Semitic Studies

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Semitic Studies


the study of the languages, literature, culture, and history of the Semitic-speaking peoples; the term most often applies to a branch of language studies. Semitic studies includes disciplines that deal with the living and dead Semitic languages: Assyriology, biblical scholarship, and Arabic, Aramaic, Ugaritic, Hebrew, Sabaean, and Ethiopic studies.

The grammatical study of the Semitic languages was first begun—under the influence of the Byzantine grammarians—by Syrians, Arabs, and Jews seeking to bring greater precision to the reading and understanding of religious books. Syrian grammarians included Jacob of Edessa in the seventh century, Elijah of Tirhan in the 11th century, and Jakub bar Ebray in the 12th century. Among the Arab grammarians were Sibawayh and Khalil in the eighth century and al-Asmay in the ninth century. Jewish grammarians included Judah ben David Hayyuj and Ibn Janah in the tenth and 11th centuries and David Kimhi in the 12th and 13th centuries. Judah ibn Quraysh, Ibn Barun, and other Jewish grammarians knew Arabic, ancient Hebrew, and Aramaic and began comparing these languages as early as the 11th century.

In Europe, the study of Arabic, ancient Hebrew, Syriac, and Ethiopic was begun during the era of humanism, the Reformation, and the Counter-Reformation by J. Reuchlin and J. Buxtorf the Elder in Germany and J. C. Scaliger in France; these scholars continued the traditions of the Jewish grammarians. In the 17th and 18th centuries, Dutch scholars laid the foundations for Arabic studies. J. J. Barthélemy of France first deciphered Phoenician inscriptions in the 18th century.

In the 19th century, Semitic studies was enriched by the achievements of general and comparative linguistics. Important grammars were published, as were dictionaries, historical surveys, catalogs, critical editions of manuscripts, and collections of epigraphic texts. Publication of the Corpus inscriptio-num Semiticarum began in Paris in 1881. Interest in the ancient languages and literatures continued to predominate, and Semitic studies was usually an auxiliary discipline of biblical scholarship. A very important role in the development and broadening of the tasks of Semitic studies was played by German scholars, including T. Nöldeke, a Semitic scholar and encyclopedist; W. Gesenius, the author of a dictionary and grammar of ancient Hebrew; J. Wellhausen and R. Kittel, biblical scholars; F. Praetorius and C. Dillmann, specialists in Ethiopic studies; M. Lidzbarski, an epigraphist; and C. Brockelmann, a specialist in the comparative grammar of the Semitic languages. Other scholars included the Frenchmen Sylvestre de Sacy and E.-M. Quatremère and the Hungarian Arabist I. Goldziher. In the late 19th century, archaeological and philological societies were created for the study of Palestine and other Middle Eastern countries. Assyriology and Arabic studies emerged as separate disciplines.

In the 20th century, Semitic studies has been advanced through the study of new material collected by archaeological and other expeditions and through the study of various modern languages, including those of Ethiopia. Chairs in Semitic studies have been established at almost all the universities of the world. The most significant contributions to the field have been made by P. Calle, P. Leander, G. Bergsträsser, J. Friedrich, and many other scholars from Germany; J. Greenberg, I. J. Gelb, C. Gordon, and W. Leslau of the USA; J. Cantineau and A. Dupont-Sommer of France; G. R. Driver and Lady Drower of Britain; S. Moscati, G. Garbini, and P. Fronzaroli of Italy; K. Petraček of Czechoslovakia; J. Aistleitner of Hungary; and E. Ben-Yehuda, C. Rabin, and E. Y. Kutscher of Israel.

In the 1930’s the decipherment of the Ugaritic writing system by C. Virolleaud and H. Bauer led to the emergence of a new branch of Semitic studies known as Ugaritic studies. Scholars began studying the living Semitic languages at this time. Since World War II, Semitic studies has been developing in Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, and Israel. The discovery of the Dead Sea scrolls in 1947 marked a turning point in biblical scholarship.

In Russia, individual scholars studied ancient Hebrew as early as the Middle Ages. Arabic was first taught during the reign of Peter I; later, the teaching of ancient Hebrew was introduced at religious and secular institutions of higher education. Arabic studies was the most important discipline within Semitic studies in Russia. In the first half of the 19th century, Hebrew language and literature were studied by G. P. Pavskii and K. A. Kossovich. The most important holdings of manuscripts and books were at the Asian Museum (1818–1930) and the Public Library (now the Saltykov-Shchedrin State Public Library), both in St. Petersburg; the collections, which include those of the prominent Karaite figure A. Firkovich, are among the richest in the world. Semitic scholars working in St. Petersburg included D. A. Khvol’son, A. Ia. Garkavi, V. V. Bolotov, P. K. Kokovtsov, and the specialist in Egyptology and Ethiopic studies B. A. Turaev; those working in Moscow included the Hebraists I. G. Troitskii and M. V. Nikol’skii. The center of Semitic studies in Moscow was the Lazarev Institute of Oriental Languages, where A. E. Krymskii worked. In 1882 the Russian Palestinian Society was founded; the society became affiliated with the Academy of Sciences in 1918.

