Old South Arabian

Old South Arabian
Southern Arabia
Linguistic classification:


Glottolog: sayh1236[1]
Transliteration key for South Arabian in several scripts

Old South Arabian (or Epigraphic South Arabian, or Ṣayhadic) is a group of four closely related extinct languages spoken in the far southern portion of the Arabian Peninsula. There were a number of other Old South Arabian languages (e.g. Awsānian), of which very little evidence has survived, however. A sole surviving Sayhadic language is attested at Jabal Rāziḥ in far north-west of Yemen, though the varieties of speech in neighboring areas have both Arabic and Sayhadic features, and it is difficult to classify them as either Arabic dialects with a Sayhadic substratum, or Sayhadic languages that have been restructured under pressure of Arabic.

Classification issues

It was originally thought that all four members of this group were dialects of one Old South Arabian language, but in the mid-twentieth century Beeston finally proved that they did in fact constitute independent languages.[2] The Old South Arabian languages were originally classified (partly on the basis of geography) as South Semitic, along with Arabic, Modern South Arabian and Ethiopian Semitic; more recently however, a new classification has come in use which places Old South Arabian, along with Arabic, Ugaritic, Aramaic and Canaanite/Hebrew in a Central Semitic group; leaving Modern South Arabian and Ethiopic in a separate group. This new classification is based on Arabic, Old South Arabian and Northwest Semitic (Ugaritic, Aramaic and Canaanite) sharing an innovation in the verbal system, an imperfect taking the form *yVqtVl-u (the other groups have *yVqattVl); Nebes showed that Sabaean at least had the form yVqtVl in the imperfect.

Even though has been now accepted that the four main languages be considered independent, they are clearly closely related linguistically and derive from a common ancestor because they share certain morphological innovations. One of the most important isoglosses retained in all four languages is the suffixed definite article - (h)n.[3] There are however significant differences between the languages.

The four main Old South Arabian languages were Sabaean, Minaeic (or Madhabic), Qatabanic, and Hadramitic. According to Alice Faber (based on Hetzron's work),[4] together with Ethiopian Semitic languages (such as the contemporary Ge'ez language) and the Modern South Arabian languages (not descended from Old South Arabian but from a sister language), they formed the western branch of the South Semitic languages.

Old South Arabian had its own writing system, the Ancient South Arabian Monumental Script, or Musnad, consisting of 29 graphemes concurrently used for proto-Ge'ez in the Kingdom of D`mt, ultimately sharing a common origin with the other Semitic abjads, the Proto-Sinaitic alphabet. Inscriptions in another minuscule cursive script written on wooden sticks have also been discovered.

The last inscription of these languages dates back to 554 CE, 60 years before Islam.[5][6]


Old South Arabian comprised a number of languages; the following are those that have been preserved in writing (the dates follow the so-called 'Long Chronology'). Besides these, at least Jabal Razih survives today.

Written records

Old South Arabian was written in the Old South Arabian script, a consonantal abjad deriving from the Phoenician alphabet. Compared with other parts of the ancient world, Palestine for instance, the number of surviving inscriptions is very high, something in the region of 10,000 inscriptions exist. The Sabaean lexicon contains about 2,500 words.

Categories of written records

  1. Inscriptions in Stone
    1. Votive Inscriptions, often preserve historical accounts of the events that led to the dedication
    2. Inscriptions on Buildings: give the names of the person who commissioned the work and the historical circumstances among other things
    3. Laws and legislation
    4. Protocols and deeds
    5. Inscriptions written for atonement or repentance
    6. Graffiti on Rocks
  2. Literary Texts: if large numbers of any such texts ever existed, they have been almost completely lost
  3. Inscriptions on Wooden Cylinders (only Middle Sabaean and Hadramite). There are about 1000 so far; very few published, mostly from Nashshān, in Wādī Madhāb.[10]
    1. Private Texts
    2. Contracts and orders
  4. Inscriptions on everyday objects

The inscriptions on stone display a very formal and precise wording and expression, whereas the style of the wooden inscriptions written in the cursive script is much more informal.


