Languages and Literature of the Ancient World Analysis

The origin of language and language families

There are two basic theories about the origin of language. The first, monogenesis, holds that language began only once. Groups speaking the original “proto-World” language became separated as primitive humans migrated into new territories. The tendency for pronunciations to change and for new words to appear among the isolated groups eventually made their speech unintelligible to one another. The second theory, multigenesis, finds that the incredible variety among modern languages, of which about 3,500 are still spoken, indicates that language was invented more than once. Both theories recognize that languages constantly change and that modern languages belong to a small number of language families, many of which have left written records from ancient times. These form the literature of regions and nations in the broadest sense—any information recorded in the form of carved, inked, engraved, chiseled, or molded letters or characters: deeds and wills, genealogies, administrative accounts and censuses, laws, the tenets and traditions of religions, manuals, histories, songs, and stories.

Whatever their ultimate origin, ancient languages either died out entirely or mutated into one or more modern languages. The group of languages descended from a single forebear constitutes a language family. Linguists generally agree that twenty-nine families exist, along with a few language isolates, such as Basque, whose affiliation is unclear: Afro-Asiatic, Algonquian, Altaic, Andean-Equatorial, Australian Aboriginal, Austro-Asiatic, Austronesian, Aztec-Tanoan, Caucasian, Dravidian, Eskimo-Aleut, Ge-Pano-Carib, Hokan, Indo-European, Indo-Pacific, Japanese, Khoisan, Korean, Macro-Chibchan, Macro-Siouan, Na-Dené, Niger-Congo, Nilo-Saharan, Oto-Manguean, Paleosiberian, Penutian, Sino-Tibetan, Tai, and Uralic. Some scholars distinguish even larger groupings—superfamilies, or macrophyla: Nostratic (including Afro-Asiatic, Dravidian, Indo-European, Altaic, Uralic, Korean), Dené-Caucasian (including Na-Dené, Sino-Tibetan, Eskimo-Aleut, Caucasian), Amerind (most native American Indian languages), and Austric (including Austronesian, Tai, Austro-Asiatic).

In most cases, the original parent language speakers remained more or less in their ancestral lands; most languages and literatures were regional. However, Indo-European and Sino-Tibetan peoples traveled and conquered so extensively that a few ancestor languages, particularly Latin, Greek, and Chinese, became international languages of commerce and learning.


Mesopotamia (Greek, “between rivers”) refers to the early city-states lying between the Euphrates and Tigris Rivers, now in modern Iraq. The Sumerians built the first of these city-states about 3500 b.c.e. and within five hundred years had turned an accounting system for crops and property into the first writing system, cuneiform. Although some scholars find correspondence between the Sumerian language and Indo-European, most consider it unrelated to any other language. Sumer was conquered by the Akkadians in 2350 b.c.e., and by 2000 b.c.e., Sumerian had died as a spoken tongue, but the Akkadians and closely related Babylonians and Assyrians used it as a liturgical and scholarly language. The Akkadians, whose language belonged to the Semitic branch of the Afro-Asiatic family, adopted cuneiform and shared many of Sumer’s literary genres and myths. Mesopotamia lost its cultural autonomy after the Persians conquered it in 539 b.c.e.

Thousands of cuneiform tablets in Sumer and Akkad miraculously escaped destruction during Mesopotamia’s long, war-torn history. Much of the literature remains untranslated, but what has been deciphered reveals literary riches. There were narratives unfolding creation myths and the origin of Sumerian gods, such as the Enuma Elish (c. 2000 b.c.e.; English translation, 1902), treatises on astronomy and mathematics, hymns, poems praising royalty, wisdom literature, manuals for training scribes, dictionaries, collections of fables and riddles, catalogs of literary works, and cult songs.

