- Many languages were spoken over the course of the millennia in ancient Mesopotamia. The first widespread and important one was sumerian, which modern experts have noted was unlike any other known tongue. its original source remains uncertain, but sometime in the fourth millennium B.c. it replaced the existing language of southern Mesopotamia. That tongue, which scholars call ubaidian and which was not written down, has survived in small part in the form of words adopted by the sumerians; among them are the names of the great rivers - the Tigris and the Euphrates - along with the names of some cities and the words for date and palm. sumerian was written down, of course, in cuneiform characters on clay tablets. And it was the official language of administration and correspondence in Mesopotamia in the late third millennium B.c. in the early years of the following millennium, use of sumerian began to wane, and by about 1600 to 1500 b.c. it was no longer spoken. However, it was retained as a "classical" language used by scholars for many centuries to come, in the same way that Europeans still used Latin for scholarly and religious purposes long after it had ceased to be spoken. Sumerian was eventually largely deciphered thanks to the existence of ancient dictionaries, in which scribes listed sumerian synonyms for words in their own languages. A series of modern scholars, including Francois Thureau-Dangin, Arno Poebel, Thorkild Jacobsen, and Samuel N. Kramer, used these dictionaries, along with much ingenuity and patience, to make the world's first important language understandable.Among the languages that replaced Sumerian for everyday use were Semitic tongues that entered Mesopotamia from the west. The first of these was Akkadian, which appeared in the early third millennium b.c. and over time evolved into various dialects. The two main ones were Assyrian, spoken mainly in northern Mesopotamia, and Babylonian, used primarily in the south. Akkadian was very different in structure from Sumerian, although many Sumerian words were absorbed into Akkadian. By about 1450 b.c., Akkadian had become the chief language of diplomacy and correspondence in Mesopotamia. Meanwhile, two languages of unknown origin - Elamite and Hurrian - continued to be used in some areas. Elamite was spoken mainly in Elam, in the southern reaches of the Zagros range, and in eastern sections of Mesopotamia, and Hurrian was spoken primarily in Mitanni and northern Mesopotamia.Among the other Semitic languages that entered Mesopotamia after Akkadian were Amorite and Aramaic. The latter became the most widely spoken and written language of the region and well beyond. In the words of H.W.F. Saggs, a leading expert of the ancient languages of the region:The trading activities of the Aramaeans spread their language over much of the Near East, so that by the time of the Persian Empire (from 539 b.c.) it had become the international language of diplomacy. Indeed, it was already beginning to take on that role more than two centuries earlier, for when the Assyrians were besieging Jerusalem in 701 b.c., the Judean authorities requested that the Assyrian general should conduct negotiations in Aramaic, which they as diplomats understood. . . . Aramaic in its various dialects became the general language of much of the region from Palestine to Mesopotamia from the second half of the first millennium b.c. on, and had the same importance as a unifying force that was later enjoyed in the same region by Arabic, which displaced [Aramaic and other local languages] after the Islamic conquest in the seventh century a.d. (Civilization Before Greece and Rome, p. 18)Meanwhile, in addition to Aramaic, some Indo-European languages were also used in Mesopotamia in the first millennium b.c. and early first millennium a.d. Notable among them were Old Persian and Greek, introduced after the conquests of Alexander the Great in the late fourth century b.c. But these never had the scope or staying power of Aramaic, nor later of Arabic.
Ancient Mesopotamia dictioary. Don Nardo Robert B. Kebric. 2015.
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