The “Sabaean Theory” is no bastard

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.


4 thoughts on “The “Sabaean Theory” is no bastard

  1. My understanding is that while the larger Afrasan/Afroasiatic linguistic phylum originated in Northeast Africa, Semitic represents a branch of Afrasan that broke away from the others AFTER colonizing the Middle East. That’s what I have believed ever since I saw this paper, which identifies the origin of Proto-Semitic in the Middle East:

    That would imply that any Semitic languages spoken in the Horn of Africa descend from a linguistic back-migration, even though ancestral Afrasan was originally African.

    Also, what do you make of recent genetic research indicating a population back-migration into East Africa around 3,000 years ago? Wouldn’t that correlate nicely with the arrival of southern Semitic speakers into the region?


    1. Here’s the issues with such assumptions, especially the infamous Bayesian model which you referenced and I am all too familiar with:

      • The Bayesian model used for this paper is biased towards languages with a larger written history and larger record or research, hence why Semitic literally is placed at an origin point that is so chronologically close to the first written records of Akkadian. The majority of Ethiosemitic remained unwritten for centuries and honestly is still poorly understood but in a paper I reference in one of my posts — Demeke (2001) — it mentions that as early as the 70’s prominent linguists such as Robert Hetzron admitted that Ethiopian Semitic is archaic enough to reconstruct Proto-Semitic off of, not to mention you cannot prove a Cushitic substratum in the languages. In fact the Sabaic used in Ethiopia *after* the advent of Di’amat as noted in Breton (2011) showed evidence of influence from Ethiopian Semitic languages. Also if you really want to see why I question this paper so strongly, read the post I wrote after this one.

      • You cannot extract an Ethiopian Semitic language from a supposed Central Cushitic-Sayhadic pidgin as most people have assumed. There’s no evidence prior to contact with Ethiopian Semitic languages that Central Cushitic languages were spoken anywhere in the northern highlands past the Semein mountain range until recent and Central Cushitic also gained ejectives from Ethiopian Semitic languages after contact. The mechanisms behind the assumption once gain don’t hold up to data based scrutiny. Also, the Sayhadic languages such as Minaean and Sabaean are archaic members of the Central branch of Semitic, as “South Semitic” does not exist. Ethiopian Semitic and South Arabian (perhaps with the addition of Himyaritic) should be considered separate primary branches of Semitic, the former holding more internal diversity than Central, East, and South Arabian combined.

      • Intermixing between peoples of the Horn of Africa and peoples from Arabia dates back to the late Paleolithic according to Hodgson, Mulligan, al-Meeri, & Raaum (2014) and while there is evidence of Sabaean traders and artisans moving to the Horn of Africa, it was only after the advent of Di’amat and it was never mass migration. Such correlations are mostly only predominate amongst Amharas and Tigrays like myself, such results surely wouldn’t be represented in speakers of Soddo, Sebat Bet, or Silt’e. Genetic arguments are weak regarding Semitic anyways because they don’t reflect linguistic or historical reality as much as people would like. The last link you posted is mainly misleading because Mota cave is in Southernmost Ethiopia… where the gene pool is more similar to that of South Sudan or Kenya and up until recently was outside of the realm of Northern Ethiopian influence let alone then genetic influence of even the most southernly Semitic-speakers. There was even a paper that used this nice, neat, and convenient 3,000 year figure and then attempted to claim it’s linked to the Kebra Nagast… which as I’ve said a thousand times is a fabricated narrative. One could even say the 3,000 year figure isn’t actually linked to language as much as it is to the trading populations from Yemen who became clients of the local Ethiopian Semitic-speaking elite in the 1st millennium BC and therefor did mix into the indigenous population. In fact, the paper I mentioned regarding late paleolithic gene flow into the Horn of Africa that ended up producing the “Ethio-Somali” ancestral marker also mentions that this specific ancestral marker is in fact also distributed in the Levant and is attributed by the paper to Semitic-speakers, but in an awkward fashion fitting the framework you seem to agree with. The difference is that this can also be explained by the “Out-of-Africa” theory of “Proto-Semitic” as well.

      While it sounds convenient to claim that Semitic originated in the Middle East, spread to the Horn of Africa, and was influenced by Cushitic languages it’s a very poor hypothesis in the modern day and frankly if you read more of my blog posts I believe I’ve made a good case of such. Like I said in this specific post, the “Sabaean theory” is a normalized assumption but it’s not proven beyond a reasonable doubt nor would I argue that it is able to be proven. You can disprove it though. That’s not very hard if you’re very, very familiarized with Ethiopian Semitic and Cushitic languages — and Sayhadic of course. But in this case understanding the former two is much more important.


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