History of the Arabic alphabet
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The history of the Arabic alphabet shows that this abjad has changed since it arose. It is thought that the Arabic alphabet is a derivative of the Nabataean variation of the Aramaic alphabet, which descended from the Phoenician alphabet, which among others gave rise to the Hebrew alphabet and the Greek alphabet (and therefore the Cyrillic and Roman alphabets).
The Arabic alphabet evolved either from the Nabataean, or (less widely believed) from the Syriac. This table shows changes undergone by the shapes of the letters from the Aramaic original to the Nabataean and Syriac forms. Arabic is placed in the middle for clarity and not to mark a time order of evolution. It should be noted that the Arabic script represented in the table below is that of post-Classical and Modern Arabic, not 6th century Arabic script which is of a notably different form.
It seems that the Nabataean alphabet became the Arabic alphabet thus:
- In the 6th and 5th centuries BC, north-Semitic tribes emigrated and founded a kingdom centered around Petra, Jordan. These people (now named Nabataeans from the name of one of the tribes, Naba?u), probably spoke a form of Arabic.
- In the 2nd century AD, the first known records of the Nabataean alphabet were written, in the Aramaic language (which was the language of communication and trade), but including some Arabic language features: the Nabataeans did not write the language which they spoke. They wrote in a form of the Aramaic alphabet, which continued to evolve; it separated into two forms: one intended for inscriptions (known as "monumental Nabataean") and the other, more cursive and hurriedly written and with joined letters, for writing on papyrus. This cursive form influenced the monumental form more and more and gradually changed into the Arabic alphabet.
Pre-Islamic Arabic inscriptions
The first recorded text in the Arabic alphabet was written in 512. It is a trilingual dedication in Greek, Syriac and Arabic found at Zabad in Syria. The version of the Arabic alphabet used includes only 22 letters, of which only 15 are different, being used to note 28 phonemes:-
- Note that the letters in the first line are not Aramaic letters but rather the Paleo-Hebrew alphabet.
Around 50,000 Arabian inscriptions survive from the pre-Islamic era, most of which are in Ancient North Arabian languages. However these are written in alphabets borrowed from epigraphic South Arabian alphabets. Such as:
- The Thamudic, Lihyanic, Taymanitic, Dumaitic and Safaitic inscriptions in the north.
- Hasaitic in the eastern part of Arabia
- Hismaic in the southern parts of central Arabia.
- Preclassical Arabic inscriptions dating to the 1st century BC from Qaryat Al-Faw, written in Epigraphic South Arabian alphabets.
- Nabataean inscriptions in Aramaic and Arabic. Written in Nabatean alphabets.
- Pre-Islamic Arabic inscriptions in the Arabic alphabet: these are very few, with only 5 known for certain. These mostly do not use dots, making them sometimes difficult to interpret, as many letters are the same shape as other letters. I.e. they are written with rasm only.
Here are the inscriptions in the Arabic alphabet, and the inscriptions in the Nabataean alphabet that show the beginnings of Arabic-like features.
