The term Semitic is a strange word. It is mainly used in the expression “anti-Semitic”. How does Arabic fit into that?
Semitic languages - history and development
The Merriam-Webster lexicon describes anti-Semitic as follows: feeling or showing hostility toward or discrimination against Jews as a cultural, racial, or ethnic group. According to the dictionary, the term anti-Semitic was first used in 1854.
This leads us to the following question:
Two terms: Semitic language and anti-Semitic – is there a connection?
Yes, if we only look at the meaning and origin of the word, there is. If we look at its application in a political and cultural framework, there is no connection.
The term Semitic is related to the Biblical story about the sons of Noah: Shem, Ham, and Japheth.
- The sons of Ham ended up in Africa.
- The ancestors of Japheth are said to have gone to Europe.
- The sons of Shem had spread all over the Middle East. The name Shem is therefore used to describe the relationship of the languages that originated in the Middle East and parts of North Africa.
The most famous Semitic languages are Arabic, Hebrew, Aramaic, and Amharic.
What is the oldest Semitic language?
If we want to trace the origin of Arabic, we should go back to Mesopotamia (present-day Iraq and Syria). This region is probably the cradle of the Semitic languages. One of the very first Semitic languages, Akkadian, was spoken there between 2500 and 600 BCE.
How old is Arabic?
It is, in fact, even quite difficult to say how old Arabic is.
However, there are some archaeological traces which may give us an idea at least. It is safe to say that the first settlers had arrived in the peninsula in the second millennium BCE.
Between the thirteenth and tenth century BCE, life there became more organized and started to develop. People traded luxury goods (for example, incense) and had business relationships with the Near East. Inscriptions indicate that the people had used a language that was related to Arabic. The script they used seemed to be imported from the Syro-Palestine region because it resembles features of Phoenician – which is an ancient and long extinct language that was spoken where present-day Lebanon is.
But to be honest: We actually don’t know when the first nomads came to the Arabian peninsula. We also don’t know which language they spoke.
Over the centuries, many Semitic languages emerged in the Middle East and North Africa such as Hebrew, Phoenician, Aramaic, and Ethiopic. Nomads who traveled and settled in the region spread the language and imported and exported certain features which led to the formation of distinct languages – such as Arabic.
photo credit: pixabay (Arek Socha)