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Semitic Family. Quite independent of this enormous stream of language which dominates India, Persia, Armenia and nearly the whole of Europe, there is another stream, the Semitic, running in a bed of its own from the very beginning, and feeding two, if not three of the great religions of the world, that of the Jews, that of the Christians, and that of the Mohammedans.
The Semitic family may be divided into three branches, the Aramaic, the Hebraic and the Arabic, or into two, the Northern, comprising the Aramaic and Hebraic, and the Southern, the Arabic.
Aramaic. The Aramaic comprises the ancient language of Assyria and Babylon, so far as it has been discovered and deciphered in the cuneiform inscriptions. The grammatical structure of this ancient language is not yet sufficiently made out to enable scholars to trace its exact relation to the later Aramaic. Geographically, however, the ancient language of Mesopotamia may for the present be classed as Aramaic. If some of these cuneiform inscriptions go back, as some scholars maintain, to 4000 B.C., they would represent the oldest remnants of Semitic speech. And if that Semitic literature was preceded, as seems very generally admitted, by another civilisation, not Semitic, and generally called Suméro-Accadian, we should get an insight into a past more distant than even that which is claimed for Egypt and China. It may be so, but even though chronologically the religious ideas conveyed to us by the sacred hymns of Babylon should prove to be so much earlier than those of any of
the Aryan races, I must say at once that they appear to me much more advanced, much more modern in point of civilisation. They presuppose towns, temples, idols, a knowledge of metals and all kinds of precious stones, familiarity with writing, and a number of abstract ideas which we should look for in vain in the Vedic hymns. Linguistically also there is little in these inscriptions which we should call much more primitive than what we see in the grammatical structure of Syriac, Arabic, or Hebrew. Many difficulties have here still to be cleared up. An important mine however for religious studies has no doubt been opened there, and several of the antecedents of Hebrew tradition have already been discovered in the cuneiform literature of Babylon. If, as we read, Abraham came from Ur of the Chaldees, his language ought to have been akin to that of the cuneiform inscriptions. But his name and all connected with him passed in later times through the channel of a different language, which we now call Hebrew; and the date at which whatever was known of him was reduced to writing in that form in which we now possess it is still uncertain, but at all events much later than was formerly supposed.
Chaldee and Syriac. In historical times we find Aramaic spoken in the kingdoms of Babylon and Assyria, and spreading thence into Syria and Palestine. Owing to the political and literary ascendancy of these kingdoms, Aramaic seems for a time to have been a kind of lingua franca extending its influence to Persia, Syria, Asia Minor, Egypt, and even to Arabia.
It has been usual to distinguish between the Ara-, maic as used by the Jews, and the Aramaic as used in later times by Christian writers, the former being called Chaldee, the latter Syriac. It may be true that the name Chaldee owes its origin to the mistaken notion of its having been introduced into Palestine by the Jews returning from the Babylonian captivity. But the name has been too long in possession to make it advisable to replace it by a new name, such as Western Aramaic.
This Jewish Chaldee shows itself first in some of the books of the Old Testament, such as Ezra and Daniel. Afterwards we find it in the Targums or Chaldee translations of the Pentateuch (Onkelos) and the Prophets (Jonathan), which were read in the Synagogues long before they were finally collected in about the fourth and fifth centuries A.D. The Jerusalem Targums and the Jerusalem Talmud represent the Chaldee as spoken at that time by the Jews in Jerusalem and in Galilee. Christ and his disciples must have employed the same Aramaic dialect, though they also used Greek in addressing the people at large. The conquests of the Arabs and the spreading of their language interfered with the literary cultivation of Chaldee as early as the seventh century; but it continued to be employed by some Jewish writers down to the tenth century.
The Samaritans translated the Pentateuch into their own Aramaic dialect, which differs but little from that of the Jews.
The Mandueuns also, a somewhat mixed Christian sect in Babylonia, spoke and wrote a Chaldee dialect, which is preserved in their writings and in the jargon of a few surviving members of that sect.
Syriac, though spoken long before the rise of Christianity, owes its literary cultivation chiefly to Christian writers. The Old and New Testaments were translated into Syriac (the Peshito) in the second century, and became the recognised text in the school of Edessa and elsewhere. A large literature accumulated from the third to the seventh century, and extended its influence to Persia and the Eastern Roman Empire. The Arabic conquests, however, put an end to the literary cultivation of this language also, though it lived on both as a written and spoken dialect to the twelfth century, and afterwards, as a language of the learned, to the present day.
The Neo-Syriac dialects, still spoken in some parts of Mesopotamia, chiefly by Nestorian Christians in the neighbourhood of Mosul, and in Kurdistan as far as Lake Urmia, are not directly derived from the literary Syriac, but represent remnants of the spoken Aramaic. One of these dialects has lately received some literary cultivation through the exertions of Christian missionaries.
Hebraic. The second branch, the Hebraic, comprises Phenician and Carthaginian, as known to us from inscriptions dating from about 600 B.C., and the Hebrew of the Old Testament.
The Moabites spoke Hebrew, as may be seen from the language of the inscription of King Mesha, about 900 B.C. The Philistines also seem to have spoken the same language, though, it may be, with dialectic varieties. About the time of the Maccabees, Hebrew and its cognate dialects ceased to be spoken by the people at large, though Hebrew remained the language of the learned long after the destruction of Jerusalem by Titus. Even at present the Jews employ an artificial and corrupt Hebrew for literary discussions and among themselves.
Arabic. The third branch, the Arabic, has its home in the Arabian peninsula, where it is still spoken by the bulk of the inhabitants, and from whence it spread over Asia, Africa, and Europe at the time of the Mohammedan conquests. There was a popular Arabic literature long before Mohammed (Moʻallakât), and there are inscriptions in the north of the Hijâz, commonly called Thamudic, which are supposed to be of an ante-Christian date. Arabic inscriptions continue to be found, attesting the use of Arabic as a cultivated language, long before the age of Mohammed. The trilingual inscription of Žabad (Aramaic, Arabic, Greek) dates from 513 A. D.; a bilingual inscription of Harran (Arabic and Greek) from 568 A.D. A new impulse was given to the literary life of the Arabs by the new religion preached by Mohammed and his successors. The language of the Qur'ân became a new type of literary excellence by the side of the ancient Bedouin poetry. In the second century after the Hejra grammatical studies fixed the rules of classical Arabic permanently, and after 1200 years the Qurân is still read and understood by all educated Arabs. The spoken Arabic, however, differs dialectically in Egypt, Algeria, Syria, and Arabia. One Arabic dialect continues to be spoken in Malta.
Sabaean or Himyaritic. In the South of the Arabian peninsula there existed