Mounir Arbach, CNRS, UMR 8167 Orient & Méditerranée, « Mondes sémitiques anciens », Paris, CNRS, USR 3141 Centre français d’archéologie et de sciences sociales, Riyadh, Arabie saoudite.

Language Family and Linguistic Characteristics

If we follow the new classification of Semitic languages, the South Arabian epigraphic languages belong, like Hebrew, Aramaic, and Arabic, to the ’Central Semitic’ branch.

To date, four South Arabian epigraphic languages have been recognised: Sabaic, Minaic (also called Madhabaic), Qatabanic and Hadramaic. These four languages were used respectively by the four South Arabian kingdoms: Sabaʾ, Maʿīn, Qatabān and Ḥaḍramawt.

Only Sabaic, the best documented, was used during the whole history of the South Arabian civilisation, fromaround the eighth century BCE to the sixth century CE. The other South Arabian languages, were supplanted at various periods by Sabaic, and with the disappearance of the kingdoms of Maʿīn at the beginning of the common era, Qatabanictowards the end of the second century CE, and Ḥaḍramawt at the beginning of the fourth century CE.

Like the other Semitic languages, the South Arabian epigraphic languages are based on consonantal roots.

The South Arabian languages are distinguised by the use of definite articles, n/hn, and indefinite, m, suffixed to nouns. Sabaic has a transitive form in hfʿl and possessive pronouns ending in –hw/h/hmy/hwmw/hn; the three other South Arabian languages, Minaic, Qatabanic, and Hadramaic, use s1fʿl, and –s1/s1w, -s1ww, -s1yw, -s1my/s1mn/s1m/s1n for the pronouns, while Hadramaic uses -s3/th/thyw (f.s.) and -s1mn/s1my/s1myn.

As a result of the political ambitions of and military conquests carried out by the rulers of Saba to unify the rest of the South Arabian kingdoms, Sabaic served as a model for the other South Arabian epigraphic languages from the eighth and seventh centuries BCE.

Writing System

South Arabian epigraphic writing is alphabetic, consisting of 29 letters with three sibilants (s1, s2, s3), whose order - h l ḥ m q w s2 r b t s1 k n h ṣ s3 f ’ ‘ ḍ g d ḡ ṭ z ḏ y ṯ ẓ -  was developed in the Levant (Syria-Palestine) around the fourteenth century BCE. Vowels are not recorded, and as in all of the Semitic epigraphic languages, the three letters alif, wāw and are considered as semi-consonants/semi-vowels.

Thanks to the commercial exchange between South Arabia and the Near East, the South Arabian script is attested throughout in the Arabian peninsula, in Palestine, Egypt, and in Greece on the isle of Delos.

The SouthArabian script was probably introduced to Ethiopia by the Sabaeans in the seventh century BCE. From the second century CE the contact between South Arabia and Ethiopia resumed, and the inscriptions left by the kings of Aksum (first to sixth centuries CE) are in the South Arabian script, with cursive letterforms. In the fourth century CE Christianity was introduced to Ethiopia, and a writing reform also introduced changes in the direction of the writing, which began to be written from left to right, and in the notation of vowels: the Ethiopian script became a syllabic script.

Chronological and Geographical Extent

The oldest attestations of the South Arabian languages appear in the beginning of the first millennium BCE in the case of miniscules inscribed on palm fronds, and towards the ninth to eighth centuries BCE in the case of monumental inscriptions left, for the most part, by kings. The last inscriptions, composed in Sabaic, date to approximately 570 CE.

With the advent of Islam, South Arabian civilisation was extinguished: the Arabic language, already used by part of the South Arabian population, progressively replaced Sabaic. The South Arabian epigraphic script similarly appears to also have been replaced by the Arabic script, already in use in the Najrān from the beginning of the Islamic period, and indeed probably before, around the sixth century CE.

The South Arabian languages were principally used in South Arabia, modern Yemen, in the western part of Oman where the Hadramis founded the port of Khôr Rôrî, towards the second century BCE. Trading posts were also founded by the Minaeans in Arabia: a Minaean colony was established at al-ʿUlà, ancient Dedan, in the sixth to second centuries BCE, and they likely also had a presence at Qaryat al-Fâw, in the fourth century BCE.

Text Corpus for the study of Peace


The number of South Arabian inscriptions is constantly rising. At present, we are aware of approximately 15,000 monumental inscriptions in the four South Arabian languages, of which Sabaean is the best documented and the best known. Several thousand texts in miniscule script have also been discovered in the last few years: these reveal details of everyday life and economic activity in Soutn Arabia.

The nature of the South Arabian inscriptions is, for the most part, dedicatory or religious, cultic or commemorative in function. There seems to be an absence of mythological literature and historical annals. Juridical texts (decrees, regulations, laws, etc.) are equally rare. As for historical texts relating to the events and important deeds of the kings, we possess some fundamental texts dating to the first century BCE, but they are more frequent for the period from the first to the sixth centuries CE. It is upon this corpus of historical texts that the study of the terminology of peace will be based.

Until the 1980s, as a result of insufficient documents, the South Arabian languages were considered as dialects of a single language, among which Sabaic played a predominant role. With the multiplication of new discoveries in Minaic, Qatabanic, and Hadramaic, it has become clear that there were four languages, of which Sabaic and Minaic (north and north-east of Yemen) present lexical and morphological similarities with Hebrew, Aramaic and classical Arabic, while Qatabanic and Hadramaic (south-west and south-east of Yemen) constitute a second group, having similarities with the South Semitic language branch, notably with Ethiopian. Although common lexical roots are attested in the four South Arabic epigraphic languages, each language has its own lexical specificities. This is particularly true of Qarabanic and Hadramaic, whose lexicons contain a certain number of words with only a single occurence, hapax legomena, whose interpretations pose a problem.

Finally, the issue remains of the relationship between the South Arabian epigraphic languages and the modern South Arabian languages (Soqotri, Mehri, Jibbali, etc.), which form part of the South Semitic language family, along with Ethiopian.


With the development of new technologies, a database of South Arabian inscriptions has been created, the Corpus of South Arabian Inscriptions (CSAI : DASI – Digital Archive for the Study of pre-Islamic Arabian Inscriptions [].) This is instrument of study is highly useful for lexical and onomastic research, and also contains bibliographical details for each inscription. The corpus of Minaic, Qatabanic and Hadramaic is complete, while that of the inscriptions in Sabaic remains to be finished.