Friday, February 20, 2009


Roger D. Woodard (ed.), The Ancient Languages of Mesopotamia, Egypt and Aksum. Cambridge/New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008. Pp. xix, 251. ISBN 9780521684972. $39.99.
Reviewed by Mark Weeden, School of Oriental and African Studies, London (

Table of Contents

The present volume presents a relatively affordable, paperback collection of articles from Woodard's massive and extremely useful Cambridge Encyclopaedia of the World's Ancient Languages (abbreviated WAL, Cambridge/New York, CUP, 2004), apparently selected according to geographical criteria. The book contains chapters on ancient languages from the areas mentioned in the title (Aksum is old Ethiopia), adopted directly from the original WAL, with prefatory and introductory remarks by the editor. Other volumes have appeared in a similar format, picking up the ancient languages covered by WAL belonging to other geographical areas (Asia and the Americas, Asia Minor, Europe, Syria-Palestine and Arabia, all detailed on pp. 238-242). The purpose of these publications is to make the essays they contain more widely available to scholars and students. The problem is that they are now largely out of date.

The chapters are all organised according to a consistent structure with sections on (section 1) Historical and Cultural Contexts; (section 2) Writing Systems; (section 3) Phonology; (section 4) Morphology; (section 5) Syntax; (section 6) Lexicon; (section 7) Reading List. Not all chapters have all sections, however.

I found the original WAL extremely useful and have personally used its relevant chapters to gain a first orientation in Hurrian, Urartian and Elamite before proceeding to read the texts, albeit in a dedicated reading group in the company of very experienced scholars. Such a method may not be appropriate for learning better attested ancient languages, however, and one expectation of WAL in this regard was that experts in the particular languages would provide modern summaries of the state of research. Areas where this expectation was not completely fulfilled have been adequately criticised in the generally positive reviews of the original 2004 volume, including the fact that most of the articles appeared to have been finished by 1997 and were thus not entirely up-to-date.1 However excusable such a delay in production may have been for the 2004 work, disregard of academic research since 1997is less palatable in 2008, by which time several similar publications covering some of the same languages have appeared, not to mention some very extensive developments in research.2 Further review criticisms of the original publication were also not incorporated into this daughter volume, nor apparently into at least one other of the series.3

Whereas I was not entirely sympathetic to the scepticism of other reviewers regarding the dubious intended target audience of WAL, having used it so profitably myself, I was slightly surprised by the choice of content for this book. It is peculiar that Ge'ez, or Old Ethiopic, is grouped in a volume with these languages rather than with Old South Arabian in the relevant sister-volume, which also contains Hebrew.4 The explanation proffered by the editor in Chapter 1, p. 2, which leads us through Abraham leaving Mesopotamia to a transport of the arc of the covenant to Ethiopia in the time of Solomon, sounds very quaint and is clearly addressed to a US American (references to "the Post", "the Times") and/or Bible-reading public. I would have preferred a simple, technical explanation, such as that there wasn't enough room in the other volume, but it is a matter of taste or emphasis. The placement of Ge'ez in the volume next to (Egyptian and) Coptic, would certainly suit someone studying early Christianity in (North-)East Africa, but it is clear that the articles were designed for a linguist audience. Further, the inclusion of J. Huehnergard's chapter on Afro-Asiatic Languages in the sister volume dealing with the Ancient Languages of Syria-Palestine and Arabia is unfortunate from the perspective of the reader of this volume.

P. Michalowski's chapter on Sumerian (pp. 6-46) is a much needed statement of position on issues relating to the Sumerian language by one of its chief exponents. It is also typologically informed with an overall linguistic as opposed to philological perspective. Michalowski mentions on p. 31 that there are as many interpretations of some Sumerian grammatical phenomena as there are Sumerologists and largely presents his own views with ample references to other versions. A little more attention to alternative terminology might have been useful, however, especially during the discussion of verbal transitivity (one/two/three-participant verbs).5 The number of grammatical sketches of the language has increased since Michalowski's chapter was written, and there is ample opportunity for the reader to compare concise but differing accounts of the same phenomena from the hands of masters in the field conveniently.6

M. Stolper's chapter on Elamite was at the time the only succinct summary of the language, and provides an excellent starting point for study, with detailed references for further investigation.7 The minor points listed below in no way detract from the piece's value.

