In this week’s New Yorker there’s an article by Elizabeth Kolbert called “The Climate of Man—II.” (It’s not now online, as is the first part of the three-part series.) It’s very interesting, but I had to get over my initial disappointment that it wasn’t about Akkad, since that’s what it begins by talking about. What concerns me here is a phrase in the third sentence of the piece: “Sargon—Sharrukin, in the language of Akkadian—means ‘true king’; almost certainly, though, he was a usurper.” My initial reaction (aside from a reflexive grumble about falling editorial standards) was that the un-English phrase “the language of Akkadian” was a garden-variety confusion between “the Akkadian language” and “the language of Akkad”: she wrote one, half-changed it to the other, and no editor caught it (mutter, grumble). But it occurred to me that it might be taken as parallel to “the island of Manhattan,” and it also occurred to me that this might be an example of the increasing lag between the state of my own dialect and the ever-changing state of the language as she is spoke. So I’ll ask the Varied Reader: does the phrase “the language of Akkadian” sound acceptable?


  1. I think you’ve got the story behind it right. The writer probably would never say something else like “Wien — Vienna in the language of English…”.

  2. That language would be “akkadiska” in Swedish. I hesitate before “the language of Akkad” or “…of the Akkadians”. I find it difficult to identify any “Akkadians”, and prefer to make a distinction between Assyrian and Babylonian for post-2000 BCE Mesopotamian languages. The Akkadian of 2400-2100 BCE is a language, and I can’t link it to any ethnic group.

  3. Sounds fine to me, if a little poetic. I’d say it. I’d also say “the language of English,” but I think I might be more inclined to say it this way if the language was unfamiliar, er, say, “the language of Ku.” (I grew up in the UK.)

  4. Doug Sundseth says

    “The language of Akkadian” sounds wrong; OTOH, “the sport of football” sounds right. I think the former is not idiomatic.
    In any case, isn’t that language usually referred to as Cajun?

  5. In any case, isn’t that language usually referred to as Cajun?
    Eh la-bas! We have a winner!

  6. I believe that Cajun is one of the languages of the Dravidian diaspora. The words “gumbo” and “zydeco” have close cognates in both Tamil and Telegu.

  7. Folquerto says

    I am not inclined to accept the phrase “language of Akkadian”, for it sounds completely wrong. To me only “the language of Shumer û Akkadê” sounds right and proper.

  8. Robert Staubs says

    To me it is not something you would utter in casual discourse, and would probably be frowned upon as somewhat overly literary, but is still permissable.
    The other account could still be correct, of course.

  9. I think your explanation is correct, but I didn’t notice the phrase on first reading. It seems strange, but not necessarily ungrammatical, since it can fit into the pattern of “the game of chess”, “the state of Maryland”, or “the subject of mathematics”.

  10. It’s odd, but I’m inclined to accept it.

  11. Richard Hershberger says

    I googled the analogous phrase “language of english” and got over 26,000 hits. Many, perhaps most, aren’t really applicable, being stuff like “the language of English literature” but some of them are. The third hit is from the BBC, with “The idea for a programme about the language of English came from…” If the BBC says it, it must be grammatical, right?

  12. See here for a use of “the language of Hopi”.

  13. OK, on the one hand, that’s not a genuine occurrence of the construction because it’s just there to continue a running joke about “a language of hope.” On the other hand, that’s a damn funny skit, and I’m going to have to blog it. So, thanks!

  14. I get the same reading as Gillian, Robert, and KC: high-register, but maybe faux-ly. There was a similar discussion I-forget-where after the announcement of Benedict XVI’s election: Cardinal Estevez clearly said qui sibi nomen imposuit Benedicti (Decimi Sexti) for the expected agreeing -um -um -um, which is how the announcement was published on the Vatican website.

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