Afro-Asiatic languages

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The Afroasiatic languages constitute a language family with about 375 living languages[2] and more than 350 million speakers spread throughout North Africa, the Horn of Africa, and Southwest Asia, as well as parts of the Sahel, and East Africa. The most widely spoken Afroasiatic language is Arabic, with 230 million speakers (all the colloquial varieties).[3] In addition to languages now spoken, Afroasiatic includes several ancient languages, such as Ancient Egyptian, Biblical Hebrew, and Akkadian.

The term "Afroasiatic" (often now spelled as Afro-Asiatic) was coined by Maurice Delafosse (1914). It did not come into general use until it was adopted by Joseph Greenberg (1950) to replace the earlier term "Hamito-Semitic", following his demonstration that Hamitic is not a valid language family. The term "Hamito-Semitic" remains in use in the academic traditions of some European countries. Some authors now replace "Afro-Asiatic" with "Afrasian", or, reflecting an opinion that it is more African than Asian, "Afrasan". Individual scholars have called the family "Erythraean" (Tucker 1966) and "Lisramic" (Hodge 1972).


Distribution and branches

The Afroasiatic language family is usually considered to include the following branches:

While there is general agreement on these six families, there are some points of disagreement among linguists who study Afroasiatic. In particular:

  • Omotic is the most controversial member of Afroasiatic since the grammatical formatives "to which Afroasiaticists have tended to attach the greatest importance are either absent or distinctly wobbly" (Hayward 1995). Greenberg (1963) and others considered it a subgroup of Cushitic, while others have raised doubts about it being part of Afroasiatic at all (e.g. Theil 2006).[1]
  • The Afroasiatic identity of Ongota is broadly questioned, as is its position within Afroasiatic among those who accept it, due to the "mixed" appearance of the language and a paucity of research and data. Harold Fleming (2006) proposes that Ongota constitutes a separate branch of Afroasiatic.[4] Bonny Sands (2009) believes the most convincing proposal is by SavĂ  and Tosco (2003), namely that Ongota is an East Cushitic language with a Nilo-Saharan substratum. In other words, the Ongota people would appear to have once spoken a Nilo-Saharan language but then shifted to speaking a Cushitic language, while retaining some characteristics of their earlier Nilo-Saharan language.[1]
  • Beja is sometimes listed as a separate branch of Afroasiatic but is more often included in the Cushitic branch, which has a high degree of internal diversity.
  • Whether the various branches of Cushitic actually form a language family is sometimes questioned, but not their inclusion in Afroasiatic itself.
  • There is no consensus on the interrelationships of the five non-Omotic branches of Afroasiatic (see "Overview of classifications" below). This situation is not unusual, even among long-established language families: there are also many disagreements concerning the internal classification of the Indo-European languages, for instance.

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