The Independent has a story by David Keys, “Ancient language discovered on clay tablets found amid ruins of 2800 year old Middle Eastern palace,” that will make the heart of any aficionado of the ancient Near East beat faster. Not that they’ve discovered an epic poem, or even a laundry list—it’s just a bunch of names—but we aficionados will take what we can get, and this is actually pretty exciting:

Evidence of the long-lost language – probably spoken by a hitherto unknown people from the Zagros Mountains of western Iran – was found by a Cambridge University archaeologist as he deciphered an ancient clay writing tablet unearthed by an international archaeological team excavating an Assyrian imperial governors’ palace in the ancient city of Tushan, south-east Turkey.
The tablet revealed the names of 60 women – probably prisoners-of-war or victims of an Assyrian forced population transfer programme. But when the Cambridge archaeologist – Dr. John MacGinnis – began to examine the names in detail, he realized that 45 of them bore no resemblance to any of the thousands of ancient Middle Eastern names already known to scholars. […]
Typical names, borne by the women – the evidence for the lost language – include Ushimanay, Alagahnia, Irsakinna and Bisoonoomay.

A full account is published in MacGinnis’s “Evidence for a Peripheral Language in a Neo-Assyrian Tablet from the Governor’s Palace in Tušhan” (JSTOR) in the current issue of the Journal of Near Eastern Studies. Look for those names to start turning up in historical bodice-rippers any moment (given the instant-publishing world we live in). And there are lots of tablets still to be examined; maybe that epic will turn up after all. (Thanks, Conrad!)


  1. dearieme says

    Sound Irish to me.

  2. > Bisoonoomay
    I believe the culturally-sensitive spelling is now “Bisunumé”.

  3. clearly dravidian

  4. Hell yeah, Cambridge.

  5. looks like sumerians and old turkish names

  6. Bill Walderman says

    Must be Basque and/or Japanese.

  7. The number of syllables clearly suggests Burushaski.

  8. Bill has it. Of course, given the time period in question, there’s no need for the “or”, because Proto-Vasco-Japonic had not yet split into the two (allegedly “isolate”!) families.

  9. Someone, and I thought it was here, said it was the Banana language and provided a wiki link, and sure enough there was an article on what was supposed to be the indigenous language in the area the Sumerians settled. It’s called Banana because the words have that 1-2-2 structure of syllables.
    Well maybe. Hawaiian has tons of words with the same structure. My favorite, that has made it into English, is pahoehoe. Honolulu, Waikiki etc.

  10. Trond Engen says

    These tablets were found in Turkey, well north of the Sumerian plain. The Sumerian substrate(s) was/were spoken a couple of thousand years earlier in the other end of Mesopotamia, so it’s definitely not exqactly the same language.
    If there really was a Sumerian substrate with banana word structure, I don’t see how these names fit when there’s no nana after the ba. If they’re related in some way, it would have to go back to Proto-Banana, i.e. before the Banana split.

  11. Actually, Trond, there is a more northerly dialect, generally known as Banana-nana Fofana.
    This is probably just going to turn out to be one of those times when the perp just got away. It’s been what…five millenia? That’s a cold case if there ever was one – too little evidence to do anything with. It could have been as different from everything around it as Yuki was and we’ll never know.

  12. Trond Engen says

    Seriously now, I wonder if the phonetic realization of the names can be inferred from onomastic evidence alone. The tablets must have been written in cuneiform, so I’d guess that without that epic to show which vowels stay the same there’s no way to know which of the vowels were pronounced and which are artifacts of the writing system. On possible connections, the enigmatic Šubartu, post-Mitanni Hurrians/Urartians and emerging Iranians could all have been around there around then. But I suppose that all of those are discussed in MacGinnis’s article.

  13. marie-lucie says

    Too bad the MacGinnis article is defended by JSTOR.

  14. marie-lucie says

    To the nice person who sent me the article: a big thank you!

  15. Trond Engen says

    Have you read it? Can you say anything about it?

  16. pizzy_afo says

    the names are most likely from GUTIAN language. Gutians have lived in area of Zagros mountains, and they are described as highlanders shepherds with blond and red hair light skin and verry possible they were indo-europeans like persians, medes, massagetae, getes…

  17. “Inanna” is the best-known word of the banana language.

  18. David Marjanović says

    …One click from there lies this paper which identifies a whole bunch of Indo-European loans in Sumerian (and a few in Akkadian). I find it very impressive.

  19. And someone thinks an ‘Eteocretan’ inscription is in fact written in an Italic language.

  20. David Marjanović says

    I’ve downloaded the paper to read it later. The comments on the blog post are really bad, though.

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