I'm not too familiar with the details of Semitic languages, but as far as I can tell it seems the tri-consonantal roots of words are relatively important. If the consonants change over time, did they change together so that the roots are preserved in structure?

I ask this as a Chinese speaker, where the initial consonants are all over the place throughout linguistic history. If what I'm suggesting is true, could the abjad writing systems of Semitic languages (or even alphabets of European languages) slow the random evolution of phonology?

I might be way off on this, so please enlighten me. Thanks!

  • I don't know, but when I looked at Chinese phonology on the other hand, I found that aside from initial consonants (which didn't confuse me overly much, but I didn't look at their histories), the vowels, or syllable codas if that makes more sense, were all over the place to the point the language's phonology can be analyzed in a range of ways depending on whether you posit that the vowels change, or some of the consonants change and the vowels just have many contextual allophones. When I saw this, I did wonder if the writing system may have anything to do with it... – LjL Jan 8 '20 at 20:57
  • Can you clarify a bit more what you mean? Are you referring to something like minor consonant variations that evolve from the spoken language as errors that eventually become accepted? I am not really an expert on linguistics but I am a native Maltese (which is a latino-semitic language) speaker. We are a small population therefore hard to come by so I would love to help if I can – Jepsilon Jan 9 '20 at 9:55
  • This is also very interesting to Indo-European language speakers, as there are very well-known patterns of sound changes that link cognates across the language family. For example, English "hound" maps to Latin "canis" and Lithuanian "sind". – Robert Columbia Jan 10 '20 at 5:20
  • Given that until recently the vast majority of people speaking any language have been illiterate, I doubt that the writing system had much effect on the day-to-day language of the common people in any society. – EvilSnack Jan 10 '20 at 12:35
  • This question should be closed because of a clear lack of research. – Lance Pollard Jan 15 '20 at 9:01

Semitic languages don't always preserve consonants perfectly. In fact, I don't think that there is any Semitic language without multiple classes of conjugation to account for irregularities.

All Semitic languages have collapsed at least some phonemes, which makes some originally separate roots homophonous. For example, *θ merges with /ʃ/ in Hebrew, but with /t/ in Aramaic, making the Hebrew root ʃ-n-y mean both "change" (Aramaic ʃ-n-y) and "repeat" (Aramaic t-n-y). In cases like this, two roots may develop into one, but the root itself remains consistent.

But sometimes the root itself isn't preserved consistently. For example, in Hebrew, the reflexes of the consonants /b k p/ included an allophone in certain positions /v x f/, which is phonemic in Modern Hebrew. This means that אשבור /eʃˈbor/ and שברתי /ʃaˈvarti/, for instance, come from the same root שבר "break," although in the future the root is phonemically ʃ-b-r while in the past the root is ʃ-v-r.

Consonants are also subject to normal sound changes. In Hebrew, /ʔ/ and /ʕ/ were both lost, but /ʕ/ developed into /a/ in certain conditions (Akkadian went a similar way). Thus the root n-s-ʔ is now realized as /noˈse/ and the root n-s-ʕ is realized as /noˈsea/ in the present tense (sg. m.), though the difference between the two roots was lost in past and future tense. Synchronically, the root might be better described as n-s-a than by reference to the lost consonant.

Losing consonants doesn't destroy a Semitic language, because root consonants are an abstraction that helps you to understand morphology. If the concept of roots no longer accurately describes the morphology, the morphology continues to function even if it becomes less regular.


As for the titular question, there's no standard measure of "degree of preservedness", but consonants are historically preserved in Semitic about as well as consonants are preserved in Indo-European – not particularly well (compared to Niger-Congo or Afroasiatic, for instance). The explanation, I think, is the relatively high instance of exotica in the consonant inventory. Thus ʁ is replaced with ʕ in about half of the branches (though also bear in mind that a lot of Semitic languages are extinct and we do not have spectroframs of Akkadian), and the lateral fricatives and emphatics/ejectives are sufficiently changed that there has been controversy over how they should be reconstructed.

The root-and-pattern system may have a limiting influence on sound changes. In Slavic, for example, all sorts of palatals historically arose between vowels and neighboring coronals or dorsals, so there were context-sensitive changes. These changes became opaque and individual words were reanalyzed (when you can't tell anymore what the original source of a [ts] was) – there were no paradigmatic alternations. In Semitic languages, the evidence for underlying consonants is in principle more robust, since a root is manifested in many different consonant-and-vowel contexts, and it is usually easier to get at the fact that a given root has /k/ and not /g/ in a certain position. Of course if a language changes a consonant context-free, then /g/ → [ɟ] no matter what. One significant exception is the glides [j w] which are generically "weak", and disappear despite the potential for paradigmatic recovery.

  • 9
    Your first sentence seems to be saying that Semitic languages haven't preserved consonants as well as Afroasiatic languages have; but since Semitic languages are Afroasiatic, that statement doesn't really make sense. Are there some words missing, or something? – ruakh Jan 9 '20 at 8:29

An old question, but one which I feel is worth answering for the benefit of other people interested in Semitic etymologies. The answer below me is excellent in stating that the root-and-pattern system enables speakers to more easily recognize allophones, but probably the most important contribution of root-and-pattern morphology to consonant evolution is that it provides a large number of potential candidates for analogical restorations and extensions. I'll be drawing on data from Biblical Hebrew, since that's the Semitic language whose linear evolution I understand the best.

In Proto-Hebrew, *n assimilates into a following consonant. From the root *n-t-n 'to give', for example, we get וַיִּתֵּן wayyitten 'and he gave', which historically comes from *wayyenten. But, in some verbs, an original *n is actually restored in positions where it should etymologically have been lost. Hebrew has restored *n by analogy between the forms verbs without any *n on the one side, and the forms of verbs with *n where the *n was not assimilted on the other. For example:

קָטַל qåṭal is to יִקְטֹל yiqṭol as נָדַב nåðav is to יִנְדֹּב yindov (not **yiddov).

There are other examples of this kind of thing happening. The sequence *aʔ generally becomes *ō in closed syllables, ex. *wayyáʔmir → וַיֹּאמֶר wayyómɛr 'and he said'; but, sometimes, this same root shows up with the original *ʔ restored by analogy, ex.:

קָטַל qåṭal is to יִקְטֹל yiqṭol as אָמַר ʔåmar is to יֶאֱמֹר yɛʔɛ̆mor ([ɛʔɛ̆] is the synchronic outcome of /iʔ/ before a consonant.)

And a counterexample, where this kind of analogical leveling actually destabilizes a stable historical consonant instead of restoring an unstable one: *aw normally becomes *, but *w in word-initial positions becomes *y. So, for the root w-d-ʕ 'to know', the perfective evolves like *wadaʕa > *yadaʕa > יָדַע yåðaʕ 'he knew'. We would normally expect the imperfective to be יוֹדַע yoðaʕ from *yawdaʕu, but instead we get יֵדַע yeðaʕ, as if it were from *yaydaʕu. What has happened is an analogy. Since the perfective form begins in *y after the *w > *y shift, the imperfectve becomes constructed as if it were from a root beginning in *y as well, even though historically, *w should have retained its original pronunciation in this position.

So, overall: It's a mixed bag. There are certainly inbuilt paradigmatic mechanisms in Semitic languages which do promote consonant conservatism to a degree, but not absolutely, and these same mechanisms can just as well create new innovations as they create retentions. This can even lead to free variants and irregular patterns in which some portions of the lexicon have been affected by an analogical process whereas others were allowed to remain.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.