Akkadian Language

Photograph of an Akkadian king. Stele of Naram-Sin, Iran c. 2230 BC. Musée du Louvre.

Akkadian king. Stele of Naram-Sin, Iran c. 2230 BC. Musée du Louvre.

Akkadian was the principal language of ancient Mesopotamia (approximately corresponding to modern Iraq). It was spoken by the Assyrians in the north and the Babylonians in the south and survived as a written language until the 1st century AD. Akkadian was also used as an international diplomatic language in the Late Bronze Age in an area stretching from modern Turkey to Egypt and from the Levant to modern Iran.

Akkadian is the world’s oldest written Semitic language and the first connected texts (in Old Akkadian) date from about 2400 BC. Two main dialects of Akkadian developed in the second and first millennia BC, Assyrian and Babylonian. A purely literary dialect, called Standard Babylonian, was also used for certain types of texts, including the Epic of Gilgamesh. Peripheral Akkadian, found in texts from sites in Syria, Turkey and Egypt, displays local influences. During the latter half of the first millennium BC Akkadian was replaced by Aramaic as a spoken language but it continued to be used as a written language until the 1st century AD.

Akkadian was written in cuneiform (wedge-shaped) script, which developed from a pictorial forerunner first attested in the area in c. 3300 BC. This script system was used to write Sumerian, an isolate language, before it was adapted to write Akkadian. Most cuneiform texts were written with a reed stylus on clay tablets but other media include stone, metal, and waxed writing boards. The script system combines syllabograms (signs for syllables), logograms (signs for words), and determinatives (classifiers, e.g. for place names and birds). Consonants and vowels were indicated but the pronunciation is reconstructed.

Akkadian may be offered as a first or second language within the B.A. in Egyptology and Ancient Near Eastern Studies. Students taking Arabic or Hebrew as a main subject may choose Egyptology and Ancient Near Eastern Studies as a second subject, specializing in Akkadian. Students may also specialise in Akkadian within Egyptology and the Ancient Near Eastern Studies as a main or second subject in the joint degree of Classics and Oriental Studies.

The course in Akkadian as a first language or within a main subject lasts nine terms and begins in the first year. Akkadian as a second language or within a second subject lasts six terms and begins in the second year of a three-year degree or the third year of a four-year degree depending on the main subject taken. No prior knowledge of Akkadian is expected at undergraduate level.

Akkadian may also be studied for six terms within the two-year M.Phil. in Cuneiform Studies. This graduate degree has a range of options and is designed for those new to the field and those who have previously studied cuneiform.

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Page last modified: 2nd November 2011