However, the period is best known for two works. The first is the Gilgamesh epic (2000 b.c.e.; translated into English as Gilgamesh Epic, 1917), the greatest of the Mesopotamian epics—in fact, among the most poignant and tragically powerful epics ever created. Stories about Gilgamesh, a Sumerian king of Uruk (c. 2700 b.c.e.), were written down in Sumerian no later than 2000 b.c.e., but the version that came down to modern readers dates from a seventh century b.c.e. Akkadian text attributed to the poet Shin-eqi-unninni. It tells of friendship between the partly divine Gilgamesh and the animal-like Enkidu, battles, a quest to the underworld for eternal life, and a massive flood, similar to the biblical story of the flood. The second famous work is Hammurabi’s code, which was inscribed on a pillar about 1770 b.c.e. in the name of a Babylonian king. It contains 282 laws and a prologue explaining the king’s mandate to rule.


Along with the Middle East, northern Africa is home to the Afro-Asiatic language family. Once known as Hamito-Semitic, the parent tongue was spoken about nine thousand years ago. Among the most important of its Hamitic branch of languages in early historical times were Egyptian, Coptic (the name used for Egyptian early in the Christian era), and Numidian, all of which left literary records. Egyptian dates back to the third millennium b.c.e., and an extensive variety of literature survives in hieroglyphic inscriptions. Much of it is funereal and mythological: incantations, brief biographies or genealogies, or invocations intended to commemorate the dead and send their souls on to the afterlife. The surviving records from the Old Kingdom (c. 2700-2200 b.c.e.) are almost entirely mortuary hymns, ritual incantations, and autobiographies, most frequently for the tombs of royalty. The First Intermediate period (c. 2200-c. 2050 b.c.e.) brings the beginnings of odic poetry. In the Middle Kingdom (c. 2050-c. 1790 b.c.e.) appear hymns, autobiographies, memorials of events, instructional texts for royalty, and fiction, as well as tales about giants and monsters, such as Story of the Shipwrecked Sailor (c. 2000 b.c.e.; English translation, 1914), and philosophical discourse, as in The Dialogue of a Man with His Soul (c. 1975 b.c.e.; English translation, 1968). The New Kingdom (c. 1570-c. 1085 b.c.e.) produced the Book of the Dead (also known as...

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The Indian subcontinent was home to two major language families in ancient times. In central and northern India, Sanskrit was the literary language of the Indo-Iranian branch of Indo-European. Languages of the Dravidic family were spoken to the south, of which Tamil produced the earliest literary records.

Sanskrit is the language of the oldest sacred literary texts of all Indo-European languages: four Vedas, each containing traditional hymns to the gods to be chanted during ritual sacrifice. Beginning with the Rigveda (also known as rgveda, c. 1500-1000 b.c.e.; English translation, 1896-1897), they were written down between 1500 and 500 b.c.e. Associated with them are three kinds of prose works: Brāhmanas, with illustrative examples as commentary; Āranyakas, with magical interpretations; and Upanisads, philosophical discussions. With the Vedas, two epic poems form the source for the social and religious doctrines of Hinduism. The Mahābhārata(400 b.c.e.-400 c.e., present form by c. 400 c.e.; The Mahabharata of Krishna-Dwaipayana Vyasa, 1887-1896), among the longest poetical compositions in any language, consists of ninety thousand couplets of narrative poetry. Attributed to the ancient sage Vyāsa, it was probably a compilation by several poets and priests between 400 and 300 b.c.e., and it recounts the war-torn history of the king of Kurukshetra; its best known section, the Bhagavadgītā...

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Chinese belongs to the Sino-Tibetan language family, which developed in the western and coastal regions of modern China, Tibet, and parts of Southeast Asia. The Chinese branch started with a language that grew distinct from the Tibetan branch sometime in the third millennium b.c.e., Set down in pictographs and then logographic characters, Chinese literature grew to be among the most extensive, sophisticated, and aesthetically cohesive of the ancient world. Inscriptions on bone and bronze date from early in the second millennium b.c.e., and around 1500 b.c.e. Wenyan, a literary language, developed. Its specialized vocabulary and spare style was the standard for literature in all the Chinese languages thereafter.

