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The Semitic Languages
 
Semitic is one of the five most important branches of the large family of Afro-Asian languages and, based on the latest linguistic researches, is divided into the two main, Eastern Semitic and the Western Semitic branches. The Eastern Semitic branch comprises the two, Akkadian and Eblaite languages, both of which are extinct now, whereas the Western Semitic which is sub-divided into numerous branches includes all the living Semitic languages.
The oldest surviving effects in the Semitic language are some Akkadian inscriptions that were written in cuneiform. This language was in use sometime between 2350 and 2200 BC.
The most important common characteristics of the Semitic languages are as follows:
- The verb roots are comprised of consonants and generally consist of three consonants (trilateral);
- Variations of the basic meanings of verbs are derived by altering their verb stems;
- All the nouns are either masculine or feminine;
- There are only two main tenses, past and present/future while the rest of the tenses are compounded from these two basic tenses;
- There is no distinction between the masculine and feminine in the first person gender conjugation;
- There is no verb denoting the meaning of “to have”;
- There is no indirect speech;
- The normal verbal sentence word order is verb-subject-object.

The Semitic languages that are in use in Iran include Assyrian, Arabic, and Mandaic.
1. Assyrian: Assyrian belongs to the family of modern Semitic languages and is used in Iran, Turkey, Iraq, and Syria as well as by the migrant Assyrians of the USA, Russia, Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Georgia. The main center of the Assyrian-speaking people in Iran is the western coastline of the Lake Orumiyeh, even though some of them live in Tehran, Tabriz, Hamadān as well as other parts of the country.
The Aramaic language belongs to the North-Western sub-branch of the Central-Semitic languages which is itself a branch of the Western Semitic languages. This language has thus far passed through five phases viz. Old Aramaic (c. 850-612 BC), Imperial Aramaic (c. 600-200 BC), Middle Aramaic (200 BC-250 AD), Late Aramaic (200-1200 AD) and Modern Aramaic. Modern Aramaic has further been divided into the two main groups of Western Modern Aramaic and Eastern Modern Aramaic. Western Modern Aramaic today survives only in three villages in the north-east of Damascus. However, Eastern Modern Aramaic consists of various languages and dialects and is divided into three sub-groups, viz. Turoyoh Aramaic, Mandaic, and North-Eastern Modern Aramaic. The Assyrian language is the most important member of the North-Eastern Modern Aramaic group of languages.
The Assyrian language which is also referred to as “Aisur”, “Eastern Syriac” and “Nasturi” (Nestorian) comprises such varying dialects that the Assyrian-speaking people from different regions, for instance the Assyrian-speaking Jews and Christians of cities like Orumieh and Sanandaj, do not follow each other’s languages. Such dialects can also be referred to as independent languages. The spread of this language in different regions has resulted in the adoption of terms from Fārsi, Arabic, Kurdish, Turkish, and even the Russian and Georgian languages. The Assyrian language that is spoken in Iran has been greatly influenced by the Kurdish, Fārsi, and the Āzari-Turkish languages.
Today, the Assyrian Christians use two different types of the Syriac scripts for writing in their own language. The Ya’ghubi (Jacobite) Syriac script is used only in Syria while the other Assyrians use the Nasturi (Nestorian) Syriac script and sometimes write their capital letters in the Estrangelo script (Fig. 2). The Syriac script runs from right to left and originally only contained consonants. However, now certain inflections are used above and below the letters to indicate vowels. Moreover, some written texts have also been found in the Syriac language using the Latin and Cyrillic scripts .

2. Arabic: There are differing views regarding into which category the Arabic language can be classified among the Western Semitic languages. Some linguists are of the opinion that the Arabic language falls under the North-Western branch while others believe that it belongs to the South-Eastern branch. However, evidence is available to prove that Arabic has common characteristics with, both, the North-Western as well the Southern Semitic groups of languages. Therefore, some linguists prefer to refer to it as a Central or Central-Southern Semitic language. The Arabic languages possesses two main dialects: The Eastern dialect which is used in Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Kuwait, Oman, the UAE, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Jordan, Egypt, Chad, Nigeria, and among a few groups in Afghanistan and Uzbekistan; and the Western dialect used in Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, and Mauritania. The Maltese language, too, is considered to belong to the Western dialect but it also possesses certain characteristics of the Eastern dialect. Moreover, some linguists consider Maltese to be a separate language from the same family group as the Arabic language. Maltese has been highly influenced by the European languages, and Italian in particular.
Considering that Arabic is the religious language of the Muslims, thousands of words from this language have permeated into the Iranian languages (like Fārsi, Kurdish, Pashto) as well as Turkish, Hindi (also Urdu and Bengali), and the African languages like Hausa and Swahili.
Prior to the advent of Islam in Iran, some branches of the Bani-Tamim tribe lived in Khuzestān but after Islam, a large number of Arab tribes flooded into Iran and settled down in the different parts of the country. In the course of time, these Arabs lost touch with their own mother-tongue to the extent that, today, their descendents who have settled in places like Āzarbāyjān, Esfahān, Khorāsān, Qom, Kordestān, and Lorestān speak either in the Āzari-Turkish, or the Fārsi, or the Kurdish languages. Nevertheless, until some time back, a few Arabic-speaking villages could be found in the Khorāsān province around Sarakhs, Torbat Haydariyah, Qāyen, and in the Arabkhāneh, Nahārjānāt, and the Nahbandān villages near Birjand. Today, most of the Arab-speaking people of Iran live in the Khuzestān province and on the southern coastlines of Iran. Some scholars have identified one hundred and sixty Arab tribes and clans in Khuzestān. The Khuzestāni Arabic should be classified under the Eastern dialects of the Arabic language. The influence of the Fārsi language on the Khuzestāni Arabic can be identified with the presence of the syllable “ch” in it (for instance, the term “asākarah” is written as “asācharah” and “ajrash” is written as “achrash”).
As mentioned earlier in the section on Iranian Languages, the Arabic script has been derived from the Nabatean script which is a modified version of the Aramaic script.

3. Mandaic: The Mandaic language is a survivor of the Babylonian dialect which along with Palestinian and Syrian dialects constitute the three dialects of the Late Aramaic (c. 200-1200 AD). Today, this language is regarded as a branch of the Eastern Modern Aramaic languages.
This language is only spoken among the Mandaeans of Iran and Iraq. The Mandaeans, who are also referred to as the “Moghtasilah” and the Sabians, belong to the non-Christian Gnostic (Ganusi) sects. They are mainly concentrated in the southern regions of Iraq as well as the Khuzestān province of Iran. The followers of this sect can be found in large cities like Basra, Kirkuk, Mosul, and Baghdad in Iraq as well as in Khorramshahr and Ahwāz in Iran. The Iraqi Mandaeans all speak in the Arabic language and their colloquial language is facing extinction.
The Mandaic script has directly been derived from the Aramaic script and is the only Semitic script that is always inflected with vowels. This script runs from right to left.
 
* source: Rezaie Baghbidi , Hasan " Iran Entry " The Great Islamic Encyclopedia . Ed. Kazem Musavi Bojnourdi.Tehran: The Center of Great Islamic Encyclopaedia , 1989-, V.10 , pp.553 - 554
 
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