Tuesday, September 20, 2011

A Brief Note on Arabic and Hebrew as African Languages

By Wesley Muhammad, PhD
© 2011 Wesley Muhammad

(Excerpt form Black Arabia and the African Origin of Islam)

Al-Tabari (d. 923), the famed Muslim historian and Qur’anic exegete, recorded in his Ta’rikh al-rusul wa’l-muluk (“The History of the Messengers and Kings”) the following on the authority of ‘Abd Allāh b. ‘Abbās, the cousin of the prophet Muhammad of Arabia:

The Children of Sam (Shem) settled in the center of the Earth, which is between Satidma and the sea and between Yemen and Syria. Allah made the prophets from them, revealed the Books to them, made them beautiful, gave them a black complexion, luminous and free of blemish…The children of Ham settled in the south..Allah gave them a black complexion and gave some of them a black complexion, luminous and blemish-free…The children of Japheth settled in Safoun toward the north…They are light-skinned and very fair-skinned.

A tradition according to which both the Semites and the descendents of Ham were black, Japheth being the only white son of Noah, is found in Rabbinic Hebrew tradition as well, e.g. the 8th centuryPirke De-Rabbi Eliezer (Chapter 23):

Noah brought his sons and his grandsons, and he blessed them with their (several) settlements, and he gave them as an inheritance all the earth. He especially blessed Shem and his sons, black but comely, and he gave them the inhabitable earth. He blessed Ham and his sons, black like a raven, and he gave them as an inheritance the coast of the sea. He blessed Japheth and his sons, they entirely white, and he gave them for an inheritance the desert and its fields; these (are the inheritances with) which he endowed them.[1]

That the Semites, along with the so-called ‘Hamites,’ were originally a Black people is confirmed by linguistic, archaeological and genetic evidences. “Semitic” is properly a linguistic designation, not racial, and describes native speakers of one of the several living or dead Semitic languages. But Danna Reynolds observation here is critical:

“the indigenous or ‘black’ tribes of Arabia were those who in ancient times migrated from Africa…and were the earliest purveyers and dispersers of the Semitic dialects.”[2]

The Semitic family of languages, the most widespread of which is Arabic, is a branch of a larger language phylum called Afroasiatic which consists of the Semitic, Ancient Egyptian, Berber, Cushitic, Omotic and Chadic families. While some scholars maintain that Afroasiatic originated in Asia, most linguists now accept that it originated in Africa where five of the six generally recognized branches still reside,[3] likely in the Darfur-Kordofan region along the present-day border between Chad and Sudan.[4]  Regarding the Semitic branch in particular, a number of scholars postulate an African origin of the linguistic family and its speakers.[5] According to Nicholas Faraclas, several lines of evidence converge to suggest that the Proto-Semites separated from the Proto-Afroasiatic in Middle Africa and followed the Blue Nile to the Ethiopian Highlands (where most of the Semitic languages are found to this day), crossing over into Arabia from the Bab el Manded[6]; others probably continued north down the Nile eventually entering Syria-Palestine from the Isthmus of Suez. As Gregorio del Olmo Lete, Semitist from the University of Barcelona, noted most recently:

[Proto-Semites] formed part of a mass of peoples  who, moving out from the heart of Africa, spread north and reached the Mediterranean coast and beyond…The Semitic family [was] the spearhead of one of the expansive movements of peoples toward Asia  (from Africa)…[7]

Other scholars postulate a Levantine origin of Proto-Semitic. Peter Bellwood from the Australian National University affirmed: “Proto-Semitic is undoubtedly of Levant origin”.[8] That is to say, a group of African Afroasiatic speakers migrated northeast into the Levant and there evolved the Proto-Semitic language, maybe as early as the 8th millennium BCE. Renowned Russian linguist Igor M. Diankonoff initially argued that the origin of the Afroasiatic family, including the Semitic languages, was in the north-western part of the modern Republic of the Sudan.[9] The Semites were said to have been a group of East Africans who branched off from the Proto-Afroasiatic stock in Africa and migrated to Syria-Palestine in 9th-8th millennium BCE.  Later Diankonoff modified his position: still maintaining that North Africa is the origin of the Afroasiatic family in general, he moved the origin of the Proto-Semitic language to the area between the Nile Delta and Palestine, to where a group branched off from the parent Afroasiatic stock, migrated to the Levant area, and then became ‘Semitized,’ if you will.[10] Diankonoff points to the archaeological and architectural remains of the Jericho culture of 8th-7th millennium BCE Palestine as part of this early ‘Common Semitic’ culture. Whether the ‘Semitization’ of this ‘Proto-AA’ branch took place in the Sudan or the Levant, we are talking about a group of migrating Africans evolving African languages.

