Language genetic affiliation
Arabic is a Semitic language, part of the larger Afroasiatic language phylum. It is the most widely spoken Semitic language, occupying a Central Semitic position between the Northwest Semitic branch of Ugaritic, Aramaic and Canaanite, and the South Semitic branch containing Epigraphical South Arabian. It is also seen as the most complete preservation of the Proto-Semitic consonants that typify the Semitic language family.
Whilst the spread of Arabic is reasonably well documented from the mid-7th century onwards, far less is known about its origins prior to this in the Levant, Mesopotamia and the Arabian Peninsula. The earliest evidence comes from groups of inscriptions written in different languages and scripts, from the fifth century BCE to the third century CE. Those written in Ancient North Arabian (Thamudic, Safaitic, Lihyanitic and Hasaitic) use a language which is closely related to what would later become Arabic, whilst the Nabatean and Palmyrene inscriptions use Aramaic instead. Although many of these examples offer little more than personal names and references to deities, Arabic words can be traced in them which confirm that the language was spoken at that time. Referred to as Old/Ancient Arabic, strong evidence suggests that there were many distinct dialects before the arrival of Islam, by which time there was also a strong literary tradition in Arabic. Whether the modern-day varieties of Arabic emerged from a single spoken variety, or are themselves related to many ancient dialects, is open to debate, but the current consensus favours the latter.