Safaitic dialect

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Region Arabia, Syria
Extinct marginalized by Classical Arabic from the 7th century
Ancient North Arabian alphabet
Language codes
ISO 639-3
Glottolog safa1245[1]

Safaitic (Arabic: صفوية or صفائية‎) is the name given to an Ancient North Arabian dialect, preserved in the form of inscriptions which are written using an Ancient North Arabian alphabet. These inscriptions were written by bedouin and semi-nomadic inhabitants of the Syro-Arabian desert. Dating of the inscriptions, although problematic, is conventionally placed between the 1st century BC and the 4th century AD.


Safaitic inscriptions are named after the area where they were first discovered in 1857: Es Safa, a region of basalt desert to the southeast of Damascus, Syria. Since then they have been found over a wide area including south Syria, eastern Jordan and northwestern Saudi Arabia. Isolated examples occur further afield in places such as Palmyra in Syria, in Lebanon, in Wadi Hauran in western Iraq, and in Ha'il in north central Saudi Arabia. The largest concentration appears to be in the Harrat Ash Shamah, a black basalt desert, stretching south and east from Jebel Druze through Jordan and into Saudi Arabia. Approximately 30,000 inscriptions have been recorded, although doubtless many hundreds of thousands more remain undiscovered due to the remoteness and inhospitable nature of the terrain in which they are found. Typically the inscriptions are found on the rocks and boulders of the desert scatter, or on the stones of cairns. In many cases it is unclear whether the inscriptions on the cairns pre- or post-date the construction of the cairns.

The language and script[edit]

Safaitic is a branch of the early South Central Semitic languages (Arabic). Within the Arabic group there are a number of dialects which use h- rather than ’al for the definite article - these include Safaitic, Dadanitic, Dumaitic, Hasaitic, Hismaic, Taymanitic, and Thamudic. The Safaitic alphabet comprises 28 letters. Three abecedaries (lists of the alphabet) are known, but all are written in different orders, giving strength to the suggestion that the script was casually learned rather than taught systematically.

Several forms of Ancient North Arabian script are identified, including Safaitic, Square Safaitic and South Safaitic. The inscriptions are scratched, usually in a regular manner but sometimes using a 'zigzag' technique, or occasionally they are pecked. Inscriptions are often written in boustrophedon form: text travels from left to right (or vice versa) and then reverses for the next line.


Most Safaitic inscriptions are graffiti, and reflect the current concerns of the author - the availability of grazing for his camel herd, mourning the discovery of another inscription by a person who has since died, or simply listing his genealogy and stating that he made the inscription. Others comment on raids and pray for booty, or mention religious practices. A few inscriptions by female authors are known. Inscriptions are sometimes accompanied by rock art, showing hunting or battle scenes, camels and horses and their riders, bedouin camp scenes, or occasional female figures.

Material culture[edit]

Apart from the inscriptions and images left behind, very little is known of the material culture of the Safaitic people. Several factors play a part: the Bedouin of necessity have few belongings and a transient lifestyle and so relatively little will have been preserved in the archaeological record; the conditions for successful preservation are not good, and little research and very few excavations have been undertaken concerning this aspect of Safaitic life.


  • King, G. (1990) "The Basalt Desert Rescue Survey and some preliminary remarks on the Safaitic inscriptions and rock drawings" Proceedings of the Seminar for Arabian Studies 20:55-78
  • Macdonald, M. C. A. (1992) "Inscriptions, Safaitic" in The Anchor Bible Dictionary Vol 3 (editor in chief D N Freedman) Doubleday
  • Macdonald, M. C. A. (2000) "Reflections on the linguistic map of pre-Islamic Arabia" Arabian Archaeology and Epigraphy 11(1):28–79
  • Oxtoby, W. G. (1968) Some Inscriptions of the Safaitic Bedouin American Oriental Society, Oriental Series 50. New Haven, Connecticut
  • Winnett, F. V. and Harding, G. L. (1978) Inscriptions from Fifty Safaitic Cairns Toronto


  1. ^ Nordhoff, Sebastian; Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds. (2013). "Safaitic". Glottolog. Leipzig: Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology. 

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