Who Are the Semites?

A historian traces the origins of the term.

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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.

Defining Race

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.

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Bernard E. Lewis

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