History of the Language
The Arabic language is considered a member of the Semitic language family, more specifically known as a Central Semitic language or South-west Semitic language. The term “Semitic” is derived from the biblical name “Shem,” who was one of the sons of Noah. In Islam, Noah is seen as a prophet and the ancestor of the Semitic people. The Semitic language family has as its area of origin the region around modern-day Syria. It is from there that the language family spread southward, through the Arabian Peninsula. Scholars believe that Semitic languages thrived in the Tigris-Euphrates basin and in other parts of the Mediterranean area. Arabic is unique among Semitic languages, due to the fact that it follows a pattern of linguistic characteristics that are very similar to those found in early proto-Semitic languages, even though it is among the youngest members of the Semitic family. Other related languages in the Semitic family include Aramaic, Phoenician, and Hebrew.
The traditional classification of Semitic languages theorizes that there was an initial form of language that all other Semitic languages may be traced back to, called Proto-Semitic. Proto-Semitic then most likely split around 3000 BCE into two new classifications known as West Semitic and East Semitic. This split could have been caused by any number of reasons, most likely as a result of geographical or cultural constraints or influences. East Semitic consisted of languages like Akkadian, a dead language. Akkadian also split into two new languages, Babylonian and Assyrian, both which are also no longer in use. West Semitic languages however, became the category of languages where Semitic languages that are in use today originated. West Semitic languages were also split around 2000 BCE into two categories, North-west Semitic and South-west Semitic. The North-west variant is where languages such as Hebrew, Phoenician, and Aramaic are classified. The development of these separate languages from the North-west Semitic language was thought to have happened around 1000 BCE. South-west Semitic is the category in which Arabic, South Arabian, and Ethiopian are classified. They developed out of the South-west Semitic around 1000 BCE as well.
However, there are other arguments for the classification of these languages. Another is formed around the same basic concepts as the first, but with different classifications of the languages. In stead of dividing West Semitic languages into South-west and North-west, West Semitic is divided into subgroups called South Semitic and Central Semitic. South Semitic then consists of Ethiopian, and South Arabian languages, while Central Semitic consists of Aramaic, and Arabo-Canaanite. It is from this Arabo-Canaanite that both Arabic and Canaanite, the mother language of both Hebrew and Phoenician, would develop.
Linguists have been able to trace the developments of Arabic through close study of the Semitic languages. By examining characteristics that certain languages share or do not share, they are able to explore the origins of those languages, as they have done with the Semitic languages. Another way in which the history of languages is explored is through archaeological research and finds. Arabic, more specifically languages that may be linked to the development of Arabic, has a number of ancient examples of writing. In fact, most of what scholars know about the development of Arabic has come from examples of the languages it developed from and also from other languages entirely. This is mainly due to the fact that before the rise of Islam in 630s, Arabic was primarily just a spoken language. However, evidence from outside of Arabic itself has provided scholars not only with some amount of information Arab cultural and political history, and also with clues to explore the history and development of the language.
The earliest inscriptions that may be linked to the development of Arabic are Sabataean, and are considered proto-Arabic. The oldest example of these may be found In the Hasaean Inscriptions, in Saudi Arabia, which date around the 8th Century BCE. It is not until the 2nd Century BCE that a form of language developed that is considered Pre-Classical Arabic, rather than the earlier Proto-Arabic form, also known as Ursemitisch. The earliest documentation of the Arabic language that is in use today may be traced back to the early 4th century CE. Known as the Namārah Inscription, it was discovered in Syria in 1901. It is believed that the form of Arabic present in the inscription had developed in an area of East Africa, near the present-day countries of Ethiopia and Somalia.