Book: Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World by Nicholas Ostler
Section: More of Chapter 3 (Page 50 to 80)
The Rise and Fall of Sumerian, Akkadian, and Aramaic
This part of the book chronicles how for a long time, scholars believed Akkadian to be the first written language, or at least the first one known, until they uncovered Sumerian in a library of Nineveh in 1875. They found it to be older than Akkadian, and discovered that it had pioneered cuneiform first, to be later adopted by Akkadian and adapted to its use. The native lands of Sumer were conquered by the Akkadian speaking Assyrians, resulting in a bilingual stage between the two languages. This is due to the complicated relationship between cuneiform and how the Akkadians attempted to adapt their completely unrelated language to Sumerian writing. It has been found that Sumerian had a "fine tongue" for woman, and a "princely tongue" for men, which while not too different, were different enough to warrant separate dictionaries for both. Sumerian lost ground to Akkadian, despite its use by scholars, due to the fact that most of the foreigners moving in to Mesopotamia to trade were Semetic tribesmen, whose languages were mutually intelligible with Akkadian. This led to even native Sumerians to have to speak Akkadian if they wished to trade, leading to the eventual loss of speaking Sumerian as a vernacular language. Akkadian was seen as a dialect of Sumerian due to its writing being the same, despite their complete lack of relations. Eventually, Sumerian would fall as simply the language of the classroom and mathematics in Akkadian society, and as Akkadian fell to Persians and Greeks, so did Sumerian. Another language often overlooked is Elamite, which was founded and used in the city of Elam in modern day Fars, Iran. It had a long lifespan under its independent state, until Persia conquered it and made it the language of the administration for a century, causing it to flourish until later kings switched to Aramaic. Akkadian spread under the success of Sargon of Akkad, a city now lost to us, who managed to unite much of Mesopotamia and start the cycle of different Akkadian dynasties taking over the entire region for several centuries until being overthrown by another. Akkadian spread under the likes of Babylon and Assyria, and eventually these two cities would develop their own distinct dialects of Akkadian, each of which would be used for several centuries. It eventually died out at the peak of its power under Assyrian rule, due to the Assyrian military policy. It lost out to Aramaic, a language of relatively illiterate tribesmen, not because of its alphabet, but rather due to the fact that Assyrians preferred to take conquered Aramaeans and spread them around the state to encourage a melting pot of cultures. This lead the huge population of moved Aramaeans to continue to speak their language until it replaced Akkadian as the vernacular, despite its lack of support from the ruling caste. Languages such as Phoenician would spread into the Mediterranean until eventually losing out to Latin and Greek as they were slowly replaced as the lingua franca of the region.