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The Afroasiatic languages constitute a language family with about 375 living languages (SIL estimate) and more than 350 million speakers spread throughout North Africa, the Horn of Africa, and Southwest Asia, as well as parts of the Sahel, West Africa and East Africa. Arabic is the most widespread Afroasiatic language with over 280 million native speakers. Afroasiatic also includes several ancient languages, such as Ancient Egyptian, Biblical Hebrew, and Akkadian.

The term "Afroasiatic" (often now spelled as Afro-Asiatic) was coined by Maurice Delafosse (1914). It did not come into general use until it was adopted by Joseph Greenberg (1950) to replace the earlier term "Hamito-Semitic", following his demonstration that Hamitic is not a valid language family. The term "Hamito-Semitic" remains in use in the academic traditions of some European countries, although some authors have now replaced it with "Afrasian", or, reflecting an opinion that it is more African than Asian, "Afrasan". Individual scholars have called the family "Erythraean" (Tucker 1966) and "Lisramic" (Hodge 1972).

Distribution and branches

Some linguists' proposals for grouping within Afroasiatic
The Afroasiatic language family is usually considered to include the following branches:

While there is general agreement on these six families, there are some points of disagreement among linguists who study Afroasiatic. In particular:
  • Omotic is the most controversial member of Afroasiatic since the grammatical formatives "to which Afroasiaticists have tended to attach the greatest importance are either absent or distinctly wobbly" (Hayward 1995). Greenberg (1963) and others considered it a subgroup of Cushitic, while others have raised doubts about it being part of Afroasiatic at all (e.g. Theil 2006).
  • The Afroasiatic identity of Ongota is broadly questioned, as is its position within Afroasiatic among those who accept it, due to the "mixed" appearance of the language and a paucity of research and data. Harold Fleming (2006) proposes that Ongota constitutes a separate branch of Afroasiatic. Sands (2009) believes the most convincing proposal is Savà & Tosco (2003), that Ongota is East Cushitic with a Nilo-Saharan substratum. In other words, the Ongota would appear to have once spoken a Nilo-Saharan language but then shifted to speaking a Cushitic language, while retaining some characteristics of their earlier Nilo-Saharan language.
  • Beja is sometimes listed as a separate branch of Afroasiatic but is more often included in the Cushitic branch, which has a high degree of internal diversity.
  • Whether the various branches of Cushitic actually form a language family is sometimes questioned, but not their inclusion in Afroasiatic itself.
  • There is no consensus on the interrelationships of the five non-Omotic branches of Afroasiatic (see "Overview of classifications" below). This situation is not unusual, even among long-established language families: there are also many disagreements concerning the internal classification of the Indo-European languages, for instance.

Classification history

Medieval scholars sometimes linked two or more branches of Afroasiatic together. As early as the 9th century, the Hebrew grammarian Judah ibn Quraysh of Tiaretmarker in Algeriamarker perceived a relationship between Berber and Semitic. He knew of Semitic through Arabic, Hebrew, and Aramaic.

In the course of the 19th century, Europeans also began suggesting such relationships. In 1844, Theodor Benfey suggested a language family consisting of Semitic, Berber, and Cushitic (calling the latter "Ethiopic"). In the same year, T.N. Newman suggested a relationship between Semitic and Hausa, but this would long remain a topic of dispute and uncertainty.

Friedrich Müller named the traditional "Hamito-Semitic" family in 1876 in his Grundriss der Sprachwissenschaft. He defined it as consisting of a Semitic group plus a "Hamitic" group containing Egyptian, Berber, and Cushitic; he excluded the Chadic group. These classifications relied in part on non-linguistic anthropological and racial arguments (see Hamitic hypothesis).

Leo Reinisch (1909) proposed linking Cushitic and Chadic, while urging a more distant affinity to Egyptian and Semitic, thus foreshadowing Greenberg, but his suggestion found little resonance.

Marcel Cohen (1924) rejected the idea of a distinct Hamitic subgroup and included Hausa (a Chadic language) in his comparative Hamito-Semitic vocabulary.

Joseph Greenberg (1950) strongly confirmed Cohen's rejection of "Hamitic", added (and sub-classified) the Chadic branch, and proposed the new name "Afroasiatic" for the family. Nearly all scholars have accepted Greenberg's classification.

