Sabaic is the language of the ancient Yemenite Kingdom of Saba, and the best-attested language of the group commonly referred to as Epigraphic South Arabian (the others are Qatabanic, Hadramautic, and Minaic). It is an h-language (that is, simply stated, the suffixes for the 3rd person personal pronoun begin with -h as opposed to -s) within the Semitic language family, attested continuously in monumental inscriptions and letters on wood from the 7th century B.C. to the 6th century A.D. It would be the acme of foolishness to consider it a precursor to modern Arabic, but it does seem to be more closely related to the Central Semitic (containing Arabic and Hebrew) than the South Semitic group (containing Old Ethiopic, Amharic, and the Mehri of modern Yemen).
The majority of Sabaic inscriptions employ a script generally called 'monumental South Arabian', consisting of 29 individual consonants. Vowels are not written, much as in written modern Arabic, making an exact analysis of the phonology of the language and its dialects nigh impossible (convention maintains an Arabic pronunciation, when parallels or tradition of Place-names seem reasonable). Attempts to connect the script historically with the Canaanite or Phoenician alphabet remain hypothetical at best, though certain similarities with the ancient Arabic inscriptions of Petra are clear. The interpretation towards the end of the 19th century was made considerably less difficult by the modified assumption of the script for the Old Ethiopic language in the 4th century A.D.
Texts have been found throughout most of Yemen, mainly around the ruins or surrounding oases of Marib and Sana. The stone inscriptions contain mostly texts accompanying religious offerings (Ger. 'Weihinschriften'), legal texts, royal chronicles, and the peculiar Sabaic penitential inscriptions, offered as penence for transgressions against the gods. These texts are limited to a rather formulaic structure: in a corpus of some 5,000 inscriptions, cases of the 2nd or 1st person occur in only 12, at most. In the 1980s, scholars found and interpreted preserved inscriptions on wood, written in an awkward, cursive form of the Sabaic alphabet and containing letters and contracts, which add considerably to our understanding of Sabaic grammar and syntax.
A sample text, now used as a decorative door in a mosque in the city of Sana, probably written in Sana in the 2nd century A.D., might help to give a general idea of the language. A few notes to the transliteration used here are in order. ( is used for the laryngal ayin (voiced pharyngal fricative), ) for aleph (voiceless glottal plosive); x stands for guttural h, y for the weak consonant in English 'yes', j for the soft g in 'gymnasium'. A dot/period following a consonant indicates that it is an emphatic, so t. for the emphatic 't'. The Greek θ stands for the th cluster in English 'through', Greek δ for that in English 'this'. Convention also dictates that s is used for basic 's', s2 for shin, and s3 for the lateral sibilant, mainly because the exact pronunciation of each is uncertain. / is a simple word-divider, indicated on the inscriptions themselves, where words may transgress line-boundaries.
1. whb(θt / yfd / wbnyhw / rθdθwn / )
2. z)d / whwf(θt / yhs2( / wwhb)wm / y
3. rh.b / ws(dθwn / bnw /gdnm / s2mw / m
4. s.r(y / fnwt / s.rh.thmw / tfd. / bmq
5. m / mr)hmw / krb)l / wtr / yhn(m / ml
6. k / sb) / bn / whb)lyh.z / mlk sb).
Translation: Wahab-(athta Yafad and his sons Rathad-Thawn )Azad and Hawfa-(Athta Yahasha( and Wahab-)Awam Yarhab and Ws(ad-Thawan, members of (the tribe) Gadan, erected these two doors at the front of their courtyard at (the temple) Tafad, through the power of their lord Karibil Water Yuhanim, king of Saba, son of Wahabil Yahuz, king of Saba.
A few notes. Oriental names, from ancient Mesopotamia to the modern day, almost always have a particular meaning. This is the case here with Wahab-)athta, "The Gift of Athtar", perhaps also "Athta has given..:". The god )Athta(r) is perhaps best known to us as the related Mesopotamian goddess Ishtar, and seems to be a general semitic astral deity connected with the evening and morning "star", Venus.
The word bnw is familiar (from Arabic, Hebrew, etc.), and generally denotes membership or adherence. Thus, it can mean both "son (of a father)" and "son or member (of a tribe or people)". The tribe Gadan is one of the most famous of the semi-nomadic merchant-tribes of ancient Yemen, and is continually attested in the inscriptions until the fall of the Kingdom of Saba. We can see that words with one consonant, such as w- "and", a root found in the same function in Akkadian, Old Ethiopic, and Arabic, among others, are prefixed to the following word.
The only real verb in this inscription is s2mw, "to place, build, erect", a perfect form (suffix conjugation) similar functionally to the Arabic fa)ala-forms or the Akkadian stative.
We still have serious troubles with the Sabaic lexicon, a problem perfectly represented by the words ms.r(y / fnwt / s.rh.thmw. The awkward translation "doors at the front of their courtyard" is trifold problematic. ms.r(y is a dual form (-y), translated with any certainty simply because it is presumed to describe the object upon which the text is inscribed. The feminine form fnw-t seems to means simply "front of building, facade", or something similar, while s.rh.t (with the 3rd person plural masculine possessive pronoun -hmw) is with some certainty a hall or courtyard, generally some sort of open space. The number of hapax legomena in Sabaic are still considerable.
The name of the king ("mlk", the same as in Arabic, perhaps from the root m-l-k "to consult"?) Wahabil Yahuz allows us to date the inscription to the 2nd century A.D. The name of the country, and thus the language, Saba, is known to most people today through the story of the Queen of Sheba and Solomon in 1 Kings 10. The Hebrew form, Sheba, is common in America, while Saba, probably closer to the South Arabian designation and the form found in the Greek and Latin Bibles, is used here.
The study of Sabaic is still an adventurous discipline, with much work left to be done, requiring creative and acrobatic leaps through the entirety of Semitic studies.