Arabic has preserved a large majority of the original Proto-Semitic phonological, morphological and syntactic characteristics, such that many linguists consider Arabic the most representative of Proto-Semitic. De Goeje’s opinion that “of all Semitic languages the Arabic approaches nearest to the original mother tongue,”[11] has much to recommend it.  Nineteenth and early twentieth-century Semitists pretty much identified Arabic with Proto-Semitic. This is due to Arabic’s extremely conservative evolution. Thus, Hitti (Arabs, 8) suggested:

 “(The Arab’s) language, though the youngest among the Semitic group from the point of view of literature, has, nevertheless, conserved more of the peculiarities of the mother Semitic tongue-including the inflection-than the Hebrew and its other sister languages. It therefore affords us the best key for the study of the Semitic languages.”

Arabic is indeed most conservative in terms of phonetics and derived models: it is said to preserve almost the complete original phonetic set of South Arabian and Ugatitic. Thus, for the most complete catalogue possible of the Proto-Semitic lexicon one should still start with the Arabic dictionary.

It is the Black Arabs, descendents of the original Kushite Afrabians, who are the original speakers of the Arabic language. University of Michigan Professor Emeritus George Mendenhall, one of the world’s leading authorities on the Near East and Near Eastern languages, notes that “Arabic could not be a gift of the prophet Muhammad, as many Islamic clerics claim, since its origins are in the early Bronze Age," over 3,000 years before Muhammad.[12] Mendenhall has identified the “earliest identifiable Arabic-speaking social group” as the Midianites, an important political entity that came into existence suddenly in the 13th century BCE in northwest Arabia. This highly sophisticated culture spoke a language which is an archaic ancestor of modern Arabic.[13] This is significant because, as David Goldenberg affirms: “Kush is the ancient name of Midian.”[14] These Midianites, the earliest identifiable Arabic-speaking social group, are documented as a Kushite or Black Arabian tribe.[15]

 Observing that the earliest segments of biblical Hebrew as a rule exhibit the highest percentage of Arabic cognates, Mendenhall affirms that the further back we go the closer Hebrew is to Arabic.[16] Indeed, Canaanite/Ugaritic, Hebrew’s predecessor and source, was very similar to Arabic as well. Documents excavated in Ras Shamra by the Lattakia Department of Archeology show that Ugaritic is very close to Arabic in grammar and vocabulary, with around 1000 cognate terms.[17] This fact of the closeness of the oldest biblical Hebrew layer and Ugaritic to Arabic comports well with Kamal Salibi’s conclusions, based on toponymic analysis, that the original Hebrews were a group of West Arabians who later migrated north to the Levant.[18] According to Salibi, the Hebrew Bible is from West Arabia and principally a record of ancient Israel’s historical experience there. Most place-names in the Bible, he argues, identify West Arabian locals, not Levantine. In other words, the original ‘Hebrews’ were in fact ‘Arabs’, in a sense.  


[1] Chapter 23 [28a] (Friedlander edition).

[2] Reynolds, “African Heritage,” 105.

[3]John Huehnergard, “Afro-Asiatic,” in Roger D. Woodard (ed.), The Ancient Languages of Syria-Palestine and Arabia (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008) 225; Christopher Ehret, S.O.Y Keita and Paul Newman, “The Origins of Afroasiatic,” Science 306 (2004) 1680-1681; Carleton T. Hodge, “Afroasiatic: The Horizon and Beyond,” in Scott Noegel and Alan S. Kaye (edd.),Afroasiatic Linguistics, Semitics, and Egyptology: Selected Writings of Carleton T. Hodge(Bethesda, Maryland: CDL Press, 2004) 64; ML Bender Upside Down Afrasian, Afrikanistische Arbeitspapiere 50 (1997): 19-34; Christopher Ehret, Reconstructing Proto-Afroasiatic (Proto-Afrasian): vowels, tone, consonants, and vocabulary (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995) 487; Joseph H. Greenberg, "African linguistic classification," in Joseph Ki-Zerbo (ed.), General History of Africa, Volume 1: Methodology and African Prehistory (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press. 1981) 292–308. On the Africa vs. Asia AA Origin dispute see Daniel P. Mc Call, “The Afroasiatic Language Phylum: African in Origin, or Asian?” Current Anthropology 39 (1998): 139-143.

