Conflation of Languages

by Esteban

“The beliefs which produced the magical texts must still have been active, although the hymn belongs to a late period of Babylonian history; the old doctrine of an inexorable fate, even if degraded into a belief in the witch’s art, still existed along with the worship of a god who restored the dead to life and was supreme in mercy to those that were in trouble.

We have only to turn to our modern newspapers to discover how slowly such primeval beliefs die out, and how long they may linger among the uneducated and superstitious by the side of the most exalted faiths and the mightiest triumphs of inductive science.

The fact that one text is magical, while another contains a hymn to the deity, does not of itself prove the relative ages of the two documents. Then, thirdly, it has become increasingly manifest that a good many of the so-called Accadian texts are not Accadian in their origin.

As I pointed out several years ago, the old Accado-Sumerian language was learned by the Semitic Babylonians as Latin was learned by the mediaeval monks, and for much the same reasons. It was the language of the oldest sacred texts; it was also the early language of law; and both priests and lawyers were accordingly interested in its preservation and use.

What happened to Latin in the Middle Ages had already happened to Accadian in Babylonia. The monks spoke and wrote in a language which was Latin indeed, but which had lost its classical purity; monkish Latin was full of modern words and idioms, and its grammar was not always scrupulously accurate.

On the other hand, it contributed multitudes of words, and even forms of expression, to the languages of every-day life that were spoken around it, and the words were frequently modified to suit the pronunciation and genius of the languages that borrowed them, just as the modern words which monkish Latin had itself adopted were furnished with classical terminations and construed in a classical fashion.

The case was precisely the same in ancient Chaldea. Here, too, there was a monkish Accadian, both spoken and written, some of which would have shocked the Accadian speakers of an earlier age. The literati of the court of Sargon of Accad had been partly Accadian, partly Semitic; the Accadian scribes wrote and spoke Semitic, the Semitic scribes wrote and spoke Accadian.

The result was necessarily a large amount of lending and borrowing upon both sides, and the growth of an artificial literary language which maintained its ground for centuries. The way for the rise of this artificial dialect had already been prepared by the long contact there had been between the two chief languages of primitive Chaldea.

When two languages thus exist side by side–like Welsh, for example, by the side of English–they will borrow one from another, the language of superior culture and organisation being that which exerts the greatest influence.

The pupils will imitate the speech of their masters in art and science even if, as in the case of Greece and Rome, the masters in art and science are the subjects in political power.”

A.H. Sayce, Lectures on the Origin and Growth of Religion as Illustrated by the Religion of the Ancient Babylonians, 5th ed., London, 1898, pp. 322-3.