The ancient languages of Mesopotamia, Egypt, and Aksum

The ancient languages of Mesopotamia, Egypt, and Aksum. Ed. by Roger D. Woodard. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008. Pp. xx, 251. ISBN 9780521684972. $39.99.

Reviewed by Wolfgang Schulze, University of Munich

This volume is part of the series drawn from the famous collection The Cambridge encyclopedia of the world’s ancient languages (WAL). WAL covers forty-four languages, seven of which are described in the present collection. This selection concentrates on the languages of Mesopotamia (i.e. Sumerian, Elamite, and Akkadian [including Eblaite]) and the languages of Egypt and Ethiopia (i.e. Old Egyptian, Coptic, and Ge’ez), thus covering two isolated languages (i.e. Sumerian and Elamite), three Semitic languages (i.e. Akkadian, Elbaite, and Ge’ez), and two non-Semitic Afro-Asiatic languages (i.e. Old Egyptian and Coptic). The individual chapters are written by experts of high renown who escape from offering speculative details typically proposed for some of these languages.

This book starts with a brief, but very informative, introductory chapter by Roger D. Woodard, the editor of the volume (1–5). Each individual chapter begins with a section that addresses questions of language (pre-)history including cultural and ethnic issues, followed by a presentation of the language’s writing system and issues of phonetics, phonology, and phonotactics. Note that for both Akkadian and Egyptian, this section is more elaborate; sign lists for both cuneiforms and hieroglyphs are presented. The subsequent sections are organized traditionally; covering issues of morphology, syntax, and the lexicon. All chapters close with a reading list that is selective with respect to the larger languages (e.g. Sumerian, Akkadian, and Egyptian) but rather exhaustive for the smaller ones (e.g. Elamite and Ge’ez). Unfortunately, the descriptive sections for the individual languages do not include longer sample texts that would help the reader to become more familiar with the language.

Nevertheless, all of the chapters document the given language to a very high standard: Once the reader has gone through the many details, they can safely claim to have more than just a basic notion of the nature of these languages. The overall strength of the individual articles is given by the fact that the authors carefully discuss different proposals related to the interpretation of both sociolinguistic and linguistic issues. They constantly refrain from highlighting their ideas to the disadvantage of other proposals. At the same time, the authors never comply with suggestions that stem from nonscientific hypotheses, which is especially crucial to the dimension of Sumerian and Elamite prehistory.

The main body of this book starts with a description of Sumerian by Piotr Michalowski (6–46), followed by the section on Elamite by Matthew W. Stolper (47–82). John Huehnergard and Christopher Woods provided the section on Akkadian (focusing on Old Babylonian) and Eblaite (83–152). Egyptian and Coptic are described by Antonia Loprieno (153–210), and Gene Gragg acquaints the reader with Ge’ez (the language of Aksum; 211–37).

The editor has nicely managed to keep the balance between the prerogatives of a generalizing descriptive template and the idiosyncratic descriptive traditions typical for some of the languages. The overall descriptive template becomes visible especially with the way the authors provide interlinear glosses for the many examples. The idiosyncratic traditions, on the other hand, are present with, for example, the transcription or transliteration systems that may change form language to language. The fact that these systems are correlated with the standard pattern of phonological charts easily helps the reader to understand the given transcription system.

The sections on morphosyntax are strongly oriented towards the descriptive standard of language typology. This fact should be especially welcomed by readers interested in the use of language data for typological and other generalizing purposes. In this respect, the presentation of languages such as Elamite and Ge’ez fills a major gap in the typological database of languages. These languages are usually considered by specialists only, the work of which is often difficult to access. Now, these two languages share the level of descriptive presentation given for many other languages and thus allow for exploitation in the same sense. The section on Ge’ez has additional strength because the author constantly refers to both Arabic and Akkadian to illustrate the commonalities and divergences of Ge’ez with respect to other Semitic languages.

Furthermore, each chapter takes into consideration the fact that the language is represented by corpora that cover a rather long span of time (except for Eblaite and Ge’ez). Hence, the descriptions share a strong diachronic component that allows the reader to understand the development of the individual languages over (in the case of Egyptian) more than 3000 years. In fact, the section on Egyptian can be easily read as an admittedly condensed historical grammar of the language in its different stages, including its last stage—namely, Coptic. In other words, this chapter helps to better understand the origins of Coptic itself.

This volume is kept in an extremely reader-friendly and very appealing format that is full of examples, illustrations, and charts. It can be used not only by specialists who want to quickly check specific data but also by anyone who wants to learn more about the fascinating world of early Mesopotamian and Egyptian languages.