|Name||Whereabouts||Date||Language||Alphabet||Text & notes|
|Al-Hasa||Nejd, Historical Bahrain region||4th century BC||3 lines in Hasean||Epigraphic South Arabian alphabets||A large funerary stone is inscribed in the Hasaean dialect using a variety of South Arabian monumental script, with three inscribed lines for the man Matmat, that records both patrilineal and matriarchal descent:
1. "Tombstone and grave of Matmat,"
2. "son of Zurubbat, those of 'Ah-"
3. "nas, her of the father of Sa'ad-"
4. "ab.." (Dr. A. Jamme)
|Qaryat al-Fāw||Wadi ad-Dawasir, Nejd||1st century BC||10 lines in Arabic||Epigraphic South Arabian alphabets||A tomb dedicatory and a prayer to Lāh, Kāhil and ʻAṯṯār to protect the tomb:
"ʿIgl son of Hafʿam constructed for his brother Rabibil son of Hafʿam the tomb: both for him and for his child and his wife, and his children and their children's children and womenfolk, free members of the folk Ghalwan. And he has placed it under the protection of (the gods) Kahl and Lah and ʿAthtar al-Shariq from anyone strong or weak, and anyone who would attempt to sell or pledge it, for all time without any derogation, so long as the sky produces rain or the earth herbage." (Beeston)
|Ein Avdat||Negev in Israel||between AD 88 and 150||3 lines Aramaic, then 3 lines Arabic||Nabataean with a little letter-joining||A prayer of thanks to the god Obodas for saving someone's life:
"For (Obodas -the god-) works without reward or favour, and he, when death tried to claim us, did not let it claim (us), for when a wound (of ours) festered, he did not let us perish." (Bellamy)
"فيفعﻞُﻻفِ ًداوﻻاثرافكاﻦ هُنايَبْ ِغنا الموﺖُﻻأبْ ُغاﻪ فكاﻦ هُنا أدادَ ُجرﺢٌﻻيرْ ِد"
|Umm el-Jimal||northeast of Jordan||roughly end of 3rd century - 5th century||Aramaic-Nabataean, Greek, Latin||Nabataean, much letter-joining||More than 50 fragments discovered: 
1. "Zabūd son of Māsik "
2. "[.]aynū daughter of MuΉārib"
3. "Kawza' peace!"
(Said and al-Hadad)
"([Th]is is the tomb which SHYMW … built … (2) … [for P]N, hisson, through (the help of) the god of their father … (3) … king Rabel, king of the Nabataeans …" (Butts and Hardy)
"This is the memorial of Julianos, weighed down by long sleep, for whom his father Agathos built it while shedding a tear beside the boundary of the communal cemetery of the people of Christ, in order that a better people might always sing of him openly, being formerly the beloved faithful [son?] of Agathos the presbyter, aged twelve. In the year 239 [of the era of the Provincia Arabia = 344 AD]." (Trombley)
In the 5th century barracks were built. In their southeast tower, which stands to a height of six stories, the names of the archangels—"Michael, Uriel, Gabriel and Raphael"—are inscribed. (Micah Key)
|Raqush (this is not a place-name)||Mada'in Saleh in Saudi Arabia||267||Mixture of Arabic and Aramaic, 1 vertical line in Thamudic||Nabataean, some letter-joining. Has a few diacritic dots.||Last inscription in Nabataean language. Epitaph to one Raqush, including curse against grave-violaters:
"This is a grave K b. H has taken care of for his mother, Raqush bint ʿA. She died in al-Hijr in the year 162 in the month of Tammuz. May the Lord of the world curse anyone who desecrates this grave and opens it up, except his offspring! May he [also] curse anyone who buries [someone in the grave] and [then] removes [him] from it! May who buries.... be cursed!" (Healey and Smith)
|an-Namāra||100 km SE of Damascus||328-329||Arabic||Nabataean, more letter-joining than previous||A long epitaph for the famous Arab poet and war-leader Imru'ul-Qays, describing his war deeds:
"This is the funerary monument of Imru' al-Qays, son of 'Amr, king of the Arabs, and (?) his title of honour was Master of Asad and Madhhij.And he subdued the Asadis and they were overwhelmed together with their kings, and he put to flight Madhhij thereafter, and camedriving them to the gates of Najran, the city of Shammar, and he subdued Ma'add, and the dealt gently with the noblesof the tribes, and appointed them viceroys, and they became phylarchs for the Romans. And no king has equalled his achievements.Thereafter he died in the year 223 on the 7th day of Kaslul. Oh the good fortune of those who were his friends!" (Bellamy)
