Ancient South Arabian script

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Ancient South Arabian script
Script type
Time period
Late 2nd millennium BCE to 6th century CE
DirectionRight-to-left script Edit this on Wikidata
LanguagesOld South Arabian, Ge'ez
Related scripts
Parent systems
Child systems
Sister systems
Ancient North Arabian
ISO 15924
ISO 15924Sarb (105), ​Old South Arabian
Unicode alias
Old South Arabian
 This article contains phonetic transcriptions in the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA). For an introductory guide on IPA symbols, see Help:IPA. For the distinction between [ ], / / and  , see IPA § Brackets and transcription delimiters.
South Arabian inscription addressed to the Sabaean national god Almaqah

The Ancient South Arabian script (Old South Arabian: 𐩣𐩯𐩬𐩵 ms3nd; modern Arabic: الْمُسْنَد musnad) branched from the Proto-Sinaitic script in about the late 2nd millennium BCE. It was used for writing the Old South Arabian languages Sabaic, Qatabanic, Hadramautic, Minaean, and Hasaitic, and the ancient language of Eritrea, Geʽez in Dʿmt. The earliest instances of the Ancient South Arabian script are painted pottery sherds from Raybun in Hadhramaut in Yemen, which are dated to the late 2nd millennium BCE.[3] There are no letters for vowels, which are marked by matres lectionis.

Its mature form was reached around 800 BCE and its use continued until the 6th century CE, including Ancient North Arabian inscriptions in variants of the alphabet, when it was displaced by the Arabic alphabet.[4] In Eritrea and Ethiopia, it evolved later into the Geʽez script,[1][2] which, with added symbols throughout the centuries, has been used to write Amharic, Tigrinya and Tigre, as well as other languages (including various Semitic, Cushitic, and Nilo-Saharan languages).


  • It is usually written from right to left but can also be written from left to right. When written from left to right the characters are flipped horizontally (see the photo).
  • The spacing or separation between words is done with a vertical bar mark (|).
  • Letters in words are not connected together.
  • It does not implement any diacritical marks (dots, etc.), differing in this respect from the modern Arabic alphabet.


Difference from the Arabic script[edit]

The Musnad script differs from the Arabic script, which most linguists believe developed from the Nabataean script in the fourth century AD, which in turn developed from the Aramaic script. The languages of the Southern Musnad script also differ greatly from the Northern Arabic language,in terms of script, lexicon, grammar, styles, and perhaps sounds, and the letters of the script increase. The Musnad is derived from Arabic with one sibilant letter (some call it samikh) or the third sīn.[5][6]


Sabaean letter examples on page 274 of the book "Illustrirte Geschichte der Schrift" by Carl Faulmann, 1880
Sabaean letter examples on page 275 of the book "Illustrirte Geschichte der Schrift" by Carl Faulmann, 1880
Letter[7] Phoneme IPA Corresponding letter in
Ancient North Arabian Ge'ez Phoenician Aramaic Arabic Hebrew
𐩠 h [h] 𐪀 𐤄 𐡄 ه ה
𐩡 l [l] 𐪁 𐤋 𐡋 ل ל
𐩢 [ħ] 𐪂 𐤇 𐡇 ح ח
𐩣 m [m] 𐪃 𐤌 𐡌 م מ ם
𐩤 q [q] 𐪄 𐤒 𐡒 ق ק
𐩥 w [w], [] 𐪅 𐤅 𐡅 و ו
𐩦 s² (š) [ɬ] 𐪆 𐤔 𐡔 ش ש
𐩧 r [r] 𐪇 𐤓 𐡓 ر ר
𐩨 b [b] 𐪈 𐤁 𐡁 ب ב
𐩩 t [t] 𐪉 𐤕 𐡕 ت ת
𐩪 s¹ (s) [s] 𐪊 س
𐩫 k [k] 𐪋 𐤊 𐡊 ك כ ך
𐩬 n [n] 𐪌 𐤍 𐡍 ن נ ן
𐩭 [x] 𐪍 خ
𐩮 [] 𐪎 𐤑 𐡑 ص צ ץ
𐩯 s³ (ś) [] 𐪏 𐤎 𐡎 ס
𐩰 f [f] 𐪐 𐤐 𐡐 ف פ ף
𐩱 ʾ [ʔ] 𐪑 𐤀 𐡀 ا א
𐩲 ʿ [ʕ] 𐪒 𐤏 𐡏 ع ע
𐩳 [ɬˤ] 𐪓 ض
𐩴 g [g] 𐪔‎ 𐤂 𐡂 ج ג
𐩵 d [d] 𐪕 𐤃 𐡃 د ד
𐩶 ġ [ɣ] 𐪖 غ
𐩷 [] 𐪗 𐤈 𐡈 ط ט
𐩸 z [z] 𐪘 𐤆 𐡆 ز ז
𐩹 [ð] 𐪙 ذ
𐩺 y [j], [] 𐪚 𐤉 𐡉 ي י
𐩻 [θ] 𐪛 ث
𐩼 [θˤ] 𐪜 ظ
Wikipedia, written with musnad letters, from right to left on the upper line and from left to right on the bottom one. Notice how the letters are mirrored.


