Old Arabic

Old Arabic

Epitaph of Mrʾlqys (328 AD)
Region Northwestern Arabia and the southern Levant
Era 9th century BC to 7th century AD
Safaitic, Hismaic, Dadanitic, Nabataean, Arabic, Greek
Language codes
ISO 639-3 None (mis)
Glottolog None

Old Arabic is the earliest attested stage of the Arabic language, beginning with the first attestation of personal names in the 9th century BC, and culminating in the codification of Classical Arabic beginning in the 7th century AD. Originally the primary language of the Safaitic and Hismaic inscriptions, it came to be expressed primarily in a modified Nabataean script after the demise of the Nabataean kingdom. In addition, inscriptions in Old Arabic are attested in the Dadanitic and Greek scripts, the latter of which have proved indispensable in the reconstruction of the language's phonology.


Old Arabic and its descendants are Central Semitic languages, most closely related to the Northwest Semitic languages, the languages of the Dadanitic, Taymanitic inscriptions, the poorly understood languages labeled 'Thamudic', and the ancient languages of Yemen written in the Ancient South Arabian script. Old Arabic is however distinguished from all of these languages by the following innovations:[1]

  1. negative particles m */mā/; lʾn */lā-ʾan/ > CAr lan
  2. mafʿūl G-passive participle
  3. prepositions and adverbs f, ʿn, ʿnd, ḥt, ʿkdy
  4. a subjunctive in -a
  5. t-demonstratives
  6. leveling of the -at allomorph of the feminine ending
  7. ʾn complementizer and subordinator
  8. the use of f- to introduce modal clauses
  9. independent object pronoun in (ʾ)y
  10. vestiges of nunation


The earliest attestations of Arabic are personal names dating back to the Assyrian period. From the second century BC onwards, personal names are attested in Nabataean inscriptions and Arabic substratal influence can be demonstrated in the Nabataean language. Dating to the first century BC, the Safaitic and Hismaic inscriptions concentrated in Hawran and Hisma respectively attest to the forms of Arabic used by the nomads of those regions.[2]

The collapse of the Palmyrene Empire in AD 273 saw the rapid rise of the Saracens in the Syrian desert, the rapid decline of Ancient North Arabian scripts, and the proliferation of Arabic inscriptions composed in transitional Nabataeo-Arabic script referring to tribal groupings with demonstrable relation to those mentioned in later Muslim historiographical sources. Perhaps the most well-known of these inscriptions is the Namara inscription (328).

This period saw linguistic Arabization farther afield: in Yemen in the 6th century, especially in the language of trade and among the military, and following the influence of Kinda, in Palestine, and, one would expect, in areas where Ancient North Arabian scripts were used. The Nabataeo-Arabic script did not replace the Ancient North Arabian scripts functionally, however, and it may be that the disappearance of inscriptions in the Ancient North Arabian scripts had more to do with the integration of the peoples who produced them into an emerging Arab society in which the day-to-day role of these peoples had changed.[3]

The end of this period saw the emergence of the Arabic poetic tradition, the earliest evidence of which dates to the Umayyad period however. The first revelations of the Qur'an can also be dated to this period.

Geographical distribution

The territories from which the earliest Arabic inscriptions emerged belonged mainly to the Nabataean areas of northern Arabia, the Negev, and Syria. Examining a map of Arabic-speaking areas around the year AD 500 would reveal a geographical distribution suggesting territories connected by a band along routes of trade, military movements, and transhumance very likely to have been set first under the auspices of Kinda, using the koine which had become fairly consistent in the 6th century AD. Features of this koine are also identifiable alongside, and to the east of, the ancient line of communication from Yemen to the northeast. In this picture, west-central Arabia, the Hijaz, remains somewhat indeterminate. In all, there were the makings of relative linguistic homogenization across territories under the influence of Arab principalities.[3]



