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The Origins of the Arabic Language

posted on: Sep 25, 2019

By: Haneen Abu Al Neel/Arab America Contributing Writer

The phenomenon of languages and their murky history continues to enchant the world. Linguists all across the globe work tirelessly to demystify the origins of languages, their development over time, and the different structures they rely on. Languages build much more than just words, they construct a worldview. For instance, languages that share roots might communicate ideas verbally differently, even in different languages. The same structure profoundly influences social norms, mannerisms, and other elements of the social fabric.

As scientists and historians continue to collaborate to unravel the ancient knowledge of language formation, we will start our journey by exploring language trees and their development. Linguists estimate that the number of languages spoken in the world ranges between 3000 and up to 8000, albeit they never exist in neatly separated categories. Instead, languages have emerged and advanced into different dialects and eventually different languages as populations moved, traveled, and intermarried.

Another prominent factor is trade. Trade centers like ports, frequently traveled roads, and city markets were the birthplace of many early attempts of communication. The Arabs were known to be proudly skilled merchants. Hence, it is unsurprising that there are trade centers found in the Middle East. Words of commonly traded items like “sugar”, for instance, can be found across languages like Spanish, English, Arabic, Swahili, Maltese, Italian, and many more.

This influence can be directly related to trading, as the Silk Road ran through the Arabian peninsula, and then the ports exported to many of these nations. Other justifications can be found in historical and cultural conquests, like the Islamic empire’s expansion into the Medditerean or Great Britain’s colonial history into Middle Eastern and African nations. Perhaps, this is why it is said that Medditerean cultures share some striking similarities. Nonetheless, traces of past civilizations can be found in each other if ancient trade routes are followed, or even vice versa.

The growing number of languages today may seem dividing. However, it cannot be forgotten that many of our modern tongues are derived from similar languages families. All language families are developed from a common historic ancestor, known in linguistics as a protolanguage, which is often not known directly. It is improbable that we will find the one original root of all languages known to humankind today. Still, many of the features of ancient language families can be identified through their modern manifestations in new semantics. For instance, we know that Sanskrit is the protolanguage of various Indian Sub-continental languages like Bengali, Hindi, and Urdu. Yet, we only know that Sanskrit dates back to the Proto-Indo-European language ancestry. Today, we know that there are approximately 147 language families in the world, but there is a possibility of more.

The language families Arabic belongs to is known as Afro-Asiatic, more specifically, Semitic. It is important to note that people in the Arab World speak Arabic, while other ethnic groups speak different languages like Berber in Morocco. Arabic, like other non-Germanic languages, is unique as it carries 28 letters, some of which do not exist in any other language. One of these non-recurring letters is the letter “daad” or “ض”, used heavily in Arabic speech and an emblem of pride for the language due to its uniqueness to Arabic. It also happens to be a phonetic nightmare to the novice tongue.

On December 18th, 1973, the UN Security Council announced to the world that Arabic is to be considered an official UN language. Ever since, we, the Arabic speakers, have celebrated that day as the international Arabic language day. On December 18th every year, Arabs make sure you know the language’s multifaceted vast vocabulary on love and other interpersonal relationships. Arabic is mainly celebrated for the ease with which it can be turned into poetry or commanding speeches, due to its descriptive nature and delicate syntax. It is mind-boggling to think that Arabic’s mesmerizing nature predated its dotting and the addition of the Harakat or vowel accents, to unify pronunciation, in the early and mid 650s AD. One can only imagine how much more intriguing Arabic communication must have been before that point.

Languages are ever-growing, intriguing systems of communication. Although different tongues might cease to increase, dialects and accents continue to evolve through trade, intermarriage, and changing social fabrics. With this many languages, one has to wonder if historical populations are proof of humanity’s inevitable desire to connect and expand. Some might even say it was out of necessity to trade and sustain food and currency that we connected. Alas, one more wonder of human nature and linguistics.