Languages – Semitic
The oldest written language in existence is Sumerian, 3100 BCE, delineated with wedge-shaped (cuneiform) marks in clay tablets. Around 2500 BCE cuneiform was being used to record another language – that of the Akkadians of Babylonia and Assyria. While Sumerian was a language in eclipse, Akkadian was just beginning its dominance of the Middle East and beyond.
Linguists now recognize Akkadian as a member of the Semitic language family, itself a branch of the Afro-asiatic language family, originally from East Africa (Ethiopia).
By 1400 BCE the Assyrians had forged the world’s first empire, covering most of the Middle East, and their Akkadian language became the common tongue of the region. By 1000 BCE spoken Akkadian had evolved into Aramaic and had many cousins, including Hebrew, Phoenician-Canaanite, Arabic, and Ge’ez (Ethiopia).
Around 1200 BCE the Phoenicians invented a script that replaced cuneiform, becoming the basis for written Hebrew, Arabic, Greek, Cyrillic, and our western alphabet.
In Jesus’ day, Aramaic was still the common spoken language, though Jesus would have used Hebrew in the temple, the intelligentsia would write in Greek, while upper-level government was conducted in Latin. During the early Christian era, (to 700 CE) Aramaic evolved into Syraic, and was dominant until an obscure prophet from an obscure region changed everything.
The military successes of Mohammed and his followers made their language, Arabic, the most important in the region. Not only was Arabic the language of conquerors, it became the language of literary and religious traditions. Long after Arabs ceased to rule the empire (replaced by Mamluks, Persians, Turks etc.), Arabic continued to dominate thought. It eventually covered the Muslim world, from Mauritania to Indonesia.
Today’s Semitic languages include Arabic, Hebrew (the spoken language of Israel), Maltese (which uses a Latin-based script), Neo-Aramaic, Syraic; Mahri & Soqotri (Yemen), Amharic (Ethiopia), Tigre (Eritrea), and several older languages used only in religious rites.