AskDefine | Define semitic

Dictionary Definition

Semitic adj
1 of or relating to the group of Semitic languages; "Semitic tongues have a complicated morphology"
2 of or relating to or characteristic of Semites; "Semite peoples" [syn: Semite] n : a major branch of the Afro-Asiatic language family

User Contributed Dictionary



  • /sE"mI.tIk/ or /s@"mI.tIk/, /sɛ'mɪ.tɪk/ or /sə'mɪ.tɪk/


From the English Semite, an 18th century ethnological label derived from the Greek Σημ, Sēm, from the German semitisch, from the Hebrew שֵׂם, Šēm Shem, the name of the eldest son of Noah in biblical tradition (Genesis 5.32, 6.10, 10.21), considered the forefather of the Semitic peoples. Perhaps derived from the Akkadian šumu, name or son.


  1. Of or pertaining to a subdivision of Afro-Asiatic Semitic languages: Amharic, Arabic, Aramaic, Syriac, Akkadian, Hebrew, Maltese, Tigrigna, Phoenician etc.
  2. Of or pertaining to the Semites: Semitic people.
  3. Of or pertaining to the descendants of Shem, the eldest of three sons of Noah.
  4. In a stricter sense, of or pertaining to the Israeli, Jewish, or Hebrew people.

Alternative spellings


  1. The Semitic languages in general.

Extensive Definition

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 late 19th century term "anti-Semitism" refers specifically to hostility toward Jews, further complicating the understood meaning and boundaries of the term.


The term Semite means a member of any of various ancient and modern 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.
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. In modern English the negative form of the adjective, anti-Semitic, is almost always used to mean "anti-Jewish" specifically.
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. The Semitic language family is also considered a component of the larger Afro-Asiatic 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 Afro-Asiatic.

Ancient Semitic peoples

The following is a list of ancient Semitic peoples.


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 Afro-Asiatic 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; Phoenician or Punic; 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 Afro-Asiatic language family of which the Semitic languages are also a subgroup. Other ancient and modern Middle Eastern languages — Azerbaijani, Armenian, Kurdish, Persian, Gilaki, Turkish, ancient Sumerian, and Nubian — do not belong to the larger Afro-Asiatic 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 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 Coptic Christians. Semitic languages today are also spoken in Malta (where an Italian-influenced dialect of North African 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.


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

Ethnicity and race

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.
Modern science, in contrast, identifies a population's common physical descent through genetic research, and analysis of the 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 Jews have proved fruitful, despite differences contributed from other groups (see Y-chromosomal Aaron). Although population genetics is still a young science, it seems to indicate that a significant proportion of these peoples' ancestry comes from a common Near Eastern population to which (despite the differences with the Biblical genealogy) the term "Semitic" has been applied. However, this correlation should rather be attributed to said common Near Eastern origin, as for example Semitic-speaking Near Easterners from the Fertile Crescent are generally more closely related to non-Semitic speaking Near Easterners, such as Iranians, Anatolians, and Caucasians, than to other Semitic-speakers, such as Gulf Arabs, Eritrean Semites, Ethiopian Semites, and North African Arabs.


External links

semitic in Arabic: ساميون
semitic in Bosnian: Semitski
semitic in Bulgarian: Семити
semitic in Catalan: Semita
semitic in Czech: Semité
semitic in German: Semiten
semitic in Estonian: Semiidid
semitic in Modern Greek (1453-): Σημίτες
semitic in Spanish: Pueblos semitas
semitic in Persian: سامی
semitic in French: Sémites
semitic in Galician: Semita
semitic in Croatian: Semiti
semitic in Italian: Semiti
semitic in Malay (macrolanguage): Semitik
semitic in Dutch: Semieten
semitic in Norwegian: Semitter
semitic in Polish: Ludy semickie
semitic in Portuguese: Semita
semitic in Russian: Семиты
semitic in Slovak: Semiti
semitic in Serbian: Семити
semitic in Finnish: Seemiläiset
semitic in Turkish: Sami dil ailesi
semitic in Ukrainian: Семіти
semitic in Chinese: 閃米特人
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