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Zanzibar 1.& r
SHEMITIC LANGUAGE S.
THE Shemitic languages are remarkably few in number, although (as is shown in the accompanying Map) they are spread over a vast portion of the world, extending from Persia and the Persian Gulf on the east to the Atlantic on the west, and from the Mediterranean on the north to an undefined distance into the interior of Africa on the south. There are, in fact, but three or, at most, four distinct Shemitic languages at present spoken; and although the history of this wonderful class of languages leads us far back into remote antiquity, yet a much greater diversity of dialect does not appear at any time to have existed. It is shown in one of the appended memoirs that the Phoenician, once pre-eminently the language of civilisation, was substantially the same as the ancient Hebrew; and this conformity of language between two races of different origin (the Phoenicians being a Hamite, and the Hebrews a Shemitic people) is a phenomenon which yet remains to be explained. The Shemitic languages now disused as mediums of oral communication, and which are therefore not represented on the Map, are the following:
Samaritan, originally identical with Hebrew.
Ancient Syriac and Chaldee, which, however, have their representative in Modern Syriac.
Gheez, or Ethiopic, now superseded by its modern dialects, Tigré and Amharic.
The Shemitic race is considered by eminent physiologists to equal, if not to surpass, all other branches of the human family, in perfection of physical formation. Yet its characteristics are by no means invariable. The Syrians, who still preserve their lineage pure and unmingled among the mountains of Kurdistan, have a fair complexion, with gray eyes, red beard, and a robust frame. The Bedouins, or Arabs of the Desert, are thin and muscular in form, with deep brown skin and large black eyes; the Arabs in the low countries of the Nile bordering on Nubia are black, while other tribes of this people dwelling in colder or more elevated situations are said to be fair. The Arabs in the valley of Jordan are reported to have a dark skin, coarse hair, and flattened features, thereby approximating to the Negro type. The Jews differ from the nations among whom they are located by a peculiar cast of physiognomy: in Cochin they are black, in the south of Europe they are dark, while in the north of Europe, and occasionally in England, they are xanthous, with red or light hair.
The Shemitic nations have been most peculiarly honoured in being chosen as the race of whom, according to the flesh, the Messiah was born. To them also was given the knowledge of the one true God; and to the Hebrews in particular was committed the sacred trust of the Divine oracles. Monotheism, although defaced by human inventions, is the religion of this race: the recognition of a false prophet prevails among the Arabs; yet, in common with the Jews, they acknowledge the existence of one God. Two people of this race, the Syrians and Abyssinians, have embraced Christianity as their national religion.
ARABIC, originally the language of a few wandering tribes in the desert of Arabia, is now one of the most widely-diffused of existing languages. It prevails in Arabia, Syria, Mesopotamia, Khuzistan, Egypt, Nubia, and Barbary. It is extensively employed as the language of religion and commerce on the eastern and western coasts of Africa, and it is supposed to penetrate far into the interior of that great continent. As might be expected from its vast extension, this
language branches out into dialects as many in number as the countries in which it is spoken.
EKHKILI is a modern dialect of Himyaritic, the southern branch of the Arabic language. It is spoken by an uncivilised mountainous tribe of Hadramaut, in the south-east of the Arabian peninsula. Ekhkili is of especial value in an ethnographical point of view, as it furnishes the link between the
Shemitic languages of Asia and those of Abyssinia. The ancient Himyarites are believed to have been Cushites, of the race of Ham.
TIGRÉ, a dialect immediately derived from the ancient Ethiopic, is predominant in a small portion of the kingdom of Abyssinia. The resemblance still to be traced between Tigré and Ekhkili has corroborated the hypothesis that Ethiopia was originally peopled by a colony of Himyarite Arabs, who may have received their alphabet from India. The singular system of syllabification to be remarked in the ancient Himyaritic alphabet (from which the Ethiopic was borrowed), bears a strong affinity to ancient Deva-nagari alphabets, as preserved in inscriptions of the time of Asochus.
AMHARIC is a more corrupt dialect of Ethiopic than Tigré, having suffered greater changes from foreign admixture. Amharic is predominant throughout nearly all Abyssinia, but various other languages are likewise spoken in that kingdom. These languages, partaking as they do of a Shemitic element
and of the African character, form so many connecting links between the Shemitic and the African languages.
MODERN SYRIAC, the only living representative of the ancient Chaldee and Syriac tongues, is preserved among mountain fastnesses between Mesopotamia, Armenia and Persia. What relation this language may bear to the idiom of ancient Babylon and Nineveh is not yet precisely known; but light is rising upon the ruins of these ancient cities, and the arrow-headed characters are in process of being deciphered. With the capture of Babylon, in the commencement of the sixth century before our era, the early political supremacy of the Shemitic race departed; and the government of the world passed into the hands of the Japhetic nations, by whom it is still maintained. And thus the fertile plains of Western Asia, the proper home of the Shemitic race, are governed and chiefly inhabited by people of the Japhetic stock, in literal fulfilment of the prophecy, that "Japheth shall dwell in the tents of Shem." Other prophecies are in progress of fulfilment, by which more than their original glory will be restored to the sons of Shem.
A Supplemental Map, illustrating the Early Diffusion of the Hebrew language,
will be found at page 31, following the article "Hebrew."