح and the hamza) are unique to the Arabic tongue.
Many of the pronunciation differences between Arabic and Hebrew can be traced to the fact that Modern Hebrew has lost most of the sounds that make Semitic languages distinctive, assimilating sounds from European languages as a result of the mass influx of European immigrants who migrated to the Near East when Israel became a state. There are exactly two cases where pronunciation differences between Arabic and Hebrew are due to changes in Arabic rather than Hebrew:
- The Arabic j sound was once pronounced g, as it still is in Hebrew (and in Egyptian Arabic).
- In addition, where Hebrew פ is pronounced p in some contexts and f in others, the corresponding Arabic ف is always pronounced f. This is one case where both languages actually changed, with Arabic changing first (from p to f), and Hebrew later changing to bring the two languages back into closer alignment [iii].
Arabic is notorious for its complex plural system which, in 70% of the cases involving masculine plurals, involves breaking down the word and either adding extra letters, including changes to diacritical markings, or shifting the placement of letters. Because of this, almost all masculine plurals have to be memorized individually. In Hebrew, they are mostly regular and predictable.
Origins of the Arabic Language
So if Arabic isn’t older than Hebrew, then where did it come from? The word ‘Arabic’ actually means ‘nomad’, and on the Arabian Peninsula and surrounding areas during ancient times, there were two branches of what we could call Old Arabic: Safaitic, which was thought to have been used between 100 BC and 400 AD, and Hismaic, which refers to other dialects spoken between 800 BC and 600 AD [iv]. Both were spoken by the wandering nomads, monotheists, and pagans before the time of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh). These Old Arabic dialects were soon amalgamated into one, popularized by the sport of reciting poetry, and later eclipsed by Classical Arabic in the 4th century AD.
During the Middle Ages, Arabic was a major contributor to European civilization, especially in the domains of mathematics, philosophy and science. While Europe was struggling to solidify itself under the reign of the Church, Muslim countries like Ethiopia and the Arabian Peninsula were thriving in the pursuit of knowledge and the development of technology. As a result, many European languages have Arabic words embedded into their vocabulary. The Sicilian language has about 500 Arabic words as a result of Sicily being progressively conquered by Arabs from North Africa; other languages like Spanish, and to a lesser extent Portuguese and Catalan, have also absorbed Arabic words into their vocabulary due to the proximity of Christian Europeans in the North, and Arab Muslims in the South [v].
Summary of Findings
Modern Arabic and Hebrew have their origins in an extremely ancient and extinct Proto-Semitic language. Some of the most ancient Semitic languages that are known today are Akkadian and Sumerian, spoken by Near Eastern settlements roughly 4000 years ago, and although Arabic and Hebrew share some similarities with these languages, it is still commonly held that an even older language preceded these and contributed to many of the common features that pepper contemporary Semitic languages. Throughout the centuries, both of these languages underwent significant changes, adopting some letters and sounds while at the same time, dropping others. In their own respects, they both contributed heavily to the development of modern civilization.
In regards to grammar and vocabulary, there are many similarities but also many significant differences. While both languages share a common root system and have some mutually intelligible words, the Arabic plurals, alphabet, and pronunciations are much trickier than Modern Hebrew. Unlike Modern Standard Arabic, Modern Hebrew has dropped many letters that have only been preserved through their liturgical uses in prayer and devotion. Hence, while there is overlap, both languages are not mutually intelligible. The average listener will occasionally find common words that resemble each other due to the fact that Arabic and Hebrew are both Semitic languages that geographically overlap each other and have historically borrowed words from one another. But that’s about it.
In conclusion, Hebrew is the more ancient language but Arabic has preserved much more of its linguistic roots, however, both of them share a common ancestor.
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- [i] Juntunen, Samuli, 2019. On the Proto Semitic Language.
- [ii] Wild, Stefan, 2006. The Qur’an: An Encyclopedia. “The Arabic Language.”
- [iii] D. Thomas, 2020. Arabic VS Hebrew – How Similar Are The Two Semitic Languages? [online] https://autolingual.com/arabic-vs-hebrew/#Hebrew_And_Arabic_Vocabulary_8211_How_Similar_Are_They
- [iv] Alphaomega Translations, 2016. Roots of the Arabic Language. [online] https://alphaomegatranslations.com/foreign-language/roots-of-the-arabic-language/
- [v] Ibrahim, Omar, 2019. The Origins of the Arabic Language. [online] https://medium.com/@omargomaa87/the-origins-of-the-arabic-language-ef5bac9a6172