Tablets reveal evidence of lost language
The Amorites and especially their language have long puzzled scholars. Indeed, many have wondered whether an Amorite language even existed. While the Amorites—first attested during the third millennium BCE as a nomadic people from Syria and the Levant—eventually became one of the most powerful groups to rule over Mesopotamia, very little evidence of their language has ever been found.
That changed, however, with the publication of an article in the journal Revue d’assyriologie et d’archéologie orientale, which presented two tablets the authors believe were at least partially written in Amorite. While the content of the tablets themselves is not terribly groundbreaking, the discovery has significant implications for our understanding of Amorite and its relationship to other Bronze Age languages. The tablets, however, are unprovenanced objects, having likely been illegally removed from Iraq about 30 years ago in the wake of the First Gulf War and subsequently stored in various collections in the United States.
Both tablets contain two-column bilingual lists, a format often used in pedagogical and scholastic contexts in Mesopotamia. While written in the normal cuneiform script, the content of the writing is far less standard. Most bilingual lists contain one column written in Sumerian and a second column that contains an Akkadian translation. In the two new tablets, however, the language in the left column was not the expected Sumerian but rather the never-before-seen Northwest Semitic language Amorite.
The two tablets are something of a short phrasebook. The first tablet begins with a list of deities, then moves on to naming constellations, food items, and types of clothing. All of these items are written in Amorite in the left column and translated into Akkadian on the right. These items are followed by a section, written only in Amorite, of longer phrases and a few literary verses. The second tablet consists only of bilingual phrases in Amorite and Akkadian, which seem to be phrases used in common social interactions.
The texts themselves provide important clues to the place and period where and when they were written. Both tablets are written in cuneiform and have linguistic features that strongly suggest they can be dated to the Old Babylonian period (c. 1894–1595 BCE). In addition, the vocabulary and syntax of the tablets indicate they were likely written in southern Mesopotamia, the region known as Babylonia. Indeed, the language and handwriting used in the two tablets is so similar that they may have been written by the very same scribe or at least in the same scribal school.
Admittedly, Amorite is not a completely unknown language. As nomadic Amorite tribes from Syria and the Levant gradually moved into Mesopotamia in the mid-third millennium BCE, Amorite loan words slowly appeared in Akkadian, the dominant language of the time. This was especially the case during the Old Babylonian period when local Amorite chieftains gained power and took over from their Akkadian predecessors. Indeed, many of the famous Mesopotamian kings from this period, such as Hammurabi of Babylon and Zimri-Lim of Mari, were Amorites. But even as the Amorites expanded their power, the language of learning and administration remained Akkadian and Sumerian. This in turn led some scholars to suggest there was no distinct “Amorite” language, which was instead simply a dialect of Akkadian. With the publication of the new tablets, this theory is no longer tenable.
Scholars have now confirmed that Amorite was actually a Northwest Semitic language, like Ugaritic, Hebrew, and Aramaic. Specifically, Amorite has striking similarities to the Canaanite language group to which Hebrew and Moabite also belong. Indeed, the Amorite from the tablets is incredibly similar to the Canaanite language found in the 14th-century BCE Amarna Letters, and some of the phrases are even nearly identical to modern Hebrew.
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It is important to note, however, that the Amorite language itself cannot be understood as Canaanite. Some of its features are much closer to other Semitic languages, like Arabic, rather than Canaanite. This fluidity simply illustrates that in the third and second millennia BCE, the Canaanites, Amorites, and other Syro-Levantine peoples were all part of the same cultural and linguistic “stew.” It also demonstrates just how fluid linguistic barriers were in antiquity, where even later texts—such as the Deir Alla inscription—blur the lines between languages and therefore limit any straightforward attempt at categorization.
Additionally, while the discovery of Amorite is of major significance, the tablets themselves are unlikely to unlock our understanding of previously unreadable texts à la the Rosetta Stone. While Amorite may have been spoken by some, it never became the common written language of Syria or Mesopotamia. In this sense, Amorite likely functioned similarly to Aramaic during the Neo-Assyrian period (c. 912–612 BCE), when large numbers of people spoke Aramaic, while almost all texts continued to be written in Akkadian.
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