How the Rise of Common Languages Developed in the Ancient Near East

The Tower of Babel by Pieter Bruegel the Elder

Common languages are an integral part of linguistic development in the ancient world. Common languages unified economically and politically diverse populations over a wide territory and influenced the development of subsequent languages. The ancient Near East displays some of the world’s earliest common languages shared by several states and population groups. The earliest lingua franca is most likely Akkadian.[1] However, it is not clear if this language was spoken and written very widely, as it may have been more utilized by the elites from different regions, such as the political establishments.

The Rise of Akkadian

Cuneiform Tablet

Akkadian was one of the first written languages, along with Sumerian, Elamite, and ancient Egyptian. [2] However, unlike these other languages, Akkadian spread in use throughout the Near East, Egypt, and even reached Cyprus by the 2nd millennium BC. Written Akkadian utilized cuneiform writing, a system of wedge-shaped writing (Figure 1), that was primarily a syllabic and logogramic written language.

As the Akkadian Empire and other Mesopotamia states spread their influence in the 3rd millennium BC, the Akkadian language spread to different regions of the ancient Near East, including Anatolia, Western Syria, Western Iran, the Levantine coast, and even reached Egypt and Cyprus by the 2nd millennium BC. The apex of use for the Akkadian language came in the Late Bronze Age (1600-1200 BC), when widespread trade and interaction between states in the eastern Mediterranean and the Near East became well established. [3]

It was not just trade but also diplomatic correspondences that Akkadian influenced. In the court of Amarna, under the rule of Akhenaten (c. 1353-1336 BC), a significant find of cuneiform Akkadian tablets had been found. These tablets demonstrate that Akkadian began to be used by royal courts in Cyprus, Egypt, Elamite Iran, Hittite Anatolia, the Mitanni in Syria and the Levant, the Assyrians in northern Mesopotamia, the Kassites in southern Mesopotamia, and many small semi-independent states in the southern Levant (modern Israel and Jordan).[4]

Additionally, Akkadian spread to the Persian Gulf region, to such areas as modern day Bahrain and along the coastal regions, by the Kassites (from Babylon) who controlled parts of this region and corresponded with Akkadian. [5] By the late 2nd millennium BC, we see the Akkadian economically uniting a very wide area, while allowing common communication between very disparate people groups and states.

However, one fatal flaw of the Akkadian language was its complexity. Often the tablets at Amarna show mistakes in the utilization of the complex syllabic and logogramic writing system. It is likely very few people at court or within different societies understood Akkadian or the written language of Akkadian. Also, the cuneiform wedges are best suited for clay tablets, which required knowledge in how to create such tablets properly. Many tablets at Amarna, for instance, are not made very well. In summary, the scribes who used Akkadian needed extensive training, effectively making Akkadian limited in its usage given its complexity and difficulty. Even within southern Mesopotamia, the homeland of the language, the number of people who would have written the language would have been very limited during its peak.[6]

The Rise of Aramaic

Incantation Bowl in Aramaic, Sassanian Period 240

While Akkadian was, on the one hand, the first language to be spread across a diverse region and bridge the eastern Mediterranean and the Near East, its limitations prevented it from being adopted by common people. With the arrival of the Sea Peoples (c. 1200 BC), we see a political and economic vacuum created in the eastern Mediterranean and Near East. New population groups and states arose after the arrival of the Sea Peoples.[7]

This shift enabled new languages to arise, particularly the newly established alphabetical languages, as the alphabetical script, nearly 1000 years after its invention, began to be adopted more significantly by languages. One language that adopted the alphabet was Aramaic.[8] The Arameans spoke Aramaic in Syria, Anatolia, the Levant, and northern Mesopotamia (Figure 2).

While the Arameans never became a politically influential group, with the rise of the Neo-Assyrian Empire (911-609 BC), Aramaic was adopted by the empire in its communication with its conquered populations. This Western Semitic language enabled the language to effectively communicate with many areas held by the empire. After the fall of the Neo-Assyrians, the Achaemenid Persian Empire (550-330 BC) utilized Aramaic even more throughout its realm. It is at this point that Aramaic may have spread between Egypt and Central Asia.

What made Aramaic an attractive language that spread far across much of the Old World is 1) it utilized a simple alphabetical script and 2) its Semitic structure ensured that many groups in the Near East were able to understand the language or at least parts of it. [9]

During the Achaemenid period, we also see more utilization of parchment, where more common households and individuals utilized written language in day-to-day business. In particular, as trade began to spread under the aegis and protection of larger empires, Aramaic became a natural vehicle in which population groups communicated, helping to politically and economically unify large areas.[10] Summary


What we see is that early on in the Bronze Age, by 2000 BC and later throughout the 2nd millennium BC, Akkadian began to be utilized more throughout the eastern Mediterranean and the Near East. However, Akkadian was flawed in its complexity. The invention of the alphabet, nevertheless, alone was not enough to diminish the importance of Akkadian, as the alphabet was invented by around 1600 BC.

Rather, we see the crisis created by the Sea Peoples at around 1200 BC created a vacuum for new populations to emerge in the Near East and adopt a new writing system in the form of the alphabet. With the rise of the Neo-Assyrians and particularly the Achaemenid Empire, we then see the spread of the alphabetical Aramaic language. Its relative ease of use among disparate populations and increasing commercial interactions ensured that many people began adopting this language. In many respects, we can say that Aramaic is truly one of if not the world’s first widespread and widely used common languages, as it was a language not just spoke and written by a limited elite but utilized by common people in many areas.


  1. For a further discussion on lingua franca languages and Akkadian see: Chew, Phyllis Ghim Lian. 2009. Emergent Lingua Francas and World Orders: The Politics and Place of English as a World Language. Routledge Studies in Sociolinguistics 1. New York: Routledge.
  2. For a discussion on Akkadian, see: Deutscher, Guy. 2000. Syntactic Change in Akkadian the Evolution of Sentential Complementation. New York: Oxford University Press.
  3. For a discussion on the role of Akkadian during the Late Bronze Age, see: Bryce, Trevor. 2003. Letters of the Great Kings of the Ancient Near East: The Royal Correspondence of the Late Bronze Age. London ; New York: Routledge.
  4. For more on the Amarna correspondences, see: Moran, William L. 1992. The Amarna letters. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.
  5. For more information on the Kassite and their presence in the Persian Gulf, see: Potter, Lawrence G. 2010. The Persian Gulf in History. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, page 35.
  6. For ideas on literacy in Mesopotamia, see: Dalley, Stephanie. 2005. The Legacy of Mesopotamia. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  7. For a discussion on the Sea Peoples see: Sandars, Nancy K. 1985. The Sea Peoples: Warriors of the Ancient Mediterranean 1250 - 1150 BC. Rev. ed. Ancient Peoples and Places 89. London: Thames and Hudson.
  8. For a discussion on Aramaic and its history see: Gzella, Holger. 2015. A Cultural History of Aramaic: From the Beginnings to the Advent of Islam. Handbook of Oriental Studies, Section 1 The Near and Middle East, volume 111. Boston: Brill.
  9. For a discussion on Aramaic’s utility see: Beyer, Klaus. 1986. The Aramaic Language, Its Distribution and Subdivisions. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht.
  10. For a discussion on how Aramaic was used in empires and trade during the rise of Iranian-based empire see: Dandamaev, M. A., Vladimir Grigorʹevich Lukonin, Philip L. Kohl, and D. J. Dadson. 2004. The Culture and Social Institutions of Ancient Iran. 1st pbk. ed. Cambridge ; New York: Cambridge University Press, page 113.

Updated December 28, 2018. Admin and Maltaweel