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 Ahlamu, Akkadian (Assyrian-Babylonian), Amharic, Amorite, Arabic, Aramaic/Syriac, Canaanite/Phoenician/Carthaginian, Chaldean, Eblaite, Edomite, Ge'ez, Hebrew, Maltese, Mandaic, Moabite, Sutean, Tigre and Tigrinya, and Ugaritic, 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 the Near East, including; Akkadians (Assyrians and Babylonians), Eblaites, Ugarites, Canaanites, Phoenicians (including Carthaginians), Hebrews (Israelites, Judeans and Samaritans), Ahlamu, Arameans, Chaldeans, Amorites, Moabites, Edomites, Hyksos, Ishmaelites, Nabateans, Maganites, Shebans, Sutu, Ubarites, Dilmunites, Bahranis, Maltese, Mandaeans, Sabians, Syriacs, Mhallami, Amalekites, Arabs, Sabians, Syriacs, Palmyrans and Qedarites. 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 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 Ishmaelites, Aramaeans, Assyrians, Babylonians, Chaldeans, Sabaeans, Hebrews and Qedarites, 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. Ham is also attributed as the father of the Hittites, who in actuality were Indo-European.
The reconstructed 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.
The following is a list of ancient and modern Semitic speaking peoples.
- Akkadians (Assyrians/Babylonians) — migrated into Mesopotamia in the 4th millennium BC and amalgamate with non-Semitic Mesopotamian (Sumerian) populations into the Assyrians and Babylonians of the Late Bronze Age. The remnants of these people became the modern Assyrian Christians(also known as Chaldo-Assyrians) of Iraq, Iran, south eastern Turkey and northeast Syria.
- Eblaites — 23rd century BC
- Chaldeans — appeared in southern Mesopotamia circa 1000 BC and eventually disappeared into the general Babylonian population.
- Aramaeans — 16th to 8th centuries BC / Akhlames (Ahlamu) 14th century BC The modern Syriac Christian population of Syria are largely of Aramean stock, with a minority in the north east being Assyrians.
- Mhallami - Tiny minority of Syriac-Arameans who converted to secular Islam but retained Syriac identity.
- Ugarites, 14th to 12th centuries BC
- Suteans - 14th century BC
- Canaanite language speaking nations of the early Iron Age:
- Amorites — 20th century BC
- Hebrews/Israelites — founded the nation of Israel which later split into the Kingdoms of Israel and Judah. The remnants of these people became the Jews and the Samaritans.
- Phoenicians/Carthaginians — founded Mediterranean colonies including Tyre, Sidon and Carthage. The remnants of these people became the modern Maronites of Lebanon.
- Old South Arabian speaking peoples
- Sabaeans of Yemen — 9th to 1st centuries BC
- Ethio-Semitic speaking peoples
- Aksumites — 4th century BC to 7th century AD
- Arabs, Old North Arabian speaking Bedouins
- Nabataeans — Mix of Aramaiac and Arabic speakers.
The modern linguistic meaning of "Semitic" is 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.
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 and 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.
Ethnicity and race
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). Sayyid, who are Shia Muslims, are of Semitic origin, and many of them live in Iraq, Iran and as far east as the Indian Subcontinent. In North India, researchers have done DNA testing on Sayyid and have linked them closely to Arabs and Jews, more than to their geographic neighbours, due to migration to India a few hundred years ago from the Middle East. 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).
Anti-Semitism and Semiticisation
The word "Semite" and most uses of the word "Semitic" relate to any people whose native tongue is, or was historically, a member of the associated language family. The term "anti-Semite", however, came by a circuitous route to refer most commonly to one hostile or discriminatory towards Jews in particular.
Anthropologists of the 19th century such as Ernst Renan readily aligned linguistic groupings with ethnicity and culture, appealing to anecdote, science and folklore in their efforts to define racial character. Moritz Steinschneider, in his periodical of Jewish letters Hamaskir (3 (Berlin 1860), 16), discusses an article by Heymann Steinthal criticising Renan's article "New Considerations on the General Character of the Semitic Peoples, In Particular Their Tendency to Monotheism". Renan had acknowledged the importance of the ancient civilisations of Mesopotamia, Israel etc. but called the Semitic races inferior to the Aryan for their monotheism, which he held to arise from their supposed lustful, violent, unscrupulous and selfish racial instincts. Steinthal summed up these predispositions as "Semitism", and so Steinschneider characterised Renan's ideas as "anti-Semitic prejudice".
In 1879 the 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") began the politicisation of the term by speaking of a struggle between Jews and Germans. He accused them of being liberals, a people without roots who had Judaized Germans beyond salvation. In 1879 Marr's adherents founded the "League for Anti-Semitism" which concerned itself entirely with anti-Jewish political action.
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