Knudsen, Ebbe Egede, “Stress in Akkadian,” Journal of Cuneiform Studies, Vol. 32, No. 1 (Jan., 1980), pp. 3-16.

The focus of contemporary linguistics on spoken language seems to have increased the interest in phonetics among scholars of dead languages. I myself am fascinated by the question of how much phonetic info we can squeeze out of these texts. In this article, Knudsen analyzes the letters of Hammurapi to determine whether the stress pattern in Akkadian is closer to Arabic or Hebrew and Aramaic. 

In prosody, stress is often divided between accent and pitch. In Semitic languages, either accent or pitch may be a feature of a word or phrase. When it is a feature of larger segments of speech, pitch is referred to as intonation or contour. In modern Semitic languages, stress is perceived similarly to Indo-European languages – stressed syllables seem more prominent than un-stressed syllables. This is realized in a complex composed of pitch, expiratory strength, sonority, and duration. Stress combined with intonation may mark sentence and clause boundaries such as the pausal forms of Tiberian Hebrew.

The general rules of stress in Akkadian are: 1) Final, open, circumflexed long vowels are stressed. 2) Otherwise stress falls on the first syllable with a long vowel or the first non-final syllable closed by a consonant (counting from the end of the word). If neither of these occur stress falls on the first syllable.

These stress rules are very close to classical Arabic, except for final stress on circumflexed long vowels such as ibnû or rabû which seems to be an innovation in the tradition of Assyriology. It seems very probable however that the Akkadian stress rules were derived from the European tradition of reading literary and classical Arabic, hence any claim that agreement between Akkadian and Arabic stress may provide evidence for proto-Semitic stress patterns seems to be circular in nature.

In 1879 Zimmern introduced a set of Akkadian stress rules more similar to Hebrew/Aramaic which included final stress in verbal forms such as ikšúd as well as final circumflexed vowels. J Aro also published a corpus of Old Babylonian texts with abnormal plene spellings which he argued represented a variable accentuation. The question is whether Akkadian stress should be seen as in the Arabic system, the Hebrew/Aramaic system, or fixed on the first syllable. There is some help in the Aramaic and Greek transcriptions of Akkadian texts, but the lack of a living tradition demands some caution.

Knudsen suggests that the letters of Hammurapi represent a well-defined corpus for the discussion of stress. The possible reflexes of stress will most naturally occur in the use of plene spellings from which the following cases are deduced:

a. Between i-class vowels (e, i, ī) and an a belonging to a closed syllable, plene spelling of a represents a phonetic glide as in ib-bi-a-am.

b. In final syllables plene writing may render the characteristic intonation of a yes/no question: in-na-ak-su-u as an interrogative, cf in-na-ak-su. Even short vowels can be treated this way.

c. In penultimate syllables plene writing may render “the intonation of emphasis” as in an imperative. 

d. Plene writing of long vowels in initial and final position is obligatory, in medial position it is variable. 

e. 3ms imperfect I-weak use plene writing in first syllable to distinguish from preterite, i-il-la-ak  versus il-li-ik. This does not represent stress, nor a *yiʼallak form since ia is preserved for I-y in OB. Variation of plene and defective writing occurs very often in common spellings.

Conclusive evidence for word stress in Akkadian comes from the existence of the opposition of plene and defective writing in the case of a vowel preceding an enclitic –ma and in monosyllabic words mu-u and šu-u against lu, la and ša. Here the grouping of defective and plene writing follows the categories of words that would be treated as independent carriers of stress and those that are grouped with following words as stress-units.

The stress in the Old Babylonian texts suggests differentiation between main and secondary stress, and the stress pattern seems to be zweisilbengesetz where the character of the final two syllables determine stress placement. Thus Knudsen concludes that Akkadian stress follows more closely to that of Hebrew and Aramaic then Arabic.


Explore posts in the same categories: Accents and Vocalization, Author, Knudsen, Ebbe Egede, Topic

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