J. Huehnergard and C. Woods present an extensive treatment of Akkadian, which is interesting particularly for its continual reference to the closely related third millennium dialect of Eblaite. Unfortunately, the treatment of Old Akkadian, i.e. 3rd millennium, and Old Babylonian, i.e. ca. 2000-1595 BC, phonology, particularly with reference to the sibilants, is now largely out-dated. The reader is referred first and foremost to R. Hasselbach's recent book,8 but earlier works treating the effects of the so-called "affricate hypothesis" on our view of Proto-Semitic and earlier Akkadian sibilants should at least have been referenced.9 For Ur III Akkadian and its affiliation to Babylonian, see now M. Hilgert.10 Against the idea that Old Akkadian is a separate dialect from Assyrian and Babylonian (as per authors p. 84) see now the very interesting article by R. Hasselbach, arguing that Old Akkadian is more closely related to Babylonian than Assyrian (Journal of Semitic Studies 42/1, Spring 2007, 21-43). The rest of the treatment largely stands solid, although a discussion of the large topic of weak verbs is avoided. For Neo-Assyrian Akkadian the reader can now turn to J. Hämeen Antilla,11 among others, and for historical syntax we now have G. Deutscher.12 An appendix to chapter 5 provides a selective sign-list of (Neo-Assyrian!) cuneiform signs and their values.13

A. Loprieno's chapter on Egyptian and Coptic is an excellent read and thoroughly linguistically geared. The lay-reader, such as myself, may feel cheated every now and then of an explanation of how we know the linguistic phenomena being described, i.e., the philological element is slightly lacking. On p. 181 the regular Akkadian word for "heart" is libbum, not lubbum. For more recent publications on Coptic, a reference to the web-site of the International Association for Coptic Studies should suffice, in particular their section Recent and Forthcoming Publications. For more recent publications on the topics of Egyptian raised in this chapter the reader may be directed to the journals Lingua Aegyptia and Enchoria.14 There is also an Appendix to Chapter 6, with a selective sign list of Middle Egyptian Hieroglyphs taken from a recent (1999) Middle Egyptian grammar book.

Despite the above reservations about the appearance of Ge'ez in the context of this volume, I can only join previous reviewers in praising G. Gragg's exposition of Old Ethiopic. Ancient grammatical phenomena are not presented as a fait accompli, but as part of an ongoing process of discovery, with appropriate weight given to questions of methodology in evaluating the evidence used to establish phonology, paradigms and their historical context. The lack of a section on the lexicon remains irritating. The very small bibliography, instead of a list of further reading, can now be complemented by the proceedings of a Berlin conference on Ethiopic Studies in the 20th century, which includes ample material for further reading.15

Ancient languages are usually studied by philological method, and it is rare that philologists feel motivated to summarise their findings in a concise and general form. This book's predecessor (WAL) encouraged experts in ancient languages to condense their opinions into one account of a language they study. We have before us a collection of high quality but slightly dated essays, which will be of great use to researchers and students wishing to locate the opinions held, sometimes a decade ago, by eminent names in the field, especially when the accounts can now be compared with equally concise presentations in other publications. It is a good reference work, but definitely not the last word.

Minor Quibbles:


The broad if not complete support given on p. 16 (also p. 20) to a general loss of final consonants is surely misplaced, this being a reflex of 3rd millennium writing conventions rather than an indication of linguistic reality, of which the author is clearly aware on p. 20. The "culture-word" tibira, "metal-worker" has been argued by G. Wilhelm to be a Hurrian active-participle, thus possibly not "of unknown origin" (p. 41).16


I balked slightly at some of the terminology: the term "plene-writing" (p. 55) applies to cases where the vowel of an ambiguous cuneiform CV (consonant-vowel) sign is disambiguated by addition of a plene vowel: kéïe = ke-e. Another term needs to be found to describe writings of the types CVC-VC (tan-an beside tan- and da-an-) CVC-CV (gal-li, gal-lu beside gal-) where the disambiguating function is not so clear-cut as well as being partial. I recommend that the CV or VC signs in these cases would better be called "phonetic indicators".17 On p. 58 (3.1.2 line 10) one should read "graphic convention used otherwise for CVC sequences", rather than "...for CVC signs". On p. 59 (3.2.1) the writing of grammatical [pat-r ir u-r] as graphic pa-at-ru-ur is described as "vowel contraction" when it appears to be syncope.

The account of the verbal system does not mention the hypothesis of a Conjugation IV based on the personal class-marker -r-, to complement conjugations II and III which are based on the other two personal class-markers, -k- and -n- respectively.18 This is not widely accepted but can usefully be used to explain certain Middle and Achaemenid Elamite phenomena, e.g. AchE S1 hutta-r(a), cf. EW 1: 713, 727. Inconsistencies in translation are slightly irritating but insubstantial: [hutta-k hali-k], "done and finished", is translated differently on pp. 68, 70, 75. On p. 63 (4.3.4) the reader perhaps needs to know that the word for "troops" is treated as an inanimate noun and is for this reason resumed by the inanimate relative pronoun, appa. The inanimate relative pronoun is occasionally translated as referring to an animate antecedent: p. 71 (5.1), "the women who (appa) in GN were grinding (?)" is inexplicable unless one insert a rule in 4.3.4 that the inanimate relative represents the animate plural.

