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Languages of the Ancient Near East

LANGUAGES OF THE ANCIENT NEAR EAST. Those languages of the ancient Near E which have left behind many documents on clay, stone, papyrus or even parchment are fairly few in number, and are for the most part well known. There were dozens of other languages and dialects spoken by the various nationalities and tribes of this region that left virtually no inscrs. which have survived to our times, and whose existence is known either from references to them in extant lit. or from archeological recovery of their artifacts. In many cases all that have survived are a few of their personal names or the names of their gods, from which some elements of their language may be deduced.

The most ancient literary languages


The earliest pictographic inscrs. of this agglutinative tongue were found in clay tablets from about 3200 b.c. It was characterized by a fairly rigid word order, in which the adjective always followed its noun rather than preceding it, and the verb tended to come at the end of its clause just as consistently as in classical Lat. Nouns were “inflected” by means of postpositions (equivalent to prepositions), and verbs were modified as to tense, aspect, pronoun subjects and objects by prefixed or postfixed consonants or monosyllabic elements. The pictographs, which later developed into cuneiform equivalents, served not only as ideograms (i.e., a single sign conveying the entire word), but also as phonetic syllables available for sounding out other words having no relation in sense to the original pictograph. Thus the sign for a human mouth not only signified KA as the word for “mouth” itself, but also to spell out the cluster Urimaka (i.e. Urim. ak.a, “of Ur,” followed by the a pointing to the subject of the verb). Other signs were used as determinatives (i.e., indicators of the class to which the noun belonged, whether a country, a city, a god, a man or an animal) without having any phonetic value at all. This system of writing was adaptable to other languages besides Sumer. since it provided a syllabary capable of sounding out the words of Akkadian, for example, or Hittite or Hurrian.

The younger nations which fell under the cultural influence of Sumer. tended to adopt its entire syllabic system, although adding new sound values to the characters in accord with the same rebus principle which Sumer. itself had followed. Furthermore a great many of the Sumer. words written in one or two signs were preserved in these other languages unchanged, even though they were read aloud in the equivalent words from those languages. For example, the Sumer. sign for “king” was pronounced lugal (literally “great man”); but if used in an Akkad. inscr. it was pronounced šarrum. Likewise in Hitt. the Sumer. sign for “man” (lu) was copied out to express the idea of “man,” but it was undoubtedly pronounced antuhšaš, the Hitt. word for “man.”

Sumerian was for the most part written in the Eme-ku dialect, but there was also a later dialect known as Eme-sal, which apparently was spoken particularly by women; it is not found in documents earlier than the 18th cent. b.c.


Documents in this literary language of the Nile Valley were written in pictographs quite different in appearance from those of lower Mesopotamia, and they operated upon a somewhat different phonetic principle. That is to say, the vowels of the spoken language were virtually omitted from its written form, which uses consonantal units only. Some characters were used acrostically; that is, only the initial consonant of the object portrayed by the sign (e.g. from the sign “hand,” Egyp. dr.t became the alphabetic value d when this sign was used to spell other words). Others were biconsonantal (thus, the sign for “house,” pr, could be used to spell other words which contained the consonants p-r) or even tri-consonantal (like the scarabbeetle, ḫpr, which furnished the consonants h-p-r to the common verb “become”). There were many ideograms, as in Sumer. esp. in the earliest stage of the language, but, in addition, the use of the determinatives became so extensive that nearly every noun and verb was equipped with at least one of these non-phonetic sense indicators (fortunately for the modern scholars who first deciphered the language). Unlike Sumer. and Akkad. which used most of their determinatives at the beginning of the word, Egyp. invariably placed them at the end. In morphology and syntax the Egyp. language basically resembled the Sem. languages, in that it retained a tense (the Old Perfective) with sufformatives similar to the perfect tense of NW Sem. and S Sem. and to the permansive of Akkad. Furthermore, the subject followed the verb, rather than preceding it, except for the pseudo-verbal construction (where the subject preceded either a preposition-governed infinitive, or else an Old Perfective). Egyptian developed a large number of compound verbal “tenses” by the use of various auxiliaries and qualifying pa rticles, some of which indicated past tense or future tense, others of which indicated the action as of central importance, or as consequent upon the action of the preceding clause. Eventually this Middle Kingdom Egyp. gave way to a New Egyp., which made far greater use of the pseudo-verbal construction and employed more signs to spell many of their words. It also made full use of the definite article (p;, t;, n;) as early as the 18th dynasty (although this was rather frowned upon in official literary style until the 19th dynasty). By the 1st millennium a still later form of the language, called Demotic, came into use, and this led to Coptic, that form of Egypt. which was spoken in the Graeco-Roman period, and written no longer in hieroglyphics or any cursive forms of them (as Hieratic and Demotic were), but in pure alphabetic Gr. letters, supplemented by a few demotic signs to compensate for Egyp. sounds not present in the Gr. alphabet.