In 1969, Harold Fleming proposed that what had previously been known as Western Cushitic is an independent branch of Afroasiatic, suggesting for it the new name Omotic. This proposal and name have met with widespread acceptance.

Several scholars, including Harold Fleming and Robert Hetzron, have since questioned the traditional inclusion of Beja in Cushitic.


Greenberg (1963) Newman (1980) Fleming (post-1981) Ehret (1995)
  • Semitic
  • Egyptian
  • Berber
  • Cushitic
    • Western Cushitic

      (equals Omotic)
  • Chadic
  • Berber-Chadic
  • Egypto-Semitic
  • Cushitic
(excludes Omotic)
  • Omotic
  • Erythraean:
    • Cushitic
    • Ongota
    • Non-Ethiopian:
      • Chadic
      • Berber
      • Egyptian
      • Semitic
      • Beja
  • Omotic
  • Cushitic
  • Chadic
  • North Afro-Asiatic:
    • Egyptian
    • Berber
    • Semitic
Orel & Stobova (1995) Diakonoff (1996) Bender (1997) Militarev (2000)
  • Berber-Semitic
  • Chadic-Egyptian
  • Omotic
  • Beja
  • Agaw
  • Sidamic
  • East Lowlands
  • Rift
  • East-West Afrasian:
    • Berber
    • Cushitic
    • Semitic
  • North-South Afrasian:
    • Chadic
    • Egyptian
(excludes Omotic)
  • Omotic
  • Chadic
  • Macro-Cushitic:
    • Berber
    • Cushitic
    • Semitic
  • North Afrasian:
    • African North Afrasian:
      • Chado-Berber
      • Egyptian
    • Semitic
  • South Afrasian:
    • Omotic
    • Cushitic

Little agreement exists on the subgrouping of the five or six branches of Afroasiatic: Semitic, Egyptian, Berber, Chadic, Cushitic, and Omotic (if Omotic is not included in Cushitic). However, Christopher Ehret (1979), Harold Fleming (1981), and Joseph Greenberg (1981) all agree that the Omotic branch split from the rest first.Otherwise:
  • Paul Newman (1980) groups Berber with Chadic and Egyptian with Semitic, while questioning the inclusion of Omotic in Afroasiatic. Rolf Theil (2006) concurs with the exclusion of Omotic, but does not otherwise address the structure of the family.
  • Harold Fleming (1981) divides non-Omotic Afroasiatic, or "Erythraean", into three groups, Cushitic, Semitic, and Chadic-Berber-Egyptian. He later added Semitic and Beja to Chadic-Berber-Egyptian and tentatively proposed Ongota as a new third branch of Erythraean. He thus divided Afroasiatic into two major branches, Omotic and Erythraean, with Erythraean consisting of three sub-branches, Cushitic, Chadic-Berber-Egyptian-Semitic-Beja, and Ongota.
  • Vladimir Orel and Olga Stolbova (1995) group Berber with Semitic and Chadic with Egyptian. They split up Cushitic into five or more independent branches of Afroasiatic, viewing Cushitic as a Sprachbund rather than a language family.
  • Christopher Ehret (1995) groups Egyptian, Berber, and Semitic together in a "North Afro-Asiatic" subgroup.
  • Igor M. Diakonoff (1996) subdivides Afroasiatic in two, grouping Berber, Cushitic, and Semitic together as East-West Afrasian (ESA), and Chadic with Egyptian as North-South Afrasian (NSA). He excludes Omotic from Afroasiatic.
  • Lionel Bender (1997) groups Berber, Cushitic, and Semitic together as "Macro-Cushitic". He regards Chadic and Omotic as the branches of Afroasiatic most remote from the others.
  • Alexander Militarev (2000), on the basis of lexicostatistics, groups Berber with Chadic and both more distantly with Semitic, as against Cushitic and Omotic.

Position among the world's languages

Afroasiatic is one of the four language families of Africa identified by Joseph Greenberg in his book The Languages of Africa (1963). It is the only one that extends outside of Africa, via the Semitic branch.

