This post is also available in: Arabic

Was the Nabataean Script the Root of the Modern Arabic Script?

The origin of the Arabic script goes back to an alphabet created by the Phoenicians. The Phoenicians developed the alphabet circa 1400-1250 BC in order to communicate with the diverse cultures and tongues of their maritime trading partners. The Phoenician script developed into Greek and later the modern Latin alphabet in one side and into Aramaic, which developed further into Modern Hebrew and Nabataean. The question of the development of the Arabic script , is perforated with uncertainty for scholars. They disagree on the origin of this significant medium, which has been used by Arabs, Persians, and other nations for the past 15 centuries. (Musa, I, 2001). In general, there are two schools of thought regarding the origin of the present Arabic script. One believes it is Nabataean while the other attributes it to Syriac. The Syriac, like the Nabataean, is another offshoot of the Aramaic script, which evolved from the Phoenician (Musa, I, 2001). However, it is now an accepted theory that the Arabic script originated from the Nabataean script. T. Nöldeke was the first to establish the link between the Nabataean and Arabic scripts in 1865, which later confirmed against J. Starcky’s Syriac thesis by Grohmann. The affiliation between Nabataean and Arabic scripts has now been fully documented by J. Healey with almost a complete consensus among scholars on the Nabatean root of the Arabic script (Healy, J. 1990).

Centered at the ancient city of Petra, the Nabataeans built a kingdom in the 2nd century BC that grew prosperous from trade routes that crisscrossed their territory. At its height the Nabataean kingdom extended from Syria northern Saudi Arabia, and from Jordan into the Sinai in Egypt. Nabateans have adapted a script with a slightly modified Aramaic shapes after centuries of economic relations with neighboring urban centers. The Nabataean’s variant of the Aramaic script evolved from the angular shape of the original to a more cursive style with ample use of ligatures to join the letters of words together. Despite living under Roman rule, the Nabataeans continued to write with their script well into the 4th century AD, at which time the language behind the script shifted from Aramaic to Arabic. Nabataean is therefore considered the direct precursor of the Arabic script. (Naveh J., 1982) Archeologists and linguists have analyzed and studied the Nabataean inscriptions that represent the advanced transitional stage toward the development of such Arabic scripts as the Um al-Jimal, dating from about 250 A.D., and the Namarah dating from 328 A.D. Another inscription from Um al-Jimal, dating from the 6th century, confirms the derivation of the Arabic script from the Nabataean and points to the birth of distinctive Arabic writing forms. This date is considered by many scholars to be the date that Nabataean script “became” the Arabic script. (ConnorM. 1986).

Nabataean script was developed from the Aramaic script during the second century BC. It is a consonant alphabet (Abjad) of 22 letters with no vowel indication. It is written from right to left in horizontal lines with no spacing between words. Numerals in Nabataean script are built from characters.