If you’ve ever wondered where the assumption that Semitic (or Afroasiatic as a whole) came from the Middle East had originated, you’ll enjoy this even if it’s short.
Normally in Afroasiatic linguistic circles, you don’t talk about the “Hamitic theory“. It’s a dead theory, it’s racist at it’s best and outright degrading at its worse. As a person who would be labelled “Hamitic” I seriously do not enjoy this theory or its ideological originator who is pictured, Sir Henry Morton Stanley. He was not the man who popularized it, but he was perhaps the first explorer to claim that the intellectual achievements and physical characteristics of Northeast Africans in particular are due to their origin as “lost white tribes“. If you really want to know more, this TED Talk by the author of the book “Lost White Tribes: Explorers, Scientists, and the Theory that Changed a Continent” is a great introduction especially being he wrote one of the best researched and most recent books on this theory.
But nonetheless, this set a precedent for Afroasiatic. Of all the language phyla indigenous to Africa, it is the only one with a branch that not only has more than one language that is mystified by a popular religion (Christianity) but also it branches out into the Middle East. Given, Semitic’s literal center of diversity has always been in the Horn of Africa but that was irrelevant in a time when the languages were poorly understood. Even during the time of Wolf Leslau, we understood very little of many of the Semitic languages in general. And because in specific at this time it was assumed every part of settled societies was imported to the Horn of Africa via the Arabian peninsula, it therefore was reflected in linguistic data. Of course, it’s now becoming more well accepted that this assumption is misleading and without evidence but people still cling to it. The vestigial form of “Sabaean theory” is of course, the ideological descendant of the “Hamitic theory“.
The “Sabaean theory” of course is much more normalized and not seen as racist as the “Hamitic theory“. You can be a linguist and claim Ethiopian Semitic was birthed as a form of a bastard Cushiticized Semitic speech without anyone thinking otherwise. You can have no proof, but that’s okay. People have been claiming the same thing for over a century now. As I mentioned in a previous post about Amharic, it was recognized as early as the 70’s that Ethiopian Semitic languages are undoubtedly archaic and very well cannot be formed on the lines of the “Sabaean theory“. My mistake of course is that when I was writing for “Qwanqwa project” and even on my own personal blogs is I assumed that Ethiopian Semitic almost existed in a vacuum until as late as the 17th century. I was wrong. There is Cushiticized Semitic languages, but this happened as early as the 14th century and was formed by recent movement of specific speech populations and pre-modern polities as in the case of Cushitic influence on the Silt’e and Wolane languages. But there’s also Semiticized Cushitic languages, and Cushiticized Omotic languages and so forth. This is not and should not be a roadblock to claiming Semitic originated in the Horn of Africa. It also should not be seen as evidence of the “Sabaean theory“.
The assumption that Semitic was imported into the Horn of Africa lies on the racist assumption that without the Sabaean contact, the Horn of Africa was not going to develop agriculture or settled societies on the scale of the Arabian peoples who at the time of the origin of this theory were seen as racially “caucasian“. This of course does not mean that the modern proponents of the theory are racist; frankly I just think they don’t know much better. Universities admittedly (SOAS and Lieden this includes you in specific) teach this theory as a normal fact of the Semitic languages. It’s normalized. And trust me I’ve met many people who’ve outright argued with me about my conclusions based on what they read in books written by proponents of this theory… without having actual data to back it up. So one already assumptive linguist feeds the mind of a future assumptive linguist and it becomes this vicious cycle where ideas based entirely on evidence whether it’s presented by Hetzron or Demeke are cast aside because they argue for the origin of Semitic in the Horn of Africa. Trust me, I’m seen as a good source on Semitic languages when I’m talking about Ge’ez phonology but in regards to my views of the “Sabaean theory“, I remain a controversial minority. A lot of it is the assumption that if you discredit the “Sabaean theory“, you discredit the works of a multitude of linguists who focused on Semitic languages; which is not the truth. This is why I target specific things most of the time, not entire papers. Unless you are Weninger (2010).
But nonetheless aiming to discredit the “Sabaean theory” should not be controversial. The theory is rooted in the racism of its progenitor. It’s very plain and simple.