Essays on the history of writing II: The isolates of the Fertile Crescent

One can often find in the literature the idea that continents like South America or Africa differ fundamentally from Eurasia in terms of historical language expansions, and that one does not find in those continents a similar phenomenon to Indo-European, which covers nearly all of Europe and a considerable part of Asia. As I was thinking about that, and as I was writing the post about Mediterranean isolate languages, I realised something. If Indo-European has been expanding for the last 5,500 years or so, then it was only relatively recently in its history that it came to dominate all of Europe… or almost all, since Basque is still spoken today.

Etruscan was alive and well in (early) Roman times, as were the Rhaetic languages of the Alps and the unclassified languages of the Iberian Peninsula, including Aquitanian (probably related to Basque). Minoan probably continued to be spoken in Crete after the adoption of Greek, developing into the Eteocretan language. Not to mention the Lemnian and Eteocypriot languages (by the way, I completely forgot about the later in that post). And these are just the ones that left some written record. Who knows how many languages were spoken in Northern Europe at the same time? The point is: if we could map the distribution of language families in Europe 2,500 years ago, I am sure the map would be a lot more colourful.

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Historical and modern isolated languages and small families in Mesopotamia, Anatolia and the Caucasus.

Of course, as I wrote before, there might have been one or two large families that expanded with the Neolithic in Europe. That is the nature of spread zones. But what about the area where agriculture originated? In line with what we saw in the Americas, areas of ancient cultural developments in the Old World should also be mosaics with high linguistic diversity. In the map above, I am showing some of the unclassified languages, isolated languages or small families of the Fertile Crescent (plus the languages of the Caucasus). Since Crete and Cyprus are still in the range of the map, maybe I should have included Minoan and Eteocypriot, but let’s focus on the Mesopotamia/Anatolia/Caucasus corridor for now.

There is no doubt that the cereals, pulses and animals that were the foundation of the Neolithic in Western Eurasia and Northern Africa were domesticated in this region, most likely in the highland Levant/Anatolia border. Was the spread of farming and pastoralism in the Fertile Crescent accompanied by the diffusion of a single language family, perhaps coinciding with the PPNA/PPNB cultures (or interaction spheres) that dominated much of the region between 11,500 and 8,000 years ago? I do not think so. In later times, most of the area shown in the map above would be covered by only two families: Indo-European (with Hittie and Luwian in Anatolia, Armenian in the Caucasus, and the Indo-Iranian languages to the East, including Persian) and Afro-Asiatic (namely Akkadian in Mesopotamia and all the other Semitic languages spoken from the Levant to Arabia). As in the European case, languages like Hattic, Urartian and Sumerian, that survived for some time while Indo-European and Afro-Asiatic were “conquering” the Near East, could be remnants of previous expansions, possibly since Neolithic times (although there are good Chalcholithic/Bronze Age candidates, like the Maykop culture in the Caucasus and the Ubaid culture in Mesopotamia…). But the fact is that they are too diverse to fit into a hypothetical single family.

Sumerian… and Euphratean?

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The Royal Game of Ur. Like writing, board games were another Sumerian invention.

I have written enough about Sumerian in a few previous posts, so I will not elaborate on it anymore except for two crucial questions: the autochtonous origins of this mysterious language and the supposed Euphratean substratum. I have come across an extremely interesting paper that advanced the idea of Sumeria as a creole language born in the multicultural environment of Southern Mesopotamia. Among other things, the argument is that archaic cuneiform signs were constructed through a logic similar to modern creoles. For example, consider the signs sagka and gu7, meaning “head”, “mouth” and “ration” respectively. The last two are formed by slight modifications of the first. Specifically the last one is a combination of “head” and “bread”, and it can be argued that basic Sumerian nouns are very few, most of the others being derived in such way. However, the actual readings of those signs are sagka and gu respectively, so the creole-like derivation of nouns is mostly a phenomenon of the writing system, not of the language itself.

