Grammar Part 2: Semitic languages

The 22 Foundational Glyphs in "Milhamah" depict the Paleo-Hebrew alphabet. Get ready to enter a study of Hebrew grammar.

As we continue last week’s examination of Joüon and Muraoka’s book “A Grammar of Biblical Hebrew,” the authors remind us that Hebrew is a Semitic language that is similar to neighboring tongues.

For instance, Semitic languages’ shared traits include:

  1. Gutturals like ḥet (ח) and ‘ayin (ע)
  2. emphatics like  ṭet (ט), tzadi (צ) and qof (ק)
  3. Root sequences usually composed of three consonants that suggest specific motifs that are conjugated by adding vowels

According to the book, the oldest Semitic languages were born in the northeast, such as Akkadian (Assyrian and Babylonian) and Eblaite.

Next the book says the South Semitic languages generally arose, such as Hadrami, Minaic, Qatabanic  and Sabean. The Southern family also includes Ge’ez, which South Arabian emigrants to Ethiopia spoke, according to the book.

Finally the Central (or Northwestern) Semitic languages came to be, such as Canaanite, Aramaic and Arabic. While Hebrew was home to the land of Canaan, the book says proto-Hebrew and ancient Canaanite differed in some ways, like how they conjugated the qal passive verb.

Hebrew is very similar to Moabite and also related to Phoenician. Ugaritic, spoken to the north of Canaan, is a separate language with a cuneiform alphabet.

The Bible refers to Hebrew (‘Ivrit) as Yehudit. Besides the Bible, we know about ancient Hebrew through Babylonian and Akkadian documents. Ostraca and archaeological finds like the Gezer Calendar and the Siloam inscription offer more evidence.

Other languages like ancient Egyptian and Berber have some things in common with Semitic languages, but not enough to part of the family.

Where the languages fit in ‘Milhamah’

As “Milhamah: Fighting Words” begins its first year, expect to see Hebrew explained in depth, along with a smattering of Akkadian.

In our fictional world, several other languages have their own insurgencies and resistance movements against Bavel too. While virtually all of these movements are (at least temporary) allies of the Holy Tongue Society, their activities happen off-camera. “Milhamah” will only deal with Semitic languages, and specifically ones that I study in great detail.

Why Semitic languages? They have features that inspire artistic creativity and make good gameplay mechanics. For example, look at the trilateral shoresh roots, in which three consonants combine to make words with similar meanings.

This concept will make more sense in the weeks to come. The comic’s Episode 9 will be released Tuesday, and I hope to begin showing very early development screenshots or videos of the roguelike game in December.

Meanwhile, if you have any questions or suggestions, feel free to leave a comment!

Ancient Egypt may spell out clues about the alphabet.

A main theme in my artwork is language, particularly how people use it to perceive the world and relate to one another.

So it’s intriguing that a researcher apparently found the earliest known example of an abgad (aka abjad). That basically refers to an alphabet pattern found in many Semitic languages:

The alphabet that we use today is derived from that used by the Phoenicians, a civilization that flourished between roughly 3,500 and 2,300 years ago in the Eastern Mediterranean. They used what scholars call a Semitic language, a term that refers to a branch of languages that trace their origins to the Middle East, each sharing some similar words. The early forerunner to our alphabet was written in Semitic languages. Few texts that are written in Semitic languages date back 3,400 years or more, however.

To go along with the Tower of Babel themes in “Milhamah,” some of the characters, superpowers and scenarios are tied to the Hebrew alef-beit, or alphabet. So as you read this comic series, expect to learn more about those letters over time!