Six signs are used for numbers:

1 5 10 50 100 1000
𐩽 𐩭 𐩲 𐩾 𐩣 𐩱

The sign for 50 was evidently created by removing the lower triangle from the sign for 100.[8] The sign for 1 doubles as a word separator. The other four signs double as both letters and numbers. Each of these four signs is the first letter of the name of the corresponding numeral.[8]

An additional sign (𐩿) is used to bracket numbers, setting them apart from surrounding text.[8] For example, ‏𐩿𐩭𐩽𐩽𐩿

These signs are used in an additive system similar to Roman numerals to represent any number (excluding zero). Two examples:

  • 17 is written as 1 + 1 + 5 + 10: ‏𐩲𐩭𐩽𐩽
  • 99 is written as 1 + 1 + 1 + 1 + 5 + 10 + 10 + 10 + 10 + 50: 𐩾𐩲𐩲𐩲𐩲𐩭𐩽𐩽𐩽𐩽
Sample numbers from one to twenty
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10
𐩽 𐩽𐩽 𐩽𐩽𐩽 𐩽𐩽𐩽𐩽 𐩭 𐩭𐩽 𐩭𐩽𐩽 𐩭𐩽𐩽𐩽 𐩭𐩽𐩽𐩽𐩽 𐩲
11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20
𐩲𐩽 𐩲𐩽𐩽 𐩲𐩽𐩽𐩽 𐩲𐩽𐩽𐩽𐩽 𐩲𐩭 𐩲𐩭𐩽 𐩲𐩭𐩽𐩽 𐩲𐩭𐩽𐩽𐩽 𐩲𐩭𐩽𐩽𐩽𐩽 𐩲𐩲

Thousands are written two different ways:

  • Smaller values are written using just the 1000 sign. For example, 8,000 is written as 1000 × 8: ‏𐩱𐩱𐩱𐩱𐩱𐩱𐩱𐩱
  • Larger values are written by promoting the signs for 10, 50, and 100 to 10,000, 50,000, and 100,000 respectively:
    • 31,000 is written as 1000 + 10,000 × 3: ‏𐩲𐩲𐩲𐩱‎ (easily confused with 1,030)
    • 40,000 is written as 10,000 × 4: ‏𐩲𐩲𐩲𐩲‎ (easily confused with 40)
    • 253,000 is written as 2 × 100.000 + 50.000 + 3 × 1000: ‏𐩣𐩣𐩾𐩱𐩱𐩱‎ (easily confused with 3,250)

Perhaps because of ambiguity, numerals, at least in monumental inscriptions, are always clarified with the numbers written out in words.


Zabur inscription

Zabūr, also known as "South Arabian minuscules",[9] is the name of the cursive form of the South Arabian script that was used by the Sabaeans in addition to their monumental script, or Musnad.[10]

Zabur was a writing system in ancient Yemen along with Musnad. The difference between the two is that Musnad documented historical events, meanwhile Zabur writings were used for religious scripts or to record daily transactions among ancient Yemenis. Zabur writings could be found in palimpsest form written on papyri or palm-leaf stalks.[11][12]


The South Arabian alphabet was added to the Unicode Standard in October, 2009 with the release of version 5.2.

The Unicode block, called Old South Arabian, is U+10A60–U+10A7F.

