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Map showing the distribution of Semitic (orange) and other Afro-Asiatic language speakers today

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, Amharic, Arabic, Aramaic, Ge'ez, Hebrew, Maltese, Phoenician, 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, Canaanites, Phoenicians, Hebrews, Arabs, 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 "Gesch. der neuen Sprachenkunde", pt. I (Göttingen, 1807) it had already become a fixed technical term.[1]

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") usually refers to Jews only. It was coined in 1879 by German journalist Wilhelm Marr in a pamphlet called, "The Victory of Germandom over Jewry". 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". [2]

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, Asshur, 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 and Amorites also spoke a language 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, although the Elamites and Lydians usually thought to descend from these spoke languages that were not Semitic.

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) or the adjacent 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 single introduction from southern Arabia into Africa around 2,800 BP.[3] 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.

Ancient Semitic peoples

Approximate distribution of Semitic language around 1 A.D.

The following is a list of ancient Semitic peoples.

  • Akkadians — migrated into Mesopotamia in the late 4th millennium BC and amalgamate with non-Semitic Mesopotamian (Sumerian) populations into the Assyrians and Babylonians of the Late Bronze Age.[4][5]
  • Eblaites — 23rd century BC
  • Aramaeans or Chaldea — 16th to 8th century BC[6] / Akhlames (Ahlamu) 14th century BC[7]
  • Ugarites, 14th to 12th centuries BC
  • Canaanite language speaking nations of the early Iron Age:
    • Amorites
    • Ammonites
    • Edomites
    • 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 Samaritans.
    • Moabites
    • Phoenicians — founded Mediterranean colonies including Carthage
  • Old South Arabian speaking peoples
    • Sabaeans of Yemen — 9th to 1st c. BC
  • Ethio-Semitic speaking peoples
    • Aksumites — 4th c. BC to 7th c. AD
  • Arabs, Old North Arabian speaking Bedouins
    • Gindibu's Arabs 9th c. BC
    • Lihyanites — 6th to 1st c. BC
    • Thamud people — 2nd to 5th c. AD
    • Ghassanids — 3rd to 7th c. AD
    • Nabataeans — adopted Arabic in the 4th century AD


The Harvard Semitic Museum at Harvard University

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; Amharic, the official language of Ethiopia; Tigrinya, a language spoken in Eritrea and in northern Ethiopia; Arabic; Aramaic; Canaanite; Ge'ez, the ancient language of the Eritrean and Ethiopian Orthodox scriptures; Hebrew; Maltese; Phoenician or Punic; Syriac; 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 Orthodox Christianity (Aramaic 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.

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 Semitic group, but to the larger Afroasiatic language family of which the Semitic languages are also a subgroup.[8] Other ancient and modern Middle Eastern languages — Azerbaijani, Kurdish, Persian, Gilaki, Turkish, ancient Sumerian, and Nubian — do not belong to the larger Afroasiatic language family.

For a complete list of Semitic languages arranged by subfamily, see list from SIL's Ethnologue.


Semitic peoples and their languages, in both modern and ancient historic times, have covered a broad area bridging Africa, Western Asia and the Arabian Peninsula. The earliest historic (written) evidences of them are found in the Fertile Crescent, an area encompassing the Babylonian and Assyrian civilizations along the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, extending northwest into southern Asia Minor (modern Turkey) and the Levant along the eastern Mediterranean. Early traces of Semitic speakers are found, too, in South Arabian inscriptions in Yemen, Eritrea, Northern Ethiopia and later, 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, along the southern Mediterranean Sea all the way to the Atlantic Ocean (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 through traditionally non-Semitic territory, 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 Neo-Aramaic is spoken along the northern border of Syria and Iraq, Southeast-Turkey (Turabdin) and in far northwestern Iran. These speakers are often called Chaldean or Neo-Assyrian. Mandean is still spoken in parts of southern Iraq. Semitic languages and peoples 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.


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).

The term Abrahamic religions is more commonly used today. A truly comprehensive account of "Semitic" religions would include the Ancient Semitic religions (such as the religions of Adad, Hadad) that flourished in the Middle East before the Abrahamic religions.

Ethnicity and race

A 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, Assyrians and Hebrews 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).[9][10][11]

See also


  1.  "Semites". Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. 1913. , Volume XIII
  2. Moshe Zimmermann, Wilhelm Marr: The Patriarch of Anti-Semitism, Oxford University Press, USA, 1987
  3. Kitchen A, Ehret C, Assefa S, Mulligan CJ. (2009). Bayesian phylogenetic analysis of Semitic languages identifies an Early Bronze Age origin of Semitic in the Near East. Proc Biol Sci. 276(1668):2703-10. doi:10.1098/rspb.2009.0408 PMID 19403539 supplementary material.
  4. Mesopotamian religion - Britannica Online Encyclopedia
  5. Akkadian language - Britannica Online Encyclopedia
  6. Aramaean - Britannica Online Encyclopedia
  7. Akhlame - Britannica Online Encyclopedia
  8. Routledge Dictionary of Language and Linguistics entry on Afro-Asiatic
  9. Almut Nebel, Dvora Filon, Bernd Brinkmann, Partha P. Majumder, Marina Faerman, and Ariella Oppenheim, The Y Chromosome Pool of Jews as Part of the Genetic Landscape of the Middle East, American Journal of Human Genetics (2001) 69(5): 1095–1112 (online here)
  10. Arnaiz-Villena A, Karin M, Bendikuze N, Gomez-Casado E, Moscoso J, Silvera C, Oguz FS, Sarper Diler A, De Pacho A, Allende L, Guillen J, Martinez Laso J, HLA alleles and haplotypes in the Turkish population: relatedness to Kurds, Armenians and other Mediterraneans, Tissue Antigens (2001) Apr 57(4): 308-17. (online here)
  11. Farida Alshamali, Luísa Pereira, Bruce Budowle, Estella S. Poloni, Mathias Currat, Local Population Structure in Arabian Peninsula Revealed by Y-STR Diversity, Hum Hered (2009) 68:45-54 (online here)

External links

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