Monuments of the Arabic branch first appear in the earliest centuries A.D. (Sabaean inscriptions, Ethiopic translation of the Bible in the fourth or fifth century, North-Arabic literature from the sixth century A.D.).
It is, however, another question which of these languages has adhered longest and most faithfully to the original character of the Semitic, and which consequently represents to us the earliest phase of its development. For the more or less rapid transformation of the sounds and forms of a language, as spoken by nations and races, is dependent on causes quite distinct from the growth of a literature, and the organic structure of a language is often considerably impaired even before it has developed a literature, especially by early contact with people of a different language. Thus in the Semitic group, the Aramaic dialects exhibit the earliest and greatest decay, next to them the Hebrew-Canaanitish, and in its own way the Assyrian. Arabic, owing to the seclusion of the desert tribes, was the longest to retain the original fullness and purity of the sounds and forms of words. Even here, however, there appeared, through the revolutionary influence of Islam, an ever-increasing decay, until Arabic at length reached the stage at which we find Hebrew in the Old Testament.
[n] Hence the phenomenon, that in its grammatical structure the ancient Hebrew agrees more with the modern than with the ancient Arabic, and that the latter, although it only appears as a written language at a later period, has yet in many respects preserved a more complete structure and a more original vowel system than the other Semitic languages, cf. Nöldeke, ‘Das klassische Arabisch und die arabischen Dialekte,’ in Beiträge zur semitischen Sprachwissenschaft, p. 1 ff. It thus occupies amongst them a position similar to that which Sanskrit holds among the Indo-Germanic languages, or Gothic in the narrower circle of the Germanic. But even the toughest organism of a language often deteriorates, at least in single forms and derivatives, while on the contrary, in the midst of what is otherwise universal decay, there still remains here and there something original and archaic; and this is the case with the Semitic languages.
Fuller proof of the above statements belongs to the comparative Grammar of the Semitic languages. It follows, however, from what has been said: (1) that the Hebrew language, as found in the sacred literature of the Jews, has, in respect
- Even now the language of some of the Bèdawîs much purer and more archaic than that of the town Arabs. It must, however, be admitted that the former exalted estimate of the primitiveness of Arabic has been moderated in many respects by the most recent school of Semitic philology. Much apparently original is to be regarded with Nöldeke (Die semit. Spr., p. 5 [=Encycl. Brit., ed. 9, art. Semitic Languages, p. 642]) only as a modification of the original. The assertion that the Arabs exhibit Semitic characteristics in their purest form, should, according to Nöldeke, be rather that ‘the inhabitants of the desert lands of Arabia, under the influence of the extraordinarily monotonous scenery and of a life continually the same amid continual change, have developed most exclusively some of the principal traits of the Semitic race’.