To fully appreciate the Arab people and their culture, you need to also understand the Arabic language as both are fundamentally connected to each other. Just as Arab culture is very rich and complex, so Arabic is also a very rich language with a history as complex as the history of the Arabic speaking countries that use the language. Today’s article will explore the history of the Arabic language in the hopes of gaining a better understanding of the countries, culture, and peoples of the Middle East.
Four main Arabic dialects make up the language spoken in the Middle East and North Africa today, each with their own set of sub-dialects: the Maghreb Arabic of North Africa, the Egyptian Arabic of Egypt and Sudan, the Levantine Arabic of Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Palestine, and the Iraqi/Gulf Arabic of Iraq and the Arabian Gulf. But where did all of these dialects begin? Or more to the point, where did Arabic begin?
Arabic has its roots in the Semitic family of languages, which also includes Hebrew, Aramaic and Phoenician, and the first signs of Arabic seem to appear around 2,000 B.C.; however, it wasn’t until the 5th century A.D. that the language seemed to come into common use starting with the Quraish tribe of Mecca – an Arab people of which the Prophet Mohammed was a member – who were the first to speak اللغة العربية الفصحى التراثية / al-Lughah al-ʻArabīyah al-Fuṣḥā al-Turāthīyah, or Classical Arabic, the variety of standard Arabic used in the Quran and early Islamic (7th to 9th centuries) literature; in fact, the Quran that Muslims read today is written in the same dialect that the Prophet Mohammed himself used.
Classical Arabic, or Fuṣḥā, is an elegant, pure form of Arabic that actually pre-dates Islam as evidenced by the fact that Classical Arabic was found to be used in pre-Islamic poetry. Muslim scholars even suggest that Allah revealed the Quran to the Prophet Mohammed in seven types of qera’at (readings) which, back then, were spoken Arabic’s most prominent dialects.
The origin of Arabic, and especially that of Arabic script, is a hotly contested topic even until today with some believing Arabic script originated in the north between the 4th and 7th centuries in Al Hirah, Mesopotamia, while another camp say it originated anywhere in between110 B.C. and 525 A.D. from the south of Arabia near Himyar. A recent discovery by a French-Saudi expedition would seem to support the latter.
In 2014, researchers from a French-Saudi expedition studying rock inscriptions in southern Saudi Arabia declared that they had found what may possibly be the oldest texts written in the Arabic alphabet. The dozen or more engravings were carved into soft sandstone that lie about 100 kilometers (62 mi.) north of Najran around the mountain passes of nearby Bir Hima. The amazing part of the discovery was that at least two of the early Arabic petroglyphs cited dates in an ancient calendar leading expert epigraphists to quickly surmise that the dates corresponded to the years 469 or 470 A.D. Researchers stated that the find corresponds to a period in which there was a missing link between the Nabataean language and Arabic writing In fact, the find was significant because showed as it was written in a mixed text known as Nabataean Arabic – the first sign of Arabic writing.
A few years after the Quran was made into a book under the first Caliph of Islam, Abu Bakr, a copy owned by Uthman ibn Affan, both a companion of Prophet Mohammed and the third Caliph of Islam, had the letters in Arabic dotted; thus, diacritics such as tashkeel (“formations”) and harakat (“vowel marks”) were born.
Other languages have gone on to use the Arabic script including Hausa, Kashmiri, Kazak, Kurdish, Kyrgyz, Malay, Morisco, Pashto, Persian/Farsi, Punjabi, Sindhi, Tatar, Turkish, Uyghur and Urdu – although many of these have also switched to using the Latin script.
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