I don’t often recommend podcasts, but “Episode 82: What Writing Can Tell Us About the Arabs before Islam” of the University of Texas at Austin’s “15 Minute History” series was so interesting I listened to the whole thing and wished there were more. Host Christopher Rose, of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies, interviews Ahmad al-Jallad of the University of Leiden; among the topics discussed are inscriptions from Najd and Hijaz that we can’t read, in languages that were very different from Arabic and don’t have modern descendants (farther north, in Jordan and Syria, the language was much closer to Arabic); the language of Tayma, which has a striking similarity to Aramaic and Hebrew as against Arabic; the transition from South Semitic script to “Arabic” script, which comes with the Nabataean kingdom (which spoke Arabic but administered in Aramaic) in the 3rd-5th centuries — it was essentially a transition to a cursive script, which implies writing with ink (it developed in an administration tradition, where the texts were very formulaic, so you don’t need full writing; by contrast, South Arabian script was used for memorial purposes and graffiti, not administration); the myth of the “isolation” of Arabic, especially among nomads (in fact there are bilingual inscriptions in Old Arabic and Greek); the fact that the Koran, unlike other early Arabic writings, does not show marks of Aramaic (e.g. bar ‘son’); and the need to explain the Arabicization of Arabia — a question that couldn’t have been asked a couple of centuries ago. It’s only a quarter of an hour long, and well worth your while. Thanks, Trevor!
(A point of interest in terms of English linguistics is the frequent use of “so” to begin responses; this is almost ubiquitous these days, but I mention it for the benefit of those who aren’t aware of the phenomenon or want a convenient source of examples.)