There are no generally accepted relations between Afroasiatic and any other language family. However, several proposals grouping Afroasiatic with one or more other language families have been made. The best-known of these are the following:

Origins and common features

Present tense verbal paradigms in several Afroasiatic languages:
number Arabic
singular 1 ˀaktubu timou ttafgeɣ keenaa tamáni ina shan
2f taktubīna temou tettafgeḍ keentaa tamtínii kina shan
2m taktubu kmou tamtíniya kana shan
3f smou tettafeg tamtíni tana shan
3m yaktubu fmou yettafeg keenaa tamíni yana shan
dual 2 taktubāni
3m yaktubāni
plural 1 naktubu tənmou nettafeg keennaa támnay muna shan
2m taktubūna tetənmou tettafgem keentaan támteena kuna shan
2f taktubna tettafgemt
3m yaktubūna semou ttafgen keenaan támeen suna shan
3f yaktubna ttafgent

Common features of the Afroasiatic languages include:
  • a two-gender system in the singular, with the feminine marked by the /t/ sound
  • VSO typology with SVO tendencies
  • a set of emphatic consonants, variously realized as glottalized, pharyngealized, or implosive
  • a templatic morphology in which words inflect by internal changes as well as with prefixes and suffixes

All Afroasiatic subfamilies show evidence of a causative affix s, but a similar suffix also appears in other groups, such as the Niger-Congo languages.

Semitic, Berber, Cushitic (including Beja), and Chadic support possessive suffixes.

Tonal languages appear in the Omotic, Chadic, and Cushitic branches of Afroasiatic, according to Ehret (1996). The Semitic, Berber, and Egyptian branches do not use tones phonemically.


Some important Afroasiatic cognates are:

  • b-n- 'build' (Ehret: *bĭn), attested in Chadic, Semitic (*bny), Cushitic (*mĭn/*măn 'house'), Berber (*bn) and Omotic (Dime bin- 'build, create').
  • m-t 'die' (Ehret: *maaw), attested in Chadic (for example, Hausa mutu), Egyptian (mwt *muwt, mt, Coptic mu), Berber (mmet, pr. immut), Semitic (*mwt), and Cushitic (Proto-Somali *umaaw/*-am-w(t)- 'die'). Also Mot, Canaanite god of death.
  • s-n 'know', attested in Chadic, Berber, Egyptian and Semitic (Hebrew š-n 'learn, study').
  • l-s 'tongue' (Ehret: *lis' 'to lick'), attested in Semitic (*lasaan/lisaan), Egyptian (ns *ls, Coptic las), Berber (ils), Chadic (for example, Hausa harshe), and possibly Omotic (Dime lits'- 'lick').
  • s-m 'name' (Ehret: *sŭm / *sĭm), attested in Semitic (*sm), Berber (ism), Chadic (for example, Hausa suna), Cushitic, and Omotic (though some see the Berber form, ism, and the Omotic form, sunts, as Semitic loanwords.) The Egyptian smi 'report, announce' offers another possible cognate.
  • d-m 'blood' (Ehret: *dîm / *dâm), attested in Berber (idammen), Semitic (*dam), and Chadic. Compare Cushitic *dîm/*dâm, 'red'.

See also

Etymological bibliography

Some of the main sources for Afroasiatic etymologies include:
  • Cohen, Marcel. 1947. Essai comparatif sur le vocabulaire et la phonétique du chamito-sémitique. Paris: Champion.
  • Diakonoff, Igor M. et al. 1993-1997. "Historical-comparative vocabulary of Afrasian", St. Petersburg Journal of African Studies 2-6.
  • Ehret, Christopher. 1996. Reconstructing Proto-Afroasiatic (Proto-Afrasian): Vowels, Tone, Consonants, and Vocabulary (University of California Publications in Linguistics 126). Berkeley, California.
  • Orel, Vladimir E. and Olga V. Stolbova. 1995. Hamito-Semitic Etymological Dictionary: Materials for a Reconstruction. Leiden: Brill. ISBN 90-04-10051-2.


