Akkadian

Fifteen years later.

Fifteen? Actually, it’s probably closer to twenty years since I bought Richard Caplice’s Introduction to Akkadian, which has spent most of that time sitting on the shelf. Occasionally, I’d take it off the shelf, look at it briefly, and then put it back, but I brought the book back to China with me and have been looking through a lesson a day for the past couple of weeks to give myself an overview of the language.

Akkadian is the earliest recorded Afro-Asiatic language and the second earliest recorded language after Sumerian, from which it acquired its writing system. The language has a long history with the earliest records dating from 2500BC and the latest from the 1st century BC. Sumerian was to Akkadian as Latin was to the languages of Europe, but later in its history, Akkadian acquired a similar, scholarly function. There was also an artificial literary language which is called Standard Babylonian.

The writing system, cuneiform, is complicated to say the least because each character may have one of several values. It might be a logogram or it might have a phonetic value depending on the context. There are exercises throughout the book in the transcription of cuneiform, but it’s a topic which needs to be treated separately, I think.

Lesson 1 starts with nouns, which have three cases (nom, acc, gen) and two genders (masc, fem) and three numbers (sg, dual, pl). The adjective is similarly declined, but the endings differ slightly in the masc pl (nom –ūtum, obl –ūtim). Nouns with vocalic stems are subject to contraction, which results in the vowel of the inflectional endings being lengthened. Adjectives follow their nouns.

Lesson 2 outlines various forms of the noun such as the rare absolute state and the construct state, which seems to be a common (?) feature of the Afro-Asiatic languages. The phonology of this form is a little complicated. The lesson also introduces possessive suffixes, which trigger the same sort of changes in the nouns to which they’re attached.

Verbs are introduced in Lesson 3 with four main stem types and another four subsidiary ones. There are fours tenses (present, preterite, perfect, stative) as well as an imperative mood and the usual non-finite forms (infinitive, participle, verbal adjective). The inflection of the preterite and present isn’t as complex as I thought it might be. It seems that one stem fits all. The 2nd person sg distinguishes masc and fem forms as does the 3rd person pl. The infinitive may function as a noun or a verb and take the corresponding constructions. In spite of its name, the (active) participle is a noun, but is inflected as an adjective. The verbal adjective, on the other hand, really is an adjective and seems to be much like the past participle in English. Word order is SOV, which may be due to Sumerian. I believe other Afro-Asiatic languages are VSO.

Lesson 4 discusses the stative, which is conjugated from the verbal adjective and indicates, unsurprisingly, a state. The perfect seems a little misnamed. In dependent clauses it indicates a future action prior to the action of the main verb (also in the future). It’s also used after a verb in the preterite indicating a sequence of events. Akkadian has a range of pronominal accusative and dative suffixes, although I can’t remember whether this sort of thing is found in other AA languages. Seems Sumerian to me. The subjunctive is formed by adding –u to endingless indicative forms (most of the sg and the 1st person pl). It’s used in subordinate clauses.

Lesson 5 introduces Gt-stems which are formed by infixing –t(a)- after the first radical. There are various modal constructions formed from combinations of particle + verb. Questions may be distinguished by the lengthening of the vowel of the most important word; or sometimes they can only be identified from context. Like English, demonstratives and interrogatives may be specifiers or pronouns. Akkadian also had two ways of forming negatives: ul for declarative sentences and yes/no questions; for everything else. The pattern is rather like οὐκ vs. μή in Greek.

D (reduplicating, forming factitives) and Š-stems (causatives) are discussed in Lesson 6 along with their t forms which form the passives of these stems. Independent pronouns function as emphatics.

The N-stem forms the passive of the G-stem (the basic stem). tn forms are like continuous verb forms in English or may indicate repeated action. Lesson 7 finishes with indefinite pronouns.

Lesson 8 introduces weak verbs. These are verbs with a radical (most commonly the third) which was lost, leading to contraction. It’s clear from some of the evidence that Akkadian had compensatory lengthening. The language also had determinative-relative pronouns (he who, she who etc.), but they seem to be of limited functionality. The indeclinable ša functioned as a relative pronoun.

Lesson 9 looks at weak verbs with a second weak radical. It also mentions adjectival and nominal formations, including some derivational morphology.

Lesson 10 begins with weak verbs with initial aleph (a glottal stop, I believe) and then looks at j- and n-initial verbs. The latter are subject to total assimilation to the following radical or loss in the imperative.

The theme of a weak initial radical continues in Lesson 11 with w-initial verbs. The majority of these are derived from the prefix w(a)- added to biconsonantal roots. There’s a return to the infinitive with more details of the constructions in which it is found, which can be quite mixed; thus object – preposition – infinitive or preposition – object – infinitive. The infinitive absolute is an emphatic form in which the finite verb is preceded by its infinitive inflected with –um-ma. The lesson concludes with numerals.

The final lesson in the book is about quadriliteral verbs which fall into the š-group and N-stem group. There are also a small number of irregular N-stem verbs, but they’re probably derived. Doubly weak verbs have two weak radicals and are, therefore, subject to the changes outlined in previous lessons. Lastly, “all” was expressed by nouns meaning “totality”.

Appendix I deals with the historical phonology of Akkadian, and consonantal and vocalic patterns. Appendix II covers numerals, dates and measures.

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2 thoughts on “Akkadian”

  1. It’s not. It’s a dead language which came to the end of its life in the 1st century AD. It was spoken in the area which is present-day Iraq.

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