More interesting is the idea that an even earlier language preceded Sumerian(s) in Southern Mesopotamia. Many toponyms do not have a Sumerian etymology, and the phonetic reading of many cuneiform signs is of obscure origins. Most of the signs gained their phonetic values from the rebus principle, but some do not work that way. For example, the sign for “bird” muszen is read ḫu when used phonetically (instead of mušen), and the sign for “fish” ku is read ḫa (instead of ku). Some words, consisting of CV1C(C)V2C structure, do not fit the typical Sumerian structure. This is particularly the case of words for professions, like adgub adgub “reed weaver”, sipad sipad “shepherd” or engar engar “ploughman”. Many refer to farming or herding activities. Thus it is possible that Sumerians borrowed some specialised vocabulary from a society that was already well established in Southern Mesopotamia, but the theory remains speculative, and we know nothing else about this hypothetical language except for the few words in the alleged Sumerian substratum.

Elamite

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Linear Elamite

Spoken to the east of Mesopotamia, Elamite was the language of Susa, capital of a mighty state contemporary with the Sumerians, and later incorporated into the Persian empire. The Elamites got the idea of writing from the Sumerians, but developed their own “archaic” cuneiform signs that we cannot read phonetically (although we know something of the structure and possible content of the texts). Presumably, they recorded the same language as would be later written with the Assyrian syllabary.

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“And thus says Darius, the king: Within these lands, whosoever was a friend have I protected…”

We have a large corpus for Elamite, and the language is understood relatively well. That is thanks to a number of bilingual inscriptions, the longest of which is the famous Behistun Inscription, where Darius I, king of Persia, announces his lineage and deeds in three languages: Persian, Elamite and Babylonian. Despite some efforts to connect Elamite with other language families, especially with the Dravidian languages of India, it remains an isolate. There are also interesting parallels with Afro-Asiatic, e.g. elti “eye” and kassu “horn” (although the later seems more like a Wanderwort). George Starostin has a paper with a review of such hypotheses, as well as a comparative 100-word list between Elamite and major language families.

Gutian and Kassite

Much less is known about the languages of two other neighbours of Mesopotamia, the Gutians and the Kassites, both of which inhabited the vicinity of the Zagros Mountains and invaded Mesopotamia to install their own dynasties of rulers. The Gutians reigned for a few generations ca. 2100-2000 BC after the collapse of the Akkadian empire. The names of theirs rulers are virtually all that is known of their language. Despite some comparisons with Tocharian (a very divergent Indo-European language once spoken near the border with China), the names of the Gutian kings mentioned in the Sumerian king list do not reflect any known family in the region. As for the Kassites, they conquered Mesopotamia after 1500 BC, and their language is marginally better attested, since a few Kassite-Akkadian glossaries were compiled by ancient scribes. Needless to say, the known Kassite words do not resemble Sumerian, Elamite, Akkadian, Hurrian or any other language of the region.

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Above, some of the Gutian names from the Sumerian king list in the Weld-Blundell prism. Below, part of the Kassite-Akkadian glossary of the Hormuzd Rassam tablet.

Hurro-Urartian

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“Argishti, son of Menua, built this temple and this fortress, called Irbuni…”

In the 15th century BC, Hurrian was the language of the powerful kingdom of Mitanni to the north of Mesopotamia. Together with the language of their neighbours, the kingdom of Urartu, near modern Armenia, they form the Hurro-Urartian family. Inscriptions in Hurrian and Urartian are written in the Assyrian cuneiform syllabary. They are found, for example, in the Fortress of Erebuni, modern Yerevan, announcing its foundation by the king Argishti I. The inscription names the fortress irbuuni Ir-bu-u-ni, which is in the origin of modern Armenian Երեւան Yerevan, a name that resisted 2800 years!

The most convincing proposed genetic affiliation of Hurro-Urartian is that it would be related to the Caucasian languages. The geographic location of Hurro-Urartian, its phonology, and a few cognates speak in favour of that connection. For example, Hurrian words consist predominantly of a (C)V(C) structure (pa- “to build”, a- “name”, un- “to come”, ar- “to give” etc.) adhering to the typical pattern of the Northern Caucasus. The shortness of the words is compensated by a seemingly complex consonant inventory. Caucasian languages are famous for having very few vowels, but 50 or 60 different consonants (remember this theory linking phonology and climate?). In line with that, it appears that the Assyrian cuneiform syllabary was ill-suited for rendering the Hurrian language. From what we can reconstruct, scribes had to resort to signs like pi pi and ip ip to represent –w-, -v-, -f and combinations thereof. Moreover, the personal pronouns bear a remarkable resemblance with the Northern Caucasian sets. Compare, for instance, Hurrian 1sg. iša-/šo– and 2sg. fe– with Kabardian 1sg. sa, 2sg. wa and 2pl. fa.

