1: G. Buccellati, November 2002

Languages in context

     The linguistic setting of ancient Urkesh was highly cosmopolitan, in that a number of languages was represented. The interplay of socio-political factors is as significant as the linguistic aspect.

     HURRIAN was the language of the social group that originally founded the city, towards the end of the fourth millennium. It hailed from the highlands to the north, and while the language remained in use over the following centuries, it probably became differentiated from its rural counterpart that continued in use in the highlands. It acquired a political valence as it remained in use not only for personal names, but also for political inscriptions and to refer to the supreme political authority, the endan – and this at a time when Akkadian overlordship was extending to all of Syria, presumably posing a threat to any expression of local autonomy. We can also assume that Hurrian continued to be in use as the main language of religion at Urkesh: this is based on archaeological evidence that links Urkesh with explicit Hurrian myths and rituals known from later times.

     SUMERIAN was the language of high culture, and presumably the language behind the whole scribal tradition out of which the practice of writing Hurrian also arose. We find evidence of this in a school text that is the homework of a schoolboy learning Sumerian, as well as in the pervasive habit of using logograms to refer to Hurrian words. It is our scholarly practice to render these logograms in Sumerian, e.g., DINGIR for "god" (the use of capital letters indicate that it is a logogram), even in a Hurrian context. Thus for instance in the inscription of Tiš-atal, in line 15, the sign that is rendered in our transliteration as DINGIR is presumed to have been read as Hurrian êni "god." It is likely that the use of Sumerian to render logograms is not only a modern convention, but was also the practice with ancient scribes when they wanted to read the sign as a logogram rather than as the pertinent word in the target language. (Similarly, in English one may read the logogram "etc." as "et cetera" using the original Latin wording, or as "and so on" using an approximate English equivalent.) We do not, at this point, have evidence for any Sumerian personal names from Urkesh.

     AKKADIAN was the language spoken by the majority of the urban population in Syro-Mesopotamia from the Old Akkadian period on. It must have been in common use at Urkesh as well, for two main reasons. First, many of the individuals who resided there (in particular the two queens known to us at present) have Akkadian names, and were likely to be of Akkadian ethnic affiliation. Second, Akkadian being the language most commonly spoken in the region, and Urkesh being a city in close contact with this world, it seems inevitable that a one way bilingualism should have been the rule (i.e., all urban Hurrians would speak Akkadian, though certainly not all Akkadians would speak Hurrian). Besides personal names, we have evidence of Akkadian being used in the writing of administrative texts. In some instances, it also came to be used to express logograms – thus, for instance, in the same l. 15 of the inscription of Tiš-atal, where the second sign (-SU2) is the Akkadian pronominal suffix of the third person, presumably to be read as Hurrian.

     AMORITE was the language spoken by the rural population of the Syro-Mesopotamian plains during the latter part of the third millennium. In the early part of the second millennium, populations bearing Amorite names show a marked ascendancy in the political arena, so that many of the ruling dynasties in the major kingdoms exhibit a preference for Amorite onomastics, even though the scribal culture remains thoroughly Akkadian. In third millennium Urkesh there is for now no evidence of an Amorite presence. In the second millennium, the two rulers who were Zimri-Lim's vassals in Urkesh bear Amorite names (Haziran and Terru, the latter only arguably Amorite): no other Amorite names are otherwise attested so far at Urkesh.

     The sections on the individual languages presented here do not of course aim at providing a description, much less a full grammar, of the languages in question. We will only highlight those features that are of particular significance from a linguistic or cultural point of view.