Stumbling into the Semitic languages

In the past few months, worn out on old language paths, I’ve experimented with some new ones. I’ve learned a little bit of Vietnamese – mostly enough to apologize for not understanding, but also to order a beer – and have played a bit with Hochdeutsch (standard German) and Swiss German, following on Alsatian. And then, having searched for a few things for reasons I don’t recall, I received an Amazon recommendation for Teach Yourself Complete Babylonian. The whole idea was just so weird I had to find out more. And in the past few months I have.

One of the strange things about taking up the ancient Eastern Semitic languages is how resources run together. Teach Yourself Complete Babylonian, for example, covers not only Old and Standard Babylonian, but gives hints on how to use what you’ve learned to work through Assyrian texts. And as you start looking into it more, you find out that if you really want to learn about Old Babylonian, you go for things like the Manual of Akkadian, the Introduction to Akkadian and the Handbook of Akkadian. The oldest form of the language, you see, was Akkadian, which yielded Babylonian and Assyrian, but there’s not a lot of Akkadian left so all these books actually cover Old Babylonian and Standard Babylonian. Babylonian was, by the way, the language of the Code of Hammurabi, the first written law code, as well as an early version of the epic of Gilgamesh, with a flood story preceding the Bible’s by centuries.

Part of studying Babylonian is learning the cuneiform, the funny wedge writing you sometimes see on old clay tablets. It’s horrible to read, but it may well be the origin of most modern alphabets. Even if not, it’s how the Sumerians, who developed it, wrote things down, including the oldest Gilgamesh epic. It was used by the Akkadians, thereafter. And eventually, it was picked up by the Hittites. This makes it the oldest writing system of which we have evidence, the oldest writing system for Semitic languages of which we have evidence and the oldest writing system for Indoeuropean languages of which we have evidence!

A few tips on learning the Akkadian and related Eastern Semitic languages (which are now extinct): 1) Don’t. 2) If you must, start with the first 6 chapters of Teach Yourself Babylonian so that when you get into transliterating and making sense of cuneiform texts, you know what is going on. 3) If you make it through the first 6 chapters of Teach Yourself Babylonian, take a shot at Marcus’ Manual of Akkadian, where you’ll dive headfirst into Old Babylonian texts.

One of the things that has most surprised me in this latest pursuit is how much my pitiful store of Arabic has helped. I would not have expected, after a week or two of Babylonian, to find myself staring at a vocabulary list and thinking that the Arabic maliki yom ad-din (King of the day of Judgement) could probably be sharru sha umm dinim (with the last two elements being the same). And of course there are the obvious ones like bitum (house – Arabic bayt, Hebrew beth) and kalbum (dog – Arabic kalb, Hebrew kelev).

I don’t have any plans to become a scholar of the Eastern Semitic languages, but it’s been an interesting detour that’s give some measure of insight into what was being written about, and how it was written about, in the cradle of civilization. Fun stuff.

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About G Barto

I've been learning languages more than 20 years and teaching them for at least 15. Here I share the joys and frustrations of teaching yourself new languages.
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One Response to Stumbling into the Semitic languages

  1. Hey, I just found your blog by looking for akkadian resources. Just wanted to say that I’m glad to learn that I’m not the only one who started learning akkadian just because it could be funny. See you in the asylum.

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