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Scientists have finally translated a lost language that hasn't been used for thousands of years

Joe Harker

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Scientists have finally translated a lost language that hasn't been used for thousands of years

Featured Image Credit: SOAS University of London / David I. Owen

A language which hasn't been used for millennia has been translated by scientists after extensive study of a pair of ancient clay tablets.

Reckoned to be around 4,000 years old - and once you get in that ballpark it's hard to nail down an exact figure - the tablets were discovered around 30 years ago in what is now Iraq.

They had ended up being housed in separate collections, but since 2016 a pair of researchers have been studying them together to unlock their long lost secrets.

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The tablets were made by the Amorites, a people who lived in the Middle East and originally hailed from the Canaan region (where Israel, Jordan and Syria are now) but migrated to Mesopotamia, an area which would later consist of parts of Iraq.

The discovery of the tablets and their subsequent use in deciphering this ancient lost language has been compared to the Rosetta Stone, the Egyptian artefact which allowed us to decipher hieroglyphics and learn a language so very different to our own.

 Scholars have been studying these tablets since 2016 and now believe they have cracked a lost language. Credit: David I. Owen
Scholars have been studying these tablets since 2016 and now believe they have cracked a lost language. Credit: David I. Owen

What makes these tablets so important for translating this lost language is that the text written on them was divided into two columns, with the left column holding writings in the lost Amorite language.

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Written besides this lost language was the right hand column, which had an old dialect of Akkadian language that scholars are able to read.

As the tablets have the two languages side by side and we can understand one of the languages, that makes it the key to deciphering and understanding the other language just as the Rosetta Stone did for Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs.

Researchers Manfred Krebernik and Andrew R. George told Live Science the existing knowledge of the Amorite language had been 'so pitiful that some experts doubted whether there was such a language at all'.

They explained that studying these tablets 'settle that question by showing the language to be coherently and predictably articulated,' as well as being a distinct language of its own.

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Different views of the two tablets which may just have uncovered an entire language once thought to have been lost. Credit: Rudolph Mayr/Rosen Collection
Different views of the two tablets which may just have uncovered an entire language once thought to have been lost. Credit: Rudolph Mayr/Rosen Collection

The pair were able to work out that the Amorite language was West Semitic in origin, sharing links with Hebrew and Aramaic, thanks to a thorough study of the text's grammar.

According to professor Yoram Cohen of Tel Aviv University, the tablets could have been written as a 'tourist guidebook' for Akkadians who needed to brush up on their Amorite.

One chunk of the tablets contains a list of gods, while another section covers what phrases to use to welcome people.

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Professor Cohen told Live Science that one part of it might even contain a love song, making this work that has been translated a window into a people who faded from the history books millennia ago.

Just think, thousands of years ago some scribe etching a translation guide onto a couple of tablets so tourists could learn how to say hello had no idea they were preserving a language so it would not be completely lost.

Topics: News, Science, Weird, World News

Joe Harker
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