Consonant phonemes of Old Arabic (based on Safaitic and Greek transcriptions)[1]
  Labial Dental Denti-alveolar Palatal Velar Pharyngeal Glottal
 plain  emphatic  plain  emphatic
Nasal [m] m – م   [n] n – ن          
Plosive voiceless [] p – ف   [] t – ت 1ط   [] k – ك q1ق2   [ʔ] ʾ – ء
voiced [b] b – ب   [d] d – د [g] g – ج    
Fricative voiceless [θ] ṯ – ث [s] s – س 1ص [x] ẖ – خ [ħ] ḥ – ح [h] h – ه
voiced   [ð] ḏ – ذ [z] z – ز 1ظ   [ɣ] ġ – غ [ʕ] ʿ – ع  
Lateral fricative [ɬ] s2ش 1ض
Lateral     [ɬ] l – ل        
Tap     [r] r – ر          
Approximant         [j] y – ي [w] w – و    
^1 No phoentic value is reconstructed for the emphatics given the existence of several equal possibilities.[1] Such as [ɬˤ~ɬʼ~tɬʼ] for , [~~tsʼ] for and [~q] for q.
^2 Ibn Khaldun described the pronunciation of the ق as a voiced velar /g/ and that it might have been the old Arabic pronunciation of the letter, he even describes that the Islamic prophet Muhammad may have had the /g/ pronunciation.[4]


Monophthong phonemes
Short Long
Front Back Front Back
Close i u
Open a
Diphthong phonemes[5]
  Closer component
is front
Closer component
is back
Opener component is unrounded




The definite article spread areally among the Central Semitic languages and it would seem that Proto-Arabic lacked any overt marking of definiteness. Besides dialects with no definite article, the Safaitic inscriptions exhibit about four different article forms, ordered by frequency: h-, ʾ-, ʾl-, and hn-. The Old Arabic of the Nabataean inscriptions exhibits almost exclusively the form ʾl-. Unlike the Classical Arabic article, the Old Arabic ʾl almost never exhibits the assimilation of the coda to the coronals; the same situation is attested in the Graeco-Arabica, but in A1 the coda assimilates to the following d, αδαυρα */ʾad-dawra/ 'the region'. Taking in the entire Old Arabic corpus into consideration, it would appear that the ʾl article was a typically 'sedentary' feature, as it is rare in the inscriptions produced by the nomads, while the nomadic dialects varied considerably in definite marking, from the more conservative Ø-marking to the innovative, ʾ-, ʾl-, and h- articles.[2]

In the Graeco-Arabica before the mid-sixth century, the coda of the definite article almost never exhibits assimilation to the following coronals and its onset is consistently given as α. By the mid-6th c. CE in the dialect of Petra, the onset of the article and its vowel seem to have become weakened. There, the article is sometimes written as ελ/el-/ or simply λ /l-/.[5]

Feminine -t

Old Arabic appears to have leveled the /-at/ allomorph of the feminine ending.[1] In JSLih 384 the /-t/ allomorph survives in bnt as opposed to /-ah/ (< /-at/) in s1lmh. The feminine ending /-at/ did not shift to /-ah/ in the earliest stages of the language. The Safaitic and Hismaic texts attest an invariable -t ending, and the same appears to be true of the earliest Nabataean Arabic. While Greek transcriptions show a mixed situation, it is clear that by the 4th c. CE, the ending had shifted to /-a(h)/ in non-construct position in the settled areas.[2]


The ʿEn ʿAvdat inscription in the Nabataean script dating to no later than AD 150 shows that case marking was functional in at least the dialect of the inscription. The reconstructed text of the inscription is as follows:[6]

  1. pa-yapʿal lā pedā wa lā ʾoṯrā
  2. pa-kon honā yabġe-nā ʾal-mawto lā ʾabġā-h
  3. pa-kon honā ʾadāda gorḥo lā yorde-nā

The A1 inscription dated to the 3rd or 4th c. AD in Greek script in a dialect showing affinities to that of the Safaitic inscriptions shows that short final high vowels had been lost in at least some dialects of Old Arabic at that time, obliterating the distinction between nominative and genitive case in the singular, leaving the accusative the only marked case:[8]

These inscription provides proof that case inflection was operative in the northern dialects of Old Arabic. The survival of the accusative case alone in A1 suggests the loss of high vowels in final position first, similar to what happened in Gəʿəz. This phenomenon invites comparison with the dialect upon which Qurʾanic orthography was based. In non-diptotic and indefinite nouns, only one case is indicated graphically, the accusative, written with a final ʾ.[8]