Coptic appeared in several different dialects, of which the most important was Sahidic or Sa’idic, the language of southern Egypt, in which the earliest lit. and trs. of the Bible were composed. (This is considered to be the most classical form of Coptic.) From the standpoint of literary remains, the next most important dialect was Bohairic, spoken in northern Egypt, the Delta. It eventually became the official language for the ritual of the Coptic Church, and has so remained to this day. In Middle Egypt the prevalent dialects were Akhmimic and Fayyumic, of which far fewer specimens have survived to our day.

The Semitic languages.

East Sem. included the Akkad. language, with its various dialects of Babylonian and Assyrian ensuing after the earliest stage known as Old Akkadian (which was spoken from about 2500 to 1950 b.c. and represented by a modest number of documents from Sargon of Agade and various later royal inscrs). Old Babylonian was spoken between 1950 and 1530 (cf. W. von Soden, Grundriss der Akkadischen Grammatik, 2nd ed., p. 2) and found its best known literary expression in the Code of Hammurabi; but there are several religious texts, many letters, court dockets, contracts, receipt tablets and other documents in the same dialect. Middle Babylonian was used from 1530 to 1000 in letters, records, royal inscrs. (in Assyria as well as Babylonia, since it was regarded as standard for literary expression), in the Amarna Letters and (in slightly Hurrian cast) at Nuzi. New Babylonian included the 1st millenium (Van Soden regards the period after 625 as Late Babylonian), and comprised a rather sparse selection of letters and documents until its final florescence under the Chaldean Empire (when a simplified form of the script and a loss of inflectional vocalic endings characterized those inscrs. which were not dominated by the scholarly archaizing style favored in official circles in the Chaldean court).

Old Assyrian (1950-1750) is preserved largely in the mercantile letters and records of the Assyrian merchants who did business in Cappadocia. Middle Assyrian (1500-1000) was represented largely by various legal codes and royal inscrs. and a few letters, but much of the official writing was couched in literary Babylonian, as indicated above. New Assyrian or Imperial Assyrian marked the period from 1000 to 600 b.c., when the Assyrians by fluctuating stages achieved complete dominance in the Near E, and adorned their palaces with bas-reliefs inscribed with their glorious conquests. The inscrs. from this era contain the references to Israel which are of greatest interest to the student of Bible history. It should be added that even after the fall of the Assyrian and Chaldean empires the Akkad. language found employment in the Pers. and even in the Seleucid period as a scholarly literary medium, usually in such bilingual or polylingual monuments as the Behistun Rock (c. 490 b.c.), but with occasional monolingual dedicatory inscrs. as late as the reign of Antiochus I (281-260 b.c.).

In S Sem. are included the various dialects of Arabic and Ethiopic. The earliest inscribed monuments in S Arabic date from the 8th cent. b.c., and are found as late as the 6th cent. a.d. They consist of inscrs. on stone stelae, mostly of a dedicatory nature or records of the inaugauration of buildings, with an assortment of conveyances of real estate, various laws and occasional decrees. There were at least four dialects, one of which, the Sabean, used causatives and third person pronouns beginning with h- (whereas the rest begin these with s-). The other three were the Qatabanian (which preserved the earliest form of the language), Minean and Hadramautian. The knowledge of these languages is hampered by their stylistic formalism, and also by their failure to include any verb forms or pronouns in the first or second person; all is couched in the third person sing. or pl. It is noteworthy that in contradistinction to N Arabic, the S Arabic dialects preserved both kinds of s (samekh as well as sīn) from Primitive Semitic.