|Jabal Ramm||50 km east of Aqaba, Jordan||3rd or likelier late 4th century||3 lines in Arabic, 1 bent line in Thamudic||Arabic. Has some diacritic dots.||In a temple of Allat. Boast or thanks of an energetic man who made his fortune:
"I rose and made all sorts of money, which no world-weary man has [ever] collected. I have collected gold and silver; I announce it to those who are fed up and unwilling." (Bellamy)
|Sakakah||in Saudi Arabia||undated||Arabic||Arabic, some Nabataean features, & dots||Includes diacritical points associated with Arabic letters ب, ت, and ن [T,B and N]. (Winnett and Reed)|
|Sakakah||in Saudi Arabia||3rd or 4th century||Arabic||Arabic||"Hama son of Garm"|
|Sakakah||in Saudi Arabia||4th century||Arabic||Arabic||"B-`-s-w son of `Abd-Imru'-al-Qais son of Mal(i)k"|
|Umm al-Jimāl||northeast of Jordan||4th or 5th century||Arabic||similar to Arabic||"This [inscription] was set up by colleagues of ʿUlayh son of ʿUbaydah, secretary of the cohort Augusta Secunda Philadelphiana; may he go mad who effaces it." (Bellamy)|
|Zabad||in Syria, south of Aleppo||512||Arabic, Greek and Syriac||Arabic||Christian dedicatory. The Arabic says "God's help" & 6 names. "God" is written as الاله , see Allah#Typography:
"With the help of God! Sergius, son of Amat Manaf, and Tobi, son of Imru'l-qais and Sergius, son of Sa‘d, and Sitr, and Shouraih." (C. Rabin)
|Jabal Usays||in Syria||528||Arabic||Arabic||Record of a military expedition by Ibrahim ibn Mughirah on behalf of the king al-Harith, presumably Al-Harith ibn Jabalah (Arethas in Greek), king of the Ghassanid vassals of the Byzantines:
"This is Ruqaym, son of Mughayr the Awsite. Al-Ḥārith the king, sent me to 'Usays, upon his military posts in the year 423 [528 CE]"
|Harrān||in Leija district, south of Damascus||568||Arabic, Greek||Arabic||Christian dedicatory, in a martyrium. It records Sharahil ibn Zalim building the martyrium a year after the destruction of Khaybar:
"[I] Sharaḥīl, son of Talimu built this martyrium in the year 463 after the destruction of Khaybar by a year."
Cursive Nabataean writing changed into Arabic writing, likeliest between the dates of the an-Namāra inscription and the Jabal Ramm inscription. Most writing would have been on perishable materials, such as papyrus. As it was cursive, it was liable to change. The epigraphic record is extremely sparse, with only five certainly pre-Islamic Arabic inscriptions surviving, though some others may be pre-Islamic.
The Nabataean alphabet was designed to write 22 phonemes, but Arabic has 28 phonemes; thus, when used to write the Arabic language, 6 of its letters must each represent two phonemes:
d also represented ð,
ħ also represented kh %,
ṭ also represented ẓ,
ayin also represented gh %,
ṣ also represented ḍ,%,
t also represented þ.
: In the cases marked %, the choice was influenced by etymology, as Common Semitic kh and gh became Hebrew ħ and ayin respectively.
As cursive Nabataean writing evolved into Arabic writing, the writing became largely joined-up. Some of the letters became the same shape as other letters, producing more ambiguities, as in the table:
There the Arabic letters are listed in the traditional Levantine order but are written in their current forms, for simplicity. The letters which are the same shape have coloured backgrounds. The second value of the letters that represent more than one phoneme is after a comma. In these tables, ğ is j as in English "June".
In the Arabic language, the g sound seems to have changed into j in fairly late pre-Islamic times, and seems not to have happened in those tribes who invaded Egypt and settled there.
When a letter was at the end of a word, it often developed an end loop, and as a result most Arabic letters have two or more shapes.
b and n and t became the same.
y became the same as b and n and t except at the ends of words.
j and ħ became the same.
z and r became the same.
s and sh became the same.
