Ancient North Arabian is a language known from fragmentary inscriptions in modern-day Iraq, Jordan, Syria and Saudi Arabia, dating to between roughly the 6th century BC and the 6th century AD, all written in scripts derived from Epigraphic South Arabian. Pre-classical Arabic (or Old Arabic), the predecessor of Classical Arabic, seems to have coexisted with these languages in central and north Arabia. However, Arabic remained exclusively a spoken language until it was first attested in an inscription in Qaryat al-Faw (formerly Qaryat Dhat Kahil, near Sulayyil, Saudi Arabia) in the 1st century BC.
Ancient North Arabian includes a number of closely related extinct dialects of pre-Islamic Arabia, summarized as Ancient or Old North Arabian (ISO 639-3xna), including:
The main characteristic differences between Classical Arabic (CA) and Ancient North Arabian:
The definite article is h-/hn- (or zero) in Ancient North Arabian and al- in CA. However, the oldest evidence of both articles occurs in the 5th century BC, in the epithet of a goddess which Herodotus (Histories I,131; III,8) quotes in its preclassical Arabic form as Alilat (Ἀλιλάτ, i. e.,ʼal-ʼilat), and which occurs in its Ancient North Arabian form as hn-ʼlt in a number of Aramaic inscriptions. Both mean "the goddess".
Verb morphology differences regarding weak roots and roots with a doubled consonant. Ancient North Arabian banaya becomes banā in CA, and bayata becomes bāta and ʼaẓlala becomes ʼaẓalla.
In Dedanite, verb stem IV can occur in the form hafʻal(a) (perfect) and yuhafʻil(u) (imperfect). Dedanite also uses the Classical form of verb stem IV (ʼafʻala and yufʻilu).
As in Classical Arabic, the common word order in Ancient North Arabian is VSO, but most Dedanite inscriptions show SVO order.
Most Ancient North Arabian languages have 28 consonantal phonemes (similar to CA). There are, however, some variations in the ssibilants among Ancient North Arabian languages and Classical Arabic. Taymanite has only 27 phonemes (lacks the ẓ (ظ) phoneme).
Nasal assimilation of the vowelless "n" occurs in some Ancient North Arabian languages: ʼintaẓar "wait" becomes ʼittaẓar, and bnt "daughter" becomes bt. (The same happens in Hebrew.)
Safaitic shows considerable alternations in roots between w and y, e.g. wrḫ which becomes yrḫ "month". (This change is also characteristic of Northwest Semitic languages).
Safaitic and Hismaic show a -y where CA has -ā or -āʼ, such as CA samāʼ (which means heaven or sky) which occurs as smy. This y could also indicate a diphthong (ay).
Compound (non-construct) names are more frequent in Ancient North Arabian, and occur in a manner similar to that found in Northwest Semitic names. For example:
Lozachmeur, H., (ed.), (1995) Presence arabe dans le croissant fertile avant l'Hegire (Actes de la table ronde internationale Paris, 13 novembre 1993) Paris: Éditions Recherche sur les Civilisations. ISBN 2-86538-254-0
Macdonald, M.C.A., (2000) "Reflections on the linguistic map of pre-Islamic Arabia" Arabian Archaeology and Epigraphy 11(1), 28–79
Scagliarini, F., (1999) "The Dedanitic inscriptions from Jabal 'Ikma in north-western Hejaz" Proceedings of the Seminar for Arabian Studies 29, 143-150 ISBN 2-503-50829-4