Monuments of the N Arabic dialects begin around the 5th cent. b.c. and continue into the 4th cent. a.d. They are usually divided into Thamudic, Lihyanic and Safaitic, and are preserved largely in funerary or dedicatory inscrs. Classical literary Arabic was a northern dialect spoken at Mecca and Medina, and owed its supremacy to its use in the Koran (composed c. a.d. 620-630), which set the standard for the Islamic world from that day until this. It represents the closest approximation to the parent Sem. language from which all the rest were derived, and in its vocalized form preserves the full inflectional system, complete with all the short-vowel endings for both nouns and verbs, and the full use of the dual number (which remains obligatory for literary Arab. even to this day when two individuals are involved, rather than three or more). Its remarkably rich vocabulary has rendered it the single most important source of information concerning the meaning of rare or disputed words in Heb. and the other ancient Sem. languages.

The other chief member of this group is Ethiopic, a language which shows some affinity to the Old Arabic dialects (adopting from them its alphabet), owing to the fact that the original speakers of this language (which is also known as Geez) migrated from S Arabia to Cush (now located in the Republic of Sudan) and pushed into northern Ethiopia, founding ultimately the powerful Kingdom of Axum (4th to 7th cent. a.d.) subsequent to smaller kingdoms and principalities such as that referred to in Acts 8:27 (“Queen Candace of the Ethiopians”). The earliest surviving inscrs. date from shortly before the rise of Axum, but the 4th cent. a.d. monuments from that kingdom furnish the first significant body of material in this language. Its phonology adheres quite closely to that of Arab., except that it seems to have lost the aspirate quality of the shīn quite early, and it developed two extra p’s (p or pait, and p or pesā) in addition to the f of Arab. (which lacks a true p altogether). In the morphology of the verb it lacks the Arab. VII (infa’ala), VIII (ifta’ala) and IX (if’alla), but it possesses five stems lacking in Arab.: (i) the causative-intensive (’afa’ala), (ii) the causative frequentative (’afā’ala), (iii) the reflexive ground-stem (tafa’ela), (iv) the causative-reflexive intensive (’astafa“ ala) and (v) the causative-reflexive frequentative (’astafā’ala). It also used a gerundive to which pronoun suffixes were attached (qatilo, qatilā, qatilaka, qatilaki, etc.) which resembled the Akkad. permansive.

From ancient Ethiopic or Geez (which is still the cultic language of the Ethiopian Coptic Church) were derived Amharic which is the official state language of modern Ethiopia, Trigriña, Tigre, Harari and Gurage.

The NW Sem. group may be divided into two main branches: Aram. and Canaanite. Old Aramaic inscrs. date from the 9th cent. b.c. (The Zakir Stela from Hamath), although quotations in Aram. date back to the 20th cent. b.c. (Gen 31:47) in the OT. Two 8th-cent. inscrs. from Sham’al, that of Panamuwa and that of Bar-Rakib are classed by some as Ya’udic (cf. S. Moscati: Comparative Grammar of the Semitic Languages [1964], p. 11) because of certain distinctive traits. Imperial Aramaic (in German Reichsaramäisch) was used as an official international language as early as 7th cent. in the Assyrian Empire, and so continued under the Chaldeans and the Persians. It is basically the form of Aram. used in the OT, in the Aram. portions of Daniel and Ezra; and also by the Jewish colony of the Elephantine in the 5th and 4th centuries b.c.

In the last half of the 1st millennium Aram. began to divide into Western and Eastern branches. Western Aram. is represented by the Genesis Apocryphon of the 1st cent. b.c. (found in Qumran Cave One), and by the Targums of Onkelos and Jonathan, as well as some of the Midrashim and the Jerusalem Talmud. The Samaritan sect developed some distinctive traits in its Targum of the Pentateuch (4th cent. a.d.). In spoken form, western Aram. survives until modern times in a few villages near Damascus notably Ma’lūla. The Nabatean Arabs also adopted this dialect and left inscrips. from 1st cent. b.c. to the 3rd cent. a.d. Eastern Aram. developed in Edessa as the literary medium of Syrian Christians, who produced the Peshitta during the 3rd cent. a.d. and the Syriac Hexaplar and NT VSS (Sinaitic and Harklean) as well. It continued in use up until the 13th cent., with such outstanding authors as Ephrem Syrus and Bar Hebraeus. Babylonian Aram., as represented in the “Babylonian” Talmud belongs to this eastern branch as well (5th and 6th cent. a.d.). The same is true of the Gnostic sect of the Mandeans who flourished in Mesopotamia from the 3rd to 8th cent. a.d.

