Language, societies and prestige: royal correspondence in Old Babylonian.

Hernaiz Gomez, Rodrigo Language, societies and prestige: royal correspondence in Old Babylonian. In: 65ᵉ Rencontre Assyriologique Internationale (RAI), 8-12 Jul 2019, Collège de France, Paris.


Whilst the political relationship between Mesopotamian kingdoms in the eventful first half of the Old Babylonian (OB) period has been extensively documented, the socio-linguistics of inter-regional communications has not been fully explored. It is known that some areas such as Mari displayed graphic and linguistic traits (“dialects”) distinct from central Babylonian ones (see e.g., Finet 1956), but what was the relationship between these varieties? Modern languages often show central dialects imposing their more prestigious features or writing conventions over other non-dominant varieties; was that also the case in OB? What can the interplay of “dialectal” varieties tell us about the socio-political context of the time?

These questions can begin to be examined by analysing the graphic and linguistic features present in the correspondence between OB rulers. In my paper, I analyse a series of traits from the “international” royal correspondence between Hammurabi, Zimri-Lim and Ibal-pi-El II with a twofold objective: (a) determine whether the forms in inter-royal exchanges accommodate to a variety different from other royal letters or local documents, (b) analyse the internal coherence of the corpus of letters from these rulers to discuss the idea of language standardization and prescriptivism in court documents.

The observation of traits from a compilation of royal letters compared against a large corpus of OB correspondence brings to light evidence that points to a situation of symmetry in the prestige-scene, with “international” royal letters mirroring to a large extent the local palaeographic and linguistic features found in the same area (rather than other “prestigious” regional centres). On the other hand, however, there are conspicuous differences within letters from individual rulers (particularly Hammurabi) that challenge the assumed existence of a prescriptive standard variety in the Babylonian


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