, , , , , , , ,

An old cutwater of natural stones set in concrete, barely higher than the water which flows by it and into cracks in the end facing the onrushing water; some stones are covered with slimy moss

Rivers have their own interesting sounds. The cutwater of the old footings of a bridge in the river Inn. Photo by author.

Specialists in ancient Southwest Asia do not always name and define the special accented characters which they use to transcribe words in languages like Aramaic, Babylonian, Sumerian, and Old Persian. While this is convenient for fellow specialists, and avoids taking side in some debates about the sounds of ancient languages, it makes it hard for readers without their special training to read these words, to pronounce them, and to copy them on a computer. They also sometimes refer to these characters after their Greek or Hebrew names, which can also be confusing if one does not know these alphabets and how they are transcribed in Latin letters. One of the appendices to my doctoral thesis will give the names and pronunciations of every special character which I use. I thought it might be of interest to a wider audience. If a passing phoneticist drops in to prevent a poor historian from mangling the International Phonetic Alphabet or spreading nonsense about Akkadian phonology, so much the better! I would rather be corrected now than by a reviewer when in the distant future the dissertation becomes a book.

There are two common strategies for describing a sound in a foreign language. One is by comparison to a sound in a language which the reader is expected to know. This can lead to difficulties when the author and the reader speak different dialects, or when that sound is not part of any language which the reader knows. The other is the International Phonetic Alphabet, which linguists use to describe sounds in a standardized way. Learning the IPA takes effort, its signs are easy to confuse with one another, and sometimes it distinguishes more finely than our reconstructions of ancient pronunciation can. I have decided to use both strategies, since my readers are international, and since these days there are websites with clips of each International Phonetic Alphabet sound. Similarly, I try to give Unicode names for accented characters, so that readers can find the character which they want in a font of their choice.

Table 1: Special Characters Used for Transcribing Ancient Languages

Character Name Approximate Pronunciation IPA
ˀ Aleph (Hbr.)
Very brief constriction of the throat as between the syllables of uh uh ˀ
ˁ Ayin (Hbr.)
No English equivalent ˁ
ç n/a
C with cedilla
Possibly <s> as in English sap n/a
ĝ n/a
G with circumflex
<ng>as in English running ŋ
H with breve below
Classical Greek chi, <ch> as in Scots loch, German ich x
Chet (Hbr.)
H with underdot
A breathy <h> sound ħ
q Qoph (Hbr.)
A strong <k> sound
R with ring below
Probably <uhr> or <ahr> (OP R̥taxšaçā- = Lat. Artaxerxes) ər
Tsade (Hbr.)
S with underdot
<ts> as in English bits ts
š Shin (Hbr.)
S with caron
<sh> as in English fish ʃ
ś Sin (Hbr.) A strong <s> sound s
Tet (Hbr.)
T with Underdot
A strong <t> sound
θ n/a
Theta (Gr.)
<th> as in English thing θ
x n/a
In Old Persian, <ch> as in German auch (not [ks] as in English hex) x

This is a rough guide to how these characters are usually pronounced, named, and typed. Specialists in the phonology of a particular language are likely to interpret some characters differently. A chart of the International Phonetic Alphabet with recordings of pronunciations is available at http://www.internationalphoneticalphabet.org/ipa-sounds/ipa-chart-with-sounds/

A dash – is inserted between the elements of names made up of several words, such as Nabû-kudurrī-uṣṣur “Nabû-protect-my-eldest-son.” The pause between words seems to have been very short, similar to the one indicated by an aleph, but speakers of Semitic languages did not use aleph to mark word boundaries.

Long vowels in Akkadian words are marked with macron <ā> or with circumflex <â> depending on their etymology.

Sumero-Akkadian cuneiform, like the scripts of Classical Latin and many Semitic languages, does not distinguish between [j] and [i].

Note that aleph is sometimes written with an apostrophe <‘> or a half-ring <ʾ>. Transcriptions of Akkadian sometimes write <ḫ> as <h> because Akkadian lacks a soft <h>.

Note that some writers transcribe Aramaic in the Hebrew square script. Adding another writing system to a thesis written for historians rather than Semiticists seems like it would not be wise.

Phonetics and transcription of Aramaic: Takamitsu Muraoka and Bezalel Porten, A Grammar of Egyptian Aramaic (Leiden: Brill, 1998) Part I {no IPA equivalents provided}

Phonetics and transcription of Sumerian: Abraham Hendrik Jagersma, A Descriptive Grammar of Sumerian (PhD Dissertation, Leiden University, 2010) § 3 Phonology (link)

Phonetics and transcription of Akkadian: Von Soden, Grundriss der Akkadischen Grammatik {The classic grammar but not by a phoneticist}, Erika Reiner, A Lingistic Analysis of Akkadian {brief comments using slightly different names than Anglophone linguists use today}, Robert Hetzron ed., The Semitic Languages {Prints the letters used for transcription in the pattern of an IPA chart}

Phonetics of Old Persian: Rüdiger Schmitt, “Altpersisch“ in Rüdiger Schmitt ed., Compendium Linguarum Iranicarum (Dr. Ludwig Reichert Verlag: Wiesbaden, 1989) §2.2.5 pp. 66-70, Otto Skjaervo, An Introduction to Old Persian. Second version (unpublished PDF file, 2002)

Linguistic jargon and notation: Lyle Campbell, Historical Linguistics: An Introduction. Third Edition. Edinburgh University Press: Edinburgh, 2013.

Most textbooks of Latin or Classical Greek describe the reconstructed phonology of those languages.

Edit 2016/08/26: Added note about the dash and its relationship to aleph.