An Overview of Ancient Mesopotamian Languages


A large cuneiform inscription found on the south side of the Van Castle hill, four kilometres west of modern-day Van, in eastern Turkey / Photo by Bjørn Christian Tørrissen, Wikimedia Commons

Remaining examples include religious, mathematical, musical and astronomical texts.


Key Points

The principal languages of ancient Mesopotamia were Sumerian, Akkadian (i.e. Babylonian + Assyrian), Amorite, and – later – Aramaic.  They have come down to us in the “cuneiform” (i.e. wedge-shaped) script, deciphered by Henry Rawlinson and other scholars in the 1850s.  The subject which studies Mesopotamian languages and the sources written in them is called Assyriology.

Mesopotamian languages in the cuneiform script are mostly written on clay tablets, though they could also be carved on stone (example here).  Being incredibly durable, clay tablets have been recovered in thousands at archaeological sites from the Mediterranean to Bahrain to Iran.  More are found by the year.

As well as records of daily life and administration, they include religious, mathematical, musical and astronomical texts, the earliest known laws, and a rich literature that includes the Epic of Gilgamesh and the oldest versions of the Flood Story also known from the Bible.

As the world’s first fully urban society, ancient Mesopotamia is of paramount interest to world archaeology, and its art, architecture and technology were the rival, and indeed often the precursors, of Egypt’s. Mesopotamia was open on all sides to its neighbours, and its influence can be traced from India to Greece: the Pharaoh’s scribes used cuneiform script to correspond with the Great Kings of the Hittites in Turkey, at Ugarit on the Syrian coast the forerunners of the Phoenicians kept their legal and commercial records on cuneiform tablets in Akkadian, and later the Biblical and Classical worlds grew up in the shadow of these ancient cultures to the east (and sometimes under their direct political domination).

Cuneiform

cuneiform script is so called because each individual stroke (several of which might be used to form a sign) has the shape of a wedge.  This is the shape which occurs naturally when one impresses a stylus (writing implement) with a triangular cross-section into a flat surface of clay.

The script was invented before 3000 BC.  It started out as pictures (a bit like Egyptian hieroglyphs), but these quickly became so stylised as to be unrecognisable.  Thus cuneiform signs were born. When they are first used there is so little grammar it is impossible to tell which language is being written.  The first language they do write is Sumerian.

With possible exceptions in the late first millennium BC, the cuneiform script only writes syllables (a, ba, al, bal).  It thus cannot be used to write individual consonants.

A website for converting “transliteration” (i.e. Akkadian or Sumerian written in Roman characters) into Cuneiform signs is available here.  Try entering ha-am-mu-ra-pí to see the name Hammurabi written in cuneiform.

Hands on practical sessions with primary source materials form a key part of the Assyriology programme at Cambridge

Sumerian

Sumerian is an “agglutinating” language with no known relatives. It was spoken in South Iraq until it died out, probably around 2000 BC, giving way to Akkadian; but it survived as a scholarly and liturgical language, much like mediaeval Latin, until the very end of cuneiform in the late 1st millennium BC.

In the absence of related languages, Sumerian has had to be learned through the filter of Babylonian and Assyrian.  There are still many disagreements about what words mean, and how the verb behaves, but our knowledge of it is growing by the year.  There is  still no full dictionary of Sumerian, though the Sumerian-French lexicon recently posted online by the Swiss scholar Pascal Attinger is very useful.

There is no learner’s grammar of Sumerian that can straightforwardly be recommended.  Non-specialists may find the excellent grammar of third-millennium BC Sumerian by the Dutch scholar Bram Jagersma heavy-going.

Akkadian

The Cyrus Cylinder (British Museum), photo by David Holt under Creative Commons license

Assyrian and Babylonian are members of the Semitic language family, like Arabic and Hebrew.  Because Babylonian and Assyrian are so similar – at least in writing – they are often regarded as varieties of a single language, known today as Akkadian.  How far they were mutually intelligible in ancient times is uncertain.

During the 2nd millennium BC, Akkadian was adopted all over the Near East as the language of scholarship, administration, commerce and diplomacy. Later in the 1st millennium BC it was gradually replaced by Aramaic, which is still spoken in some parts of the Middle East today.

Akkadian was deciphered in the mid nineteenth century.  As there was controversy over whether the decipherment had been achieved or not, in 1857 the Royal Asiatic Society sent drawings of the same inscription to four different scholars, who were to translate without consulting one another.  A committee (including no less than the Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral) was set up to compare the translations.  The committee’s report, available here, is still fascinating reading after over 150 years.

Further Reading


Originally published by the University of Cambridge under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license.

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