How do you say ‘hello!’ in Akkadian?

How do you say ‘hello!’ in Akkadian?

BiblicalHebrew.com, 2022

When I decided to start making communicative language teaching (CLT) materials for ancient languages like Akkadian and Ugaritic, I knew that I was undertaking a difficult—some would say impossible—task. If you ask an Assyriologist or an Ugaritologist if teaching Akkadian or Ugaritic as a living language was possible, I imagine a common objection would be regarding the scope of the attested material. In many cases, there might just not be enough textual data to determine how an ancient Akkadian or Ugaritic speaker would have said a certain word or phrase.

This can even be the case with something as simple as the word ‘hello!’, which might (or should) be the first word you learn in any language. Because it is already part of the very first lesson in our IMMERSION AKKADIAN series, I thought it would be fitting to explain a bit about how I arrived at the conclusion that the best way to say ‘hello!’ in a spoken Akkadian curriculum is ‘šulmu(m)!’ 1

The first place one might look to find out how to say ‘hello!’ or ‘greetings!’ in ancient Akkadian would be the greeting formulae at the beginning of Old Babylonian letters. In such letters, it is very common to find a phrase like DN liballiṭka ‘may DN preserve your life!; may God keep you well!’. Note the following example (Huehnergard 2011, §24.5):


Scheil, SFS, p. 131 = Kraus, AbB 5 225

šamaš u marduk aššumīya dāriš ūmī liballiṭūka

May Shamash and Marduk keep you well on my account for all days!’


Such a phrase has parallels elsewhere in Semitic. Note the common greeting between Arabic speakers in the present day حياك الله ḥayyak allāh ‘may God preserve your life!; God bless you!’. It should be noted, however, that in different parts of the Akkadian-speaking world, different deities would have been invoked (see, e.g., Dalley 1973). This presents some challenges pedagogically.

Another common phrase attested in letters and texts, though more so during the Middle Babylonian and Middle Assyrian period and later, is ana X lū šulmu ‘may there be well-being to X!’. This can also be used with a pronoun: e.g., ana kâšim lū šulmu ‘may there be well-being to you!’:2


Alishar Tablets No. d 22003, from M 33, line 3–4 (Gelb 1935, 40) (Old Assyrian?) 3

ana bîtīka ú […. lū] šulmum

‘To your house … may there be well-being!


Ni. 615:3 (Middle Babylonian)

ana kâša lū šulmu

May there be well-being to you!’


EA 26:5 (Peripheral Akkadian from Middle Babylonian Period)

ana ᶠPN [mārtija] kallatka lū šulmu

May there be well-being to PN, my daughter, your daughter-in-law!’


KUB 3 72:5 (Middle Babylonian?)

ana kâša lū šulmu ana bītīka aššātīka mārēka ERÍN.MEŠ-ka sīsēka [u] narkabātīka … danniš lū šulmu

May there be well-being to you! To your house, your wives, your sons, your soldires, your horses, and your chariots, may there be much well-being!’


Streck Asb. 84 x 45 (Neo-Assyrian)

lū šulmu ana šarri bēlīya

May there be well-being to my lord, the king!’


KAV 199:3 (Neo-Assyrian)

lū šulmu ana kanāšunu

May there be well-being to you!’


The heart of this greeting formula, of course, is the phrase lū šulmu ‘may there be well-being!’. To this phrase one might compare the Hebrew greeting of שָׁלוֹם šalom ‘peace!’. Note, however, that there is at least one Middle Babylonian example in which the injunctive particle is left off:

KAV 199:3 (Neo-Assyrian)

lū šulmu ana kanāšunu

May there be well-being to you!’


The heart of this greeting formula, of course, is the phrase lū šulmu ‘may there be well-being!’. To this phrase one might compare the Hebrew greeting of שָׁלוֹם šalom ‘peace!’.

In theory, either of these expressions (i.e., DN liballiṭka ‘may DN preserve your life!’ or ana X lū šulmu ‘may there be well-being to X!’) would be acceptable way for saying ‘hello!’ in Akkadian. Surely one would have been understood if they used either of them.

However, there are two reasons for not being quite satisfied with either of these forms of greeting. From a pedagogical perspective, both greetings are comprised of complex expressions involving several grammatical categories, more than one would want to introduce to a student on the first day of class. This by itself, however, is not a good enough reason not to use such expressions. From a language register perspective, one also has to wonder if the greetings expressed at the beginning of a letter reflects the more natural colloquial way of saying ‘hello!’. May we not suggest that someone running into his friend on the street might have used a more truncated expression. In ancient Greek, for example, we find a clear distinction in register between the more colloquial imperative form χαῖρε ‘rejoice!’, which is used to express the same meaning as ‘hello!’, and the more formal infinitive at the end of the expression X τῷ Y χαίρειν ‘X to Y, greetings!’, which appears almost without fail at the beginning of letters.

There are at least two texts that suggest perhaps a similar register distinction in Akkadian, at least from the Middle Babylonian/Middle Assyrian period onward. In the following two texts, the greeting does not occur at the beginning of a letter but as the first part of a direct-speech quotation. Therefore, the form of the greeting found in these texts presumably reflects something closer to the colloquial register:


Lambert BWL 216:20 (Neo-Assyrian)

umma mušlaḫḫu išpuranni šulmu

‘A snake charmer sent me, greetings!


