How Old Is The Arabic Language And Where Did It Come From? A Look At Three Historical Arabic Languages

avatarMille Larsen
4 mins read

Modern Standard Arabic, or Fusha, is a modernized and slightly simplified version of Classical Arabic.

Like most languages, Arabic has evolved and changed throughout the centuries. It's a language that originates from the Arabic peninsula, where a lot of different dialects used to exist.

With the birth of the Islamic religion, the Arabic language became fixed to the dialect that was used to write down the Quran. This happened a little under 1500 years ago, and some would say that this is thereby the age of Arabic language.

A page of one of the oldest Quranic manuscripts,the Sanaa manuscript, which most likely dates from the first half of the 7th century.

But where did this specific dialect come from? The Quran is said to be originally written in a form of Arabic known as "Old Hijazi Arabic". This dialect was spoken in parts of the Arabic penincular from the first century AD to the 7th century, when the Quran was written on paper. This makes Arabic close to 2000 years old, if we accept the fact that the Arabic dialect must have undergone quite a few changes over history.

If we go further back, the Ancestors of the Hijazi people, the Nabataeans wrote their texts in a form of Amamaic, but proper names and other features in the scriptures have made linguists theorize that the Nabataean people spoke a form of Nabataean Arabic. This language might go as far back as 2500 years.

A tablet with the Nabataean alphabet which later developed into the Arabic writing system we know today.

The oldest examples of what we would classify as a form of Arabic today is "Old Arabic". It is said to have sprung out from other Central Semitic languages (which in turn developed into such languages as Aramaic, Hebrew and Phoenician), which were spoken in the Syrian dessert almost 3000 years ago.

Old Arabic was written in various scripts, this is an example of the Safaitic script

Arabic is still developing today

Formal Arabic, or Modern Standard Arabic is the language used today in all official matters in Arabic speaking countries. It's the language of the media, academics, education and religion. But the language that people speak in the Arab world can sometimes be quite different.

Each Arabic speaking region does in fact have its own spoken dialects, and these can be considerably different from formal Arabic. Each regional dialect has evolved with history, and many argue today that the different Arabic dialects are in fact different languages.

The biggest differences are clearly the dialects of North Africa, where the local languages such as Coptic and Amazigh, but also foreign languages, both of neighboring and distant countries have made an impact.

Many middle easterners today wouldn't understand a Moroccan for example if he spoke his dialect like he normally would. The Egyptian dialect is also quite different, but due to the Egyptian movie industry and its cultural impact in Arabic-speaking countries, it it universally understood.

While the Middle-Eastern dialects of Arabic might be closer to formal Arabic, they still have quite a lot of differences in terms of vocabulary, grammar and pronunciation.

It's interesting that despite a common liturgical language (Quranic, or Classical Arabic) each Arabic dialect continues to evolve in its own right.

This means, that while many consider the 7th century AD, when the Quran was first written on paper, as the birth of Arabic, the language clearly didn't stop evolving, and as I've showed above, it definitely existed a long time before that as well.

If you'd like to learn the Arabic language, go read my article entitled "How To Learn Arabic".