After all this, there were only 17 letters which are different in shape. One letter-shape represented 5 phonemes (b t th n and sometimes y), one represented 3 phonemes (j ħ kh), and 5 each represented 2 phonemes. Compare the Hebrew alphabet, as in the table at .
(An analogy can be the Roman alphabet uppercase letters I and J: in the German Fraktur font they look the same but are officially different letters.)
Early Islamic changes
The Arabic alphabet is first attested in its classical form in the 7th century. See PERF 558 for the first surviving Islamic Arabic writing.
In the 7th century, probably in the early years of Islam while writing down the Qur'an, scribes realized that working out which of the ambiguous letters a particular letter was from context was laborious and not always possible, so a proper remedy was required. Writings in the Nabataean and Syriac alphabets already had sporadic examples of dots being used to distinguish letters which had become identical, for example as in the table on the right. By analogy with this, a system of dots was added to the Arabic alphabet to make enough different letters for Classical Arabic's 28 phonemes. Sometimes the resulting new letters were put in alphabetical order after their un-dotted originals, and sometimes at the end.
The first surviving document that definitely uses these dots is also the first surviving Arabic papyrus (PERF 558), dated April, 643. The dots did not become obligatory until much later. Important texts like the Qur'an were frequently memorized; this practice, which survives even today, probably arose partly to avoid the great ambiguity of the script, and partly due to the scarcity of books in times when printing was unheard-of in the area and every copy of every book had to be written by hand.
The alphabet then had 28 letters, and so could be used to write the numbers 1 to 10, then 20 to 100, then 200 to 900, then 1000 (see Abjad numerals). In this numerical order, the new letters were put at the end of the alphabet. This produced this order: alif (1), b (2), j (3), d (4), h (5), w (6), z (7), H (8), T (9), y (10), k (20), l (30), m (40), n (50), s (60), ayn (70), f (80), S (90), q (100), r (200), sh (300), t (400), th (500), dh (600), kh (700), D (800), Z (900), gh (1000).
The lack of vowel signs in Arabic writing created more ambiguities: for example, in Classical Arabic ktb could be kataba = "he wrote", kutiba = "it was written" or kutub="books". Later, vowel signs and hamzas were added, beginning some time in the last half of the 6th century, at about the same time as the first invention of Syriac and Hebrew vocalization. Initially, this was done using a system of red dots, said to have been commissioned by an Umayyad governor of Iraq, Hajjaj ibn Yusuf: a dot above = a, a dot below = i, a dot on the line = u, and doubled dots giving tanwin. However, this was cumbersome and easily confusable with the letter-distinguishing dots, so about 100 years later, the modern system was adopted. The system was finalized around 786 by al-Farahidi.
Before the historical decree by Hajjaj ibn Yusuf, all administrative texts were recorded by Persian scribes in Middle Persian language using Pahlavi script, but many of the initial orthographic alterations to the Arabic alphabet might have been proposed and implemented by the same scribes.
When new signs were added to the Arabic alphabet, they took the alphabetical order value of the letter which they were an alternative for: tā' marbūta (see also below) took the value of ordinary t, and not of h. In the same way, the many diacritics do not have any value: for example, a doubled consonant indicated by shadda does not count as a letter separate from the single one.
Some features of the Arabic alphabet arose because of differences between Qur'anic spelling (which followed the Meccan dialect pronunciation used by Muhammad and his first followers) and the standard Classical Arabic. These include:
- tā' marbūta: This arose because the -at ending of feminine nouns (tā' marbūta) was often pronounced as -ah and written as h. To avoid altering Quranic spelling, the dots of t were written over the h.
- y (alif maksura ى) used to spell ā at the ends of some words: This arose because ā arising from contraction where single y dropped out between vowels was in some dialects pronounced at the ends of words with the tongue further forward than for other ā vowels, and as a result in the Qu'ran it was written as y.[clarification needed]
- ā not written as alif in some words: The Arabic spelling of Allāh was decided before the Arabs started using alif to spell ā. In other cases (for example the first ā in hāðā = "this"), it may be that the Meccan dialect pronounced those vowels short.
