Akkadian (əkāˈdēən) [key], extinct language belonging to the East Semitic subdivision of the Semitic subfamily of the Afroasiatic family of languages (see Afroasiatic languages). Also called Assyro-Babylonian, Akkadian (or Accadian) was current in ancient Mesopotamia (now Iraq) from about 3000 B.C. until the time of Jesus. The earliest surviving inscriptions in the language go back to about 2500 B.C. and are the oldest known written records in a Semitic tongue.
Old Akkadian is the earliest period of the language and can be dated from its appearance in Mesopotamia c.3000 B.C. to c.1950 B.C., when the 3d dynasty of Ur fell. Thereafter, Akkadian evolved into two dialects, Assyrian, the tongue of ancient Assyria, and Babylonian, the language of ancient Babylonia. The history of both Assyrian and Babylonian can be roughly divided into three successive periods designated as Old (beginning c.1950 B.C.), Middle (c.1500–c.1000 B.C.), and New or Late (after c.1000 B.C.). Around 1500 B.C., Babylonian began to be widely used, both in the Middle East and in international diplomacy. As time went on, Babylonian even replaced Assyrian to a large extent in the written records and literature of the Assyrian civilization. By the beginning of the Christian era, however, Babylonian had died out, and it remained a lost language until modern times, when it was deciphered during the first half of the 19th cent.
Unlike the other Semitic languages, which employed an alphabetic writing system, Akkadian and its later forms, Assyrian and Babylonian, were written in cuneiform. The Akkadians adopted cuneiform c.2500 B.C. from the Sumerians, a non-Semitic people who are believed to have invented it.
See also Akkad.
See I. J. Gelb, Old Akkadian Writing and Grammar (2d ed. 1961); E. Reiner, A Linguistic Analysis of Akkadian (1966); D. Marcus, A Manual of Addadian (1978).