Semitic

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Semitic is a term whose usage seems to be changing. Language purists are offended by this, but the wider world has accepted it.

  • In language study, Semitic is the name of a language family native to the Near East: it may have evolved around the Red Sea, in Yemen or Ethiopia. Semitic is also used to describe the people who spoke the ancestral languages, and their cultures. The two most prominent Semitic languages today are Arabic and Hebrew. They of course are associated with the sacred books of the Abrahamic faiths: Arabic is the language of the Qur'an, the sacred text of Islam; Hebrew is the language of the Jewish Bible (the Old Testament of the Christian bible). (The word Semitic is derived from 'Shem', the name of the most favoured of the sons of the prophet Noah, from whom both Jews and Muslims claim descent.) Other Semitic languages include Aramaic, which Jesus spoke, Amharic and Maltese: many, like Assyrian, Phoenician and Canaanite are now extinct. Phoenician and Ugaritic are two Semitic languages which have been claimed to produce the first alphabetic script: one which uses a limited number of letters to represent sounds. Our modern English alphabet descends from this - whichever was the first.
  • In politics, the use of the word Semitic, and even more so, anti-semitic has been muddied by the Jewish experience of the Holocaust (1939-45), and the subsequent conflicts in the world between Arabs and Israel.
    • To the linguist, archaeologist and anthropologist, Arabs and Jews are two semitic peoples with close links and similarities. Both have historical ties to the disputed territories of what was called Palestine in both Hebrew (in the bible) and Arabic: for both, as for Christians, Jerusalem contains sacred sites.
    • In the nineteenth century, Semite began to be used as a euphemism among those who wished to claim (or maintain) the perceived racial inferiority of Jews, without however giving too much direct offence. At the time, Arabs were uncommon in the west, and the meaning of 'Semite' was restricted in common usage to 'Jewish'. Since then, anti-semitic (first recorded in this sense in 1881) has meant 'against the Jews', and particularly prejudiced against the Jews. That meaning is the only one recorded in OED (1972). To pedants, this is a loss: it seems paradoxical in the extreme to hear Arabs described as anti-semitic because they are attacking one group of semitic people, as the Arabs themselves are also a semitic people, and are not being accused of self-hatred. In the other direction, it can be said that Israel (a Jewish state) is anti-semitic, because of its policies towards Palestinian and other Arabs.