Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World

Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World by Nicholas Ostler

Book: Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World by Nicholas Ostler Read Free Book Online
Authors: Nicholas Ostler
Tags: nonfiction, History, v.5, Linguistics, Language
twenty to Sennacherib (totalling 408,150). All in all, the Assyrians claimed to have displaced some 4.5 million persons over three centuries. 25
    A majority of these deportations would have involved Aramaic speakers, although the most famous, carried out by Sargon II against Samaria, capital of Israel, in 721 BC, probably involved speakers of Hebrew:
    At the beginning of my rule, I took the town of the Samarians for the god … who let me achieve this triumph. I led away as prisoners 27,290 inhabitants of it and equipped from among them soldiers to man 50 chariots for my royal corps …The town I rebuilt better than it was before and settled therein people from countries which I myself had conquered. I placed an officer of mine as governor over them and imposed upon them tribute as for Assyrian citizens. 26
     
    The Hebrew scriptures (2 Kings xvii.6, 24) give more details of where the Israelite exiles were sent (including Aram Naharaim on the Khabur river, and the north-eastern extremity of the empire in Media), and of who were sent to replace them. (They included some Babylonians.)
    Now and then, correspondence gives an insight into how these deportees were viewed when they arrived in Mesopotamia. 27 A letter to the king contrasts
qinnāte ša Ninua labīrūti
, ‘old-time families of Nineveh’, with
nasi’ānni
, ‘social upstarts’, and
šaglūti
, ‘deportees’, itself perhaps a pun on
šaklūti
, ‘ignorants’. But it is clear that people with western Semitic names were often entrusted with significant responsibility.
    This scattering of Assyria’s subject peoples could be seen as a shrewd policy to unify the diverse populations of the empire by cutting them off from their traditions—an imposed ‘melting pot’ solution. 28 All deportees, as the above inscription mentioned, are to be ‘regarded as Assyrians’; as such they were deemed to have a duty to
palāili u šarri
, ‘to fear God and King’.
    Tending in the same direction was another new policy to buttress imperial unity, the recruitment of a royal guard, the
kisir šarruti.
This was drawn from non-Mesopotamian provinces, supplementing the more feudally organised Assyrian troops. In fact, bearers of western Semitic names crop up quite commonly as Assyrian army officers. Particularly famous was the force of
Itu ’aia
, made up of Aramaeans of the
Itu ’
tribe, which turns up at many of the hot spots, on duty to crush dissent within Babylonian provinces. 29
    The situation in the Fertile Crescent, then, over the period of the eleventh to the eighth century BC, was one of an extreme flux of populations. Aramaeans had settled themselves over the whole area in the earlier two centuries, and although they had been under more effective state control in the latter two, Assyrian policy had served not to push them back but to distribute them even more widely, either as forced migrants, or as members of the armed forces. Since the Aramaeans were the largest group being scattered in this way, when other western Semites, such as Israelites or Phoenicians, found themselves transplanted, they could tend to find themselves speaking more and more like their new neighbours. *
    The Assyrians had therefore contrived to reinforce the spread of a new lingua franca across their domains, one that was not dependent on literacy or any shared educational tradition. Its effective usefulness would have increased as the Assyrian domain was spread yet wider, and its population of western Semitic speakers, predominantly Aramaic speakers, came to outnumber more and more the original population of Mesopotamia, who spoke Akkadian. The ruling class in the triad of capital cities, Asshur, Nineveh and Kalhu (Nimrud), maintained continuity, but elsewhere there was increasing social flux, and people had to make accommodations with the newcomers. In Babylon, particularly, this must have happened early on.
    Nor were the newcomers handicapped by lack of the basic art of civilisation,

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