The name Semite comes from Shem, the eldest of the three sons of Noah. In the Greek and Latin versions of the Bible, Shem becomes Sem, since neither Greek nor Latin has any way of representing the initial sound of the Hebrew name.
The Bible tells us that everyone on earth was drowned except for Noah and his family and that all mankind are descended from his three sons, Shem, Ham, and Japheth. The lines of descent from the three of them, described in the tenth chapter of Genesis, represent a kind of mythologized ethnology, enumerating the peoples of antiquity whose names were known at the time when this chapter was written, and setting forth the relationships between them.
In later times the idea was widely adopted by Christians, and to a lesser extent by Muslims and Jews, that the three sons of Noah represented the eponymous ancestors of three major racial or linguistic groups. According to this interpretation, Ham was the ancestor of the dark‑skinned peoples of Africa, Shem of the Hebrews and their various cognates, and Japheth the ancestor of the Medes, Persians, Greeks, and other peoples who, many centuries later, came to be known as Aryans.
The total implausibility of such a theory, in the face of the historical, linguistic, archaeological, and ethnographical evidence, did not prevent its survival until the 19th century among scholars, and for very much longer among non-scholars.
“Modern” Language Theory
While Shem and his sons are of biblical antiquity, the Semite is of much more recent origin, dating from 18th‑century Europe. The notion that some languages may be related to other languages was by no means new. Already in ancient times Jewish scholars were aware of the kinship between Hebrew and Aramaic; in medieval times they were able to perceive and even make use of the similarities between Hebrew and Arabic in their studies of grammar and lexicography. But it was not until the development of comparative philology in 18th‑century Europe that the notion of families of cognate languages emerged and developed […]
It was at this time that the two protagonists, the Semite and the Aryan came into existence. Both of them are myths, and part of the same mythology. Both originated in the same way, and suffered the same misuses, mostly indeed at the same hands. Both names have their origins in scholarship and refer to language. Both date from the great development of comparative philology in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.
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.
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.
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.
By 1855, the French scholar Ernest Renan, one of the pioneers of Semitic philology, wrote complaining: “We can now see what an unhappy idea Eichhorn [sic; should be Schlozer apud Eichhorn] had when he gave the name of Semitic to the family of Syro-Arab languages. This name, which usage obliges us to retain, has been and will long remain the cause of a multitude of confusions.
“I repeat again that the name Semite here [Renan is referring to his pioneer study on Semitic philology] has only a purely conventional meaning: it designates the peoples who have spoken Hebrew, Syriac, Arabic or some neighboring dialect, and in no sense the people who are listed in the tenth chapter of Genesis as the descendants of Shem, who are, or at least half of them, of Aryan origin.”
Renan was of course right in pointing to the dangers of taking “the generations of the sons of Noah” as a basis for philological classification. He might have gone further. The descendants of Ham, conventionally the ancestor of the Africans, include, in addition to Egypt and Ethiopia, Canaanites and Phoenicians, who lived in the Syro-Palestinian area and spoke a language very similar to Hebrew.
The confusion between race and language goes back a long way, and was compounded by the rapidly changing content of the word “race” in European and later in American usage. Serious scholars have pointed out — repeatedly and ineffectually -‑ that “Semitic” is a linguistic and cultural classification, denoting certain languages and in some contexts the literatures and civilizations expressed in those languages.
As a kind of shorthand, it was sometimes retained to designate the speakers of those languages. At one time it might thus have had a connotation of race, when that word itself was used to designate national and cultural entities. It has nothing whatever to do with race in the anthropological sense that is now common usage. A glance at the present‑day speakers of Arabic, from Khartoum to Aleppo and from Mauritania to Mosul, or even of Hebrew speakers in the modern state of Israel, will suffice to show the enormous diversity of racial types.
Reprinted with permission from Semites & Anti-Semites: An Inquiry Into Conflict and Prejudice (W.W. Norton).