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In linguistics and ethnology, Semitic (from the Biblical "Shem", Hebrew: שם, translated as "name", Arabic: ساميّ) was first used to refer to a language family of largely Middle Eastern origin, now called the Semitic languages. This family includes the ancient and modern forms of Akkadian, Aramaic, Hebrew, Arabic, Ge'ez, Maltese, Canaanite/Phoenician, Amorite, Eblaite, Ugaritic, Sutean, Chaldean, Mandaic, Ahlamu, Amharic, Tigre and Tigrinya among others.
As language studies are interwoven with cultural studies, the term also came to describe the extended cultures and ethnicities, as well as the history of these varied peoples as associated by close geographic and linguistic distribution.
The term Semite means a member of any of various ancient and modern Semitic-speaking peoples originating in southwestern Asia, including; Akkadians (Assyrians and Babylonians), Eblaites, Ugarites, Canaanites, Phoenicians (including Carthaginians), Hebrews (Israelites, Judeans and Samaritans), Ahlamu, Arameans, Chaldeans, Amorites, Moabites, Edomites, Hyksos, Arabs, Nabateans, Maganites, Shebans, Sutu, Ubarites, Dilmunites, Bahranis, Maltese, Mandaeans, Sabians, Syriacs, Mhallami, Amalekites and Ethiopian Semites. It was proposed at first to refer to the languages related to Hebrew by Ludwig Schlözer, in Eichhorn's "Repertorium", vol. VIII (Leipzig, 1781), p. 161. Through Eichhorn the name then came into general usage (cf. his "Einleitung in das Alte Testament" (Leipzig, 1787), I, p. 45). In his "Geschichte der neuen Sprachenkunde", pt. I (Göttingen, 1807) it had already become a fixed technical term.
The word "Semitic" is an adjective derived from Shem, one of the three sons of Noah in the Bible (Genesis 5.32, 6.10, 10.21), or more precisely from the Greek derivative of that name, namely Σημ (Sēm); the noun form referring to a person is Semite.
The term "anti-Semitic" (or "anti-Semite"), owing to the circumstances of its coining, and as established by longstanding usage, refers exclusively to hostility or discrimination directed at Jews. (This remains true, even though the word "Semite" and most uses of the word "Semitic" do not make specific reference to Jews, but speak much more broadly to any people whose native tongue is, or was historically, a member of the associated language family.) "Anti-Semitic" was coined in 1879 by German journalist Wilhelm Marr in a pamphlet called Der Weg zum Siege des Germanenthums über das Judenthum ("The Way to Victory of Germanicism over Judaism"). Using ideas of race and nationalism, Marr argued that Jews had become the first major power in the West. He accused them of being liberals, a people without roots who had Judaized Germans beyond salvation. In 1879 Marr founded the "League for Anti-Semitism".
The concept of "Semitic" peoples is derived from Biblical accounts of the origins of the cultures known to the ancient Hebrews. Those closest to them in culture and language were generally deemed to be descended from their forefather Shem. Enemies were often said to be descendants of his cursed nephew, Canaan. In Genesis 10:21-31, Shem is described as the father of Aram, Ashur, and Arpachshad: the Biblical ancestors of the Arabs, Aramaeans, Assyrians, Babylonians, Chaldeans, Sabaeans, and Hebrews, etc., all of whose languages are closely related; the language family containing them was therefore named "Semitic" by linguists. However, the Canaanites, Eblaites, Ugarites and Amorites also spoke languages belonging to this family, and are therefore also termed Semitic in linguistics, despite being described in Genesis as sons of Ham (See Sons of Noah). Shem is also described in Genesis as the father of Elam and Lud, however the Elamites spoke a language isolate and Lydians spoke an Indo-European language.
The hypothetical Proto-Semitic language, ancestral to historical Semitic languages in the Middle East, is thought to have been originally from either the Arabian Peninsula (particularly around Yemen), the Levant, Mesopotamia or even the Ethiopian Highlands. But its region of origin is still much debated and uncertain with, for example, a recent bayesian analysis identifying an origin for Semitic languages in the Levant around 5,750 BP with a later single introduction from what is now southern Arabia into north Africa around 2,800 BP. The Semitic language family is also considered a component of the larger Afroasiatic macro-family of languages. Identification of the hypothetical proto-Semitic region of origin is therefore dependent on the larger geographic distributions of the other language families within Afroasiatic.Semitic speaking peoplesApproximate distribution of Semitic languages around the 1st century AD
The following is a list of ancient and modern Semitic speaking peoples.