- hamza: Originally alif was used to spell the glottal stop. But Meccans did not pronounce the glottal stop[verification needed], replacing it with w, y or nothing, lengthening an adjacent vowel, or, between vowels, dropping the glottal stop and contracting the vowels, and the Qur'an was written following Meccan pronunciation. The Arabic grammarians invented the hamza diacritic sign and used it to mark the glottal stop. Hamza is Arabic for "hook".
Reorganization of the alphabet
Less than a century later, Arab grammarians reorganized the alphabet, for reasons of teaching, putting letters next to other letters which were nearly the same shape. This produced a new order which was not the same as the numeric order, which became less important over time because it was being competed with by the Indian numerals and sometimes by the Greek numerals.
The Arabic grammarians of North Africa changed the new letters, which explains the differences between the alphabets of the East and the Maghreb.
(Greek waw = the original name of the digamma)
(Greek waw = the original name of the digamma)
(Note: here "numeric order" means the traditional values when these letters were used as numbers. See Arabic numerals, Greek numerals and Hebrew numerals for more details)
This order is much the oldest. The first written records of the Arabic alphabet show why the order was changed.
Adapting the Arabic alphabet for other languages
|ɡ||گ||ݢ||ك with a dot below||ج|
|ŋ||ڠ||ع with three dots below|
|retroflex||small ط above|
When the Arabic alphabet spread to countries which used other languages, extra letters had to be invented to spell non-Arabic sounds. Usually the alteration was three dots above or below:-
- Persian and Urdu: /p/: پ
- Persian and Urdu: /t͡ʃ/: چ
- Persian and Urdu: /ɡ/: گ
- Persian and Urdu: /ʒ/: ژ
- in Egypt: /ɡ/: ج. That is because Egyptian Arabic (and other dialects) have /ɡ/ where other Arabic dialects have /ʒ/~/d͡ʒ/
- in Egypt: /ʒ/: چ, same as Persian and Urdu چ
- in Egypt: /tʃ/: written as ت+ش and realized as [t]+[ʃ]
- Urdu: retroflex sounds: as the corresponding dentals but with a small letter ط above. (This problem in adapting a Semitic alphabet to write Indian languages also arose long before this: see Brahmi)
- In South-East Asia: /ŋ/ as in "sing": ڠ or څ
- This book shows an example of ch (Polish cz) being written as ڛ in an Arabic-Polish bilingual Quran for Muslim Tatars living in Poland
Decline in use by non-Arabic states
Since around the beginning of the 20th century, as the era of European Imperialism intensified and European aggression made its way into societal areas of conquered peoples, many non-Arab Islamic areas began using Cyrillic or Latin script to the liking of the imperial power, and native Arabic adaptations descended into non-use. In many cases, the Arabic system of a language has become almost exclusively for classical texts and traditional purposes (as in the Turkic States of Central Asia, or Hausa and others in West Africa ); while in others, the Arabic alphabet is used alongside European scripts (Such as Jawi in Brunei).
|Area used||Arabic spelling system||New spelling system||Date||Ordered by whom|
|Some constituent republics in the Soviet Union||Persian-based spelling system, later Ottoman Turkish alphabet with alterations||Cyrillic||1920s (to Janalif)
1930s (to Cyrillic)
|Jawi script (which is still widely used in Brunei and Patani)||Latin alphabet||19th century||British, Dutch and Spanish colonial administrations|
|Turkey||Ottoman Turkish alphabet||Turkish alphabet||1928||Republic of Turkey government after the fall of the Ottoman Empire|
- p.93, "The Koran, A Very Short Introduction" by Michael Cook, publ Oxford University Press, 2000 AD, ISBN 0-19-285344-9
- A brief history of the Arabic script with emphasis on diacritical points, vowel markers and alphabet arrangements