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The Semites are a broad cultural nation originating in the Near East, speakers of the dialects in the Semitic branch of the Afro-Asiatic language family.

In the present day, the largest subgroup within Semitic by far is Arabic (عربى « Carabī » / العربية « ɔal-Carabīaḧ »), which originated in the Arabian peninsula but is now spread into the Levant, Mesopotamia, and across North Africa. The spread of Arabic resulted primarily from the expansion of the Arab empire, beginning with Muhammad (محمد ابن عبدالله ابن عبد المطلب « Muham:ad ɔibn Cabdɔullah ɔibn Cabd ɔul-Mut:alib ») and Islam (الاسلام « ɔal-Ɔislām »). Modern Arabic exists in many vernacular dialects, most of them in a dialect continuum; these dialects are descendants of Classical Arabic, the vernacular of the Hijaz (الحجاز « ɔal-Hiĝāz »), where Mecca (مكة « Mak:aḧ ») and Medina (مدينة « Madīnaḧ ») are located. Classical Arabic is the dialect of the Koran (القرآن « ɔal-Qurɔān »), so the spread of Islam beyond the Arabs has carried Arabic loan vocabulary and the Arabic script into other linguistic cultures. A variant of Classical Arabic, Modern Standard Arabic, is used among the speakers of the modern Arabic vernaculars as a formal, official, and literary dialect, and a lingua franca. Most speakers of Arabic are Muslims, but in the Levant there are many Arab Christians (specifically, practitioners of Eastern Christianity), a legacy of the dominance of Christianity in the Roman empire. Maltese (Malti) is descended from medieval Maghrebi Arabic, but without the relationship with Classical Arabic that other dialects retain; the Maltese are traditionally Roman Catholic.

The next-largest group within Semitic comprises the Abyssinians and other speakers of the Ethiopic branch of Semitic, with the main extant dialects being Amharic (አማርኛ « Ɔämarəña »), Tigrinya (ትግርኛ « Təgərəña »), Tigré (ትግራይት « Təgərajətə »), and Silt’e (ስልጥኘ « Sələtəñä » / የስልጤ አፍ « jä-Sələte Ɔäfə »). The Abyssinians were the dominant people of the Ethiopian empire, and have usually dominated its successor states of Ethiopia (ኢትዮጵያ « Ɔitəjopija ») and Eritrea (ኤርትራ « Ɔerətəra »). They share a unique script, Fidel (ፊደል « Fidälə »), and traditionally practice a distinctive form of Eastern Christianity. Silt’e is part of a larger group within Ethiopic, Gurage (also ጉራጌ « Gurage »), sometimes included among the Abyssinians, but with a majority of traditional Muslims.

The remaining major dialects within Semitic are Hebrew and Aramaic. Hebrew (עברית « Cibrīt ») is the vernacular of the Jews of modern Israel. Classical Hebrew, the dialect of the ancient Jews, died out as a vernacular in the early part of the Common Era, but survived among diaspora Jews as a liturgical dialect, and was revived as a spoken vernacular in the nineteenth century, becoming the lingua franca of the Zionists as they settled in Ottoman and British Palestine.

Aramaic (𐤀𐤓𐤌𐤉𐤀 « Ɔaramajā » / ܐܪܡܝܐ « Ɔaramajā » / ܐܪܡܝܬ « Ɔaramīt ») was originally the vernacular of the northern Levant, but was used as a lingua franca by successive empires throughout most of the Near East, remaining the lingua franca into the Common Era in the entire Levant and beyond. Modern descendants are spoken in isolated pockets in the northern Levant, southern Anatolia, and adjacent areas further east. Speakers are known variously as ‘Arameans’ and ‘Assyrians’, and are traditionally Eastern Christians, and use a unique script. Classical Aramaic, known as ‘Syriac’ (ܠܫܢܐ ܣܘܪܝܝܐ « Leš:anā Sūrjajā »), was maintained as a liturgical dialect among Aramean and Assyrian Christians.

Semites were an important group, and eventually the central group, in the ancient Near East. They occupied nearly all of the Fertile Crescent, which included Mesopotamia, the southern border of Anatolia, and the eastern coast of the Mediterranean. At the southeastern end of the Fertile Crescent, southern Mesopotamia, lived the unrelated Sumerians, who initiated the most influential civilization, often thought to be the world’s first. But the rest of the Fertile Crescent was occupied by a dialect continuum within Semitic. Immediately north of the Sumerians were the Akkadians, then the Assyrians in northern Mesopotamia, then the Arameans and Amorites in the northern Levant, the Phoenicians on the central Mediterranean coast, and the groups variously known as Jews, Hebrews, and Israelites in Palestine. The Philistines, in southern Palestine, may have been a part of this Semitic continuum as well. In time, the Sumerians were completely assimilated into Akkadian culture.

The Phoenicians were a seafaring people who dominated Mediterranean trade before the Greeks and the Romans. They dwelt in a series of city-states, notably Tyre (𐤑𐤓 « Sur »), Sidon (𐤑𐤃𐤍 « Sidon » / 𐤑𐤉𐤃𐤅𐤍 « Sīdoŭn »), and Byblos (𐤂𐤁𐤋 « Gubal »), in a land collectively called Phoenicia (𐤐𐤕 « Put »). Carthage (𐤒𐤓𐤕𐤇𐤃𐤔𐤕 « Qart-Hadašt », “new city”), eventually a dominant regional power in the Mediterranean, was a Phoenician colony. Canaan (𐤊𐤍𐤏𐤍 « Kenacan » / כנען « Kənacan ») is generally a larger area on the Mediterranean coast that includes Phoenicia and Palestine, but the term was also used in self-designation by the Phoenicians, as for their dialect (𐤃𐤁𐤓𐤉𐤌 𐤊𐤍𐤏𐤍𐤉𐤌 « Dabarīm Kanacnīm »).

The world’s two largest conventional religions, Christianity and Islam, both originated among the Semites, and the script developed for Northwest Semitic is the parent of the modern Semitic scripts, Arabic, Hebrew, and Aramaic, but also the Greek script, and its descendants Latin and Cyrillic, and possibly Brahmi and all its descendants.

The Semites are named after the Biblical character Shem (שם « Šem »), a son of Noah. Shem and the other two sons of Noah, Ham (חם « Ham ») and Japheth (יפת « Jepet »), were the supposed forebears of the races believed to exist by some medieval Europeans, with the Semites in Asia, the Hamites in Africa, and the Japhetites in Europe. The three terms were adopted into linguistics, based on an association of these racial and geographical concepts with the existing understanding of culture; only ‘Semitic’ is still commonly used. ‘Hamitic’ referred to an obsolete grouping of three other Afro-Asiatic branches, Egyptian, Cushitic, and Berber; Afro-Asiatic was at one point called “Semito-Hamitic”. ‘Japhetic’ was used for a time for Indo-European.

Most individuals acquire by far the greatest portion of their culture from their parents and other ancestors, and that was even more true in the past, so it is possible to see the Semites, in historical terms at least, as an ethnic or racial grouping as well as a cultural grouping. It may have been the view of Semites as a race that led to the term ‘Anti-Semitism’, since prejudice against Jews, especially in its most virulent form (as with the Nazis) is apparently a racial prejudice more than a cultural one. But it is misleading to use the term for anti-Jewish prejudice among Europeans, and completely nonsensical to use it for anti-Jewish prejudice among Arabs, who are also Semites.



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