Note that U+10A7D OLD SOUTH ARABIAN NUMBER ONE (𐩽) represents both the numeral one and a word divider.[8]

Old South Arabian[1]
Official Unicode Consortium code chart (PDF)
  0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 A B C D E F
U+10A6x 𐩠 𐩡 𐩢 𐩣 𐩤 𐩥 𐩦 𐩧 𐩨 𐩩 𐩪 𐩫 𐩬 𐩭 𐩮 𐩯
U+10A7x 𐩰 𐩱 𐩲 𐩳 𐩴 𐩵 𐩶 𐩷 𐩸 𐩹 𐩺 𐩻 𐩼 𐩽 𐩾 𐩿
1.^ As of Unicode version 15.1

In modern culture[edit]

Yemeni archeologist and linguist Mutaher al-Eryani, was keen to record a memorial in the Musnad script and in the Sabaean language, commemorating the renovation of the Ma’rib Dam in 1986, which was carried out at the expense of Sheikh Zayed and in conjunction with the celebration of victory in the North Yemen Civil War against the Kingdom of Yemen. The inscription was published in a scientific article written by the Frenchman Christian Robin as the last official Musnad inscription.[13]


  • Photo from the British Museum

See also[edit]



  1. ^ a b Daniels, Peter T.; Bright, William, eds. (1996). The World's Writing Systems. Oxford University Press, Inc. pp. 89, 98, 569–570. ISBN 978-0195079937.
  2. ^ a b Gragg, Gene (2004). "Ge'ez (Aksum)". In Woodard, Roger D. (ed.). The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the World's Ancient Languages. Cambridge University Press. p. 431. ISBN 0-521-56256-2.
  3. ^ Stein, Peter (2013). "Palaeography of the Ancient South Arabian script. New evidence for an absolute chronology". Arabian Archaeology and Epigraphy. 24 (2): 186–195. doi:10.1111/aae.12024. ISSN 0905-7196.
  4. ^ Ibn Durayd, Ta‘līq min amāli ibn durayd, ed. al-Sanūsī, Muṣṭafā, Kuwait 1984, p. 227 (Arabic). The author purports that a poet from the Kinda tribe in Yemen who settled in Dūmat al-Ǧandal during the advent of Islam told of how another member of the Yemenite Kinda tribe who lived in that town taught the Arabic script to the Banū Qurayš in Mecca and that their use of the Arabic script for writing eventually took the place of musnad, or what was then the Sabaean script of the kingdom of Ḥimyar: "You have exchanged the musnad of the sons of Ḥimyar / which the kings of Ḥimyar were wont to write down in books."
  5. ^ "موسوعة علوم اللغة العربية 1-10 مع الفهارس ج5 - إميل بديع يعقوب ،الدكتور - كتب Google". 2020-03-18. Retrieved 2024-05-04.
  6. ^ "رحلة المصحف الشريف من الجريد الى التجليد - حسن قاسم حبش - كتب Google". 2020-03-18. Retrieved 2024-05-04.
  7. ^ Official Unicode Consortium code chart
  8. ^ a b c d Maktari, Sultan; Mansour, Kamal (2008-01-28). "L2/08-044: Proposal to encode Old South Arabian Script" (PDF).
  9. ^ Stein 2005.
  10. ^ Ryckmans, Müller & ‛Abdallah 1994, p. 43.
  11. ^ Ryckmans 1993, p. 127.
  12. ^ S. Horovitz, Koranische Untersuchungen, p. 70
  13. ^ Robin, Christian Julien. "« Le texte de fondation en langue sabéenne de la nouvelle digue de Maʾrib, inaugurée en 1986 », dans Proceedings of the Seminar for Arabian Studies, 18, 1988, pp. 115-122". {{cite journal}}: Cite journal requires |journal= (help)


  • Stein, Peter (2005). "The Ancient South Arabian Minuscule Inscriptions on Wood: A New Genre of Pre-Islamic Epigraphy". Jaarbericht van het Vooraziatisch-Egyptisch Genootschap "Ex Oriente Lux". 39: 181–199.
  • Stein, Peter (2010). Die altsüdarabischen Minuskelinschriften auf Holzstäbchen aus der Bayerischen Staatsbibliothek in München.
  • Beeston, A.F.L. (1962). "Arabian Sibilants". Journal of Semitic Studies. 7 (2): 222–233. doi:10.1093/jss/7.2.222.
  • Francaviglia Romeo, Vincenzo (2012). Il trono della regina di Saba, Artemide, Roma. pp. 149–155.
  • Ryckmans, Jacques (1993). "Inscribed Old South Arabian sticks and palm-leaf stalks: An introduction and a paleographical approach". Proceedings of the Seminar for Arabian Studies. 23: 127–140. JSTOR 41223401.
  • Ryckmans, J.; Müller, W. W.; ‛Abdallah, Yu. (1994). Textes du Yémen Antique inscrits sur bois (in French). Louvain-la-Neuve, Belgium: Publications de l'Institut Orientaliste de Louvain.

External links[edit]