Tablet of Elamite script
|Native to||Elamite Empire|
|Era||ca. 2800–300 BC|
Elamite is an extinct language spoken by the ancient Elamites. Elamite was the primary language in present-day Iran from 2800 to 550 BC. The last written records in Elamite appear about the time of the conquest of the Achaemenid Empire by Alexander the Great. Elamite has no demonstrable relatives and is usually considered a language isolate. The lack of established relatives is one reason that interpretation of the language is difficult.
Elamite cuneiform, adapted from Akkadian cuneiform, was used from ca. 2500 to 331 BC. Elamite cuneiform was largely a syllabary of some 130 glyphs at any one time and retained only a few logograms from Akkadian, but over time, the number of logograms increased.
The complete corpus of Elamite cuneiform consists of c. 20 thousand tablets and fragments. The majority belong to the Achaemenid era, and contain primarily economic records.
Two earlier scripts of the area remain undeciphered but plausibly have encoded Elamite:
- Proto-Elamite is the oldest known writing system from Iran. It was used during a brief period of time (ca. 3100 – 2900 BC); clay tablets with Proto-Elamite writing have been found at different sites across Iran. It is thought to have developed from early cuneiform (proto-cuneiform) and consists of more than 1,000 signs. It is thought to be largely logographic.
- Linear Elamite is attested in a few monumental inscriptions. It is often claimed that Linear Elamite is a syllabic writing system derived from Proto-Elamite, but it cannot be proven. Linear Elamite was used for a very brief period of time during the last quarter of the third millennium BC.
Elamite was an agglutinative language, and Elamite grammar was characterized by a well-developed and pervasive nominal class system. Animate nouns had separate markers for 1st, 2nd, and 3rd person, a rather unusual feature. It can be said to display a kind of Suffixaufnahme in that the nominal class markers of the head were also attached to any modifiers, including adjectives, noun adjuncts, possessor nouns, and even entire clauses.
The history of Elamite is periodised as follows:
- Old Elamite (c. 2600–1500 BC)
- Middle Elamite (c. 1500–1000 BC)
- Neo-Elamite (1000–550 BC)
- Achaemenid Elamite (550–330 BC)
Middle Elamite is considered the “classical” period of Elamite, but the best attested variety is Achaemenid Elamite, which was widely used by the Achaemenid Persian state for official inscriptions as well as administrative records and displays significant Old Persian influence. Documents from the Old Elamite and early Neo-Elamite stages are rather scarce.
Neo-Elamite can be regarded as a transition between Middle and Achaemenid Elamite, with respect to language structure.
Because of the limitations of the language's scripts, phonology is not well understood. In terms of consonants, it had at least the stops /p/, /t/ and /k/, the sibilants /s/, /ʃ/ and /z/ (with uncertain pronunciation), the nasals /m/ and /n/, the liquids /l/ and /r/ and a fricative /h/, which was lost in late Neo-Elamite. Some peculiarities of spelling have been interpreted as suggesting that there was a contrast between two series of stops (/p/, /t/, /k/ vs /b/, /d/, /g/), but in general, such a distinction is not consistently indicated by written Elamite. As for the vowels, Elamite had at least /a/, /i/, and /u/ and may also have had an /e/, which is, however, not generally expressed unambiguously.
Roots are generally of the forms CV, (C)VC, (C)VCV and, more rarely, CVCCV (the first C is usually a nasal).
The Elamite nominal system is thoroughly pervaded by a noun class distinction which combines a gender distinction between animate and inanimate with a personal class distinction corresponding to the three persons of verbal inflection (first, second, third, plural).
The suffixes are as follows:
- 1st person singular: -k
- 2nd person singular: -t
- 3rd person singular: -r or Ø
- 3rd person plural: -p
- -Ø, -me, -n, -t[clarification needed]
The animate third-person suffix -r can serve as a nominalizing suffix and indicate nomen agentis or just members of a class. The inanimate 3rd singular -me forms abstracts. Some examples are sunki-k “a king (first person)” i.e. “I, a king”, sunki-r “a king (third person)”, nap-Ø or nap-ir “a god (third person)”, sunki-p “kings”, nap-ip “gods”, sunki-me “kingdom, kingship”, hal-Ø “town, land”, siya-n “temple”, hala-t “mud brick”.
