Comparative Semitics

The field of “Comparative Semitics” is devoted to the study of the languages and dialects of the Semitic language family. The purpose of the program is to provide a thorough grounding in each of the major Semitic languages, with special emphasis on one of these languages. The key consideration in the development of any particular program is that the student should reach a level of competence in the major language which equals that expected of someone majoring in that language in a context other than Comparative Semitics. The student’s orientation may be more heavily weighed toward a linguistic approach, i.e., characterized by the formal study of language, or toward a philological approach, i.e., characterized by emphasis on the study of texts and literatures. Basic knowledge of linguistic methods and principles is a requirement for both orientations. The principal factor which distinguishes this program from the various other language programs in the department is the conscious intent to introduce the student to a comprehensive understanding of the Semitic languages and their development.

The Ph.D. Program

The program outlined here presupposes that the student has a B.A. with a major in a field other than Comparative Semitics. Students whose previous work has partially prepared them for the examinations listed below may either accelerate their examination schedule or widen their preparation by taking courses which go beyond the minimum requirements listed below.


Because this program does not presuppose an intensive preparation in Near Eastern Studies, the prospective applicant should enroll in an undergraduate program which will provide him or her with the tools necessary for graduate study. Primary among these is a reading knowledge of German and French.

A basic knowledge of linguistics is also essential. The student interested in the Comparative Semitics program will be expected to have advanced proficiency in at least one Semitic language at the time of applying. As a general statement, a thorough grounding in one Semitic language is of more use in preparing for a graduate program than is a smattering of several. A B.A. program, therefore, which includes some of the language preparation indicated above and / or a proper foundation in linguistics will enable the student to devote more of the graduate course work to the acquisition of Semitic languages.

Course Work

The student will choose a main language of specialization out of the five major areas of Semitic. The five main languages of specialization are Hebrew, Aramaic, Akkadian, Arabic, and Ge‘ez. At the end of the program, students are expected to pass examinations at a four-year level in their main language and to control the major dialects of their area. They will also be required to pass examinations at the two year-level in two of the other major languages. The course-work should be finished in four years. Some courses may have been taken before admission into the program, but for the student with a B.A. and a major in another field, thirty-six courses will usually be necessary, that is, three courses over twelve quarters (see Departmental Regulations). In such a thirty-six-course program the following list represents the minimum requirements, and admission to candidacy for the Ph.D. in Comparative Semitics will presuppose it or its equivalent, worked out with the adviser. (The actual number of courses listed below will vary from student to student. It should be noted that most students audit a certain number of courses.)

  • A combination of nine courses in the main language of specialization.
  • Six courses in two other of the major languages (twelve total)
  • Three courses in the remaining major languages (six total)
  • Three to four courses in linguistics and Comparative Semitics, including an introduction to Comparative Semitics, an advanced seminar in Comparative Semitics, and a general intro to Historical Linguistics.
  • Two to three courses in other Semitic languages offered (Ugaritic, Phoenician, Old South Arabian, Ancient North Arabian, etc.).
  • Three courses in the history and culture of the ancient Near East, specifically including NEHC 30001, 30002, and 30003.

Ph.D. Comprehensive Examination

  • Principal language (full exam) – May consist of more than one examination (e.g., Biblical Hebrew and Post-Biblical Hebrew), not to exceed a total of eight hours.
  • Second language (full) – May also consist of more than one examination (e.g., Targum and Syriac), not to exceed a total of eight hours.
  • Third language (half exam).
  • Examination in the scholarship of Comparative Semitics (full).
  • General examination in Semitic languages and their development and reconstruction (full).

Total: Four “full” examinations, one “half” examination.

Nota bene: Language examinations do not test simple language competence or only the material covered in courses but the student’s command of the full range of philology in the area at the appropriate level.