Ancient writing systems in the Mediterranean

A critical guide to electronic resources

Ancient South Arabian

edited by: Alessia Prioletta (translation revised by Melanie Rockenhaus)

  • Introduction
  • Ancient Writing Systems
  • Further information

Ancient South Arabian is a purely geographical label designating a group of four Semitic languages, attested by the end of the 2nd - beginning of the 1st millennium BC until the advent of Islam in what is now Yemen, in the southern part of the Arabian Peninsula. The Ancient South Arabian languages, namely Sabaic, Qatabanic, Minaic and Hadramitic, are named after the four South Arabian kingdoms (Sabaʾ, Qatabān, Maʿīn and Ḥaḍramawt), tribal states whose names were handed down even in the Greek-Roman sources.
In English terminology, besides Ancient South Arabian, Old South Arabian or Epigraphic South Arabian are also used. The scholar A. F. L. Beeston preferred to coin the term of Ṣayhadic, with reference to the desert of Ṣayhad, along the edges of which the most ancient Southern Arabian states were formed.

Ancient South Arabian, traditionally inserted in the South Semitic family, has in the last thirty years been classified in the Central Semitic branch, along with Arabic and Northwest Semitic (Canaanite, Aramaic and Ugaritic).
Ancient South Arabian forms a linguistic family whose languages (formerly mostly called dialects by scholars) share a number of common features: in addition to the common script, there is in fact a number of phonetic (three non-emphatic sibilants), morphological (suffixed –n article), syntactic and lexical isoglosses.
However, these languages also have distinct traits, shared by few languages of the family or very specific. From the morphological point of view, the most evident opposition is among the s1-forms (in pronouns and causative verbal stems) of Qatabanic, Minaic and Hadramitic and the h-forms of Sabaic. But more or less marked differences are also evident in the use of matres lectionis in verbal and pronominal paradigms as well as in technical vocabulary.

The increasing level of diversity among these languages, which is emerging thanks to the new data available and specific studies undertaken in recent years, is interpreted differently by scholars. A first tendency, which goes back to the traditional idea that the southern Arabian culture was formed as a result of a migration of people from Syria and Palestine, sees Sabaic as the most recent and innovative language, which would have been installed on a archaic southern substratum. A second theory, which supports the idea of an endogenous formation of the southern Arabian culture, also believes that the ASA languages were formed through a long process of differentiation from a common proto-historic phase.

Ancient Writing Systems

  1. Ancient South Arabian

Further information

  1. Bibliography