Hebrew and other Oriental languages?


Flipping through the channels the other day, my remote got stuck while I was on PBS (the horror!). Seems they were doing a program on the possibility of Noah’s Ark being on top of Mt. Arreat. Regardless, they had a talking head on the screen, and his bio said “Professor of Hebrew and Other Oriental Languages at Harvard Divinity School”.

Hebrew is an oriental language? I thought Hebrew was an arabic language. It could be, and maybe this guy was just a wiz at both Hebrew, and a handful of oriental languages. However, the wording above is correct (or at least an accurate transcript of the broadcast).

Not being a linguist (and far from a cunning one at that), I made a mental note to check with you guys. Could someone enlighten me?

Oriental means eastern, and Hebrew and Arabic are languages of the Middle or Near East.

I believe the grouping of these languages with languages of the Far East is merely an artifact of Western linguistic study. These areas lay to the east of the universities in Europe and America that studied them.


Seems that this use of Oriental is related to the Classic use of “Asia” to refer to Asia Minor (mostly the land in and around present day Turkey).

The term “East Asian Languages” or “East Asian History” or whaever seems to be the current designation for what, in recent times, was called Oriental.

Has oriental become a less than PC term?

(This is my first post, be gentle…I’ll close my eyes and think of England)

Technically, Hebrew and Arabic languages fall under the family of Semetic languages.

The differences between, say, Hebrew and Chinese is akin to the differences between English and Mayan hieroglyphs.

Historically, “the Orient” was a general term for what’s now called the Middle East (back when Europeans had barely any knowledge of anything further east than India).

Hebrew has about the same relationship to Arabic as English does to Dutch: closely related, and ultimately going back to some common ancestor. But Hebrew is no more an Arabic language than English is a Dutch one.

To continue this analogy, English and Dutch are both classified (along with other closely related languages, such as modern German) as members of the Germanic branch of the Indo-European language family. I’m not too familiar with the linguistic classifications of other language groups, but it makes sense that Hebrew and Arabic (as well as a number of other closely related languages, such as Aramaic) would be classified as members of the Oriental branch of the Hamito-Semitic language group.

Hebrew and Arabic have a little more linguistic separation than that. Hebrew is a Northern Semitic language. while Arabic is a Southern Semitic language. Sometimes, an additional level of detail is added to the description, and you’ll hear that Hebrew is Northwestern Semitic, while Arabic is Southwestern Semitic.

The usage in re the department is 19th century, when anything “Eastern” in the widest, almost meaningless sense of non-Western European was oreintal.

Dropped for its imprecision.

It’s not. Arabic and Hebrew are both West Semetic languages, although from different branchs (central versus north).

BTW Hamito-Semetic has been discarded for the more accurate Afro-Asiatic.

The other thread on Arabic bordery kindly provided this very rich and interesting link: