Who Are the Semites?

A historian traces the origins of the term.

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The following article is reprinted with permission from Semites and Anti-Semites: An Inquiry Into Conflict and Prejudice (W.W. Norton).

Noah's Sons

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… 

shem, ham and japheth

Noah's sons: Shem, Ham, and Japheth

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 nineteenth 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 eighteenth‑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 theywere 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 eighteenth‑century Europe that the notion of families of cognate languages emerged and developed […]

Aryans

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.

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Bernard E. Lewis

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