Case ʿEn ʿAvdat QCT A1
Nominative -w -∅ -∅
Genitive -w -∅ -∅

While there is enough evidence to restore a three-part case system for Old Arabic, although it was clearly lost in some areas before the Islamic period, the existence of nunation is much more difficult to confirm. Rare vestiges of the feature are found in the Safaitic inscriptions. No evidence for the feature appears in Greek transcription or in the Nabataean script.[2]

Demonstrative pronouns

A few demonstrative pronouns are attested, but in general these are rare. The commonest form is a proclitic h-, which does not inflect for gender or number. The masculine singular form ḏʾ and ḏh are attested in Hismaic; Safaitic attests , and the Harran inscription (568 CE) attests the form , which can only be */ḏā/. The feminine singular is more difficult to identify. A clear attestation of a t-based feminine demonstrative occurs in the Namara inscription as ty */tī/, and in Safaitic as well, t h- s1nt 'this year'. A feminine , however, is also attested, ḏ h- dr 'this region'. No plural forms have yet been attested.[2]

Relative pronouns

Northern Old Arabic preserved the original shapeof the relative pronoun -, which could have continued to inflect for case or have become frozen as either ḏū or ḏī. In one case it is preceded by the article/demonstrative prefix h-, hḏ */haḏḏV/.[9] Old Ḥigāzī is characterized by the innovative relative pronoun ʾallaḏī, ʾallatī, etc., which is attested once in JSLih 384 and is the common form in the QCT.[1]



The existence of mood inflection is confirmed in the spellings of verbs with y/w as the third root consonant. Verbs of this class in result clauses are spelled in such a way that they must have originally terminated in /a/: f ygzy nḏr-h */pa yagziya naḏra-hu/ 'that he may fulfill his vow'. Sometimes verbs terminate in a -n which may reflect an energic ending, thus, s2ʿ-nh 'join him' perhaps */śeʿannoh/.[2]

Writing systems

Himsaic and Safaitic scripts

Main article: Safaitic

The number of texts composed in both of these scripts nears 50,000 specimens and, as such, they both provide us with a rather detailed view of Old Arabic.

Dadanitic script

A single text, JSLih 384, composed in the Dadanitic script, from northwest Arabia, provides our only non-Nabataean example of Old Arabic from the Ḥigāz.

Nabataean script

Only two texts composed fully in Arabic have been discovered in the Nabataean script. The En Avdat inscription contains two lines of an Arabic prayer or hymn embedded in an Aramaic votive inscription. The second is the Namarah inscription, 328 CE, which was erected about 60 miles southeast of Damascus. Most examples of Arabic come from the substratal influence the language exercised on Nabataean Aramaic.

Nabataeo-Arabic script

A growing corpus of texts carved in a script in between Classical Nabataean Aramaic and what we consider the Arabic script from Northwest Arabia provides further lexical and some morphological material for the later stages of Old Arabic in this region. These texts not only provide important insights as to the development of the Arabic script from its Nabataean forebear, but an important glimpse of the Old Ḥigāzī dialects.

Old Arabic script

Only three inscriptions in the fully evolved Arabic script are known from the pre-Islamic period. These rather short texts come from 6th c. CE Syria, two from the southern region on the borders of Hawran, Jabal Usays (528 CE) and Harran (568 CE), and one from Zebed (512 CE), a town near Aleppo. These short texts shed little light on the linguistic character of Arabic and are more interesting for the information they provide regarding the evolution of the Arabic script.

Greek script

Fragmentary evidence in the Greek script, the "Graeco-Arabica", is equally crucial to help complete our understanding of Old Arabic. This category encompasses instances of Old Arabic in Greek transcription from documentary sources. The advantage of the Greek script is that it gives us a clear view of the vocalism of Old Arabic and can shed important light on the phonetic realization of the Old Arabic phonemes. Finally, a single pre-Islamic Arabic text composed in Greek letters is known, labelled A1.

Dialects, accents, and varieties

Northern Old Arabic

Northern Old Arabic preserved the original shapeof the relative pronoun -, which could have continued to inflect for case or have become frozen as either ḏū or ḏī. In one case it is preceded by the article/demonstrative prefix h-, hḏ */haḏḏV/.[9]

Old Ḥigāzī

Old Ḥigāzī is characterized by the innovative relative pronoun ʾallaḏī, ʾallatī, etc., which is attested once in JSLih 384 and is the common form in the QCT.[1]


External links

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