  1. Languages of the World
  2. [1]
  3. [2]
  4. Bibliographie Linguistique - Linguistic Bibliography


  • Barnett, William and John Hoopes (editors). 1995. The Emergence of Pottery. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press. ISBN 1-56098-517-8
  • Bender, Lionel et al. 2003. Selected Comparative-Historical Afro-Asiatic Studies in Memory of Igor M. Diakonoff. LINCOM.
  • Bomhard, Alan R. 1996. Indo-European and the Nostratic Hypothesis. Signum.
  • Diakonoff, Igor M. 1996. "Some reflections on the Afrasian linguistic macrofamily." Journal of Near Eastern Studies 55, 293.
  • Diakonoff, Igor M. 1998. "The earliest Semitic society: Linguistic data." Journal of Semitic Studies 43, 209.
  • Dimmendaal, Gerrit, and Erhard Voeltz. 2007. "Africa". In Christopher Moseley, ed., Encyclopedia of the world's endangered languages.
  • Ehret, Christopher. 1997. Abstract of "The lessons of deep-time historical-comparative reconstruction in Afroasiatic: reflections on Reconstructing Proto-Afroasiatic: Vowels, Tone, Consonants, and Vocabulary (U.C. Press, 1995)", paper delivered at the Twenty-fifth Annual Meeting of the North American Conference on Afro-Asiatic Linguistics, held in Miami, Florida on March 21-23, 1997.
  • Finnegan, Ruth H. 1970. "Afro-Asiatic languages West Africa". Oral Literature in Africa, pg 558.
  • Fleming, Harold C. 2006. Ongota: A Decisive Language in African Prehistory. Wiesbaden: Otto Harrassowitz.
  • Greenberg, Joseph H. 1950. "Studies in African linguistic classification: IV. Hamito-Semitic." Southwestern Journal of Anthropology 6, 47-63.
  • Greenberg, Joseph H. 1955. Studies in African Linguistic Classification. New Haven: Compass Publishing Company. (Photo-offset reprint of the SJA articles with minor corrections.)
  • Greenberg, Joseph H. 1963. The Languages of Africa. Bloomington: Indiana University. (Heavily revised version of Greenberg 1955.)
  • Greenberg, Joseph H. 1966. The Languages of Africa (2nd ed. with additions and corrections). Bloomington: Indiana University.
  • Greenberg, Joseph H. 1981. "African linguistic classification." General History of Africa, Volume 1: Methodology and African Prehistory, edited by Joseph Ki-Zerbo, 292–308. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.
  • Greenberg, Joseph H. 2000–2002. Indo-European and Its Closest Relatives: The Eurasiatic Language Family, Volume 1: Grammar, Volume 2: Lexicon. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
  • Hayward, R. J. 1995. "The challenge of Omotic: an inaugural lecture delivered on 17 February 1994". London: School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London.
  • Heine, Bernd and Derek Nurse. 2000. African Languages, Chapter 4. Cambridge University Press.
  • Hodge, Carleton T. (editor). 1971. Afroasiatic: A Survey. The Hague - Paris: Mouton.
  • Hodge, Carleton T. 1991. "Indo-European and Afro-Asiatic." In Sydney M. Lamb and E. Douglas Mitchell (editors), Sprung from Some Common Source: Investigations into the Prehistory of Languages, Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 141–165.
  • Huehnergard, John. 2004. "Afro-Asiatic." In R.D. Woodard (editor), The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the World’s Ancient Languages, Cambridge - New York, 2004, 138–159.
  • Militarev, Alexander. "Towards the genetic affiliation of Ongota, a nearly-extinct language of Ethiopia," 60 pp. In Orientalia et Classica: Papers of the Institute of Oriental and Classical Studies, Issue 5. Мoscow. (Forthcoming.)
  • Newman, Paul. 1980. The Classification of Chadic within Afroasiatic. Leiden: Universitaire Pers Leiden.
  • Ruhlen, Merritt. 1991. A Guide to the World's Languages. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press.
  • Sands, Bonny. 2009. "Africa’s Linguistic Diversity". Language and Linguistics Compass 3/2 (2009): 559–580, 10.1111/j.1749-818x.2008.00124.x
  • Theil, R. 2006. Is Omotic Afro-Asiatic? Proceedings from the David Dwyer retirement symposium, Michigan State University, East Lansing, 21 October 2006.

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