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Language relationships

Most languages in the area of interest belong to the AfroAsiatic group, also known as the Hamito-Semitic language family. This is a very diverse group both geographically and linguistically, and has endured over the whole of written-language history. As well as ancient languages, several modern ones are members of the group. Connections between this group and the Indo-European group (to which most European languages belong) are a matter of debate. A 'family tree' model of this group is shown below. Note that the ethnic connotations are secondary not primary, so ethnic Akkadians may or may not have used the written Akkadian language.

AfroAsiatic/Semitic group
Semitic Ancient Egyptian Berber Cushitic Chadic
Akkadian, Ugaritic, Hebrew, Arabic A single isolate with no ancient or modern immediate siblings Tuareg and others Various modern examples, with hints of long prior usage Various modern examples, with hints of long prior usage

Other languages of interest are:
Language Affiliation Comments
Hittite Indo-European Known from the mid-2nd millennium BCE to the Roman empire
Hurrian, Hattic, Urarti Caucasus? Hattic was the second language of the Hittite empire. Linguistic affiliation of all three languages is unclear, and a matter of some debate.
Sumerian Unknown No natural linguistic partners are known in either the ancient or modern world.
Elamite Uncertain This may be linked to some Indian languages.
Kassite Unknown Almost nothing is known of the written form of this language.
Greek, Roman Indo-European These languages arose relatively late in the time period of interest.

The fact that the AfroAsiatic language group is flat and broad suggests great antiquity - comparative linguistics suggest perhaps 12000 years of development, and is unable to trace any evolutionary development joining the 5 groupings. This is in contrast with the Indo-European group with about 6000 years of development and a complex branching structure. There are certain language features linked to some groups within the AfroAsiatic family - for example the three northern groups favour a 3-consonant root structure for words, whereas the two southern ones do not. Ancient Egyptian does not generally have case-endings for words. The AfroAsiatic family as a whole uses suffix conjugation for verbs, whilst Egyptian uses prefixes.

Spread from Ethiopia One hypothesis for this development is that at some stage in history a (relatively) rapid geographical spread took place to disperse the original language stock, with the separate groups then becoming isolated from each other. The original view of this was a start in Ethiopia, spreading first north, then both east and west from Egypt. A more favoured hypothesis now starts in Mesopotamia, then round the fertile crescent and into Africa - basically the opposite journey. Spread from Sumer The trigger for this is possibly a spread of farming practices, in particular the domestication of animals. Within the New Chronology an influx from Sumeria directly into Egypt in the last stage of pre-dynastic times is hypothesised, probably in the form of a military take-over by a militarily advanced ruling class. This would affect the Egyptian language in an analogous way to the changes in the English language following the Norman invasion.

The following table shows similar information, but with languages grouped on the basis of linguistic similarity. The geographical connotations of these names are secondary, not primary, just as the ethnic links in the first table above.

        Western   Eastern
      Central Southern Akkadian Eblaite
SW Semitic or Levantine North Arabian South Arabian Ethiopian Various Assyrian & Babylonian dialects  
Ugaritic   Canaanite   Aramaic Various Various Northern Southern    
  Hebrew Phoenician Ammonite, Moabite, Edomite       Various Various    

Similarity in this table is on the basis of pronouns and similar linguistic structures - in every case it is based not on a single language feature but on clusters of features yielding an effective 'distance'. As an aside, note that the most conservative (and hence longest-persisting) language features tend to be close family names and pronouns.

People have studied the links between the (geographically) Sumerian, cuneiform-based written language, and the Ancient Egyptian, hieroglyphic-based written language. Cuneiform originally developed as a quick way to indicate what had been marks engraved on clay with a stylus. Allowing for the different writing materials available, the two scripts are fully comparable. There is evidence that a previously developed AfroAsiatic language was poorly adopted by invaders unable or unwilling to learn the correct syntax and grammar. Over time the two 'versions' fused. Evidence arises in three main areas. First, the grammar of Egyptian compared to other Semitic languages is basic, whereas the vocabulary is very similar. Secondly, several sounds characteristic of most Semitic languages are absent. Finally, certain consonants which typically cannot be distinguished in Akkadian show similar lack of separation in Egyptian.

Racially the Nile Valley dwelling AfroAsiatics show what we now consider Mediterranean characteristics in terms of height, head shape and so forth. The invaders, judging from sources such as drawings, were taller, with a different head shape, and apparently paler-skinned, a type known today as Armenoid. Hence, both linguistic and physical traits support a theory of significant influx into Egypt by people from Sumer. Whether these people came as invaders, explorers or traders - if indeed there was a great difference in the ancient world - is open to debate.

Information on this page has been collated from a variety of sources, including a lecture by Mark Collier at the ISIS summer conference, Buckfast Abbey, August 2000, and correspondence from Pat Ryan posted to the New Chronology Yahoo (EGroups) list in January 2001.
Language issues