Since 1917 the leading roles in Semitic studies have been played by Leningrad University, which had a chair of Semitic studies from 1933 to 1950 and established a chair of Arabic and Semitic studies in 1950, and by the Institute of Oriental Studies (1930–49; since 1956, the Leningrad Division of the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Academy of Sciences of the USSR). Scholars at these institutions have included I. Iu. Krachkovskii and his school (Arabic, Sabaean, and Ethiopic studies), N. V. Iushmanov (Semito-Hamitic linguistics), A. Ia. Borisov, K. B. Starkova, I. D. Amusin, and Iu. A. Solodukho (Hebrew studies), I. N. Vinnikov (Arabic and Aramaic studies), N. V. Pigu-levskaia and her school (Syriac studies), and A. G. Lundin and Ia. B. Gruntfest (Sabaean studies). Semitic studies has also been developing in Moscow, where B. M. Grande, a specialist in Semitic linguistics, founded a school of Arabic studies. Other Semitic scholars who have worked in Moscow include G. M. Bauer, a specialist in Sabaean studies; V. P. Starinin, a specialist in Ethiopic studies; and G. Sh. Sharbatov.

Semitic studies is developing in Byelorussia, where N. M. Nikol’skii did work in Hebrew studies. Georgian scholars in Semitic studies have included G. V. Tsereteli (Arabic and Aramaic studies), K. G. Tsereteli (Aramaic studies), A. S. Leki-ashvili (Semitic linguistics), and M. A. Shanidze (Hebrew studies). Work has also been done in other Soviet republics. Progress is being made in the study of living Arabic, Aramaic, and Amharic dialects. Arabic dialects in Soviet Middle Asia have been discovered and studied by I. N. Vinnikov and G. V. Tsereteli. Contemporary Arabic literature was studied for the first time by I. Iu. Krachkovskii. Work on a comparative grammar of Afrasian (Semito-Hamitic) languages has been done by N. V. Iushmanov, B. M. Grande, and I. M. D’iakonov.

Works on Semitic studies are published in journals of Oriental studies and in specialized publications. Specialized journals include Journal of Near Eastern Studies (Chicago, since 1942), Journal of Semitic Studies (Manchester, since 1956), Hebrew Union College Annual (Cincinnati, Ohio, since 1924), Semiotica (The Hague, since 1969), Oriens Antiquus (Rome, since 1962), and Leshonenu (Jerusalem, since 1973). In the USSR, the non-periodical publications Palestinskii sbornik (Palestinian Anthology) and Semitskie iazyki (Semitic Languages) are issued.


Kokovtsov, P. K. Kniga sravneniia evreiskogo iazyka s arabskim Abu Ibragima (Isaaka Ibn Baruna). St. Petersburg, 1893.
Kokovtsov, P. K. Novye materialy dlia kharakteristiki Iekhudy Khaiiudzha, Samuila Nagida i nekotorykh drugikh predstavitelei evreiskoifilologicheskoi nauki v X, XI i XII veke. Petrograd, 1916.
Krymskii, A. E. Semitskie iazyki i narody, 2nd ed. Moscow, 1909–12.
Bartol’d, V. V. Istoriia izucheniia Vostoka v Evrope i Rossii, 2nd ed. Leningrad, 1925.
Krachkovskii, I. Iu. Ocherkipo istorii russkoi arabistiki. Moscow-Leningrad, 1950.
Bergsträsser, G. Einführung in die semitischen Sprachen. Munich, 1928.
Rosenthal, F. Die aramaistische Forschung seit Th. Nöldeke’s Veröffentlichungen. Leiden, 1939.
Current Trends in Linguistics, vol. 3. Edited by T. A. Sebeck. New York, 1972.


References in periodicals archive ?
Scholars of the Hebrew Bible, Semitic studies, Assyriology, and related disciplines offer a multifaceted analysis of relevant epigraphic, iconographic, and biblical sources on when and how the worship of YHWH precipitated out of the religious milieu in Syria, Palestine, and Northern Arabia during the bronze and iron ages.
Professo f r Lossl said another reason Cardiff was particularly suitable for this conference was its tradition in Semitic studies.
Philip Hollander Department of Hebrew and Semitic Studies University of Wisconsin
Semitic Studies in Honor of Wolf Leslau on the Occasion of his Eighty-fifth Birthday, November 14th, 1991.
The chair of Harvard's Semitic studies program was Assyriologist David Gordon Lyon.
Professor Robert Carroll, biblical and Semitic studies scholar.
One of the clearest and most perceptive essays in this volume is the concluding chapter, "Ethical Convergence in Religious Conversion," by Rachel Feldhay Brenner, professor of Hebrew and Semitic studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Derwin (German, Slavic, and Semitic studies, UC Santa Barbara) offers five readings of literature and film produced by Holocaust survivors that focuses on rage.
Zaborski, "Biconsonantal Roots and Triconsonantal Root Variation in Semitic: Solutions and Prospects," in Semitic Studies in Honor of Wolf Leslau on the Occasion of his Eighty-fifth Birthday, ed.
Twice Fox served as chairperson of the Department of Hebrew and Semitic Studies (1982-87, 1993-99), and the list of leadership positions in professional societies and honors bestowed on him is extensive.
Rollston (Old Testament and Semitic studies, Emmanuel School of Religion, Johnson City, TN) presents an introduction to Semitic epigraphy focusing on northwest Semitic.
Wansbrough (1928-2002), a scholar of Semitic studies at London University, discusses Muslim literature beyond the Qur'an and the exegetical tradition associated with it.