Ancient Near East 101: Akkadian

Akkadian is another Semitic language, like Hebrew and Arabic, though it was based in Mesopotamia (modern-day Iraq), further east then most other Semitic languages at the time. It is attested extensively, both before and during the biblical period. It is written using the cuneiform script, a system originally developed for writing Sumerian, which is based on several hundred signs created with little wedge-shapes. Each sign has several possible phonetic values (usually syllabic, that is, one sign could be the syllable “ka”, another “ki”, another “shu”, or another “kag”), or logographic values (representing one word). Thus, reading a language written in cuneiform script is often a difficult process.

Akkadian is first attested at the cities of Akkad and Ur in about the 3rd Millennium BC. This period of the language is called “Old Akkadian”. After this, as Akkadian began to replace Sumerian as the dominant language in Mesopotamia, it split into two different dialects, Babylonian and Assyrian. Each of these is further divided into Old, Middle, and Neo periods (there is also a Late Babylonian). In the “middle” period, Akkadian became the diplomatic language of the Near East. Egypt, Hatti (modern day Turkey), Assyria, Babylonia, and Mitanni (in modern Syria) all communicated with each other (and with their vassals) in Akkadian. Akkadian was used by both the Neo-Assyrians and the Babylonians mentioned in the Bible, even as it was slowly replaced by Aramaic. It continued to be used in a merely official capacity in Mesopotamia under Persian rule as the dialect Late Babylonian, though Aramaic and Persian were used more popularly.

Akkadian is important for biblical scholarship. Neo-Assyrian and Neo-Babylonian records help us reconstruct the history of the period, as they sometimes mention Israel and Judah. Earlier periods of the language help us reconstruct the culture and time of the patriarchs, and also the early period of the Hebrew language itself. Akkadian in general is important for the study of ancient Semitic languages, as it is so widely attested and over such a long period of time (about 1500 years). There are also some amazing stories and literature written in Akkadian, some of which biblical authors may have been familiar with and even possibly referenced.

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4 thoughts on “Ancient Near East 101: Akkadian

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