In most world history survey courses, Arabia is introduced for the first time only as backstory to the rise of Islam. We’re told that there was a tradition of oral poetry in Arabic, a language native to central Arabia, and that the Qur’an was the zenith of this oral tradition. New evidence, however, suggests that Arabia was linguistically diverse, that the language we’ve come to know as Arabic originated in modern day Jordan, and that the looping cursive writing system that’s become the language’s hallmark wasn’t the original system used to write it. What to make of all this?
An 8th-Century BCE Inscription
Four main languages qualify as “Old South Arabian,” spoken in the Yemen and across the Red Sea in Ethiopia. This inscription on alabaster was written in Sabaic dates to about 700 BCE, from the Yemen. It offers both religious and political information.
Ammi’amar son of Ma’dikarib dedicated to Almaqah Ra’suhumu. With ‘Athtar, with Almaqah, with dhat-Himyam, with dhat-Ba’dan, with Waddum, with Karib’il, with Sumhu’ali, with ‘Ammirayam and with Yadhrahmalik.
A 4th-Century Inscription
The Namara inscription is from the 4th century. It is in an Aramaic script, but the language is recognizable in Arabic. It was found in Syria, not Arabia, which demonstrates that the Arabic language was spoken outside of Arabia even before Islam. It is a funerary inscription, but also informs us about the relationship between Arabs and Rome.
A 3rd- or 4th-Century Inscription
This inscription is in the Old Arabic language, but it uses the Greek script. This tells us that an Arabic-speaking person, likely a nomad, was familiar with Greek writing (though probably not the Greek language). It was found in northern Jordan and dates to the 3rd or 4th century.