East Semitic languages

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The East Semitic languages are one of three divisions of the Semitic languages. The East Semitic group is attested by three distinct languages, Akkadian, Eblaite and possibly Kishite all of which have been long extinct.[3][2][4][5][6][7] They were influenced by the non-Semitic Sumerian language and adopted cuneiform writing.

East Semitic
formerly Mesopotamia
Linguistic classificationAfro-Asiatic
Approximate historical distribution of Semitic languages. East Semitic in green.

East Semitic languages stand apart from other Semitic languages, traditionally called West Semitic, in a number of respects: historically, it is believed that this linguistic situation came about as speakers of East Semitic languages wandered further east, settling in Mesopotamia during the third millennium BCE, as attested by Akkadian texts from this period. By the beginning of the second millennium BCE, East Semitic languages, in particular Akkadian, had come to dominate the region.


Modern understanding of the phonology of East Semitic languages can only be derived from careful study of written texts and comparison with the reconstructed Proto-Semitic. Most striking is the reduction of the inventory of back consonants, that is velar and pharyngeal fricatives, as well as glottals. Akkadian only preserves *ḫ and (partly) *ḥ as a single phoneme transcribed and usually reconstructed as a voiceless velar or uvular fricative. The sounds , *h, *ʿ, have all been lost. Their elision appears to give rise to the presence of an e vowel, where it is not found in other Semitic languages (for example, Akk. bēl 'master' < PS. *ba‘al). It also appears that the series of interdental fricatives became sibilants (for example, Akk. šalšu 'three' < PS. *ṯalaṯ). However, the exact phonological make-up of the languages is not fully known, and the absence of features may have been the result of the inadequacies of Sumerian orthography to describe the sounds of Semitic languages rather than their real absence.

The word order in East Semitic may also have been influenced by Sumerian, being subject–object–verb rather than the West Semitic verb–subject–object order.


  1. ^ Benjamin Read Foster; Karen Polinger Foster (2009). Civilizations of Ancient Iraq. p. 40. ISBN 978-0691137223.
  2. ^ a b Rebecca Hasselbach (2005). Sargonic Akkadian: A Historical and Comparative Study of the Syllabic Texts. p. 3. ISBN 9783447051729.
  3. ^ Benjamin Read Foster; Karen Polinger Foster (2009). Civilizations of Ancient Iraq. p. 40. ISBN 978-0691137223.
  4. ^ I. E. S. Edwards; C. J. Gadd; N. G. L. Hammond (1971-10-31). The Cambridge Ancient History. Cambridge University Press. p. 100. ISBN 9780521077910.
  5. ^ Lauren Ristvet (2014). Ritual, Performance, and Politics in the Ancient Near East. p. 217. ISBN 9781107065215.
  6. ^ Donald P. Hansen; Erica Ehrenberg (2002). Leaving No Stones Unturned: Essays on the Ancient Near East and Egypt in Honor of Donald P. Hansen. p. 133. ISBN 9781575060552.
  7. ^ Lucy Wyatt (2010-01-16). Approaching Chaos: Could an Ancient Archetype Save C21st Civilization?. p. 120. ISBN 9781846942556.
  • Huehnergard, J. 1995. “Semitic Languages.” Pp. 2117–2134 in Civilizations of the Ancient Near East. Jack Sasson (editor). New York.