The Languages of Berkeley: An Online Exhibition

11th Tablet of the Epic of Gilgamesh (Neo-Assyrian, 7th Century BCE). Courtesy of the British Museum.

Akkadian is a member of the eastern branch of the Semitic language family. This is a large family, with languages spoken today throughout the Middle East and North Africa. The most widely-known Semitic languages are Arabic, Hebrew, Aramaic and Amharic. Each of these has a long literary tradition.

The first Akkadian texts were written perhaps as early as 2500 BCE. Akkadian thus has the honor of being the first Semitic language to leave us records. The earliest texts come from the northern region of ancient Mesopotamia, modern-day Iraq. The language spread from there, and was eventually spoken throughout much of the Ancient Near East until the 7th century BCE, when it was gradually replaced by Aramaic. As time passed, knowledge of the language became more and more limited to priests and scholars. The latest Akkadian texts date to the first century CE. By that time, no one had spoken Akkadian as a native language for over five hundred years. These last texts were composed by Mesopotamian religious scholars, preserving their ancient culture.

Akkadian was written in the cuneiform script, which it adopted from the Sumerians, who preceded the Akkadians in Mesopotamia by centuries. Ancient Akkadian scholars were aware of the cultural debt that they owed to the Sumerians, and so studied Sumerian in their school system. In addition to composing texts in Akkadian, Akkadian scholars composed texts in Sumerian a thousand years after Sumerian had died out as a spoken language.

A host of texts in Akkadian has been preserved. This ranges from the most mundane accounting records to works of high literature. Some of the many other genres include legal texts, prescriptions, letters, omen texts, grammatical studies, and religious compositions of all kinds. This wealth of compositions can be seen by the fact that the standard dictionary of Akkadian—The Assyrian Dictionary of the Oriental Institute of University of Chicago—is 21 volumes long.[1] (The word “Assyrian” reflects an early name that scholars used.)

Assyriology—the study of texts written in Akkadian and Sumerian—is now a field of studies in its own right. In the early days of the field, however, scholars were mostly interested in reading Akkadian texts in order to prove the veracity of the Bible. The most famous Akkadian composition is the Epic of Gilgamesh, which consists of approximately 3600 lines written on 12 tablets. While earlier versions of Gilgamesh stories were written in both Sumerian and Akkadian, the version as we know it today comes from the 1st millennium BCE. An ancient Akkadian catalogue of texts credits this version to a man named Sin-leqi-unninni. Modern scholars debate about the role that he played in the writing of this text—author, editor, or compiler. Because of its treatment of timeless themes, including death and friendship, the Epic remains popular even today.

Perhaps the best-known cuneiform tablet in the British Museum is K. 3375 (illustrated above, courtesy of the British Museum), which contains a portion of Tablet 11 of the Epic, known as the “flood story.” E.A.W. Budge, the Keeper of Egyptian and Assyrian Antiquities at the British Museum, recalled the excitement that the decipherment of this tablet caused, when after some preliminary study it was given to George Smith, Senior Assistant at the Museum:

Smith was constitutionally a highly nervous, sensitive man…Smith took the tablet and began to read over the lines…and when he saw that they contained the portion of the legend he had hoped to find there, he said, “I am the first man to read that after more than two thousand years of oblivion.” Setting the tablet on the table, he jumped up and rushed about the room in a great state of excitement, and, to the astonishment of those present, began to undress himself![2]

Smith presented his findings in a public lecture at the Society of Biblical Archaeology on December 3, 1872, announcing his discovery of what was a Mesopotamian version of the biblical flood story. He then read his translation of the entire fragment to the audience which was greeted with enthusiasm.

Many have heard of the Epic of Gilgamesh or the Code of Hammurapi. While not the first recorded law code, the Law Code is by far the longest and most complete.[3] The very first “law” (for want of a better word) reads:

Autograph of the Code of Hammurapi, courtesy of the Pontificio Istituto Biblico.
If a man accuses another man of homicide,
but cannot prove the charge, that man shall
be executed.

While works such as the Epic or the Law Code have captured public attention, many people are unaware of the vast amount of Akkadian that has been preserved. Letters—between rulers and their subordinates, and between private individuals—form a primary source for the writing of history. A typical short letter from the Old Babylonian period (approximately 2000–1600 BCE), now in the Louvre, chosen at random, states:

May the god Shamash keep you well.
Prepare for me the myrtle and the sweet-smelling reeds that I spoke to you about
earlier, and a boat for shipping wine to the city of Sippar. Purchase and bring with
you ten sheqels worth of wine, and meet me here in Babylon tomorrow.

It is such texts that enable economic historians to help reconstruct many different facets of the ancient Mesopotamian economy.

One of the reasons why people in general know less about Mesopotamia than about ancient Egypt is because the physical remains of Mesopotamian civilization are not nearly as spectacular as those of Egypt. There is very little hard stone in Mesopotamia, especially in the south, so the Mesopotamians built in mud-brick. They took mud from the rivers, shaped it into bricks, and made those bricks into buildings. Mud-brick buildings aren’t very durable: temples and palaces fall apart. So the archaeological remains of Mesopotamia are not nearly as well preserved as in Egyptian. Visiting ancient ruins in Syria or Iraq is not like wandering through the remains of Karnak or Luxor in Egypt today, where buildings are all around. Nor does cuneiform writing have the same aesthetic appeal that Egyptian hieroglyphs do. This means, unfortunately, that the study of the Ancient Near East—whose history and culture are known to us through Sumerian and Akkadian—has never had the same cachet among the general public that the study of Ancient Egypt has enjoyed. Nevertheless, both Sumerian and Akkadian have been taught at Cal for many years, and continue to enjoy a coterie of dedicated students.

Contribution by John L. Hayes
Lecturer, Department of Near Eastern Studies

Sources consulted:

  1. The Assyrian Dictionary of the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago / editorial board, Ignace J. Gelb … [et al.] Chicago, Ill.: The Institute, 1956-
  2. Budge, E. A. Wallace. The Rise & Progress of Assyriology. (London: Clay & Sons, 1925), 152–153.
  3. Hammurabi, King of Babylonia. Codex Hammurabi. Roma: Pontificium Institutum Biblicum, 1950-53.

Epic of Gilgamesh, tablet 11, story of the Flood (K-3375)
Author: unknown
Imprint: Excavated at Kouyunjik in northern Iraq. Understood as the remains of the great library collected by King Ashurbanipal (668-c.630 BC) of Assyria at his capital of Nineveh.
Language: Akkadian
Language Family: Afro-Asiatic, Semitic, Northwest Semitic
Source: The British Museum
URL: https://www.britishmuseum.org/collection/object/W_K-3375

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The Languages of Berkeley is a dynamic online sequential exhibition celebrating the diversity of languages that have advanced research, teaching and learning at the University of California, Berkeley. It is made possible with support from the UC Berkeley Library and is co-sponsored by the Berkeley Language Center (BLC).

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