Influenced by German philology, the first works of Ernest Renan are oriented towards linguistics (From the origin of language appeared in 1848). The History of Semitic Languages (1855) remains his most representative work in this field, and also the most controversial.
In 1847, the Institute’s Volney Prize jury awarded the gold medal to a Historical and theoretical essay on Semitic languages in general and on the Hebrew language in particular. Its young author of 24 years, Ernest Renan, had proposed to do “for the Semitic languages what Mr. Bopp did for the Indo-European languages”. In other words, the objective of the dissertation – the manuscript of which can be found today in four notebooks kept at the Library of the Institut de France – was to establish a comparative grammar of Semitic languages, following in the footsteps of the famous German philologist and linguist, who had started to publish in 1833 his Comparative grammar of Sanskrit, Zend, Greek, Latin, Lithuanian, Gothic and German, of which the sixth and last volume will appear in 1852.
Renan published his essay in 1855 under a title that further explained the scientific current in which he aspired to insert his work: General history and comparative system of Semitic languages. In the preface, he nevertheless admits that the general introduction of a historical character, in the passage from memory to book, took on more and more importance until it became “one half of the book itself”. He then decided to divide the work into two parts, one historical, the other theoretical, and to intend the second for a later publication. But this second theoretical volume, which should have contained the “comparative system of Semitic languages”, although announced in the prefaces of the second (1858) and the third edition (1863), will never see the light of day. As if by way of a posteriori justification, Renan declared in the preface of 1855: “Languages being the immediate product of human consciousness are constantly changing with it, and the true theory of languages is, in a sense, only their history ”.
Books II, III and IV of the work retrace the three periods of the development of the Semitic languages (Hebrew, Aramaic and Arabic, with their subdivisions into branches). But it is above all books I and V, the “Questions of origin” and the “Conclusions”, in which Renan constructs a real theory of “Semitic peoples”, which will undoubtedly have a posterity beyond the intentions of its author. important in the learned anti-Semitism of the nineteenth and twentieth century. Following German romantic theories, according to which languages are closely linked to the minds of each people, Renan transposes a series of linguistic considerations onto an ethnocultural level. Thus, the Semites recognize themselves almost exclusively “by negative characters” since they have no mythology, no science, no philosophy, no curiosity, no objectivity, no feeling for nuances, no plastic arts, no epic, no life. politics, no organization, no variety. “The Semitic race – writes Renan – compared to the Indo-European race, really represents an inferior combination of human nature”. A single quality, the religious instinct, is the exclusive prerogative of the Semites: “MONOTHEISM sums up and explains all its characteristics”.
Renan will specify and clarify in his following works, especially after 1870, his positions on the “sensitive” questions of race and anti-Semitism, by enriching his arguments with a depth and nuance which are clearly lacking in his History of Semitic languages. However, the conception which makes monotheism a sudden and immediate intuition of the Semitic peoples (characteristic, moreover, that Renan considers of capital importance for the progress of humanity) will always remain the guiding idea of his work. This theory will give rise to long controversies with scholars, including some of his own colleagues from the Asian Society, who repeatedly criticized him for his dogmatic refusal to admit the proofs, drawn from Phoenician epigraphy or from studies on Assyrian. , of a historical evolution – from polytheism to monotheism – of Semitic religions.