Below is a list of some important Semitic speaking states and nations extant at different points prior to the 7th century AD.
North East Africa
The modern linguistic meaning of "Semitic" is therefore derived from (though not identical to) Biblical usage. In a linguistic context the Semitic languages are a subgroup of the larger Afroasiatic language family (according to Joseph Greenberg's widely accepted classification) and include, among others: Akkadian, the ancient language of Babylon and Assyria; Amorite, Amharic, the official language of Ethiopia; Tigrinya, a language spoken in Eritrea and in northern Ethiopia; Arabic; Aramaic, still spoken in Iraq, Iran, Syria, Turkey and Armenia by Assyrian-Chaldean Christians and Mandaeans; Canaanite; Ge'ez, the ancient language of the Eritrean and Ethiopian Orthodox scriptures which originated in Yemen; Hebrew; Maltese; Phoenician or Punic; Syriac (a form of Aramaic); and South Arabian, the ancient language of Sheba/Saba, which today includes Mehri, spoken by only tiny minorities on the southern part of the Arabian Peninsula.
Wildly successful as second languages far beyond their numbers of contemporary first-language speakers, a few Semitic languages today are the base of the sacred literature of some of the world's great religions, including Islam (Arabic), Judaism (Hebrew and Aramaic), and Syriac and Ethiopian Christianity (Aramaic/Syriac and Ge'ez). Millions learn these as a second language (or an archaic version of their modern tongues): many Muslims learn to read and recite Classical Arabic, the language of the Qur'an, and many Jews all over the world outside of Israel with other first languages speak and study Hebrew, the language of the Torah, Midrash, and other Jewish scriptures. Ethnic Assyrian followers of The Assyrian Church of the East, Chaldean Catholic Church, Ancient Church of the East and some Syriac Orthodox Christians, both speak Mesopotamian eastern Aramaic and use it also as a liturgical tongue. The language is also used liturgically by the primarily Arabic speaking followers of the Maronite, Syriac Catholic Church and some Melkite Christians. Mandaic another dialect of Aramaic is both spoken and used as a liturgical language by followers of the Mandaean faith.
It should be noted that Berber, Egyptian (including Coptic), Hausa, Somali, and many other related languages within the wider area of Northern Africa and the Middle East do not belong to the specific Semitic group, but are related the larger Afroasiatic language family of which the Semitic languages are also a subgroup.
Other ancient Near Eastern languages fall under non Semitic groupings; Sumerian, Elamite, Hurrian, Mannean, Gutian and Urartian were language isolates, meaning they were stand alone tongues, not related to any other language group, living or dead. Hittite, Phrygian, Lydian, Mitanni, Median, Philistine language, Cimmerian, Scythian, ancient Armenian, ancient Persian and ancient Greek were Indo-European languages. Nubian was a Nilotic language. Modern languages of the region that are non Semitic include; Azerbaijani, Kurdish, Shabak, Farsi/Persian, Gilaki, Turkish, Gagauz, modern Armenian, Georgian, Circassian, Chechen and Roma.
For a complete list of Semitic languages arranged by subfamily, see list from SIL's Ethnologue.Geography
Semitic peoples and their languages, in both modern and ancient historic times, have covered a broad area bridging North Africa, Western Asia, Asia Minor and the Arabian Peninsula. The earliest historic (written) evidences of them are found in the Fertile Crescent (Mesopotamia), an area encompassing the Akkadian, Babylonian and Assyrian civilizations along the Tigris and Euphrates rivers (modern Iraq), extending northwest into southern Asia Minor (modern Turkey) and the Levant (modern Syria and Lebanon) along the eastern Mediterranean. Early traces of Semitic speakers are found, too, in South Arabian inscriptions in Yemen, Eritrea, Northern Ethiopia, and after this in Carthage (modern Tunisia) and later still, in Roman times, in Nabataean inscriptions from Petra (modern Jordan) south into Arabia.
Later historical Semitic languages also spread into North Africa in two widely separated periods. The first expansion occurred with the ancient Phoenicians from around the 9th century BC, along the southern Mediterranean Sea all the way to the Atlantic Ocean (Phoenician colonies which included ancient Rome's nemesis Carthage). The second, a millennium later, was the expansion of the Muslim armies and Arabic in the 7th-8th centuries AD, which, at their height, controlled the Iberian Peninsula (until 1492) and Sicily. Arab Muslim expansion is also responsible for modern Arabic's presence from Mauritania, on the Atlantic coast of West Africa, to the Red Sea in the northeastern corner of Africa, and its reach south along the Nile River as far as the northern half of Sudan, where, as the national language, non-Arab Sudanese even farther south must learn it.
