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Semitic language

The Semitic languages are a branch of the Afroasiatic language family originating in the Middle East. Semitic languages are spoken by more than 330 million people across much of Western Asia, Anatolia, North Africa and the Horn of Africa, as well as in often large expatriate communities in North America and Europe, with smaller communities in South America, Australasia, the Caucasus and Central Asia. The terminology was first used in the 1780s by members of the Göttingen School of History, who derived the name from Shem, one of the three sons of Noah in the Book of Genesis.

The most widely spoken Semitic languages today are (numbers given are for native speakers only) Arabic (300 million), Amharic (22 million), Tigrinya (7 million), Hebrew (unknown; 5 million native and non-native L1 speakers), Aramaic (575,000 to 1 million fluent speakers) and Maltese (520,000 speakers).

Semitic languages are attested in written form from a very early historical date, with East Semitic Akkadian and Eblaite texts (written in a script adapted from Sumerian cuneiform) appearing from the 29th century BC and the 25th century BC BC in Mesopotamia and the northern Levant respectively. However, most scripts used to write Semitic languages are abjads – a type of alphabetic script that omits some or all of the vowels, which is feasible for these languages because the consonants in the Semitic languages are the primary carriers of meaning.

Among them are the Ugaritic, Phoenician, Aramaic, Hebrew, Syriac, Arabic, and South Arabian alphabets. The Ge'ez script, used for writing the Semitic languages of Ethiopia and Eritrea, is technically an abugida – a modified abjad in which vowels are notated using diacritic marks added to the consonants at all times, in contrast with other Semitic languages which indicate diacritics based on need or for introductory purposes. Maltese is the only Semitic language written in the Latin script and the only official Semitic language of the European Union.

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