The Lost Language of the Amorites Has Finally Been Discovered

March 21, 2023 | Nathan Steinmeyer
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The Hebrew Bible makes frequent reference to the Amorites, a pagan people living on either side of the Jordan River, sometimes appearing to use the term as a catchall for all the non-Israelite residents of ancient Canaan. While there are ample references to the Amorites in other ancient Middle Eastern sources, their language—and thus many questions about their origins—has remained a mystery. A recent scholarly analysis of two Mesopotamian tablets seems to have changed that, writes Nathan Steinmeyer:

While the Amorites—first attested during the third millennium BCE as a nomadic people from Syria and the Levant—eventually became one of the most powerful groups to rule over Mesopotamia, very little evidence of their language has ever been found. . . . The tablets . . . are unprovenanced objects, having likely been illegally removed from Iraq about 30 years ago in the wake of the First Gulf War and subsequently stored in various collections in the United States.

The texts themselves provide important clues to the place and period where and when they were written. Both tablets are written in cuneiform and have linguistic features that strongly suggest they can be dated to the Old Babylonian period (ca. 1894–1595 BCE). In addition, the vocabulary and syntax of the tablets indicate they were likely written in southern Mesopotamia, the region known as Babylonia. Indeed, the language and handwriting used in the two tablets is so similar that they may have been written by the very same scribe or at least in the same scribal school.

Scholars have now confirmed that Amorite was actually a Northwest Semitic language, like Ugaritic, Hebrew, and Aramaic. Specifically, Amorite has striking similarities to the Canaanite language group to which Hebrew and Moabite also belong. Indeed, the Amorite from the tablets is incredibly similar to the Canaanite language found in the 14th-century BCE Amarna Letters, and some of the phrases are even nearly identical to modern Hebrew. It is important to note, however, that the Amorite language itself cannot be understood as Canaanite. Some of its features are much closer to other Semitic languages, like Arabic, rather than Canaanite.

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