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date: 18 October 2018

Romance in Contact With Semitic

This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Linguistics. Please check back later for the full article.

The coexistence over centuries of Romance-speaking and Semitic peoples in the Mediterranean area has led to reciprocal linguistic influence and contact phenomena. All Romance languages have been involved in this process, although some of them, such as Romanian, only superficially and indirectly. For what concerns the Semitic counterparts, the major role has been played by Arabic in the Middle Ages, not only in Moorish Spain (711–1492) and in the Emirate of Sicily (831–1072), where interlinguistic contact was daily and intense, but also in Provence and in the main ports of Continental Italy (Pisa, Genoa, Venice), thanks to their commercial relations with the Eastern Mediterranean and North Africa. In addition, a consistent amount of Arabic intellectual lexicon has entered the Romance languages through the translations of scientific treaties, generally through the mediation of Latin. Hebrew has also given a significant contribution, both via the translations of the Bible and, from the Late Middle Ages on, through the oral interaction of the local Jewish communities with non-Jews. In both cases contact has been indirect, since biblical loanwords have been mediated first by Greek and later by Latin, whereas the rest of the borrowings has been transmitted by the Judeo-Romance languages. The other Semitic languages have had no influence on Romance, except for a very limited number of Amharic loanwords to be found in Italian, as a consequence of Italian Colonialism in East Africa (1882–1936).

Although Medieval Spanish and Sicilian display traces of Arabic interference at all levels, including phonology, morphology and syntax, in most Romance languages effects of contact with Semitic are limited to lexicon. These comprise both direct borrowings and structural calques, as far as Arabic and—to a lesser extent—Hebrew are concerned, and pertain to several semantic ambits, such as trade, anatomy, astronomy, and botany (Arabic); religious rituals and practices (Hebrew); and, more generally, daily life, especially in peculiar sociolects and slangs. A case apart is represented by Maltese, a Western Arabic dialect deeply influenced by Italo-Romance (notably Sicilian) from the Middle Ages until the first half of the 20th century, which is a unique example of Romance-Semitic mixing not only at a lexical, but also at a phonological and morphosyntactic level.