Language at the time of Christ

The Globe



New Guinea shows linguists what the world used to be like, with each isolated tribe having its own language, until agriculture's rise permitted a few groups to expand and spread their tongue over large areas. The Bantu expansion within the last few millennia similarly exterminated most other languages of tropical and sub-Saharan Africa, just as the Austronesian expansion did in Indonesia and the Philippines. (The Third Chimpanzee)

Southwest Asia

The most widely preserved archives of such systems contain Sumerian or Akkadian cuneiform covering hundreds of thousands of clay tablets and date between 3200 BC and 75 AD. In this system, one symbol (e.g., a wedged cone) represented a small word (e.g., NI), root, or suffix/prefix. Each of these symbols could be combined with others to form a more complex word. This Sumerian system's shortcoming was its cumbersome nature, requiring as many as 600 common characters and 2,000 unusual characters. (Gods, Genes, and Consciousness)


One key to the eventual decipherment of the language was the discovery of the Rosetta Stone, which had been found by Napoleon’s soldiers in 1799 in the northern Delta. We now know that its text is an important tribute to the Pharaoh Ptolemy V, written at about 196 BC, but it is significant because the same text was written in Greek as well as in two forms of ancient Egyptian, hieroglyphic and demotic.

By extending these principles to other names and inscriptions, and by using the work of previous scholars, Champollion eventually became the first person in centuries to be able to read an Egyptian text. He made mistakes, and later scholars greatly extended his work (and this work continues), but after Champollion the meaning of many ancient Egyptian texts could be understood. (Patterns in Prehistory)

Hieratic was an ancient Egyptian cursive writing, used from the 1st dynasty (c. 2925-c. 2775 BC) until about 200 BC. Derived from the earlier, pictorial hieroglyphic writing used in carved or painted inscriptions, hieratic script was generally written in ink with a reed pen on papyrus; its cursive form was more suited to such a medium than were the formal hieroglyphs. It was originally written vertically and later horizontally from right to left. After about 660 BC demotic script replaced hieratic in most secular writings, but hieratic continued to be used by priests in the transcription of religious texts for several more centuries. (73)

Indus Valley



One of the world's first imperial censuses was conducted in China in AD 1 to 2 and tallied 57,700,000 people, at least 10 percent of whom lived in rectangular wooden buildings in towns with populations of up to about 250,000. Coins circulated, schools flourished, and a rich store of literature was created. (Patterns in Prehistory)


As of 500 BC, Latin was confined to a small area around Rome and shared Italy with many other languages. The expansion of Latin-speaking Romans eradicated all those other languages of Italy, then eradicated entire branches of the Indo-European family elsewhere in Europe, like the continental Celtic languages. These sister branches were so thoroughly replaced by Latin that we know each of them only by scattered words, names, and inscriptions. With the subsequent overseas expansion of Spanish and Portuguese after 1492, the language spoken initially by a few hundred thousand Romans trampled hundreds of other languages out of existence, as it gave rise to the Romance languages spoken by half a billion people today. (The Third Chimpanzee)

South America

A falling-out among thieves and a trail of looted treasure led in 1987 to one of the most spectacular archaeological discoveries of this century: the glittering royal tombs of the Moche civilization, which dominated northern Peru from AD 100 to 800, centuries before the rise of the Inca Empire. Moche art is invaluable to scholars of the culture because the people had no written language. Their artisans had to speak for the culture, and they left the only stories of daily life, hunting, war and religious ceremony in the scenes on ceramics and textiles. "They almost made up for the lack of a written language with their pottery with its incredible iconography," Dr. Craig Morris, a specialist in pre-Columbian Andean culture at the American Museum of Natural History, said. "What is depicted artistically often has a basis in fact," Dr. Donnan said at the opening of an exhibition at the Fowler Museum of some of the most impressive material from the tombs. "We now realize that the art is in fact showing real people, and what we suspected were supernatural activities were real events that occurred in Moche life." (102)


The Russian linguist Yuri Knorosov was the first to demonstrate that Maya writing was indeed a phonetic system, and since his initial translations, many inscriptions have been almost entirely translated. …ancient Maya writing is a finely nuanced, beautiful orthography that probably records the entire spoken language of these people. Maya script is somewhat similar to Egyptian hieroglyphs in that it includes a mixture of signs, some representing whole words or ideas, others expressing syllables, sounds and determinatives that clarify meanings. (Patterns in Prehistory)

In the Middle East the first writings are a most unrelievedly economic, but in Mesoamerica the surviving documents are primarily calendrical and historical, recording, for example, when a temple was begun, when a king defeated a rival, and what lands were under the control of the state. (Patterns in Prehistory)

The Maya were the only Mesoamerican people to evolve a form of writing that established a hieroglyphic 'alphabet' of around 850 characters. These were carved on steles, monuments, buildings, wood, jade and shells, and inscribed in codices of which only a very few have survived. (The Mayan Prophsies for 2012)

In Mesoamerica, the Late to Terminal Formative period saw the emergence of at least three distinctive writing systems. One of these, believed to have been written by speakers of a Zapotecan language, began to develop in Oaxaca before 500 BC. After 450 BC, another style of hieroglyphic writing appears on Izapan and early Maya monuments from the Pacific Coast and highlands of southern Guatemala and Chiapas. Traces of glyphs in the eroded inscription accompanying the Long Count date on Tres Zapotes Stela C show that it belonged to a different area that corresponds closely to the historical distribution of the Mije-Sokean language family. (Olmec Archaeology and Early Mesoamerica)

All of the Late Formative writing systems share features that suggest a common origin. For example, they were written in columns read from top to bottom and usually from left to right, and profile heads used as signs for names and titles face the direction from which they were read (typically left). Particularly indicative of common origins, because they are arbitrary, are conventions for writing numerals and calendrical signs. Numerals for 1 through 4 were represented by dots, the numeral S was represented by a bar, and higher numerals up to 19 were formed by a stack of bars combined with 0 to 4 dots. Signs representing named days were usually enclosed in a cartouche. Another shared peculiarity was the practice of infixing a rectangular field at the wrist of signs depicting hands, whose characteristic gestures were employed to represent verbs, such as "to scatter". (Olmec Archaeology and Early Mesoamerica)

The key to decipherment turned out to be the assumption, supported by historical linguistic analysis of ancient loan words in other Mesoamerican languages, that the language of the text was a precursor to modern Sokean languages still spoken in parts of southern Veracruz and Chiapas. Starting from this linguistic basis, John Justeson and Terrence Kaufman were able to show that the epi-Olmec system combined logographic and phonetic syllabic signs. Moreover, the semantic values of logographic signs, the phonetic values of grammatical affixes, and the overall grammatical structure of the La Mojarra stela and the Tuxtla statuette were understandable in the reconstructed pre-proto-Sokean language. Justeson and Kaufman also showed that some epi-Olmec signs were adopted into the Mayan writing system, indicating a historical link between the two. (Olmec Archaeology and Early Mesoamerica)

North America



New Guinea shows linguists what the world used to be like, with each isolated tribe having its own language, until agriculture's rise permitted a few groups to expand and spread their tongue over large areas. The Bantu expansion within the last few millennia similarly exterminated most other languages of tropical and sub-Saharan Africa, just as the Austronesian expansion did in Indonesia and the Philippines. (The Third Chimpanzee)