What is Akkadian?

When I tell folks about the material that I work with, people understand what I mean by Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) and Biblical Hebrew; however, far fewer people know what I mean by “Akkadian” or “cuneiform.” So, in this blog post, I will concisely define “Akkadian” and “cuneiform.”

“Akkadian” is primarily a semitic language which was used in ancient Mesopotamia. The most well known literature originally written in Akkadian is the Epic of Gilgamesh. 

Because Akkadian was around since the 3rd millennium, though, it developed like any other language. So now, for example, scholars refers to different dialects of Akkadian, such as Old Babylonian, Old Assyrian, Neo-Assyrian, Neo-Babylonian, and more. Each of these titles reflects a single language (Akkadian) with various dialects which were spoken in different time periods and locations.

How do we know, though, that Akkadian was a spoken language in ancient Mesopotamia and how do we determine the dialects? In the 19th and 20th centuries, archaeology in the Middle East became popular. As folks discovered ancient Mesopotamian artifacts, part of these artifacts was an abundance of dried clay tablets with a cryptic script. This script was called “cuneiform,” referring to the wedge shaped incisions on the clay tablets.

See, for example, this receipt tablet:


When this script was decoded in the 19th century, scholars realized that the language reflected in the cuneiform script was Akkadian. As more texts were discovered throughout Mesopotamia, this picture became more complicated. Sometimes the cuneiform script is used for languages other than Akkadian. Such is the case for Ugaritic, Hittite, and Elamite.

In short, Akkadian is a language. It was written in cuneiform, a script which looks like patterns of wedges on the surface of a clay tablet.  And although cuneiform was typically used in Akkadian, the same writing script is also used in some other languages.