Ancient writing systems in the Mediterranean

A critical guide to electronic resources


edited by: Salvatore Gaspa (translation revised by Melanie Rockenhaus)

  • Introduction
  • Ancient Writing Systems
  • Further information


By the designation “Akkadian” it is indicated the Eastern branch of Semitic, which is extinct at present. The linguistic area of Akkadian is Mesopotamia, namely the land between the Euphrates and the Tigris rivers, which corresponds at large to the present-day Iraq. Akkadian is an inflected language. Its name, akkadûm, derives from that of the city of Akkad or Agade, the capital of the empire of the Semitic dynasty of Sargon of Akkad. The writing system of Akkadian (Akkadian cuneiform) is derived from that that was created by the Sumerian scribes to write their language, the Sumerian. According to the common historical classification, Akkadian divides into three main dialects: Old Akkadian, Babylonian, and Assyrian. In the second and first millennia B.C. Akkadian is distinct into two main linguistic areas: Babylonian in southern Mesopotamia (Babylonia) and Assyrian in northern Mesopotamia (Assyria). This is why it is also called as “Assyro-Babylonian” in modern terms. Babylonian and Assyrian show a number of phonological, morphological, and lexical differences. In these two varieties of Akkadian were written many letters, legal and administrative texts, literary compositions, rituals, prophecies, and royal inscriptions. In coincidence with an increasing diffusion of Aramaic language and the easier alphabetic script, Akkadian died out as a spoken language probably in mid-first millennium B.C., though it survives in some enclaves in centres of the southern Mesopotamia at least until 100 B.C. However, the use of Akkadian as a written language is attested until the first century A.D.

Old Akkadian (ca. 2350-2000 B.C.)

Old Akkadian is a dialect of the area of northern Babylonia. Its prestige is due to the fact that it was the language used in the power centres of the dynasty of Kish and the empire of Akkad. There are three phases in which the third millennium Akkadian may be divided: Early Dynastic Akkadian, Sargonic Akkadian, and Ur III Akkadian. The earliest evidence of Akkadian language may be found in the texts of Fara (ca. 2600 B.C.) and in the later texts of Abu Salabikh: they consist of personal names. It is around 2350 B.C. that one can see the early examples of administrative and literary texts in Old Akkadian, but the period of greater prestige of the dialect coincides with the political and cultural egemony of the Akkad dynasty in Mesopotamia (2335 - 2154 B.C.). Thus, the written evidence in Old Akkadian includes the texts dating back to the reigns of the Akkad kings and the few documents belonging to the period of the third dynasty of Ur (2112 - 2004 B.C.).

Babylonian (ca. 1900 B.C. - 100 A.D.)

Babylonian, the Akkadian dialect of the southern Mesopotamia, is distinguished into four historical periods: Old Babylonian (ca. 1900 - 1500 B.C.), Middle Babylonian (ca. 1500 - 1000 B.C.), Neo-Babylonian (ca. 1000 - 600 B.C.), Late Babylonian (ca. 600 B.C. - 100 A.D.). Babylonian, which is referred to as “Akkadian” (akkadûm) by its speakers, will be diffusely used as a literary and administrative language also beyond the geographical borders of Babylonia proper. Several historical and local varieties of Babylonian, which were subjected to the influence of other languages, are known, for instance, the regional varieties of Susa (Elam), of the area of Diyala (to the north-east of Baghdad) and Mari (Syria), as well as the written form of Babylonian used as a lingua franca by non-Akkadian speaking scribes in peripheral areas such as Amurru, Canaan, Ugarit, Emar, Hattuša, Nuzi, Alalakh. In Assyria, Babylonian is used as a literary language, the so-called “Standard Babylonian” (German: “Jungbabylonisch”), for learned texts and royal inscriptions. The Old Babylonian dialect, which was spoken in the period of the first dynasty of Babylonia (1894 - 1595 B.C.) and which witnesses the early flourishing of the Akkadian literature, was considered by the scribes of the Kassite Babylonia (XV - XII century B.C.) and the following centuries as a model of literary language; accordingly, on this linguistic variety was modelled the language of the literary texts and the monumental inscriptions of the second and first millennia B.C. In the first millennium B.C., Neo-Babylonian, used as the language for both administrative and daily matters, appears to be subjected to the strong influence of Aramaic. On the contrary, in literary and monumental works, the scribes continue to use the Standard Babylonian variety. The last phase of Babylonian, which is documented since around 600 B.C. onwards, precisely in the Persian, Seleucid, and Arsacid periods, is witnessed by Late Babylonian. This dialect survives as a written language until the first century A.D. within limited learned centres linked to the temple, beyond which the linguistic environment of Mesopotamia is completely dominated by Aramaic. The latest datable text in Akkadian cuneiform comes from Babylon and records astronomical events of the year 75 A.D.

Assyrian (ca. 1900 - 600 B.C.)

Assyrian, the Akkadian dialect of northern Mesopotamia, is distinguished into three historical periods: Old Assyrian (ca. 1900 - 1700 B.C.), Middle Assyrian (ca. 1500 - 1000 B.C.), Neo-Assyrian (ca. 1000 - 600 B.C.). Assyrian, which in its history appears under the influence of the more prestigious Babylonian dialect, is characterized by some archaizing features which can be traced back to Old Akkadian. The early texts in this dialect belong to the documentary evidence of the Assyrian commercial outposts in Anatolia. The Middle Assyrian dialect is witnessed by letters, legal and administrative documents, laws. The final phase of the dialect coincides with the rise and the decline of the Assyrian empire of the first millennium B.C. (IX - VII cent. B.C.). While Neo-Assyrian is used as the daily language in legal documents, administrative texts, letters, as well as in prophecies and in few literary works, the language of learned texts and royal inscriptions is a literary and archaizing form of Babylonian (“Standard Babylonian”), though it appears characterized by a number of Assyrianisms. The increasing influence of Aramaic on Assyrian progressively created a situation of bilingualism within the Assyrian empire of VIII - VII centuries B.C. This may be observed in the adoption by the Assyrian scribes of the Aramaic alphabetic script and in the parallel use of this writing system in legal and administrative record-keeping beside the Akkadian cuneiform.

Mesopotamia: diffusion area of the Akkadian language and the cuneiform script

In the second half of the second millennium B.C., Babylonian became the international language of the states of the Near East. The chancelleries of several political structures of this period, from Egypt to Elam, adopted this language, even if its use by the foreign scribes exhibits significant grammatical variations in comparison to Akkadian which was spoken in Mesopotamia. The use of Akkadian as a lingua franca is documented in sites such as Ugarit (Ras Shamra) and Emar (Tell Meskeneh) in Syria, Hattuša (Boğazköy) and Alalakh (Tell Açana) in Turkey, and el-Amarna in Egypt until the crisis of the end of XIII cent. B.C. Cuneiform was already attested in regions outside the Sumerian area proper since the beginning of the second half of the III millennium B.C. In Syria it is documented in Ebla (Tell Mardikh), Tell Beydar, and Mari (Tell Hariri). Then, in the course of the II and I millennia B.C. the cuneiform writing was employed in several geographical and political areas of the ancient Near East to write non-Semitic languages such as Hittite, Hurrian, Elamite, Urartian, and Old-Persian.

Ancient Writing Systems

  1. Akkadian Cuneiform

Further information

  1. Bibliography