Roots of the Arabic Language

May 19, 2016 |

By Sarah-Claire Jordan

Roots of the Arabic Language photoArabic, as a language, has been coming more and more into the limelight due to world events. With all of the people fleeing war and destruction lately, Arabic is bound to spread and be spoken in even more countries. This isn’t something we need to feel wary of, however. Adding to the linguistic diversity of an area is a good thing, and generally, refugees and immigrants bring economic growth as well as cultural growth to the areas they settle in.

In order to demystify Arabic, let’s go back and take a look at its origins. Arabic is in the Afroasiatic language family, specifically the Semitic branch. This is the very same branch that Hebrew, Amharic, Aramaic, Maltese, and many other languages with historic and literary weight are part of. All of these languages are descendants of Proto-Semitic, the common ancestor to all Semitic languages. Proto-Semitic later split up into what would eventually become modern Arabic, Hebrew, Maltese, Amharic, and more.

On the Arabian Peninsula and surrounding areas during ancient times, there were two branches of what we could call Old Arabic. The first was Safaitic, which was thought to have been used between 100 BC and 400 AD. Hismaic is the name given to other dialects spoken between 800 BC and 600 AD. These Old Arabic dialects were soon joined, and later eclipsed by, Classical Arabic in the 4th century AD, which was based on the Arabic used to write the Quran and other literary works from the Arab world. Modern Arabic is based on Classical Arabic in terms of grammar and spelling, though there are so many dialects and varieties that pronunciation can differ.

Poetry and literature flourished in Classical Arabic, but wasn’t recorded until 800 or 900 AD. This brought about all kinds of issues in terms of standardization of spelling and pronunciation, which led scholars to seek out how words were pronounced by Bedouins, who were thought to be the purest and closest to the original Arab tribes. These pronunciations were then spelled out and soon a standardized system was established, which was then used to write the Quran.

The Quran and the rise of Islam in the Arab world led to the Islamic conquests, which, along with Islam, introduced the Arabic language to North Africa, Persia, and even Spain. This led to an exchange that resulted in many of the languages spoken in those areas before the conquests, such as Urdu, Berber, Swahili, and others to adopt some Arabic words, and for Arabic to adopt some sounds and letters that went along with them. In total, Arabic borrowed about 12 different letters and sounds, including Zh, Ga, P, and CH from Persian.

Once Europe came to be a continent of colonizers and reached the Arab countries, many dialects started to blossom that perhaps wouldn’t have otherwise. This was due to the active discouragement of Classical Arabic use and teaching by European colonizers. With no unifying dialect being taught, this gave all of the local dialects room to grow and develop into the many Arabic dialects we know today.

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Category: Foreign Language

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