At the heart of ancient Chinese literature are the five classics, the Wujing, attributed to the philosopher Confucius (551-479 b.c.e.), although he did not write them all. These books served as the basis for formal education for the upper classes. The first, Shijing (traditionally fifth century b.c.e.; The Book of Songs, 1937), collected 305 ballads composed between 1000 and 700 b.c.e. Originally meant to be sung, the ballads bespeak the universal themes of young love and courtship, failed marriage, separation, the glory and carnage of war, mourning for dead loved ones, and the protests of the poor against the rich. The Yijing (eighth to third century b.c.e.; English translation, 1876; also known as Book of...

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Middle East

The Middle East includes the Arabian Peninsula and Iran. Languages from the Semitic branch of Afro-Asiatic were spoken on the peninsula from the beginning of historic times. Of them Phoenician, Hebrew, Old Aramaic, and, more recently, Arabic produced important literatures. In the area of modern Iran, people spoke Persian, an Indo-European language closely related to Sanskrit, and developed a literary language, Avestan.

The Phoenician language dates from about 3000 b.c.e., and according to Greek and Roman authors, Phoenician writers of the first millennium b.c.e. from the area of modern Palestine and such North African colonies as Carthage wrote chronicles, epic poetry, and books of history, geography, and agriculture. However, only a few short inscriptions survive in Phoenician, and almost everything else is lost, except for poetry translated into Greek.

Hebrew poetry written down in cuneiform exists from the fourteenth century b.c.e., and records in old Hebrew characters date from as early as the ninth century b.c.e. It was at this time that writers and editors, often working from multiple sources, compiled the present version of the Old Testament of the Bible, one of the monuments of world literature. In its twenty-four books are examples of history, heroic saga, love poetry, prophetic poetry, wisdom literature, and short stories. The first five books especially, collectively called the Pentateuch or Torah, contain the creation story of Adam...

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Anatolia, or Asia Minor, is the area of modern Turkey south of the Bosporus. In the second millennium b.c.e. the Hittites, a confederation of city-states, most speaking an Indo-European language, constituted the major culture. In hieroglyphs and cuneiform, the Hittites produced historical texts, such as annals, accounts of military campaigns, edicts, letters, and treaties; legal texts; administrative records; literary works, such as hymns, lyrics, proverbs, and mythological tales; ritual texts; prayers; oracular sayings; and vows. In the eighth century b.c.e., the Hittites were displaced by the Phrygians, whose language was related to Greek. About one hundred Phrygian inscriptions survive from the seventh through fourth centuries...

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The mysterious peoples who migrated into Greece and the eastern Mediterranean islands in prehistoric times spoke an Indo-European language with many non-Indo-European words. By the fourteenth century b.c.e. the Mycenaeans of Crete were using a script, now called Linear B, to record administrative business in an early form of Greek. However, this wealthy Minoan culture (named after the mythic King Minos) fell into decline, and with it, the art of writing lapsed for centuries.

At the beginning of the eighth century b.c.e., there was a rebirth of learning and the arts, among them the use of an alphabet borrowed from the Phoenicians. It was then that the poet Homer, drawing on stories about the twelfth century b.c.e. Trojan...

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The Americas

At least three great migrations of peoples from Asia populated the North and South American continents, and in 1987, historical linguist Joseph H. Greenberg argued that all New World languages belong to three families: Amerind, which includes most languages of the two continents; Na-Dené, languages of Canada and Alaska; and Eskimo-Aleut, spoken in the circum-polar regions of North America. However, most Americanists group New World languages into at least thirteen families, the largest of which for North America were Algonquian and Aztec-Tanoan and for South America Andean-Equatorial and Ge-Pano-Carib.

Many cultures left pictographic inscriptions that record events or religious beliefs, and the Olmec culture (c....

