Pre-classical Arabic

Pre-Classical Arabic is the cover term for all varieties of Arabic spoken in the Arabian Peninsula until immediately after the Arab conquests in the 7th century C.E. Scholars disagree about the status of these varieties.[1]

Early period of Arabic language development, before the Classical Arabic
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Classical Arabic
Native to Historically in the Middle East, now used as a liturgical language of Islam
Era until the Arab conquests
Early form
Dialects Over 24 modern Arabic dialects
Language codes
ISO 639-3
Glottolog None
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Some scholars[2][3][4][5][6][7] assume that the language of pre-Islamic poetry and the Quran was similar, if not identical, to the varieties spoken in the Arabian Peninsula before the emergence of Islam. If differences existed, they concerned mainly stylistic and minor points of linguistic structure. A second group of mainly Western scholars of Arabic (Vollers 1906; Fleisch 1947; Kahle 1948; Rabin 1951; Blachère 1950; Wehr 1952; Spitaler 1953; Rosenthal 1953; Fleisch 1964; Zwettler 1978; Holes 1995; Owens 1998; Sharkawi 2005) do not regard the variety in which the Quran was revealed as a spoken variety of Arabic in the peninsula. Some of them (Zwettler 1978; Sharkawi 2005) go so far as to state that the function of the language of pre-Islamic poetry and the Quran was limited to artistic expression and oral rendition (poetic koine). Others are not as clear about the functional load of this variety in pre-Islamic times. A third group of scholars (Geyer 1909; Nöldeke 1904, 1910; Kahle 1948) assume that the variety of Arabic of pre-Islamic poetry and the Quran was the variety spoken by Bedouin Arab tribes and non sedentary Arabs, at least in the western parts of the peninsula where trade routes existed.

Some modern scholars of Arabic believe that the Classical Arabic grammarians held their view, that the language of pre-Islamic poetry and the Quran was identical with at least the spoken varieties of some Arab tribes in the peninsula (Rabin 1955:21–22; Sharkawi 2005:5–6). A first reading of the grammatical texts seems to confirm that grammarians were quite aware of the existence of different language varieties in the Arabic-speaking sphere. They distinguished terminologically between luġa ‘dialect’ and lisān ‘language’ (ˀAnīs 1952:16–17; Naṣṣār 1988:58). Among several meanings of the word luġa is the technical meaning of a linguistic variety (Rabin 1951:9).

As early as the 2nd century A.H., grammarians were aware of differences among the dialects. Among the earliest writers on tribal dialects were Yunus ibn Ḥabīb (d. 182/798) and ˀAbū ˁAmr aš-Šaybānì (d. 213/828), the author of the Kitāb al-jīm, in which odd and archaic lexical items used in certain tribes are recorded.

. . . Pre-classical Arabic . . .

Old Hijazi features appear in the grammarians’ books more frequently than features of any other dialect. It is, therefore, a much better represented dialect in comparison to others, despite the fact that the region’s geographical definition is not as clear. In pre-Islamic times, the Hijaz was the western part of the peninsula, between the Tihama in the southwest and the Najd in the east. It included the Banū Sulaym and the Banū Hilāl. In the north was the territory of Bālī, and in the south that of Huḏayl. After the advent of Islam, the Tihāma was included in the Hijaz, thus the Bedouin tribes in the interior were sometimes included in the Hijaz. It seems that for the grammarians, Hijaz referred to regions defined according to the post-Islamic demarcation. In this way, the urban centers of Mecca, Medina, and Ṯaqīf were included in that region. The term luġa ˀahl al-Hijaz covers all differences that may have existed within this region.

