Many years ago, when I was studying abroad in Hanoi, Vietnam for a summer as part of an ill-fated effort to get into graduate school (tl;dr I dropped out and went into IT), I was at a museum dedicated to Ho Chi Minh, when I was approach by a Vietnamese man about my age. He really wanted to practice his English, and desperately wanted me to sit and practice with him. I felt weirded out at the time, and lied saying we could meet after I got out of the museum. We never met after that and chances are, the guards hussled him away after making a big scene, or he gave up.
Looking back many years later, I feel bad about it now. Knowing English in today’s world can really make or break someone’s career outside of the Anglophone world, and since English speakers were so rare in Hanoi at the time, unlike the more cosmopolitan Ho Chi Minh City, it might have been a rare opportunity for him to actually learn it from a native speaker, and not from rote memorization.
Long, long before English became the international language to learn by countless hopeful students, though, there was another widely spoken language that could make or break people’s careers: Akkadian.
(Disclaimer: A lot of information in this blog post is based on information contained in the Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World by Nicholas Ostler. If you like ancient languages, definitely get the book.)
Akkadian was one of several languages that existed in the ancient Middle East:
- Sumerian – the language of Mesopotamia (modern day Iraq) and such great cities as Ur, Babylon, Assur and Nineveh. Sumerian, is an isolate, meaning it was no known “genetic” relation to any other language we know of. Sumerian is also the oldest written language in the world. This is important as we’ll see.
- Akkadian – the language of the Akkadian Empire (remember Sargon of Akkad?) that eventually supplanted Sumerian city-states. It is also the oldest of the Semitic languages which include modern Hebrew and Arabic.
- Elamite – spoken by the Elamite people in south-western Iran. The Elamites were frequent rivals of the Sumerians among other peoples.
- Hurrian – spoken by various peoples north of Mesopotamia, the most famous being the Mitanni.
- Urartian – spoken by the kingdom of Urartu in eastern Turkey, and ultimately replaced Hurrian.
- Luwian – spoken in south-west Turkey, this important language is pretty obscure now but once dominated a large region, and may have been spoken by the ancient Trojans.
- Hittite – spoken by the Hittite Empire in Asia Minor (modern day Turkey) and the Levant. Interestingly, the Hittites called themselves the Hatti (after their capitol Hattusa), but the term “Hittite” has been mis-applied by modern-day scholars who conflated them with another group.
Because Sumerian developed a sophisticated writing system called Cuneiform, and because of their central place in middle-eastern culture, the other languages above all adopted cuneiform with varying degrees of success despite being totally unrelated languages. This is important as we’ll see shortly.
Anyhow, back in the 24th century BCE Sargon of Akkad conquered Mesopotamia and setup what was probably the first empire in history: the Akkadian Empire. But he didn’t wipe out the Sumerians, and in fact Sumerian urban culture was highly revered by the Akkadians, who did their best to import things like the writing system, literature, religion and so on.
However, because Akkadian language and Sumerian were so different, this import wasn’t an easy one. Cuneiform uses a mix of ideograms (similar to Chinese characters) mixed with phonetic letters that only made sense in Sumerian. For example, 𒅅 could mean a “door” (e.g. an ideogram), but phonetically it could be pronounced like ig in Sumerian. In Akkadian, this would become ig, ik, or iq. Elsewhere, sounds that could be distinguished in Sumerian could not be distinguished in Akkadian, and vice-versa.
Thus, the poor Akkadian scribes needed dictionaries to map Akkadian words to Sumerian Cuneiform text, like the one shown here.
Other languages in the list above had similar challenges, but cuneiform eventually became the writing system of choice for many centuries. Thus, in spite of the fact that these languages had no real relation to one another, they all used cuneiform based off of Sumerian.
Meanwhile, as the Akkadian Empire continued, Sumerian as a language gradually faded from conversation, and by 1600 BC it wasn’t spoke anymore, but was preserved as a sacred language and a language of literature. Meanwhile, Akkadian became more and more widely used, not just within the Empire, but among it’s neighbors. Even after the Empire fell, and newer empires such as the Babylonians and Assyrians briefly conquered,1 Akkadian was still widely used because it was already well-known by the populace and just easier than trying to supplant with yet another language.
