Who Are the Semites?

A historian traces the origins of the term.

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At that time, European scholars had recognized two major groups of languages in which most of the civilizations west of China are expressed. One, the larger, consists of Sanskrit and its derivatives in India; the successive phases of the Persian language; Latin and Greek; and most of the languages of modern Europe, Slavic, Germanic, Romance, and Celtic alike.

German philologists called this family of languages "Indo-Germanic," combining the names of its easternmost and westernmost components. Philologists in France and Britain preferred the name  "Indo‑European," allegedly because both the Celtic and Romance languages could advance some claim to the westernmost position.

There is no doubt about the easternmost subfamily, which consists of the languages of Iran and the Sanskritic languages of India. To these the name Aryan or Indo‑Aryan is commonly applied. This word, which occurs in both old Persian and Sanskrit, has the meaning of noble--a common enough way for peoples to designate themselves. The name Iran, in the ancient form Eryana, means the land of Aryans. The Sanskrit form Arya was used from early times to de­signate the worshippers of the Brahmanic gods. Its extension to cover all the Indo‑European languages was a misuse of terms. Its translation from a linguistic to an ethnic and ultimately even racial designation was an error of scholarship that was to have profound social, political and moral consequences.

Semites

As far back as 1704, the German philosopher and polymath Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz had identified a group of cognate languages which included Hebrew, old Punic, i.e., Carthaginian, Chaldaean, Syriac, and Ethiopic. To this group he gave the name "Arabic," after its most widely used and widely spoken member. To call a group by the name of one of its members could easily give to confusion, and Leibniz's nomenclature was not generally accepted.

It was not until 1781 that this group was given the name which it has retained ever since. In that year, August Ludwig Schlozer contributed an essay on this subject to a comprehensive German work on biblical and Oriental literature. According Schlozer, "from the Mediterranean Sea to the Euphrates and from Mesopotamia down to Arabia, as is known, only one language reigned. The Syrians, Babylonians, Hebrews and Arabs were one people. Even the Phoenicians who were Hamites spoke this language, which I might call the Semitic." Schlozer goes on to discuss other languages of the area, and tries to fit them, not very successfully, into the framework provided by Genesis 10.

“Semitic” Languages

The idea that Semitic languages derived from one original language (by German philologists sometimes called Ursemitisch or proto‑Semitic, and that the peoples speaking these languages were descended from one people, exercised considerable influence and caused some confusion.

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Bernard E. Lewis

Bernard Lewis is Cleveland E. Dodge Professor of Near Eastern Studies, Emeritus, at Princeton University.