The Canaanite branch of NW Sem. included five main dialects. (1) North Canaanite or Ugaritic was used at Ras Shamra in the vicinity of Antioch during the 15th and 14th centuries. It was written in a cuneiform alphabet of thirty characters, and preserved many more of the original Sem. phonemes than the later dialects did. Its verbal system included not only the seven stems of Heb. but also the ifta’ala of Arab. and Akkad. and the fā’ala or pō ēl (which occurs in Heb. as well as Arab.). Its causative was shaphel, rather than hiphil as in Heb., or yiphil as in Phoen.

(2) Sinaitic was used by the miners at Serabit el-Khadim and recorded in wall inscrs. dating between the 18th and 15th centuries and consisting of at least twenty-seven letters (cf. W. F. Albright: “Proto-Sinaitic Inscriptions and their Decipherment” [1966], p. 13). It represents a very early stage of NW Sem. when it stood much closer to Arab. (3) Related to this are other pseudo-hieroglyphic inscrs. found at Gezer, Shechem and Lachish (1800 to 1300). Unhappily these are of such brevity as to preclude accurate linguistic analysis.

Middle Canaanite comprises the Phoen. branch of the Canaanite family, the earliest example of which is the Ahiram epitaph at Byblos, dating from 11th cent. or earlier. It was spoken all the way down the coast, at Tripolis, Berytus, Sidon and Tyre, at which a goodly number of inscrs. have been discovered, mostly from 5th to 2nd cent. b.c. The extensive colonies of Phoen. settlers in Cyprus, Sicily, Sardinia and Malta have also yielded inscriptional material in this language, and even in Athens and Marseilles examples have been found. Particularly significant is the large body of documents and stelae of various sorts found in the Carthaginian Empire, from N Africa to Spain (and in Sicily as well) which exhibit a sub-dialect known as Punic. These date from 3rd cent. b.c. to 3rd cent. a.d., and increasingly make use of vowel letters (weak consonants employed to indicate vowel sounds) as time goes on—unlike the Phoen. of the homeland which eschewed vowel letters almost to the very end. The information as to vocalization comes exclusively from transcriptions into Gr. and Lat. (notably a passage or two in Plautus’s Poenulus). (Cf. Zellig S. Harris: “A Grammar of the Phoenician Language,” New Haven, 1936.)

(5) Under the category of S Canaanite may be grouped Hebrew and Moabite (prob. Edomite and Ammonite as well, although inscriptional evidence on these is very meager). Moabite is known largely from the Mesha Stone (c. 840 b.c.), which is distinguished from Heb. by its retention of the -t ending for fem. absolute nouns (a trait which it shared with Phoen.). Hebrew, the language of the OT, has been preserved largely in the Judean or Jerusalem dialect, although much of Hosea shows the influence of N Israelite traits, and Ecclesiastes shows strong Phoen. influence. (For further details see the article on Hebrew language.) Extra-Biblical Heb. inscrs. are quite few, prior to the MS material from the Qumran caves. They include the Gezer Calendar (c. 925), the Siloam Inscription (c. 705), the Samaritan Ostraca (c. 770), the Lachish Letters (c. 587) and the newly discovered name lists at Arad from about the same period.

The Indo-European languages.

Earliest in appearance was the Hitt. language, or more accurately Nesian (to distinguish it from the non-Indo-European Proto-Khatti spoken by the original population in Asia Minor who were conquered by the Nesians in the 1st half of the 2nd millennium). Little is known about hieroglyphic Hitt. as yet, although conjectural trs. have been attempted; it may have been the literary medium of the Cilician kingdom of Kassuwatna. Related dialects to Indo-European Hitt. were Luwian and Palawi, Anatolian tongues of which little or nothing remains.

Phrygian was spoken in Eastern Asia Minor, and was in the 7th to 6th centuries written in an alphabet related to Western Gr. Neo-Phrygian was written in conventional Gr. characters during the Graeco-Rom period. Phrygian is classified as a satem-language (in contrast to Nesian Hitt., which was a centum language), like the Indo-Iranian language group. That is to say, the palatal k softened to ç or s before original e or i. (Sanskrit for “hundred” is çata, whereas the Lat. is centum—hence the designation.)

