The Language of the Ancient Near East -- By: G. Herbert Livingston

Journal: Bible and Spade (First Run)
Volume: BSP 09:1 (Winter 1980)
Article: The Language of the Ancient Near East
Author: G. Herbert Livingston


The Language of the Ancient Near East

G. Herbert Livingston

[G. Herbert Livingston is Professor of Old Testament at Asbury Theological Seminary in Asbury, Kentucky. He is the author of The Pentateuch in its Cultural Environment, from which this article was taken.]

Though scholars a few centuries ago thought that the Hebrew language was directly given by God without human antecedents, the Bible never makes such a claim nor does the information now available support it. It is now known that, like the English language, Hebrew is the child of several language parents.

The rich literature in non-Hebrew languages now available has clarified the meaning of many words in the Bible that for centuries were beyond the understanding of translators. The same holds true for phrases, idioms, technical terms, and syntax forms. All the mysteries of difficult words in the Pentateuch have not yet been unveiled, but progress is being made.

All of the languages in the ancient Near East may be conveniently grouped under two headings: Semitic and non-Semitic. That is to say, there are nearly a dozen languages in the eastern Mediterannean area that exhibit the same “family” characteristics. This family has taken its name from the Biblical Shem, the forebear of the Hebrew nation. It has been pointed out that the easiest way to account for all of the similarities and differences in the family is to presuppose a common “mother” language, often called “Proto-Semitic.”

The second group has no common denominator except that it is non-Semitic, Hittite stems from the Indo-European family (Greek, Indic, etc.), whereas Hurrian seems to be “Caucasoid.” Relations between these families are not clear. Egyptian has a number of similarities to Semitic; but if it is finally to be related to that family, a number of very significant alterations must have taken place. Sumerian, most tantalizingly, cannot be related to any known language family.

For a family tree of the languages, see the end of this article.

The Mesopotamian Valley

The Sumerian Language

During the nineteenth century, a people gradually came to light whose language was totally unknown from any source. The language of this people, the Sumerians, quite unlike that of any other, was neither Semitic nor Indo-European, nor Egyptian in character. Their language has been classed as agglutinative (meaning the combining or running together of old words into compounds, but still retaining the original meaning of each part), and it is thus similar to Turkish, Hungarian, and Finnish. Otherwise, it is not like any of these three just named.

The Sum...

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