Akkadian has been one of the most influential languages in history. For
thousands of years it was the lingua franca of the Near East and the vast majority of cuneiform sources was written in this language. Knowledge of the Akkadian language and the cuneiform script in which it was written enables you to explore the Ancient Near East yourself. But how do you learn this difficult language and this even more complex script without going to university? Luckily, there is a way to learn Akkadian and the cuneiform script in no more than three months.
Origins of the Akkadian language
Akkadian was an Eastern Semitic language spoken by the pastoralist nomads who settled in the south of present day Iraq around 3000 BC. Southern Iraq was at that time inhabited by the Sumerians, one of the most advanced civilizations of that time. The Sumerians spoke a language isolate – a language not related to any other known language – and had a very characteristic culture. The Akkadians settled among the Sumerians and took over many of their customs, including a lot of loan words. Over the course of the third millennium BC, Akkadian culture and language became more influential and started to supplant Sumerian.
Akkadian as an imperial language
During the 23rd century BC, an Akkadian king named Sargon founded the city of Akkad, after which the language is named, and started conquering all of Mesopotamia. He also conducted campaigns towards the Taurus Mountains, the Bekaa Valley and the Zagros region, thus creating the world’s first empire. The use of Akkadian as an imperial language contributed to its popularity. Akkadian soon became the main language in all of Mesopotamia. The language split into two dialects during the early second millennium BC: Assyrian in the north and Babylonian in the south. When one speaks of the Assyrian or Babylonian language, the Akkadian language is meant.
Akkadian as a lingua franca
The use of Akkadian was not limited to Mesopotamia. During the reign of the pharaoh Akhenaten (1353-1336 BC) the language was used as a diplomatic language. All correspondences between Egypt and other Near Eastern world powers were conducted in Akkadian. The fact that several peoples who did not speak Akkadian as their native language chose this language to communicate with each other indicates how influential Akkadian had become. Another way in which Akkadian was influential, was that the cuneiform script in which in was written was adopted by many other languages, like Hittite, Elamite, and Hurrian.
Akkadian was in prominent use as a written language from the time that the Akkadian Empire arose in the 23rd century BC until the first century AD. Numerous texts, ranging from poetry to prose, from scientific treatises to religious hymns, and from royal inscriptions to personal letters to receipts, were written in this language. The amount of Akkadian material is enormous, but unfortunately not well known among the public. Only a very small number of people studies the language in university, which is a pity because I am sure that most college students could learn the basics of this language, including the cuneiform, in just three months.
Richard Caplice’s ‘Introduction to Akkadian’
Richard Caplice’s Introduction to Akkadian is a textbook example of a good textbook. It is both accessible and comprehensive. The book is subdivided into 12 separate lessons that should take about a week to finish. Each lesson includes some grammatical theory, about twenty words, ten cuneiform signs, and a few exercises. This enables the student to get to know the language bit by bit without getting overwhelmed. As long as you stick to the program and work hard, you should be able to finish the program in three months. By the end of the program you will know a few hundred of the most important Akkadian words, the 120 most common cuneiform signs and all the grammar you need to start translating texts yourself.
Isn’t Akkadian hard to learn?
That depends. For speakers of English, which is a relatively simple Indo-European language, learning Akkadian, which is a moderately difficult Semitic language, will certainly be a challenge. There are almost no cognates between the languages and the grammar has a different structure. One of the most complex features of Akkadian is the verbal system. The verbs come in various ‘stems’, like the regular G-stem (he kills), the intensive D-stem, meant to give the verb extra emphasis (he slaughters), a Š-stem to indicate a causative (he caused X to kill), and a passive N-stem (he is killed). All of these stems have different conjugations, so the total number of forms that exist for a certain verb rank in the dozens. Luckily, most of them are rarely used. Aside from the verbs, Akkadian grammar is relatively simple. It has ‘only’ four grammatical cases (both Latin and German are worse in this respect). However, the hardest part of the language is the cuneiform script, which consists of over 600 signs that may have multiple phonetic or logographic meanings. Nevertheless, only a few dozen of these signs are used on a regular basis, so you should be able to recognize them after a little practice.
What to do after finishing this book?
Richard Caplice’s Introduction to Akkadian teaches you the grammar, basic vocabulary and knowledge of the most common cuneiform sources. To really sharpen your skills, however, you should practice often by translating Akkadian texts from cuneiform. A good place to start is Johns’s Cuneiform Inscriptions (2015). Nevertheless, no matter how good one becomes at reading Akkadian, even the most experienced Assyriologist needs a dictionary and a list of cuneiform signs. If you don’t want to go through the pains of translating the Akkadian texts sign by sign, there are high quality translations available too.