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Latin, an Indo-European language, was spoken in a variety of dialects in Italy during the first millennium b.c.e. By the middle of the third century b.c.e., Rome emerged as the dominant power of the region. Its dialect of Latin became the literary standard.

The Romans inherited much of Greek culture and consciously modeled their literature on the works of Greek authors. Nevertheless, the Romans, of a more conservative, practical mentality than the Greeks, produced a distinctive literature, and in great abundance. The greatest Roman epic poet, Vergil (70-19 b.c.e.), for example, borrowed from Homer for the structure and narrative style of his Aeneid (c. 29-19 b.c.e.; English translation, 1553)., but he shaped it...

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Two general waves of migration took Indo-European-speaking tribes across the continent of Europe during the first millennium b.c.e. First came the Celts, who were eventually displaced to the borders of the mainland and into the British Isles by invading Germanic tribes. Inscriptions in continental Celtic date from the second century b.c.e., and the Irish left inscriptions in their singular script, Ogam, as early as the fifth century c.e. The Germanic parent language split into three branches during the migrations. Northern Germanic, source of the Scandinavian languages, was used for runic inscriptions on stone and bone beginning in the third century c.e., some of which were in verse. In about 350 c.e., Bishop Ulfilas (c. 311-c. 382...

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Japan and Korea

Some linguists believe that Korean, and possibly Japanese, belong to the Altaic family of languages, but the attribution is controversial. Both show the influence of languages of other families, Chinese above all. The earliest literature of Japan dates from the seventh century, although recorded later. Two prose books, the Kojiki (712 c.e.; Records of Ancient Matters, 1883) and the Nihon shoki (compiled 720 c.e.; Nihongi: Chronicles of Japan from the Earliest Times to A.D. 697, 1896), lay out the nation’s history, beginning with its mythological founding by gods. That the first is written in a mixture of Chinese and Japanese in Chinese characters and the second is wholly in Chinese underscores...

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Waves of migration gradually peopled the scattered lands in the Pacific Ocean, settling the continent of Australia as early as 65,000 years ago and the archipelago of Hawaii, Easter Island, and the Society Islands by 600 c.e. Three language families correspond to the migrations: the settlers of modern Madagascar, Indonesia, and most of the Pacific Islands spoke Austronesian; in New Guinea and the islands immediately to the west, Indo-Pacific; and in Australia, aboriginal languages.

None of these peoples developed a writing system in ancient times, but the Australians, at least, recorded events and religious symbols in pictographs of great antiquity. Moreover, Oceania possessed a rich, diverse body of oral literature. In...

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Southeast Asia

The ancestor of Burmese, a Sino-Tibetan language, was spoken during ancient times in the area of modern Myanmar, Tai languages in the area of modern Thailand, and Austro-Asiatic languages in the region of modern Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, and Malaysia. China to the north and India to the west supplied models for the literature of Burma and Thailand. In addition to Buddhist and Hindu texts, the Indian Rāmāyana was particularly popular in ancient times and, called the Ramakian in Thai, was adapted to local dialects. In the area of modern Vietnam, songs were part of the oral tradition. However, the region did not produce indigenous literatures in local languages until after 700 c.e.

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Additional Resources

Asher, R. E., and E. F. Koerner, eds. Concise History of the Language Sciences: From the Sumerians to the Cognitivists. New York: Pergamon, 1995.

Auroux, Sylvain, et al., eds. History of the Language Sciences: An International Handbook on the Evolution of the Study of Language from the Beginnings to the Present. New York: Walter de Gruyter, 2000.

Bakalla, M. H. Arabic Culture Through Its Language and Literature. London: Kegan Paul International, 1984.

Burnley, J. D. The History of the English Language: A Source Book. New York: Longman, 2000.

Chadwick, H. Munro, and N. Kershaw Chadwick. The Growth of Literature. New York: Cambridge...

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