Modifiers follow their (nominal) heads. In noun phrases and pronoun phrases, the suffixes referring to the head are appended to the modifier, regardless of whether the modifier is another noun (such as a possessor) or an adjective. Sometimes the suffix is preserved on the head as well.
- u šak X-k(i) = “I, the son of X”
- X šak Y-r(i) = “X, the son of Y”
- u sunki-k Hatamti-k = “I, the king of Elam”
- sunki Hatamti-p (or, sometimes, sunki-p Hatamti-p) = “the kings of Elam”
- temti riša-r = “great lord” (lit. “lord great”)
- riša-r nap-ip-ir = “greatest of the gods” (lit. “great of the gods)
- nap-ir u-ri = my god (lit. “god of me”)
- hiya-n nap-ir u-ri-me = the throne hall of my god
- takki-me puhu nika-me-me = “the life of our children”
- sunki-p uri-p u-p(e) = ”kings, my predecessors” (lit. “kings, predecessors of me”)
This system, in which the noun class suffixes function as derivational morphemes as well as agreement markers and indirectly as subordinating morphemes, is best seen in Middle Elamite. It is, to a great extent, broken down in Achaemenid Elamite, where possession and, sometimes, attributive relationships are uniformly expressed with the “genitive case” suffix -na appended to the modifier: e.g. šak X-na “son of X”. The suffix -na, which probably originated from the inanimate agreement suffix -n followed by the nominalizing particle -a (see below), appeared already in Neo-Elamite.
The personal pronouns distinguish nominative and accusative case forms. They are as follows:
|Case||1st sg.||2nd sg.||3rd sg.||1st pl.||2nd pl.||3rd pl.||Inanimate|
In general, no special possessive pronouns are needed in view of the construction with the noun class suffixes. Nevertheless, a set of separate third-person animate possessives -e (sing.) / appi-e (plur.) is occasionally used already in Middle Elamite: puhu-e “her children”, hiš-api-e “their name”. The relative pronouns are akka “who” and appa “what, which”.
The verb base can be simple (e.g. ta- “put”) or “reduplicated” (e.g. beti > bepti “rebel”). The pure verb base can function as a verbal noun or “infinitive”.
The verb distinguishes three forms functioning as finite verbs, known as “conjugations”. Conjugation I is the only one that has special endings characteristic of finite verbs as such, as shown below. Its use is mostly associated with active voice, transitivity (or verbs of motion), neutral aspect and past tense meaning. Conjugations II and III can be regarded as periphrastic constructions with participles; they are formed by the addition of the nominal personal class suffixes to a passive perfective participle in -k and to an active imperfective participle in -n, respectively. Accordingly, conjugation II expresses a perfective aspect, hence usually past tense, and an intransitive or passive voice, whereas conjugation III expresses an imperfective non-past action.
The Middle Elamite conjugation I is formed with the following suffixes:
- 1st singular: -h
- 2nd singular: -t
- 3rd singular: -š
- 1st plural: -hu
- 2nd plural: -h-t
- 3rd plural: -h-š
Examples: kulla-h ”I prayed”, hap-t ”you heard”, hutta-š “he did”, kulla-hu “we prayed”, hutta-h-t “you (plur.) did”, hutta-h-š “they did”. In Achaemenid Elamite, the loss of the /h/ phoneme reduces the transparency of the Conjugation I endings and leads to the merger of the singular and plural except in the first person; in addition, the first person plural changes from -hu to -ut.
The participles can be exemplified as follows: perfective participle hutta-k “done”, kulla-k “something prayed”, i.e. “a prayer”; imperfective participle hutta-n “doing” or “who will do”, also serving as a non-past infinitive. The corresponding conjugation is, for the perfective, first person singular hutta-k-k, second person singular hutta-k-t, third person singular hutta-k-r, third person plural hutta-k-p; and for the imperfective, 1st person singular hutta-n-k, 2nd person singular hutta-n-t, 3rd person singular hutta-n-r, 3rd person plural hutta-n-p. In Achaemenid Elamite, the Conjugation 2 endings are somewhat changed: 1st person singular hutta-k-ut, 2nd person singular hutta-k-t, 3rd person singular hutta-k (hardly ever attested in predicative use), 3rd person plural hutta-p.