[4] Nicholas Faraclas, “They Came Before the Egyptians: Linguistic Evidence for the African Roots of Semitic Languages,” in Silvia Federici (ed.), Enduring Western Civilization: The Construction of the Concept of Western Civilization and Its “Others” (Westport, Connecticut and London: Praeger, 1995) 175-96.

[5] See e.g. Gregorio del Olmo Lete, Questions of Semitic Linguistics. Root and Lexeme: The History of Research (Bethesda, Maryland: CDL Press, 2008) 115; Edward Lipiński, Semitic Languages: Outline of a Comparative Grammar (Leuven: Uitgeverij Peeters and Departement Oosterse Studies, 1997) 42-43; A. Murtonen, Early Semitic (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1967), 74.

[6] Faraclas, “They Came Before the Egyptians” 190.

[7] del Olmo Lete, Questions of Semitic Linguistics, 115. Earlier George A. Barton already spoke of the “African origin and Arabian cradle-land of the Semites,” suggesting that the Afroasiatic (or to use the old term ‘Hamito- Semitic’) proto-language originated in Africa, from which a group migrated to Arabia forming the Semitic languages. George Aaron Barton, Semitic and Hamitic Origins: Social and Religious (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1934) 8; idem, “The Origins of Civilization in Africa and Mesopotamia, Their Relative Antiquity and Interplay,” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 68 (1929) 303-312: “As many of the linguistic phenomena which Hamites and Semites possess in common appear in the Hamitic languages in a more primitive form than in the Semitic, the one theory which satisfies the facts is that the Hamito- Semitic race originated in North Africa and the Sahara region, and that at a very early time-say 10,000 to 8000 B.C. or earlier-some of this stock migrated to Arabia-probably South Arabia via the Straits of Bab-el-Mandeb-where they spread over the peninsula in the course of subsequent millennia. As Arabia suffered desiccation, in common with North Africa, they were gradually forced to migrate in various directions in search of subsistence. It was under this pressure that, by migration and mingling with other races, the various Semitic nations of history, other than the Arabs, were formed.”

[8] Peter Bellwood, First Farmers: The Origin of Agricultural Societies (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2005) 209.

[9] “Earliest Semites in Asia,” Altorientalische Forschungen 8 (1981)23-70.

[10] Igor M. Diankonoff, “The Earliest Semitic Society,” Journal of Semitic Studies 43 (1998): 209-219.

[11] Quoted in Samuel Marinus Zwemer, Arabia: The cradle of Islam: studies in the geography, people, and politics of the peninsula, with an account of Islam and mission-work (Oliphant, Anderson & Ferrier, 1912 [ Revised edition]) 240. See also Satkari Mukhopadhyaya, “Preface to Reprint Edition,” in Mortimer Sloper Howell, A Grammar of the Classical Arabic Language 4 vols. (Delhi: Gian Publishing House, 1986) I: 3-4.        

[12] Quoted in interview by Jeff Mortimer, “Language of the Desert,” Michigan Today, Spring 1997 online version: http://www.ns.umich.edu/MT/97/Spr97/mta8s97.html accessed July 30, 2009.

[13] The Anchor Bible Dictionary, ed. David Noel Freedman et al, 6 vols. (New York: Doubleday, 1992) 4:815 s.v. Midian by George E. Mendenhall.

[14]Curse of Ham, 28. See also Restö, Arabs in Antiquity, 139.

[15] “the people of Northwest Arabia (Midian) were called Kushites.” Goldenberg, Curse of Ham, 54.

[16] George Mendenhall, “Arabic in Semitic Linguistic History,” JAOS 126 (2006): 22-3.

[17] “Archaeologists: Ancient Texts Show Similarities between Arabic and Ugaritic Languages,”Archaeology Daily News, April 16, 2010 at http://www.archaeologydaily.com/news/201004163825/Archaeologists-Ancient-Texts-Show-Similarities-between-Arabic-and-Ugaritic-Languages.html. See also Gary A. Rendsburg, “Modern South Arabian as a Source for Ugaritic Etymologies,” Journal of the American Oriental Society 107 (1987): 623-628.

[18] Kamal Salibi, The Bible Came From Arabia (n.p.: Naufal, 2007).


  1. Very Informative True Islam. This may be proof of what has been told to us "that Arabic is our original language".

  2. R.Eliezar was a first and 2nd century Rabbi. He was born in 80CE/AD.