Lambert BWL 216:45 (Neo-Assyrian)

šēlibu ina ḫirīt āli ištaʔiru x […] barbaru ina irtīšu kî ēlâ šulmu ana [kâši]

‘The fox moved about the moat of the city …, the wolf, when he came towards him (and said), “Greetings to you!”’


Interestingly, when occurring in such direct-speech contexts, the injunctive particle seems to be omitted. Note also that an explicit mention of the addressee (i.e., the one whom you are greeting) appears to be optional in direct speech. As such, one might suggest that ana X lū šulmu was a higher register form of the greeting more befitting of letters, whereas šulmu by itself (or šulmu ana X) was the more colloquial form of the greeting. As far as chronology goes, however, these texts, which are comprised of a collection of anecdotes and fables, are dated to the year 716 BCE (Lambert 1960, 213). Nevertheless, given the dearth of direct-speech contexts for greetings in earlier texts, it is possible that this was the colloquial form of the greeting used in earlier periods as well. After all, Neo-Assyrian letters tend to exhibit the injunctive particle in the greeting lū šulmu, which suggests that we may indeed be talking about a register difference. Note that there are, in fact, even some Middle Babylonian letters (PBS 1/2 16, 43) in which the injunctive particle is omitted from the greeting formula:


PBS 1/2 16:2 (Middle Babylonian)

ana āli u EDIN ša bēlīya šulmu

Greetings to the city and the countryside of my lord!’


PBS 1/2 43:3 (Middle Babylonian)

ana EDIN āli bīt ili u bīt bēli šulmu

Greetings to the countryside, the city, the temple, and the house of my lord!’


One might suggest that the omission of the injunctive particle in this letter reflects an intrusion of the more colloquial register, but this must remain speculation. It may simply be a less commonly attested (but acceptable) grammatical construction. In any case, this text serves to indicate that omitting the injunctive particle was also acceptable in the Middle Babylonian period, whether due to intrusion of the spoken register or for other reasons.

Alongside all of this, note also that the Sumerian word silim is used for the greeting ‘hello!’, which is possibly related to the Akkadian word šulmu(m).4 This also suggests that the greeting might have been around at a much earlier time but is simply unattested in the material that has come down to us until later periods. After all, there do not appear to be any direct-speech contexts for greetings in the Old Babylonian period with which we could compare the later phrase.

Therefore, we have chosen to adopt šulmu(m) (or perhaps šulmu(m) ana kâši(m) ‘greetings to you!’) as our primary way of saying ‘hello!’ in the ‘Immersion Akkadian’ curriculum. Using such a greeting, however, should be accompanied by the following caveats:

  • This sort of greeting is primarily attested from the Middle Babylonian/Middle Assyrian period onward. It was not common in the Old Babylonian/Old Assyrian period, though the occurrence of lū šulmum (note with mimation!) in the Alishar tablets may suggest that it was present to some extent in some earlier dialects of Akkadian as well.
  • An Old Babylonian purist might prefer to use a phrase like Šamaš liballiṭka ‘may Shamash preserve your life!’ for ‘hello!; greetings!’. One might also suggest substituting such a phrase for the simpler šulmu(m) at a later stage of learning when the student understands the verbal construction liballiṭka.
  • The use of a phrase like šulmu(m) for ‘hello!’ also, admittedly, allows for some mixing of dialects and periods in the ‘Immersion Akkadian’ curriculum. While generally speaking, we try to stick to Old Babylonian. On occasion, we may make use of phrases from other periods of the language, since for some students it may be helpful to see Akkadian as one long continuum of language use and not simply one specific period. Enclosing final mimation in parentheses is another way we allow for variation and/or versatility between the Old Babylonian period and the Middle Babylonian period.

Bibliography

Cornwall, P. B. 1952. “Two Letters from Dilmun.” Journal of Cuneiform Studies 6: (4): 137–45.

Dalley, Stephanie. 1973. “Old Babylonian Greetings Formulae and the Iltani Archive from Rimah.” Journal of Cuneiform Studies 25: (2): 79–88.

Gelb, Ignace J. 1935. Inscriptions from Alishar and Vicinity. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Gelb, Ignace J., Benno Landsberger, and A. Leo Oppenheim. 1956–2010. The Assyrian Dictionary of the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago. Chicago / Glückstadt, Germany: Oriental Institute / J. J. Augustin Verlagsbuchhandlung.

Huehnergard, John. 2011. A Grammar of Akkadian. Winona Lake, Indiana: Eisenbrauns.

Lambert, W. G. 1960. Babylonian Wisdom Literature. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Pardee, Dennis, and Robert M. Whiting. 1987. “Aspects of Epistolary Verbal Usage in Ugaritic and Akkadian.” Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies 50: (1): 1–31.

  1. Note that I transcribe final mimation in parentheses to allow for diversity depending on whether one is learning/teaching more conventional Old Babylonian versus later stages of the language.
  2. Note that there can be a difference between Babylonian and Assyrian with respect to whether lū šulmu comes at the beginning or the end of the phrase.
  3. According to Gelb, “the language used by the Mesopotamian merchants in the Cappadocian tablets is clearly an Assyrian dialect identical with that used in the Old Assyrian historical inscriptions” (Gelb 1935, 13)
  4. See here

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