The Semitic languages: A quick guide
Published on August 8, 2022 / Updated on January 5, 2024
What languages come to mind when you think of the Middle East? What about North Africa?
If, like many people, you think of Arabic, you’re not wrong—but there’s so much more.
There’s actually a subgroup of more than 70 languages that are spoken by hundreds of millions of people primarily across North Africa and the Middle East.
This subgroup is known as the Semitic language family: a branch of the Afroasiatic language group that includes Arabic, Hebrew and Aramaic.
Below, we’ll discuss the major Semitic languages—how many people speak them, where they’re most prevalent and more.
The term “Semitic” was given to this language family in the late 1700s by German theologian Johann Gottfried Eichhorn. He decided on this name to designate the languages connected to Arabic, Hebrew and Aramaic. The word “Semitic” was originally taken from “Semite,” which, itself, was derived from the Biblical name “Shem,” the oldest son of Noah.
Though he didn’t invent the term, Eichhorn popularized it when he wrote an article called Semitische Sprachen, or “Semitic languages,” in 1795 to explain and defend his choice of names for this language family. The term has been used ever since.
Although there are 70+ Semitic languages, some are more prevalent than others. The following is a list of the seven most widely spoken and important Semitic languages.
Where it’s spoken: With over 110 million speakers, Egypt has the largest Arabic-speaking population. Other Arabic-speaking countries include Tanzania, Algeria, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Syria, Chad, Djibouti, Somalia, Bahrain, Tunisia, Oman, Jordan, United Arab Emirates, Sudan, Comoros, Libya, Lebanon, Mauritania, Kuwait, Eritrea, Iraq, Qatar and Palestine.
How many people speak it: Arabic is the most widely spoken of all the Semitic languages. There are more than 250 million first-language Arabic speakers and an additional 200 million who speak it as a second language.
Where it’s spoken: Amharic is mainly spoken in Ethiopia, where it’s the official language of all business across the country.
How many people speak it: As the second most widespread Semitic language, Amharic has about 22 million first-language speakers and 4 million second-language speakers in Ethiopia, and around 3 million in other parts of the world.
Where it’s spoken: The majority of modern Hebrew speakers live in Israel. However, there are speakers around the world, including in Poland and the United States.
How many people speak it: Nearly all of the population of Israel—around 9 million people—can speak modern Hebrew, the country’s official language, as either a first or second language. An additional 1 million speakers can be found across the globe, in countries such as the United States.
Where it’s spoken: Tigrinya is spoken throughout the African country of Eritrea as a business language; it’s also spoken in northern Ethiopia. In addition, Tigrinya is spoken by immigrant communities in other countries such as Uganda, Canada, Germany, Italy and the UK.
How many people speak it: There are roughly 7 million Tigrinya speakers worldwide.
Where it’s spoken: You’ll hear this Semitic language spoken in northwestern Eritrea and some regions of Sudan. However, it isn’t an official language in either country.
How many people speak it: By the end of the 20th century, there were over 1 million Tigré speakers.
Where it’s spoken: Aramaic was the main language in a large part of today’s Middle East from 7 BCE until Arabic took its place in 7 CE. Today, you’ll hear modern Aramaic in select parts of Syria, Iran, Iraq, Turkey, Lebanon, Armenia and Georgia. It’s also spoken by certain diaspora communities in places such as Vienna, Austria.
How many people speak it: Aramaic is spoken by roughly 500,000 people. Unfortunately, the language is likely to go extinct within a generation, as its fluent speakers are part of an aging population.
Where it’s spoken: Maltese is an official language of the country of Malta, along with English. It has the distinction of being the only official Semitic language of the EU and the only one that uses the Latin alphabet.
How many people speak it: The majority of Malta’s population of roughly 525,000 can speak Maltese. There are also expatriate Maltese speakers scattered across the globe.
Despite being descendants of the same language group, there’s a lot of variation between Semitic languages due to different linguistic influences. For example, although Maltese is connected to the Tunisian and Algerian dialects of Arabic, it’s strongly influenced by Sicilian and English.
However, here’s one common feature of Semitic languages that’s quite interesting: triliteral, or triconsonantal, roots. This means that words are built on blocks of three base consonants. To change a word’s meaning, vowels are added in different spots between the three consonants.
Take the root R-S-L, for example: In Arabic, the base r-s-l means “sending,” arsala means “he sent” and mursal means “that which was sent.”
Want to take a break from the ordinary? Try learning more about one of the languages we discussed above. There’s so much to uncover about the extensive history and widespread geography of Semitic languages and the people who speak them.