Today, the Latin alphabet is the international standard for phonetic writing. But this is a modern phenomenon. For centuries, Arabic was the central language to science and trade, and consequently, the use of its script was dominant worldwide well into the 19th century. Yet the 17th-19th centuries saw a slow decline in the use of Arabic, and a critical loss over ten years from the late 1920s to mid-1930s in the former Ottoman and new Soviet territories as Latin letters, and to a lesser degree Cyrillic, became the script of choice.
Colonialism and independence realized the decline of Arabic in Africa in many languages. Swahili, a major African language up the African east coast, has used the Latin alphabet since the 19th century, despite heavy influence from the Arabic language, along with Malagasy in Madagascar. Songhay, Yoruba and other West African languages were, in some regions, written in Arabic, although all are now written in the Latin alphabet. Nearer Arabia, Harari in Ethiopia, Berber in northern Africa, and Nubian in the Sudan area no longer use Arabic script. Even Afrikaans was written in Arabic by some people for part of the 19th century.
During the Arabic rule of Spain, Mozarabic, Aragonese, Portuguese, and Spanish were written in Arabic. During Ottoman rule of Eastern Europe, several languaegs — Greek, Bosnian, Romanian and Albanian — were written in Arabic script. Elsewhere in Europe, Tatars used Arabic to write Polish and Belarussian. But the decline of the Ottoman Empire saw the rapid abandonment of the Arabic script, and Turkey’s voluntary abandonment of Arabic script in 1928 saw the end of the Arabic script in Europe. Even the Kurds abandoned Arabic for a Latin alphabet in 1932.
The Russian Revolution and Soviet rule saw the switch from Arabic to the back-and-forth use of the Cyrillic and Latin alphabets, depending on the mood fo the Bolsheviks at any particular time. Russia’s central Asian languages such as Bashkir, Tatar, Chaghatai, and Chechen sporadically used Arabic but now all use Cyrillic. The languages of the Central Asian republics — Kazakh, Kyrgyz, Uzbek, and Tajik — are the same, having abandoned Arabic in the 1930s. The same is true for Azeri in the Caucasus. Uyghur in western China is the only Turkic language that still uses the Arabic script, and it remains an official language in that part of China.
In distant East Asia, Malay in Malaysia and Indonesia used Arabic script until Dutch and British influence gradually replaced that script starting in the 17th century. Some Filipino languages also abandoned the use of Arabic at this time. And finally, the Hui Muslim people used to write the Chinese and Dungan languages in Arabi script in a script called Xiao’erjing.
In addition to the obvious factors — imperialism, colonialism, and the Soviet hegemony — another factor was the printing press. Because there are several forms of each Arabic letter depending on where it appears in the sentence, material produced in the Arabic script could not be easily reproduced with a printing press.
In our previous discussions on what language to learn, Arabic has generally been rated as a second or third tier language in order of importance. A century ago, when the real-life Curzon, Younghusband, Chirol and Munro-Ferguson travelled the globe, it surely would have been a first tier language, if for nothing else than for the dominance of its script from southern Africa to western China. Those days, however, are long gone.