Hattic and Kaskian

The supporters of the Anatolian hypothesis of Indo-European origins forget that the Hittites were newcomers to the region. Their predecessors in Anatolia spoke an unrelated language, conventionally called Hattic. Very little is known of the language, as bits of it were only recorded by the Hittites. Evidently, the hypothesis of a Caucasian connection has been proposed by the Russian school. Comparisons with the hypothetical Sino-Caucasian family (including North Caucasian, Sino-Tibetan and Yenisseian) show some interesting cognates, but the validity of Sino-Caucasian is what is disputed in the first place. The Kaskian language later spoken in the northern coast of Anatolia was presumably related to Hattic, and could be the language of the descendants of the first settlers dislodged by the Hittites.

Deep connections? Not quite

As I was first planning this post, I believed there should be some deep relationship between all the “colours” in the map at the beginning of the post. That was the logical conclusion: these were islands of (a) previous expansion(s) later blurred by Indo-European and Afro-Asiatic. Reality is not so simple: let’s have a look at the basic vocabulary of some of those languages:

sumerian_elamite-01
* The reconstructions in bold are Starostin’s Proto-North-Caucasian. The ones not in bold are reconstructed for the Proto-Northeast-Caucasian level only.

A few isolated resemblances can be found here and there (e.g. “eye” in Elamite and Proto-North-Caucasian, “tongue” in Sumerian and Proto-North-Caucasian), but these might as well be due to chance. The words for “horn” in Elamite, Hattic and Caucasian might be related. To that we must add Proto-Indo-European *k’era(w)- and Proto-Afro-Asiatic *ḳar-. This means the resemblance in the table above is not unique of those languages, and we might in fact be dealing with a Wanderwort.

Perhaps we should not give so much weight to vocabulary. As I explained previously, there are some intriguing morphological similarities between various Eurasian isolates located thousands of kilometres apart. Curiously enough, the same does not apply to this group of relatively close languages in terms of geographical distance. Let’s review the crucial features that distinguish Eurasian isolates in opposition to the large families that surround them: 1. a predominance of prefixes; 2. ergative alignment when marking the pronouns in the verb; 3. possessive pronouns identical to one of the sets used with the verbs; and 4. complex “chains” preceding the verb root. In the table below, I show a quick comparison between the Mesopotamian-Anatolian isolates and Kabardian, a good representative of the Northwest Caucasian family.

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Personal pronoun prefixes are marked in red, and suffixes in blue, as usual. Kabardian is the only language that actually conforms perfectly to the aforementioned pattern. Sumerian comes close, especially in relation to the verbal chain, but even it employs a good number of suffixes. Elamite is not even an ergative language, and Hurrian is as prolific in the use of suffixes as a Turkic or Uralic language. Finally, there is almost no resemblance in the actual pronoun particles, except perhaps between Hurrian and the Caucasian languages (more evident with the independent pronouns, as I said above).

What conclusions can we draw from all this? I would like to end with a very simple idea: before the Bronze Age, when large scale warfare – propelled by better weapons but also by the horse – became a major factor in population expansions, the Fertile Crescent was a linguistic mosaic with higher population densities than its surroundings and a long history of ancient cultural innovations, including agriculture. Languages expanded from it, not into it. It is pointless to look for the origins of Indo-European in the first farmers of Anatolia, who spoke Hattic before the Hittites arrived. Neither could the Neolithic peoples of the Levant have spoken Afro-Asiatic, the only Eurasian branch of which (Semitic) having reached the area in relatively recent times. We will never know the language of PPNA, and there might have been many. Perhaps the dwellers of Çatal Höyuk and worshippers at Göbekli Tepe spoke an ancestor of Hattic, or perhaps it was yet another language that contributed to the huge diversity of this ancient cultural mosaic.

catalhoyukbull