Akkadian and Eblaite:

The use of the term "bound form" (4.1.2) for both the form of the noun before the genitive and that before a pronoun, is unfortunate. Traditional grammar calls the former the construct form, while the latter is the bound form. They are clearly different. DUMU.MUNUS on p. 148 is not spelled with a shin as printed. The mention of a fully declined relative pronoun (5.12.1) in Old Akkadian surely requires some detail of its most striking trait: its case is determined by that of the antecedent, not by its place in the relative clause.19


1. To the reviews of the original WAL, conveniently listed by Zsolt Simon in BMCR 2008.11.31, add: M. Beckwith in Classical World 99.4 (2006) 474-475; P.T. Daniels RBL 04/2005: 1-9 at; J.R. Russell in IJCT 15.1 (2008) 136-140.

2. Akkadian and Sumerian are treated in J.N. Postgate (ed.) The Languages of Iraq, BSAI, London, 2007; For German readers: Akkadian, Sumerian and Elamite are treated in M.P. Streck, Die Sprachen des alten Orients, Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 2.-e Auflage, Darmstadt, 2006.

3. See Zsolt Simon in BMCR 2008.11.31.

4. The Ancient Languages of Syria-Palestine and Arabia, Cambridge/New York, CUP, 2008.

5. e.g. M-L Thomsen"The Sumerian Language: An Introduction to its History and Grammatical Structure", Mesopotamia 10, 1984, 141.

6. The article contains references to a publication that eventually appeared in the year 2005, but omits significant other material from between 1999 and 2005, in particular D.O. Edzard's Sumerian Grammar, HbOS 1/71, Leiden/Brill, 2003. For concise summaries see J.A. Black (posthumously), in Postgate loc. cit.; G. Zólyomi in Streck loc. cit., 11-43. For a detailed study: Th.E. Balke Das sumerische Dimensionale Kasussystem, Ugarit-Verlag, Münster, 2006.

7. Now also M. Krebernik in Streck loc. cit. 159-182.

8. Sargonic Akkadian: A Historical and Comparative Study of the Syllabic Texts, Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, 2005. For Old Babylonian sibilants see Streck in G. Deutscher and N. Kouwenberg, The Akkadian Language in its Semitic Context: Studies in the Akkadian of the third and second millennium BC, Leiden: Nederlands Instituut voor het Nabije Oosten, 2006, 215-298.

9. A. Faber, in JCS 37 (1985), 101-107 (mentioned in WAL in Huehnergard's bibliography on Afro-Asiatic languages);W.R. Mayer in GAG 3rd ed. (1995), 35-36; J. Tropper in UF 28 (1996), 647-649.

10. id. Akkadisch in der Ur-III-Zeit, Münster: Rhema, 2002.

11. id. A Sketch of Neo-Assyrian Grammar, State Archives of Assyria Studies vol. 13, Helsinki 2000; M. Luukko Grammatical Variation in Neo-Assyrian, SAAS 16, Helsinki 2004.

12. id. Syntactic Change in Akkadian: the evolution of sentential complementation, Oxford, OUP, 2000.

13. Succinct accounts of Akkadian are A.R. George in Postgate loc. cit., ; M.P. Streck in Streck loc. cit., 44-79. Anyone learning Akkadian must of course turn to J. Huehnergard himself A Grammar of Akkadian, Second Edition, HSS 45, Cambridge Mass., 2005.

14. I am grateful to E. Frood and M. Wildish for these references. See also G. Takács (ed.) Egyptian and Semito-Hamitic (Afro-Asiatic): Studies in Memoriam Werner Vicychl, Semitic Languages and Linguistics 39, Brill, Leiden, 2003, 1-138. For Sahidic Coptic there is now B. Layton A Coptic Grammar, With Chrestomathy and Glossary-Sahidic Dialect, PLO 20, Harrassowitz, 2004.

15. R. Voigt, ed. Die Äthiopischen Studien im 20.-en Jahrhundert / Ethiopian Studies in the 20th Century: Akten der internationalen äthiopischen Tagung Berlin 22. bis 24. Juli 2000, Semitica et Semitohamitica Beroliniensia 2). Shaker Verlag, Aachen, 2003. Further extensive bibliography on Ge'ez-related topics included in B. Burtea Zwei Äthiopische Zauberrollen, (Semitica et Semitohamitica Berolinensia 1) Shaker Verlag, Aachen, 2001.

16. in V. Haas, "Hurriter und Hurritisch", Xenia 21, 1988, 43-63.

17. This follows a suggestion of J.D. Hawkins (pers. comm.) to describe semi-phonetic elements in Hieroglyphic Luwian logograms, such as TERRA+LA+LA for Luwian walili-, or PURUS.FONS-MI for "Suppiluliuma" as "phonetic indicators".

18. F. Grillot-Susini, Éléments de grammaire Élamite, Paris, 1987, p. 35. An r-conjugation is also ignored or not implicitly rejected by M.Khacikjan, The Elamite Language, Rome 1998, and by M. Krebernik in Streck loc. cit.

19. For discussion of this see G. Deutscher, in Studies in Language 25/3 (2001): 405-422; id. in Zeitschrift für Assyriologie und vorderasiatische Archäologie 92 (2002), 86-105; id. Nouvelles Assyriologiques Breves et Utilitaires 2005, no. 30.

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