Encyclopedia  |   World Factbook  |   World Flags  |   Reference Tables  |   List of Lists     
   Academic Disciplines  |   Historical Timeline  |   Themed Timelines  |   Biographies  |   How-Tos     
Sponsor by The Tattoo Collection
Main Page | See live article | Alphabetical index


Semitic is a controversial adjective which in common parlance refers either to specifically Jewish things or to things originating among speakers of Semitic languages or people descended from them, and in a linguistic context to the northeastern subfamily of Afro-Asiatic. Etymologically, it means "pertaining to the descendants of Shem" (Noah's son).

In Genesis Shem is described as the father of the Assyrians, Chaldeans, Aramaeanss, Sabaeans, and Hebrews, all of whose languages are closely related; the linguistic family containing them was therefore named Semitic. The Canaanites and Amorites spoke a language belonging to this family, and are therefore also termed Semitic in linguistics despite being described in Genesis as sons of Ham. Shem is also described in Genesis as the father of the Elamites and Lydians, whose languages are not Semitic. As this list makes clear, its meaning has shifted considerably.

In a linguistic context, it refers to speakers of a subgroup of the Afroasiatic languages including, among others, Arabic, Hebrew, and Amharic. Thus the area of Semitic languages is actually much larger than the area most non-linguists associate with the term "Semitic". They stretch all the way along the southern Mediterranean Sea to the Atlantic Ocean, into Mali and along the coast of the Red Sea all the way to Somalia in Africa. Semitic languages are also spoken in European Malta and on Socotra in the Indian Ocean. Additionally, millions of Muslims speak Classical (Qur’ānic;) Arabic as a second language, and many Jews all over the world speak Hebrew as a second language. It should be noted that Coptic, Berber, Somali, and many other related Afro-Asiatic languages within this area do not belong to the Semitic subgroup.

In a religious context, it refers to the religions associated with the speakers of these languages: thus Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are often described as "Semitic religions". This term can equally include the polytheistic religions (such as the cults of Tammuz or Baal) that flourished in the Middle East before the Abrahamic religions.

Outside linguistics, the term's primary use these days is to refer to the ethnic groups who have historically spoken Semitic languages, although with the prefix anti- it most commonly refers just to Jews (see below). The best way known to test an ethnic group's common physical descent is through genetic research. Though in genetic research no significant common mitochondrial results have been yielded, genetic Y-chromosome links between near-eastern peoples like the Palestinians, Syrians and ethnic Jews have proved fruitful (see Y-chromosomal Aaron). The indication is that these peoples do descend from a common Near-Eastern population to which (despite the differences with the Biblical genealogy) the term Semitic has been applied. [1].

Obviously over time the number of people to join Jewish communities and marry descendants of the Israelites has not been trivial. But the results indicate that the male converts from outside descendants of that Near-Eastern community has not been so large as to swamp the near-eastern Y-chromosome. Thus today's male Jews are in fact largely Semitic by descent, rather than being primarily European (Khazar) converts using a Semitic language for liturgical purposes, as sometimes alleged (cf. Arthur Koestler.) See the article on Israelites for more detail.

Anti-Semitism is a term whose most common usage is to describe anti-Jewish statements or beliefs. However, it is increasingly used by people who apply the word in reference to Semitic people also in the linguistic and genetic senses, thus including anti-Arabism or even anti-Aramaeanism, for instance.