There is also a periphrastic construction with an auxiliary verb ma- following either Conjugation II and III stems (i.e. the perfective and imperfective participles), or nomina agentis in -r, or a verb base directly. In Achaemenid Elamite, only the third option exists. There is no consensus on the exact meaning of the periphrastic forms with ma-, although durative, intensive or volitional interpretations have been suggested.
Optative mood is expressed by the addition of the suffix -ni to Conjugations I and II. The imperative is identical to the second person of Conjugation I in Middle Elamite. In Achaemenid Elamite, it is the third person that coincides with the imperative. The prohibitative is formed by the particle ani/ani preceding Conjugation III.
Verbal forms can be converted into the heads of subordinate clauses through the addition of the suffix -a, much as in Sumerian: siyan in-me kuši-hš(i)-me-a “the temple which they did not build”. -ti/-ta can be suffixed to verbs, chiefly of conjugation I, expressing possibly a meaning of anteriority (perfect and pluperfect tense).
The negative particle is in-; it takes nominal class suffixes that agree with the subject of attention (which may or may not coincide with the grammatical subject), e.g. first person singular in-ki, third person singular animate in-ri, third person singular inanimate in-ni/in-me. In Achaemenid Elamite, the inanimate form in-ni has been generalized to all persons, so that concord has been lost.
Nominal heads are normally followed by their modifiers, although there are occasional inversions of this word order. The word order is subject–object–verb (SOV), with indirect objects preceding direct objects, although the word order becomes more flexible in Achaemenid Elamite. There are often resumptive pronouns before the verb – often long sequences, especially in Middle Elamite (ap u in duni-h "to-them I it gave").
The language uses postpositions such as -ma "in" and -na "of", but spatial and temporal relationships are generally expressed in Middle Elamite by means of "directional words" originating as nouns or verbs. These "directional words" either precede or follow the governed nouns, and tend to exhibit noun class agreement with whatever noun is described by the prepositional phrase: e.g. i-r pat-r u-r ta-t-ni "may you place him under me", lit. "him inferior of-me place-you-may". In Achaemenid Elamite, postpositions become more common and partly, but not entirely, displace this type of construction.
A common conjunction is ak "and, or". Achaemenid Elamite also uses a number of subordinating conjunctions such as anka "if, when", sap "as, when", etc. Subordinate clauses usually precede the verb of the main clause. In Middle Elamite, the most common way to construct a relative clause is to attach a nominal class suffix to the clause-final verb, optionally followed by the relativizing suffix -a: thus, lika-me i-r hani-š-r(i) "whose reign he loves", or optionally lika-me i-r hani-š-r-a. The alternative construction by means of the relative pronouns akka "who" and appa "which" is uncommon in Middle Elamite, but gradually becomes dominant at the expense of the nominal class suffix construction in Achaemenid Elamite.
Middle Elamite (Šutruk-Nahhunte I, 1200–1160 BC; EKI 18, IRS 33):
(1) ú DIŠšu-ut-ru-uk-d.nah-hu-un-te ša-ak DIŠhal-lu-du-uš-din-šu-ši-
(2) -na-ak-gi-ik su-un-ki-ik an-za-an šu-šu-un-ka4 e-ri-en-
(3) -tu4-um ti-pu-uh a-ak hi-ya-an din-šu-ši-na-ak na-pír
(4) ú-ri-me a-ha-an ha-li-ih-ma hu-ut-tak ha-li-ku-me
(5) din-šu-ši-na-ak na-pír ú-ri in li-na te-la-ak-ni
U Šutruk-Nahhunte, šak Halluduš-Inšušinak-ik, sunki-k Anzan Šušun-ka. Erientum tipu-h ak hiya-n Inšušinak nap-ir u-ri-me ahan hali-h-ma. hutta-k hali-k u-me Inšušinak nap-ir u-ri in lina tela-k-ni.
