The Evolution of Language in Ancient Civilizations

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  • 0:08 Growth of Language
  • 1:03 Trade
  • 2:06 Warfare
  • 3:19 Culture
  • 4:39 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Kevin Newton

Kevin has edited encyclopedias, taught middle and high school history, and has a master's degree in Islamic law.

The changes that languages undergo over the course of a period of time give historians incredible hints as to what actually happened. Watch this lesson to learn how a hated empire was loved for the language it introduced, and another empire decided to adopt the language of the people it had just conquered.

Growth of Language

Ask your parents or teachers about the words they used when they were your age, and chances are you'll end up laughing. Way before the days of 'LOL' and 'friending' someone, there were 'rad,' 'far out,' 'nifty,' 'swell,' and my personal favorite, 'the bee's knees.' While we may not always see it, language is always changing.

When people began to settle in towns and cities in Egypt and Mesopotamia, their language changed too. In fact, it changed even more as those first cities became empires, and that actually tells historians a great deal about how the rulers of those empires felt about the people that they ruled.

We are going to look at the evolution of language in Egypt and Mesopotamia by looking at three different aspects of ancient life: trade, warfare and culture.

Trade

More often than not, trade was the first way in which people speaking a different language would encounter each other. However, then as now, something as simple as language was not a good enough reason to prevent a good business deal, so people mimed out what they wanted. Eventually, someone figured out that if he learned his customer's language, they would be especially tempted to buy from him.

Eventually, when coupled with writing, some languages became more common for merchants than others. Writing, of course, gave an obvious advantage, because it put records of past business deals in writing, where neither side could forget the details of the transaction. Of course, the popularity of a particular group of merchants also had something to do with the popularity of the language. When Egypt and Mesopotamia had their greatest empires, it was the Phoenicians who were the most famous merchants of the ancient world. As a result, their language was used by merchants.

Warfare

Of course, not everything in the ancient world was as peaceful as trade. Instead, much of what we read about the ancient world makes it clear that this was a time of warfare. Language shows us great examples of this.

For starters, I'm sure that there are some words that adults would prefer you didn't say. But can you imagine the government telling you that you couldn't say the name of a former king? That's what happened in Egypt, as one king, named Akhenaten, was so unpopular that his successors refused to let anyone even speak his name. And those were Egyptian kings talking about a fellow Egyptian! We are still learning today about how victorious conquering civilizations would destroy all written records of a culture and replace it with their own.

In fact, there was probably no better civilization at doing this than the Assyrians, who would rule in Mesopotamia about 3,500 years ago. Their language, known as Akkadian, would be the most common language spoken throughout much of Mesopotamia, despite the fact that several languages were spoken here before the conquests of the Assyrians.

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