As far as one can tell, the earlier form of Cretan recorded in the syllabary known as Cretan Linear A was a form of Phoen. but there is no doubt that Cretan Linear B was Indo-European, that is to say a dialect of Gr. tentatively called Achaean, and used from the 15th cent. to the collapse of Minoan-Mycenean civilization under the impact of the Dorian invasions, c. 1000 b.c. These Linear B inscrs. are found at Pylos on the mainland of Greece, and in other Mycenean centers. (Cf. J. Chadwick; “The Decipherment of Linear B” [1958].) On Cyprus the syllabary used was very similar, and represented in all probability a closely related dialect of Gr. Among the Near Eastern languages one must include classical Gr. as well, esp. from the time of the Alexandrian Conquest c. 330 b.c., when Gr. became the language of government in Asia all the way from the Bosphorus to the Indus. It was at this time that Attic, a derivative from Ionic Gr., became adapted to the needs of the entire Hel. world, and soon developed into the Koinē which furnished the linguistic medium for the LXX and the NT. Latin was introduced at the time of the Rom. conquest in 63 b.c. (when Pompey annexed Judea to the empire), but it was largely confined to the Romans themselves, since even the Italian conquerors of the Near E were content to use Gr. in communicating with their subjects. Latin inscrs. are largely confined to dedicatory inscrs. in such Romanized centers as Caesarea (which was founded by Herod the Great).

Moving farther to the E we come to the Iranian branch of Indo-European, notably Old Pers., which was written in a sort of semisyllabic alphabet of thirty-six cuneiform signs, plus six others which were ideograms. Linguistically it was related to Sanskrit, and possessed a seven-case declension, and a verbal system employing four tenses, three voices, five moods, four participles, a dual number, and a single infinitive. The earliest inscrs. date from the 530s (Cyrus the Great), and they continue until after the Gr. conquest.

In the second cent. b.c. the Parthians became dominant E of the Tigris; they spoke Arsacid Pahlevi derived from the Median form of Iranian (of Old Median we now possess only some names and a few glosses). The rise of the Sassanian Persians in the 3rd cent. a.d. led to the prevalence of Sassanian Pahlevi throughout their domains; closely related to this is Avestan, the language of the Zoroastrian or Parsee scriptures. Apparently the Scythian peoples also spoke a type of Iranian, esp. the Ossetians in the Caucasus. Virtually none of this has survived in written form (see Pahlavi).

Miscellaneous languages.

The Hurrians spoke an agglutinative language unrelated to any other known to philology, except possibly Urartian. Although the original Mitannians must have been Indo-Iranian, judging from the names of their gods, the language of the Mitannian Empire (which flourished in the middle of the 2nd millennium) was Hurrian. Some inscrs. at Mari (18th to 17th cent.) were in Hurrian; Hurrian influences account for most of the peculiarities of the Akkad. used at Nuzi. One long letter from King Tushratta in the Amarna collection was couched in Hurrian (early 14th cent.); so were some texts at the Hitt. capital of Boghazköy. Like Hitt., Hurrian used the Akkad. syllabary and many of its ideograms to write their language.

Urartian was spoken by a non-Sem., non-Indo-European people living near Lake Van (it is also called by some either Vannic or Kaldi). These people later were conquered by a race speaking a language related to Phrygian, and which developed into the later Armenian. Cuneiform inscrs. in Urartian come from about 840 to 640 b.c.

Elamite first appeared in a pictographic form as yet undeciphered; they have been found largely at Susa, and are known as Proto-Elamite. About 2500 b.c. cuneiform inscrs. in Old Susian began to make their appearance. Neo-Susian inscrs, date from the 16th to the 8th cent.; and the latest form was Neo-Susian, in use during Achaemenid times (6th cent.). It was an agglutinative language unrelated to any other, except possibly Kassite.

The language of the Kassite conquerors of Babylon is known only from personal names and a few glosses. For international correspondence (as in the Amarna Letters) the Kassite rulers were content to use Babylonian.

In Asia Minor perhaps the most important language after Hittite was Lydian, the language of the empire of Croesus (6th to 4th cent.). As yet the inscrs. in this tongue are imperfectly understood, although a bilingual (with Aram.) found at Sardis furnishes a helpful key.

Carian has been found in three 7th cent. bilingual inscrs. from Egypt; there are also some graffiti and glosses.

Lycian is peserved in a strange alphabetic script as well as in a Gr. script and in a few bilingual (Gr.-Lycian) texts from the 1st cent. Little or nothing is known about Cilician, Pisidian, Mysian, Isaurian, or Lycaonian from this polyglot area of Anatolia. After the Alexandrian conquest this entire region became linguistically unified by the Gr. language, and so remained until the Muslim conquest.


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