Akkadian (Babylonian and Assyrian) belongs to the Semitic branch of the Afroasiatic language family. It was used in ancient Mesopotamia (present-day Iraq) and the neighbouring regions of present-day Syria, Southern Turkey and Western Iran between the third millennium BCE and the first century CE. Although Akkadian is a “dead” language today, surprisingly much can be known about it because of the way its sounds are preserved as syllables etched in hundreds of thousands of clay tablets and stone monuments in a script that used wedge-like strokes to form signs—and is therefore known as cuneiform (from the latin cuneus, “wedge”). These tablets have been recovered over the past century and a half in archaeological excavations throughout the Middle East, and are now preserved in museums throughout the world. Both the sounds and the meaning of Akkadian can be reconstructed from these ancient records because of the language’s kinship to Hebrew, Aramaic, Arabic, and other modern Semitic languages employed by living speakers. As the main language of ancient Mesopotamia for more than two millennia, Akkadian encompassed the dialects of Babylonian (used in the south) and Assyrian (used in the north). Mesopotamia’s cultural prestige, moreover, extended far beyond its borders—so that, for example, Akkadian was the international lingua franca in the so-called “Amarna letters” (14th century BCE) exchanged among the great kings of Egypt, Cyprus, Hatti, Mittani, Assyria, and Babylonia, as well as by local rulers in Canaan and Amurru.
Students of Akkadian have their vistas greatly expanded by gaining access to historical works of immeasurable cultural richness. Akkadian is the language of administrative, economic, and legal documents; royal and monumental inscriptions; public and private letter correspondence; literary compositions from myths and epics to folktales, elegies, and proverbs; religious hymns and prayers; magic incantations and rituals; collections of omens and compilations of astronomical observations and medical prescriptions; and lexical, mathematical, and scholarly compositions. Some of these cultural achievements, such as the Laws of Hammurabi or the Epic of Gilgamesh are widely known in translations today (including in UChicago’s own Core curriculum), and many Babylonian myths influenced the Judean scholars who lived in captivity in Babylon after the conquest of Jerusalem by King Nebuchadnezzar (6th c. BCE). Some of these myths were integrated into what we now know as the Hebrew Bible and are foundational to art, literature, and cultural expressions of Western civilization—think of the Babel Tower, Noah’s Flood, or the Story of Job. By learning Akkadian, students are able to read these stories in their original language and to understand their cultural setting.
Akkadian opens the door for students to encounter one of the most fascinating written scripts. Cuneiform -- whose logograms (word-signs), syllable signs, determinatives (signs that classify nouns), pronunciation glosses, and other features -- provides the linguist and philologist with a treasure trove of data on how written forms and spellings evolved over time and place. Cuneiform was used unconventionally and playfully in scholastic argumentation and to express literariness or parody. A strength of the program at UChicago is that students are introduced early to working with original clay tablets, thousands of which are housed in the Oriental Institute.
Students start learning Akkadian with a one year introductory sequence (AKKD 10501, 10502, 10503: Introduction to Babylonian 1-3), during which they learn the grammar of the Old Babylonian dialect (20th–17th centuries BCE), which is considered to be the “classic” form of the language. Over the first two quarters, students cover the entirety of the grammar, which allows them to read original documents after only two quarters. In addition to the language, students learn the basics of cuneiform script and read the Laws of Hammurabi directly from the autographed copies of the monumental script found on the stela (currently in the Louvre in Paris; a full-size replica can be seen—and read from!—in the Oriental Institute Museum). The second quarter also introduces the cursive script used on clay tablets for letters and legal documents. In the third quarter, students are introduced to the Babylonian divinatory texts, and through them to the worldview and beliefs of Ancient Mesopotamians.
Following the one-year introductory sequence, students start their second year of Akkadian by taking one course of intermediate Akkadian to learn the Standard Babylonian dialect that was used from the mid-second millennium BCE onwards for literary texts and ideological works such as royal inscriptions. Since most of these pieces are part of a longstanding literary tradition, this is also the occasion for students to explore the later stages of the cuneiform script, used in the first millennium BCE Neo-Assyrian and Neo-Babylonian empires. Additionally, students are introduced to the dictionaries and tools of the field of Assyriology, which allows them to tackle any corpus of the Akkadian tradition that interests them. Topics and instructors for the Intermediate Akkadian course alternate from one year to the next, and include literary texts like the Epic of Gilgamesh or Myths of Creation and Destruction, royal correspondence, or historical inscriptions.
After Intermediate Akkadian students are welcome to take courses in the different dialects of Akkadian from Old Akkadian to Late Babylonian and covering all text genres. Each year, NELC faculty and advanced PhD students offer an array of advanced Akkadian courses, determined both by the instructors’ areas of expertise and interests and, in discussion with current students, by student needs. Recent advanced courses in Akkadian letters and documents have covered various dialects and places, periods, and genres: mid-third-millennium BCE Ebla and Old Akkadian documents; early second-millennium letters from Kanesh, Assur, and Mari, and legal and reform texts; late second-millennium letters and documents from el-Amarna, Assyria, and Nuzi; first-millennium letters and documents from the Neo-Assyrian and Neo-Babylonian empires; and medical and scientific texts.
Examples for classes offered:
- Intermediate Akkadian: Myths of Creation and Destruction (AKKD 20601)
- Intermediate Akkadian: Neo-Babylonian and Neo-Assyrian Letters (AKKD 20602)
- Intermediate Akkadian: Neo-Assyrian Royal Inscriptions (AKKD 20603)
- Intermediate Akkadian: The Standard Babylonian Gilgamesh Epic (AKKD 20604)
- Cuneiform Epigraphy (AKKD 40341)
- Old Akkadian (AKKD 44000)
- Eblaite (AKKD 40399)
- Old Assyrian Letters and Documents (AKKD 30900)
- Mari Letters and Documents (AKKD 30371)
- Kassite Legal and Administrative Texts (AKKD 30363)
- Nuzi: Documents from a Late Bronze Age Town (AKKD 20352)
- Readings in the letters from Tell el-Amarna (AKKD 30820)
- Neo-Assyrian and Neo-Babylonian Letters (AKKD 30366)
- Neo Babylonian Legal/Administrative Texts (AKKD 30352)
- Akkadian Literature: Late Period (AKKD 30375)
- Mesopotamian Wisdom Literature (AKKD 30405)
- Akkadian Medical Texts (AKKD 30326)
Akkadian Language Program Faculty
Placement After Graduation
Undergraduate students with a major in Mesopotamian languages and civilizations are in a strong position to apply to MA or PhD programs in Ancient Middle Eastern Studies, such as those of the University of Chicago, Brown University, Harvard University, Yale University, Johns Hopkins University, the University of Michigan, or UCLA Berkeley (not to mention programs abroad). PhD graduates are now tenured faculty members in American, Asian, and European universities in History and Middle Eastern departments, Post-Doctoral researchers, or Teaching Fellows at the University of Chicago.