Commentary Magazine


Semitic

To the Editor:

Edward Grossman’s article on Authur Koestler’s The Thirteenth Tribe [“Koestler’s Jewish Problem,” December 1976], together with the review in the New York Review of Books, is sufficient to deal a most deserving death-blow to this travesty of historical scholarship. But, of course, readers of Koestler’s book will not read these reviews and the publisher will continue to tout the contribution by Koestler as if it were worth serious attention.

There is one aspect of this whole subject, however, that is especially distressing so many years after the pseudo-racial lunacies of the Nazi period. That is the continued misuse of the term “Semitic” even by well-meaning and otherwise well-informed persons such as Mr. Grossman. When will we stop using the term “Semitic” to refer to race or racial type? The term only refers to a family of languages, often also spoken of as “genetically-related” languages in the metaphor that was borrowed from biology by linguistics in the 19th century. The fact of languages being related to one another implies a particular hypothesis of common linguistic origin that has no bearing whatsoever on the biological characteristics of the speakers of those languages. Thus, the Semitic languages include Akkadian, Ugaritic, Hebrew, Phoenician, Aramaic, Arabic, Amharic, and some others. These have been spoken and continue to be spoken by persons of a variety of racial types, faiths, and cultures. There is no such entity as a Semitic-nose, a Semitic mind, a Semitic religion, and the like. Anyone who uses such terms as shorthand for something else, or who believes that such things exist, has been captured by a myth and by sloppy thinking. It is high time that the practice come to an end.

Herbert H. Paper
Department of Linguistics
University of Michigan
Ann Arbor, Michigan

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