Achaemenid Elamite (Xerxes I, 486–465 BC; XPa):
(01) [sect 01] dna-ap ir-šá-ir-ra du-ra-mas-da ak-ka4 AŠmu-ru-un
(02) hi pè-iš-tá ak-ka4 dki-ik hu-ip-pè pè-iš-tá ak-ka4 DIŠ
(03) LÚ.MEŠ-ir-ra ir pè-iš-tá ak-ka4 ši-ia-ti-iš pè-iš-tá DIŠ
(04) LÚ.MEŠ-ra-na ak-ka4 DIŠik-še-ir-iš-šá DIŠEŠŠANA ir hu-ut-taš-
(05) tá ki-ir ir-še-ki-ip-in-na DIŠEŠŠANA ki-ir ir-še-ki-ip-
(06) in-na pír-ra-ma-ut-tá-ra-na-um
Nap irša-rra Uramasda, akka muru-n hi pe-š-ta, akka kik hupe pe-š-ta, akka ruh(?)-irra ir pe-š-ta, akka šiatiš pe-š-ta ruh(?)-ra-na, akka Ikšerša sunki(?) ir hutta-š-ta kir iršeki-pi-na sunki(?), kir iršeki-pi-na piramataram.
Relations to other language families
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Elamite is regarded by the vast majority of linguists as a language isolate, as it has no demonstrable relationship to the neighbouring Semitic languages, Indo-European languages, or to Sumerian, despite having adopted the Sumerian-Akkadian cuneiform script. An Elamo-Dravidian family connecting Elamite with the Dravidian languages of India was suggested by Igor M. Diakonoff, and has been later defended by David McAlpin in several articles. Václav Blažek proposed a relation with the Afroasiatic languages of the Near East, and George Starostin published a lexicostatistic analysis finding Elamite to be approximately equidistant from Nostratic and Semitic, but these ideas have not been picked up by mainstream historical linguists.
- Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin; Bank, Sebastian, eds. (2016). "Elamite". Glottolog 2.7. Jena: Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History.
- Elamite (2005). Keith Brown, ed. Encyclopedia of Language and Linguistics (2 ed.). Elsevier. ISBN 0-08-044299-4.
- Stolper, Matthew W. 2008. Elamite. In The Ancient Languages of Mesopotamia, Egypt, and Aksum. P.60: "Elamite is an agglutinative language."
- Brown, Keith and Sarah Ogilvie. Concise encyclopedia of languages of the world. P.316
- Stolper, Matthew W. 2008. Elamite. In The Ancient Languages of Mesopotamia, Egypt, and Aksum. P. 67
- Blench 2006, p. 96
- Starostin 2002
- Stolper, Matthew W. 2008. Elamite. In Woodard, Roger D. (ed.) The Ancient Languages of Mesopotamia, Egypt, and Aksum. P.60–95.
- Khačikjan, Margaret: The Elamite Language, Documenta Asiana IV, Consiglio Nazionale delle Ricerche Istituto per gli Studi Micenei ed Egeo-Anatolici, 1998 ISBN 88-87345-01-5
- Paper H. (1955). The phonology and morphology of Royal Achaemenid Elamite. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
- Potts, Daniel T.: The archaeology of Elam: formation and transformation of an ancient Iranian state, Cambridge U., 1999 ISBN 0-521-56496-4 and ISBN 0-521-56358-5
- Starostin, George: On the genetic affiliation of the Elamite language in Mother Tongue (ISSN 1087-0326), vol. VII, 2002, pp. 147–17
- Blench, Roger (2006). Archaeology, Language, and the African Past. Rowman Altamira. ISBN 978-0-7591-0466-2. Retrieved 30 June 2013.
- Ancient Scripts: Elamite
- An overview of Elamite by Ernst Kausen (German)
- Elamite grammar, glossary, and a very comprehensive text corpus, by Enrique Quintana (in some respects, the author's views deviate from those generally accepted in the field) (Spanish)
- Эламский язык, a detailed description by Igor Diakonov (Russian)
- Persepolis Fortification Archive (requires Java)
- Achaemenid Royal Inscriptions project (the project is discontinued, but the texts, the translations and the glossaries remain accessible on the Internet Archive through the options "Corpus Catalogue" and "Browse Lexicon")
- On the genetic affiliation of the Elamite language by George Starostin (the Nostratic theory; also with glossary)
-  by David McAlpin