Old South Arabian consonants
  Bilabial Dental Alveolar Postalveolar Palatal Velar Uvular Pharyngeal Glottal
 Non-emph.  Emphatic  Non-emph.  Emphatic
Plosives vcelss.       t (ṭ)     k q   ʔ ( ʾ)
vced. b     d       ɡ      
Fricatives vcelss. f θ (ṯ) θˀ (ẓ) s (s3 / ś) (ṣ) ʃ (s1 / s)   x (ḫ)   ħ (ḥ) h
vced.   ð (ḏ)   z       ɣ (ġ)   ʕ (ˀ)  
Nasals m     n              
Laterals       l          
Liquids       r              
Approximants w           j (y)        
Lateral Fricative vcless.     l (s2 / š) ɬˀ (ḍ)

History of research and teaching

Although the inscriptions from ancient South Arabia were already known by the 18th century, it was Wilhelm Gesenius (1786-1842) and his student Emil Rödiger who finally undertook the deciphering of the script, actually independently of each other, in the years 1841/42. Then in the second half of the 19th century Joseph Halévy and Eduard Glaser brought hundreds of Old South Arabian inscriptions, tracings (?) and copies back to Europe. On the basis of this large amount of material Fritz Hommel prepared a selection of texts in 1893 along with an attempt at a grammar. Later on the Sabaean expert Nikolaus Rhodokanakis made especially important steps towards understanding Old South Arabic. A completely new field of Old South Arabian script and texts has been opened up since the 1970s by the discovery of wooden cylinders on which Sabaean has been written with a pen. The unknown script and numerous incomprehensible words presented Sabaean Studies with new problems, and to this day the wooden cylinders are not completely understood.

In the German-speaking world Old South Arabian is taught in the framework of Semitic Studies, and no independent university chair has been dedicated to Old South Arabian (or Sabaean) Studies. Learning Old South Arabic at least furthers the student’s knowledge of the characteristics of Semitic by introducing them to a less well-preserved example of the group. Students normally begin to learn the grammar of Old South Arabian and then they finally read a few of the longer texts.

See also


Short introductions and overviews
Collections of texts


  1. Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin; Bank, Sebastian, eds. (2016). "Sayhadic". Glottolog 2.7. Jena: Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History.
  2. A. F. L. Beeston: Sabaic Grammar, Manchester, 1984
  3. (Beeston: 1987:103)
  4. Faber, Alice (1997). "Genetic Subgrouping of the Semitic Languages". In Robert Hetzron. The Semitic Languages (1st ed.). London: Routledge. p. 7. ISBN 0-415-05767-1.
  5. Fattovich, Rodolfo, "Akkälä Guzay" in Uhlig, Siegbert, ed. Encyclopaedia Aethiopica: A-C. Wiesbaden: Otto Harrassowitz KG, 2003, p. 169
  6. Sabaean inscription (C 325), dated 669 of the Ḥimyarite era (=559 or 554 CE) (Leonid Kogan and Andrey Korotayev: Sayhadic Languages (Epigraphic South Arabian). Semitic Languages. London: Routledge, 1997. pg. 321).
  7. A. Avanzini: Le iscrizioni sudarabiche d'Etiopia: un esempio di culture e lingue a contatto. In: Oriens antiquus, 26 (1987), Seite 201-221
  8. Dialekte nach: Peter Stein: Zur Dialektgeographie des Sabäischen. In: Journal of Semitic Studies XLIX/2. Manchester 2004
  9. Peter Stein (2007), "Materialien zur sabäischen Dialektologie: Das Problem des amiritischen ("haramitischen") Dialektes" (in German), Zeitschrift der deutschen morgenländischen Gesellschaft 157: pp. 13-47
  10. Leonid Kogan and Andrey Korotayev: Sayhadic Languages (Epigraphic South Arabian). Semitic Languages. London: Routledge, 1997. Pg. 221.
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