Eblaite As An East Semitic Language

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The Ancient Near Eastern Languages in Contact eLecture Series comes to an end this week with a presentation on Eblaite by Dr. Rebecca Hasselbach-Andee, Associate Professor of Comparative Semitics at University of Chicago. Dr. Hasselbach-Andee’s work includes a broad range of Semitic languages, and she has edited a volume recently published, called A Companion to Ancient Near Eastern Languages.

Archaeological excavations continue to discover written material that delivers both context and questions to the field of ancient Near Eastern language study. Eblaite is a language discovered mid-1970s in Northern Syriah at Tell Mardikh. The cache of writings included around four thousand texts across a 50 year span. Among the writings, they found genres of administrative texts, Chancellery texts, incantations, and lexical lists which feature Sumerian.

The Eblaite 3rd Millennium texts coincided with the Pre-Sargonic and Sargonic periods of Akkadian. It may be concluded that Ebla was an integral part of an involved trade system stretching from Egypt through Ebla and into Mesopotamia. Cultural contact was evidenced by a borrowed writing system, as well as linguistic influences not native to Ebla. Due to this mixture of linguistic evidence, Dr. Hasselbach-Andee began her research by asking the question “Where does Eblaite fit in the language family?”

Soon after the discover of Eblaite, scholars set out to classify the language, starting with the regional assignment of “Old Canaanite”. However, it was not long before scholars realized the language was heavily informed by East Semitic writing systems, and this drove predominant theories by the mid-90s. The challenge of classifying Eblaite is in the significant number of mixed characteristics. This is where Dr. Hasselbach-Andee’s study comes to bear.

While most scholars agreed that Eblaite was an East Semitic language, the sub-group classification remains a challenge. Some scholars support Eblaite as an independent East Semitic language, and others believe it is a dialect of Akkadian. Dr. Hasselbach-Andee argued that neither explanation is sufficient, and presented evidence to support her appeal for further investigation.

Linguistic evidence suggests that Eblaite follows a number of East Semitic language styles, including verbal adjective declension and infinitive forms. However, there are a number of divergences. Dr. Hasselbach-Andee shared examples of unique linguistic features in Eblaite, including pronouns, possessive suffixes, and forms of the imperative. She also demonstrated a number of innovative features unique to Eblaite, in particular, she focused on the unique declension of T-stem verbs, where the t occurs in both prefixed and infixed positions.

Given the number of borrowed features, as well as the number of divergent features, Dr. Hasselbach-Andee concluded that there is not enough evidence to clearly situate Eblaite in classification. Furthermore, she asserted there is not sufficient evidence to separate Eblaite as a language from Akkadian. Her presentation questions the acceptance of Eblaite as a distinct uniform language.

In response, Dr. Hasselbach-Andee proposed a tentative solution for consideration. After addressing the numerous examples of how Eblaite falls in and out of line with the East Semitic language structure, she concluded that the language developed out of Eastern influences. Ebla adopted its writing system from Mesopotamia clearly demonstrated evidence of direct contact with Sumerian.

There is some shared culture demonstrated in the content of Eblaite writings. For instance, the Northern Mesopotamian calendar was used in Ebla, even there is also evidence of a local calendar. Scribes apparently came from Mesopotamia, and teachers as well. Given the cultural and economic ties between Ebla and Mesopotamia during late 3rd Millennium BCE, Ebla likely developed their writing system with both direct and indirect influence from the East.

Ebla was not only influenced by Sumerian, but also by the languages in closer regional contact, like Northern Babylonia. While many scholars hold to Ebla as a distinct uniform language, Dr. Hasselbach-Andee concluded that Eblaite is an Akkadian language with substrate influence from regional languages.

The significance of this study may be found in the amazing way that linguistic forms take shape. The more we know about the evolution of languages in the ancient Near East, the more informed we become in etymology and translative properties for textual interpretation. The fact that Eblaite formed as a sub-group of Akkadian tells us a lot about the flow of economic and educational culture in the 3rd Millennium. Dr Hasselbach-Andee’s detailed work provides insight into the progression of language and its ability to transform in the hands and mouths of humans.

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