East Semitic languages

East Semitic languages

Infobox Language family
name = East Semitic
region = formerly Mesopotamia
familycolor = Afro-Asiatic
fam2 = Semitic
child1 = Akkadian
child2 = Eblaite

The East Semitic languages constitute one of the three major subdivisions of Semitic languages, the other being West Semitic and South Semitic. The East Semitic group is attested by two distinct languages, Akkadian and Eblaite, both of which have been long extinct. The East Semitic languages stand apart from other Semitic languages in a number of respects. Historically, it is believed that this linguistic situation came about as speakers of East Semitic languages wandered further east, settling in Mesopotamia during the third millennium BCE, as attested by Akkadian texts from this period. By the beginning of the second millennium BCE, East Semitic languages, in particular Akkadian, had come to dominate the region. They were influenced by the non-Semitic Sumerian language and adopted cuneiform writing.

Modern understanding of the phonology of East Semitic languages can only be derived from careful study of written texts and comparison with the reconstructed Proto-Semitic. Most striking is the loss of the glottal stop, or aleph, and the voiced pharyngeal fricative, or ayin, both of which are prominent features of West Semitic languages (for example, Akk. "bēl" 'master' < PS. "*ba‘al"). Also, East Semitic languages do not possess a series of three back fricatives: transl|sem|*h, *ḥ, *ġ. Their elision appears to give rise to the presence of an e vowel, where it is not found in other Semitic languages (for example, Akk. "ekallu" 'palace/temple' < PS. "*haykal"). It also appears that the series of interdental fricatives became sibilants (for example, Akk. "šalšu" 'three' < PS. "*transl|sem|ṯalaṯ"). However, the exact phonological make-up of the languages is inexact, and the absence of features may have been the result of the inadequacies of Sumerian orthography to describe the sounds of Semitic languages rather than their real absence.

The word order in East Semitic may also have been influenced by Sumerian, being Subject Object Verb rather than the West Semitic Verb Subject Object order.


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