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The Development & Impact of the Arabic Language

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Arabic is one of the dominant languages of the world today, spoken by millions of people. In this lesson, we'll explore the history of this language and see how it has impacted the world.

Arabic

What language do they speak in heaven? It's an interesting question, but to a substantial number of people around the world, the answer is obvious: it's Arabic.

Arabic is one of the dominant languages of the world today, and notably, the language in which the Islamic holy book, the Qur'an, is written (hence its status as the language of heaven to many Muslims). In Islam, the prophet Muhammad didn't simply happen to be speaking Arabic; Arabic was chosen as the divine language. So, it's a big deal in Islam. Even outside of Islam, however, Arabic is a major language of global trade and interaction and has been for a long time. For many merchants across history, Arabic was the language of business, and so successful it was practically divine.

Main areas where Arabic is spoken today
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Origins of Arabic

So, where'd Arabic come from? We don't know. Okay, end of the lesson.

Not satisfied with that answer? Neither are many researchers, and debates on the origins of Arabic have raged for decades. There are two facts that complicate this history. First, Arabic appeared in a region that was richly populated, and was one of many languages spoken at the time, so it's hard to trace. Second, for most of its history, Arabic was primarily spoken by nomadic people and was maintained orally, not textually. In fact, the word ''Arabic'' comes from an ancient Arabic word that means ''nomadic''.

So, what do we know? Arabic is a Semitic language, a branch of the Afro-Asiatic language family that also includes Hebrew, Aramaic, Kurdish, and Berber, among others. Arabic most likely began to develop as in independent language sometime around the 2nd millennium BCE in the Arabian Peninsula.

As for the written script of Arabic, that history is even harder to discern. Most Arabic was maintained orally but was also influenced by the related languages of the region. Notably, Arabic seems to have had an interesting relationship with Nabataean, an alphabetic script that descended from written Aramaic in the 2nd-century BCE. Nabataeans were a northern Arab tribe, and examples of the Arabic language have been found written in the Nabataean script dating as far back as roughly 328 CE. Some archaeologists even think they've found a proto-Arabic script based on Nabataean dating to the 5th-century CE. It's still unclear exactly how the Arabic writing system developed, but the Nabataean alphabet and script seem to have played an integral role.

Nabataean inscription from the 1st century CE
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Arabic and the Qur'an

In the 7th-century, however, everything changed. According to the traditions of Islam, from about 609-632, God revealed the Qur'an to the prophet Muhammad, who wrote it down. Muhammad then spread the Qur'an and it quickly became the most important Arabic-language text in the world. So, while we know very little about pre-Islamic Arabic, the history of the language becomes much clearer after 632 CE.

The Qur'an is traditionally written in a dialect now called Classical Arabic. Known as Fos ha in Arabic, this quickly became the most influential dialect of the Arabic-speaking world. Islamic poetry of the next few centuries solidified and standardized the punctuation and spelling of Classical Arabic, and ensured its elevation as the dialect of Islam's highly educated priests. Many years later, Fos ha would serve as the basis of Modern Standard Arabic, the most widely spoken dialect of Arabic in the world day.

12th-century Quran
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The Spread of Arabic

The 7th-century was an important time for Arabic. Not only was the language dramatically impacted by the writing and distribution of the Qur'an, but this is also the century in which Arabic began its spread across the world. Within centuries, Arabic would be spoken from the west coast of Africa to the east coast of China, at least in certain circles. There were two things that impacted this history.

First was the Arab Conquest of the 7th century. After Muhammad conquered most of the Arabian Peninsula, his successors in the Rashidun and Umayyad Caliphates expanded throughout the Middle East, into West and Central Asia, across all of North Africa, and even over the Strait of Gibraltar into Spain and Portugal (where Arabic fundamentally influenced the Spanish language). As they spread, the Arab conquerors set up Arab territorial governors and administrators and introduced Islam. Between the powerful bureaucrats and the highly educated priests, Arabic became the language of high culture, arts, philosophy, science, politics, and medicine from Northern Africa to West Asia.

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