History of the Arabic language

Arabian Peninsula where Arabic language originated

Arabic first showed up in the northwest of the Arabian Peninsula, and according to various sources, its earliest forms date back as early as 2000 BC. However, regular use of the language did not happen until 500 AD. It is a member of the Semitic family of languages – from which it is spoken most widely today. Other native Semitic languages still spoken now include Hebrew, Aramaic, Kurdish, Amharic (Ethiopia), and Tigre (Eritrea).

The word “Arabic” derives from the fact that Arabs are known as ‘nomads’. It was first coined by ancient Greek geographers to describe people living in the Arabian Peninsula. This region is bordered by eastern Egypt, Mesopotamia, and the Anti-Lebanon mountains and northern Syria.

Early sightings of Arabic writing

Tablet with Nabataean alphabet from which Arabic alphabet could be originated
Tablet with Nabataean alphabet from which Arabic alphabet could be originated

Although it’s a commonly used script, the origin of Arabic handwriting is highly debated and contested even to this day. Some believe that it started in Al-Hirah, Mesopotamia somewhere between the 4th-7th centuries, while others claim it began much earlier around 110 B.C. to 525 A.D. near Himyar, down south Arabia. In 2014 however, French-Saudi researchers discovered potential evidence during their expedition studying rock carvings at Najran. These could possibly be “the oldest known inscription using the Arabic alphabet”.

The script found carved on stone slabs called stelae is presently estimated to date back to 469 or 470 A.D. Researchers have accordingly stated that the discovery falls in line with a period where there was lack of evidence between Nabataean language and Arabic writing. In fact, what makes the find so crucial is that they discovered a mixed text ­Nabataean Arabic the first stage of modern day ­Arabic writing.

Canonisation of the language

Old copy of the Qur'an without dacritics
Old copy of the Qur’an without dacritics (8th-9th century)
Old copy of the Qur'an with dacritics (8th-9th century)
Old copy of the Qur’an with dacritics (8th-9th century)

Even though Arabic can be traced back to this era, the language has undergone several changes since then. The era between 3rd and 6th century AD represents the period when most of its development happened. Further progress was also made thereafter, in the 7th century, to avoid confusion over how certain words should be read.

The Quran was made into a book during the time of the first Caliph of Islam, Abu Bakr. Several years later, Uthman ibn Affan owned a copy that had dots above some of the Arabic letters. Diacritics such as tashkeel (“formations”) and harakat (“vowel marks”) were hence born from this endeavour.

The spread of Arabic

Spread of the Arabic language East and West
Spread of the Arabic language East and West

The central and northern Arabian Peninsula were home to many nomads and traders who spoke various dialects. These ancient languages are thought to be the origins of modern dialects. During the Islamic Conquests in the 7th century, different Arab groups left their homelands carrying their respective languages with them. As a result, the Arabic language rapidly grew spreading throughout the Middle East and neighbouring areas.

Not only did the nomads take their language with them as they migrated west to Northern Africa and the Iberian Peninsula, but also east into present-day China and north to the Taurus Mountains. In Northern Africa, different tribes coming together combined with the various local languages of these varied regions eventually led to the formation of local dialects.

Influence on other languages

The role of Bagdad

Reconstitution of the round city of Baghdad in the 10th century. Illustration: Jean Soutif/Science Photo Library
Reconstitution of the round city of Baghdad in the 10th century.

The Arabic language played a critical role in the cultural exchanges that took place along the Silk Roads, particularly among Muslim scholars. Beginning in the 8th century, Baghdad became one of the world’s major centers of learning under Abbasid rule (750-1258 A.D.). By that time, Arabic literature flourished during this period as linguistic studies reached new heights of sophistication.

Various efforts to translate from different sources made Arabic the most suitable scholarly language of choice in disciplines such as philosophy, mathematics, medicine, geography, astronomy and various branches of science. Consequently, many words that were borrowed during this time frame were easily able to be assimilated into Arabic and later sent out to other languages. Therefore, because it became the main diffusion language along the Silk Roads due to diverse interactions and cooperation among many domains, its popularity only increased over time.

After the Arabic conquests

“Silk Road.” SilkRoad. Stanford, N.d. Web. 16 Dec. 2014.
“Silk Road.” SilkRoad. Stanford, N.d. Web. 16 Dec. 2014.

After the Arab conquest, Spanish and Portuguese had direct contact with Arabic, leading to a large number of words being borrowed from Arabic into these languages. This was also true for Asian and African languages such as Urdu, Turkish, Farsi, and Hausa which served as both the language of Islam and a medium of culture during that time.

European Crusaders from a variety of linguistic backgrounds interacted with Arabs and acquired words relating to food, clothing, and other aspects of their daily lives. As Europe emerged from its dark ages, it looked to Arabic writings for knowledge and rediscovered classical Greek and Latin texts that had been preserved in Arabic translations.

The Arabic script has been used for other languages as well – Hausa, Kashmiri, Kazak, Kurdish, Kyrgyz, Malayalam Morisco, Pashto, Persian/Farsi, Punjabi, Sindhi, Tatar, Turkish Uyghur and Urdu. Some of these have switched to Latin script while PersianUrduCentral Kurdish/SoraniPashto and Uyghur all kept the Arabic script.

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