Phonological features of this region include:

  1. The pronunciation of /ˁ/ as hamza.
  2. The use of the full forms of vowels, without elision or vowel changes, e.g. ˁunuq ‘neck’ as against ˁunq in Eastern Arabian dialects, where short unstressed vowels were elided.
  3. The absence of vowel harmony, which was realized in Eastern dialects, e.g. Hijazi baˁīr ‘camel’, corresponding to Eastern biˁīr. By the same token, uvular and pharyngeal consonants assimilated following vowels in the Eastern dialects, while in the Hijaz they rested immune, e.g. Hijazi ˁuqr ‘the main part of the house’, corresponding to Eastern ˁaqr. In the neighborhood of uvulars and pharyngeals, the Hijaz had /u/, while the Eastern dialects had /a/.
  4. The tendency to shorten the long final vowels in pause positions.
  5. The elision of the hamza.

Morphological features of this dialect include:

  1. The 3rd person suffix pronouns -hu, -humā,-hum, and -hunna did not change to the -hi form after i or ī.
  2. For the singular relative pronoun, the Hijaz used allaḏī rather than the Western and Yemenite ḏī and ḏū. For the feminine plural, the Hijaz used allāˀī. The same form may have been used for the masculine plural as well.
  3. The dual suffix in the Hijaz may have had a single form, -āni, for the nominative, accusative, and genitive cases alike. Ibn Hišām (Muġnī I, 37), in his explanation of the nominative case of the demonstrative pronoun hāḏāni ‘these two’ in the verse ˀinna hāḏāni la-sāḥirāni (Q. 20/63), claimed that in the dialect of the Hijaz, these demonstrative pronouns were indeclinable.
  4. The absence of taltala.
  5. The imperative of geminated verbs was conjugated as the strong verbs, e.g. urdud ‘respond!’.

Syntactic features of this dialect include:

  1. Some nouns were feminine in the Hijaz and masculine in the Najd and Tamīm. Some examples are tamr ‘dates’, šaˁīr ‘barley’, ṣirāṭ ‘path’. The word ṣirāṭ appears in the first sūra of the Qurān (Q.1/6) followed by a masculine adjective (ṣirāṭ mustaqīm).
  2. In the Hijaz, the predicate of verbal sentences agreed in number with the head verb (known as the luġa ˀakalūnī l-barāġīṯ), unlike Standard Arabic, where the head verb is always in the singular.
  3. In the Hijaz, after the shortened forms ˀin and ˀan, the subject took an accusative case, while in Classical Arabic and in the east, shortened particles lost their effect on the following nominal clause.
  4. After the complementizer ˀinna, ˀanna, etc. the Hijazi dialect put the subject and predicate of the sentence in the accusative case. Ibn Hišām (Muġnì I, 36) explains the agreement in case between the subject and predicate in a nominal sentence after ±inna ‘in one version of a ḥadīṯ (±inna qaˁra jahannama sabˁīna xarīfan) by saying that the Hijaz did not distinguish between the subject and predicate in case endings after ˀinna.
  5. The predicate of kāna and other copulas (kāna wa-ˀaxawātuhā) was given a nominative case, while an accusative case is assigned to it in Classical Arabic.
  6. In the Hijaz, mā, lā, and ˀin had the same effect as the Classical Arabic laysa in assigning to the subject the nominative case and to the predicate the accusative case.
  7. Verbs in the indicative were used after ±an. An example comes from Mujāhid (d. 104/722), who read the verse li-man ˀarāda ˀan yutimma r-raḍāˁata ‘for those who want the suckling (period) to be completed’ with an indicative ending, yutimmu (Q. 2/233).

The ˀAzd dialect is rarely mentioned in the literature. Whereas anecdotes and šawāhid from other Yemeni dialects are given, the dialect of ˀAzd receives little attention. More confusing still is the fact that there were two tribes by the name of ˀAzd, one in Oman and the other in the western part of Yemen. The two features that are mentioned, however, show the difference between this dialect and the rest of Yemen.

  1. The retention of the nominal case endings a, i, and u in the pausal position.
  2. The retention of the vowel a in the prefixes of the imperfect, e.g. yaktub ‘he writes’ as against the taltala in other dialects.

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. . . Pre-classical Arabic . . .

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