Ancient Near Eastern and European Isolates

Authored by: Piotr Michalowski

Language Isolates

Print publication date:  September  2017
Online publication date:  September  2017

Print ISBN: 9781138821057
eBook ISBN: 9781315750026
Adobe ISBN:


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Information on many ancient languages has been preserved in hundreds of thousands of cuneiform documents recovered from the remains of Near Eastern habitations, spanning a time frame from ca. 3300 bce to at least the first century ce. The quantity and quality of this information varies: some languages are documented by vast amounts of literary, scholarly and administrative texts, some are known only from personal names, and still others merely by name. Because scribes often wrote in foreign languages, traces of interference from their native vernaculars can sometimes be detected. One such instance is documented in the fourteenth century bce Akkadian language correspondence between the Egyptian Crown and its vassals in the Levant, in places such as Megiddo and Jerusalem, containing occasional glosses that reveal small glimpses of the correspondent’s native Semitic Canaanite dialects that are otherwise undocumented. Slightly later, personal names and glosses texts from the Syrian city of Emar, not far from Aleppo, also written in imported scribal Akkadian, show traces of a local Semitic tongue that may have affinities with Ugaritic and ancient South Arabic (Arnaud 1995, del Olmo Lete 2012). Multilingualism was often the norm. This is well illustrated by a quote from an inscription written in Indo-European Luwian in the name of Yararis, a ninth/eighth century regent who ruled the city of Karkemish in what is now southeastern Turkey (Payne 2012: 87): “in the city’s writing (=hieroglyphic Luwian), in Surean (=Phoenician) writing, in Assyrian writing (=Mesopotamian cuneiform), in Taimani (=South Arabic) writing. And I knew twelve languages.” During the eighth and seventh centuries bce, the Assyrians deported tens of thousands of people throughout their empire, and their wars resulted in population movements that created novel sociolinguistic situations. In one mid-seventh century letter, the writer reports that “there are many languages (being spoken) in the (Babylonian) city of Nippur under the protection of the king, my master” (Frame 2013: 88). These examples illustrate the complexities of language use, geography and identity of those times.

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