Ancient writing systems in the Mediterranean

A critical guide to electronic resources

Ancient North Arabian

edited by: Alessia Prioletta

  • Introduction
  • Ancient Writing Systems
  • Further information

To the numerous scripts that developed in north and central Arabia and are attested in thousands of graffiti and inscriptions dating roughly between the middle of the 1st millennium BC to the 3th AD, correspond as many different languages: Taymanitic, Dadanitic, Thamudic, Hismaic and Safaitic.

In the past, it was thought that the languages expressed by the Ancient North Arabian alphabets represented the most ancient stage of Arabic (Knauf 2010 with previous bibliography), but scholars have since challenged this view, instead suggesting that they form an independent linguistic category opposed to Arabic called ‘Ancient North Arabian’ (Beeston 1981; Müller 1982; Macdonald 2000, 2004; Hayajneh 2011). This linguistic group was supported mainly by the shape of the definite article, h- in ANA and ʾl- in Arabic (Macdonald 2000).  Both of these positions was challenged by Al-Jallad (2015, forthcoming), who argues that the Ancient North Arabian scripts represent a diverse group of languages, not forming a coherent sub-grouping. He suggests that Hismaic and Safaitic should be considered types of Old Arabic, while Dadanitic should be seen as a separate category. Kootstra (2016) further showed that Taymanitic cannot be considered more closely related to the languages attested in other Ancient North Arabian scripts, instead exhibiting isoglosses that possibly tie it to Northwest Semitic.   

Hasaitic, a language attested in a small corpus of funerary inscriptions from northeastern Arabia and written in the formal type of the Ancient South Arabian script, has been classified as “Ancient North Arabian” but not enough linguistic features have been attested to support this assumption.

The Ancient North Arabian inscriptions are comparatively short and highly formulaic. For this reason, our understanding of the grammar of the various languages attested in the ANA scripts is very limited.  Some of the main features are listed below:

Taymanitic shows the shift w>y in initial position, typical of Northwest Semitic, and other phonetic changes such as the merger of /z/ and /ḏ/, /s³/ and /ṯ/, /ṣ/ and /ẓ/ (Koostra 2016).

Dadanitic retains some forms that have been lost in Arabic: the anaphoric use of the 3rd person pronoun hʾ; the nominal ending of the singular feminine -h; the prefix of the verbal causative h- (Arabic ʾ-). The article shows various forms: h(n) and ʾl.

Little can be said of the different varieties of Thamudic. Thamudic B shows the suffix -t in the 1st person of suffix conjugation (like Arabic vs. Ancient South Arabian -k); the assimilation of the n to the following consonant (ʾṯt <ʾnṯt “woman”; ʾt <ʾnt “you”;). Thamudic C and D have the demonstratives zn (< ḏn) and zt (< ḏt), which undergo a phonetic shift /ḏ/ > /z/, as in Taymanitic (Al-Jallad 2018).

Safaitic is the best documented ANA variety and it exhibits many of the linguistics features typical of Arabic. One of the features that distinguish it from Classical Arabic is the variation it exhibits in the shape of the definite article.  In most cases, it is h, but the forms ʾ and ʾl are also attested, and a few inscriptions lack the article altogether. This is similar to the modern dialects of Arabic, which can exhibit the al article, but also am, an, and a.

It should be emphasized that the kind of affiliation between the various languages grouped under the label of Ancient North Arabian has yet to be precisely defined; this should be established through shared innovations and not be based on the opposition of the ANA languages to Arabic (Al-Jallad 2015; Al-Jallad 2018). Such an approach has already highlighted how the ANA group is in fact made of several independent branches, which are at different levels with respect to Central Semitic.

Ancient Writing Systems

  1. Ancient North Arabian

Further information

  1. Bibliography