Modern Hebrew was reintroduced in the 20th century, and together with Arabic, is a national language in Israel. Western Aramaic dialects remain spoken in Malula near Damascus. Eastern Mesopotamian Neo-Aramaic is spoken along the northern border of Syria and throughout Iraq, Southeast-Turkey (Turabdin), in far northwestern Iran and in Armenia, Georgia and southern Russia. These speakers are predominantly ethnic Assyrians (also known as Chaldo-Assyrians). Mandaean Aramaic is still spoken in parts of southern and northern Iraq. Semitic languages and are also found in the Horn of Africa, especially Eritrea and Ethiopia. Tigrinya, a North Ethiopic dialect, has around six million speakers in Eritrea and Tigray. In Eritrea, Tigre is the language of around 800,000 Muslims. Amharic is the national language of Ethiopia and is spoken by at least 10 million Ethiopian Orthodox Christians. Semitic languages today are also spoken in Malta (where an Italian-influenced language derived from Siculo-Arabic is spoken) and on the island of Socotra in the Indian Ocean between Yemen and Somalia, where a dying vestige of South Arabian is spoken in the form of Soqotri. The Maltese language is the only officially recognized Semitic language of the European Union.Religion
In a religious context, the term 'Semitic' can refer to the religions associated with the speakers of these languages: thus Judaism, Christianity and Islam are often described as "Semitic religions" (irrespective of language family spoken by their adherents). Manicheanism and the Mandaean religion also fall within this category.
The term Abrahamic religions is more commonly used today. A truly comprehensive account of "Semitic" religions would include the Ancient Semitic religions (such as Mesopotamian religion and Canaanite Religion) that flourished in the Middle East long before the Abrahamic religions.Ethnicity and race Further information: Caucasian race, Hamitic race, and Scientific racismA stylised T and O map, depicting Asia as the home of the descendents of Shem (Sem). Africa is ascribed to Ham and Europe to Japheth
In Medieval Europe, all Asian peoples were thought of as descendants of Shem. By the nineteenth century, the term Semitic was confined to the ethnic groups who have historically spoken Semitic languages. These peoples were often considered to be a distinct race. However, some anti-Semitic racial theorists of the time argued that the Semitic peoples arose from the blurring of distinctions between previously separate races. This supposed process was referred to as Semiticization by the race-theorist Arthur de Gobineau. The notion that Semitic identity was a product of racial "confusion" was later taken up by the Nazi ideologue Alfred Rosenberg.
In contrast, some recent genetic studies found that analysis of the DNA of Semitic-speaking peoples suggests that they have some common ancestry. Though no significant common mitochondrial results have been yielded, Y-chromosomal links between Semitic-speaking Near-Eastern peoples like Arabs, Hebrews and Assyrians have proved fruitful, despite differences contributed from other groups (see Y-chromosomal Aaron). The studies attribute this correlation to a common Near Eastern origin, since Semitic-speaking Near Easterners from the Fertile Crescent (including Jews) were found to be more closely related to non-Semitic speaking Near Easterners (such as Iranians, Anatolians, and Caucasians) than to other Semitic-speakers (such as Gulf Arabs, Ethiopian Semites, and North African Arabs).
Semiticization is a concept found in the writings of some racial theorists in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The term was first used by Arthur de Gobineau to label the blurring of racial distinctions that, in his view, had occurred in the Middle-East. Gobineau had an essentialist model of race according to which there were three distinct racial groups: "black", "white" and "yellow" peoples, though he had no clear account of how this division arose. When these races mixed this caused "degeneration". Since the point at which these three supposed races met was in the middle-east, Gobineau argued that the process of mixing and diluting races occurred there, and that Semitic peoples embodied this "confused" racial identity.
This concept suited the interests of antisemites, since it provided a theoretical model to rationalise racialised antisemitism. Variations of the theory are to be found in the writings of many antisemites in the late nineteenth century. The Nazi ideologue Alfred Rosenberg developed a variant of the theory in his writings, arguing that Jewish people were not a "real" race. According to Rosenberg, their evolution came about from the mixing of pre-existing races rather than from natural selection. The theory of Semiticization was typically associated with other longstanding racist fears about the dilution of racial difference through miscegenation, manifested in negative images of mulattos and other mixed groups.