The Afro-Asiatic Language Family

Meredith Holt
Linguistics 450
28 July 1999

Written records of Egyptian and Semitic (both Afro-Asiatic languages) date back at least four thousand years, giving the Afro-Asiatic language family the longest history of any known language group (Atlas, p.51). This rich history gives this language family a unique quality. Since written records survive in North Africa, it has been perhaps easier to reconstruct ancient language roots than, for example, in Indo-European. There has long been a fascination with studying the languages of Saharan Africa. As early as the Middle Ages, comparative studies were being done with Hebrew and Arabic and as a result striking similarities were discovered (ELL,p.51). The nineteenth century was a time of great discovery within the Afro-Asiatic family. Some of these discoveries will be overviewed by discussing the locations, origins and migrations, sub-groupings and characteristics of Afro-Asiatic, as well as ties to other language families and fields outside of linguistics.


Africa is divided by geographical features, including the Sahara desert and the Ethiopian mountains. This great divide has made travel difficult so linguistic boundaries tend to be based on either side. North of the Sahara and the Ethiopian mountains are the Afro-Asiatic languages. To the south lay the other language families of Africa: Niger-Kordofanian, Nilo-Saharan, and Khoisan (Atlas,p74). These three groups are classified as being in Africa while Afro-Asiatic is listed under the term Eurasia (Atlas, p.74). Among the countries included in this language family are: Chad, Niger, Nigeria, Sudan, Egypt, Algeria, and Ethiopia.

Origins, Migrations, and Language Contacts

Proto-Afro-Asiatic is proposed to have been spoken 18,000 years ago near the Horn of Africa (eastern Africa). Three dialects emerged (Omotic, Cushitic, and Chadic) from the main one and this left ‘Boreafrasian,’ the source of Berber, Egyptian and Semitic (Dalby ,p. 6). The speakers of ‘Boreafrasian’ migrated north to an arid Sahara climate, then eventually pushed on west and east. Omotic, Cushitic, and Chadic are also spoken north of the Sahara so it must be assumed that the speakers of these "dialects" migrated north likewise, though perhaps separately from the ‘Boreafrasian’ speakers (Dalby, p.6).

The languages of what is now Afro-Asiatic occupy a "vast area that stretches from Morocco to Arabia" (Dalby, p.6). This is in part due to ‘Boroafrasian’ speakers breaking into groups such as Berber and Egyptian in North Africa and Semitic dialects in the Arabian Peninsula. Semitic speakers moved into the Fertile Crescent and "emerg[ed] into history" by bringing Akkadian (a Semitic language) into what is now Iraq, a previously Sumerian-speaking area (Dalby ,p6). There was additional language contact within the Afro-Asiatic family when Arabs invaded Egypt in 640 A.D. Coptic, a daughter language of ancient Egyptian, had flourished until that time but was replaced eventually by Arabic (Voegelin ,p13).


Theodor Benfy found that Egyptian and Semitic languages were similar in 1844, and he classified them under the Semito-Hamitic language family. The name Hamitic originates from Ham, one of the sons of Noah. (Though I found no mention of the origin of ‘Semito-,’ it is possible that this name comes from Shem, another son of Noah). Benfy’s title was later inverted to make Hamito-Semitic but over time racial connotations were applied to this name (Voegelin, p.13). This language family has now been renamed Afro-Asiatic, because this term is less culture specific (Dalby, p.6).

In Afro-Asiatic, there are five main families. Egyptian is classified as a distinct language and the other sub-groups are: Berber, Chadic, Cushitic, Omotic, and Semitic (Voegelin, p.12). These classifications of language sub-sets vary according to different texts. In An Encyclopedia of Language, Omotic is listed as a sub-set of Cushitic, and Andrew Dalby writes the Egyptian division as "Egyptian-Coptic," even though Coptic is considered to be a sub-set of Egyptian.

The Semitic line of Afro-Asiatic has the most language sub-sets. Under East Semitic rose Akkadian and Babylonian. West Semitic brought forth such languages as Canaanite, Aramaic, Hebrew, and Arabic (EL, p.906). Of all of the languages in the Afro-Asiatic line, Arabic is the most widely spoken language, stretching from Western Africa to the Middle East (ELL, p.51).


A main characteristic of Afro-Asiatic languages is the use of vowel changes in word formation. Like in the English example, feet foot, vowels make the difference between separate words. In Arabic, ‘ti-ktib’ means she writes and ‘katab-it’ means she wrote. The prefixes ‘ti’ and ‘it’ mean she. The root form of the verb has only three consonants in common. Therefore the root is considered ‘ktb.’ When looking for roots it is important to remember that early Semitic only had consonants and vowels had to be inferred from the context (Atlas, p.78-79).

Since there is written data available from this region, it is easier to reconstruct ancient roots and find common characteristics (ELL, p.51). The reconstructed consonants for Proto-Afro-Asiatic are p and b, t and d, and k and g. The Egyptian ‘bw’ meaning ‘place’ and the Semitic ‘bi’ meaning ‘in or from’ are believed to be from the reconstructed root *b- meaning foot or place (ELL, p.51).

Other Language Families and Fields of Study

Afro-Asiatic has been hypothesized to be related to many other language families. These include Indo-European, Sino-Tibetan, Altaic and Dravidian (Atlas, p.74). Archaeology and the study of oral traditions helps linguists find connections between language families. Looking at present languages and going backward helps us know what languages were like anciently (Atlas, p.75).

Afro-Asiatic is a large language family with great diversity. At the same time, linguistic similarities such as vowel changes help show relationships among languages. From the earliest times we have written records from Northern Africa. These records make it possible to classify and reconstruct many languages. The main quality of Afro-Asiatic is that it "cuts across usually perceived racial boundaries" (Dalby, p.6). Great variety is incorporated in one family and this makes Afro-Asiatic an interesting topic of study.

Works Cited

An Encyclopedia of Language. London: Routledge, 1990. (abbrev. as EL).

Dalby, Andrew. Dictionary of Languages. London, Bloomsbury, 1998.

The Atlas of Languages. New York: Facts on File, Inc., 1996.

The Encyclopedia of Language and Linguistics. Vol.1. Oxford, Pergamon Press, 1994. (abbrev. as ELL).

Voegelin, C.F. Classification and Index of the World’s Languages. New York: Elsevier, 1977.

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Brigham Young University
Last Updated: Monday, September 6, 1999