The use of Akkadian as an internal language extended as far away as Egypt, where the Pharoah Akhenaten wrote a series of letters in Akkadian to subjects far away in Canaan (think modern Israel). Note that these “Amarna Letters” were written in the 14th century BCE, already 1000 years after Sargon of Akkad.
Even 1000 after that, Akkadian was still used, this time by the Hellenistic Greeks. Antiochus I Soter one of Alexander the Great’s generals who founded the Seleucid dynasty had this inscription made using Akkadian:
So…. what happened to Akkadian then? In short, it was replaced starting in the 8th century BCE by a rural language, first spoken by Aramean people around modern-day Damascus, called Aramaic. Aramaic, by the way, was the same language spoken by Jesus of Nazareth. The brutal Assyrian Empire had a policy of subjugating people by forcibly uprooting them and moving them to other areas of the Empire, where they would serve the Empire as soldiers or some other capacity. This had the unintended effect of spreading Aramaic among the population, and because Aramaic had an easier writing system the path of least-resistance was for people to use Aramaic more.
Small side note: once Akkadian became replaced as a spoken language, even Sumerian which had been closely tied to it as a literary language, disappeared with it.
Just as Sumerian withdrew more and more as a language of literature and religious ceremony, Akkadian similarly became less and less common except for official roles. By the time of Antiochus I Soter, it had largely disappeared from day to day usage, but still had a lot of cultural weight, hence the Cylinder of Antiochus. The Babylonian king, Nebuchadnezzar II, also used it a few centuries earlier in his bronze steles and proclamations. Writings in Akkadian still appeared as late as the 1st century AD (not BC, AD) but by this point the language had been in active use for 2,500 years!
Anyhow, looking back Akkadian was an amazing language in its own right. Here is an inscription from the Ludlul Bēl Nēmeqi, a poem composed in 14th century BCE by a priest about the misfortunes of a wealthy, powerful man at the time. This version is provided by the University of Yale in their Cuneiform Commentaries Project, though I have removed the priest’s commentary lines in between for easier readability:
|24′||za-pur-tu₄ ú-ta-aṣ-ṣa-pa ⸢i-šar-tu₄⸣ ul ⸢ut⸣-[tu]||My bad luck was increasing, I could not find prosperity.|
|26′||i-na maš-šak-ki lú⸢ENSI⸣ ul ú!(I-)šá-pi ⸢di-ni⸣||The dream interpreter did not clarify my case with his incense.|
|28′||lúMAŠ.MAŠ ina KÌD.KÌDṭè–e ki-mil-ti ul ip-ṭur||The exorcist with his ritual did not release the divine anger against me.|
|30′||a-mur-ma ár-ka-⸢tu₄⸣ ri-⸢da⸣-a-⸢tu₄⸣ ip-pe-e-ri||I looked behind me, harassment and trouble.|
Another example, from Wikipedia, is an excerpt from Hammurabi’s Code, which was written in Akkadian:
|šumma awīl-um lū kasp-am lū ḫurāṣ-am lū ward-am lū amt-am|
lū alp-am lū immer-am lū imēr-am ū lū mimma šumšu ina
qāt mār awīl-im ū lū warad awīl-im balum šīb-ī u
riks-ātim i-štām-Ø ū lū ana maṣṣārūt-im i-mḫur-Ø
awīl-um šū šarrāq i-ddāk
|If a man has bought silver or gold, a male or a female slave,|
an ox, a sheep, or a donkey—or anything for that matter—
from another man or from another man’s slave without witnesses or contract,
or if he accepted something for safekeeping without same,
then this man is a thief and hence to be killed.
But who knows, maybe Akkadian will be cool again someday. 😎
1 Much of ancient Mesopotamian history can be summed up by one empire conquering after another, holding territory for 100-200 years, and then being conquered by someone else. They may eventually come back as a newer, stronger, but the general pattern repeated itself. As an amateur history nerd, I think a lot of this had to do with a combination of terrain (flat, open, hard to defend) and unstable governments patterned off of personal charisma. Good leaders conquered, lousy leaders got conquered.