|Native to||Armenian Highland|
|Era||attested 9th–6th century BCE|
The Urartian or Vannic language was spoken by the inhabitants of the ancient kingdom of Urartu, located in the region of Lake Van, with its capital near the site of the modern town of Van, in the Armenian Highland, modern-day Eastern Anatolia region of Turkey. It was probably dominant around Lake Van and in the areas along the upper Zab valley.
First attested in the 9th century BCE, Urartian ceased to be written after the fall of the Urartian state in 585 BCE, and presumably it became extinct due to the fall of Urartu. It must have been replaced by an early form of Armenian, perhaps during the period of Achaemenid Persian rule, although it is only in the fifth century CE that the first written examples of Armenian appear.
Urartian was an ergative, agglutinative language, which belongs to neither the Afroasiatic nor the Indo-European families but to the Hurro-Urartian family (whose only other known member is Hurrian). It survives in many inscriptions found in the area of the Urartu kingdom, written in the Assyrian cuneiform script. There have been claims of a separate autochthonous script of "Urartian hieroglyphs" but they remain unsubstantiated.
Urartian is closely related to Hurrian, a somewhat better documented language attested for an earlier, non-overlapping period, approximately from 2000 BCE to 1200 BCE (written by native speakers until about 1350 BCE). The two languages must have developed quite independently from approximately 2000 BCE onwards. Although Urartian is not a direct continuation of any of the attested dialects of Hurrian, many of its features are best explained as innovative developments with respect to Hurrian as it is known from the preceding millennium. The closeness holds especially true of the so-called Old Hurrian dialect, known above all from Hurro-Hittite bilingual texts.
Igor Diakonoff and others have suggested ties between the Hurro-Urartian languages and the Northeastern Caucasian languages. Several studies argue that the connection is quite certain. Other scholars, however, doubt that the language families are related, or believe that, while a connection is possible, there is not enough evidence at this time to be certain.
The German scholar Friedrich Eduard Schulz, who discovered the Urartian inscriptions of the Lake Van region in 1826, made copies of several cuneiform inscriptions at Tushpa, but made no attempt at decipherment.
After the decipherment of Assyrian cuneiform in the 1850s, Schulz's drawings became the basis of deciphering the Urartian language. It soon became clear that it was unrelated to any known language, and attempts at decipherment based on known languages of the region failed. The script was finally deciphered in 1882 by A. H. Sayce. The oldest of these inscriptions is from the time of Sarduri I of Urartu, whose title was 'King of the Four Quarters'.
In 1963, a grammar of Urartian was published by G. A. Melikishvili in Russian, appearing in German translation in 1971. In the 1970s, the genetic relation with Hurrian was established by I. M. Diakonoff.
Approximately two hundred inscriptions written in the Urartian language, which adopted and modified the cuneiform script, have been discovered to date.
Urartian cuneiform is a standardized simplification of Neo-Assyrian cuneiform. Unlike in Assyrian, each sign only expresses a single sound value. The sign gi 𒄀 has the special function of expressing a hiatus, e.g. u-gi-iš-ti for Uīšdi. A variant script with non-overlapping wedges was in use for rock inscriptions.
There are suggestions that besides the Luwian hieroglyphic inscriptions, Urartu also had a native hieroglyphic script. The inscription corpus is too sparse to substantiate the hypothesis. It remains unclear whether the symbols in question form a coherent writing system, or represent just a multiplicity of uncoordinated expressions of proto-writing or ad-hoc drawings. What can be identified with a certain confidence are two symbols or "hieroglyphs" found on vessels, representing certain units of measurement: for aqarqi and for ṭerusi. This is known because some vessels were labelled both in cuneiform and with these symbols.
Urartian had at least the following consonants, conventionally transcribed below:
Labial stops: p, b
Dental stops: t, d, ṭ
Velar stops: k, g, q
Sibilants: s, z, ṣ, š
Gutturals: ʔ, ḫ
Sonorants: m, n, l, r
There were presumably also the semivowels /w/ and /y/.
As usual with ancient languages, the exact nature and pronunciation of the consonants are uncertain. As the table shows, the stops and the sibilants all display a three-way distinction between voiced, voiceless and "emphatic" consonants, but it cannot be ascertained what was special about the third groups of consonants, which were rendered with the Akkadian cuneiform signs for the Semitic emphatics. Perhaps they were glottalized or aspirated. The pronunciation of the sibilants is debatable, as it is for Akkadian; some may actually have been affricates.
The script distinguishes the vowels a, e, i and u. It is unclear whether there was an /o/ as well. There may have been phonemic vowel length, but it is not consistently expressed in the script. Word-finally, the distinction between e and i is not maintained, so many scholars transcribe the graphically vacillating vowel as a schwa: ə, while some preserve a non-reduced vowel (usually opting for i). The full form of the vowel appears when suffixes are added to the word and the vowel is no longer in the last syllable: Argištə "Argišti" - Argištešə "by Argišti (ergative case)". This vowel reduction also suggests that stress was commonly on the next-to-the-last syllable.
The morphemes which may occur in a noun follow a strict order: stem - article - possessive suffix - number and case suffix - suffixes received through Suffixaufnahme.
All nouns appear to end in a so-called thematic vowel - most frequently -i or -e, but -a and -u also occur. They may also end in a derivational suffix. Notable derivational suffixes are -ḫə, forming adjectives of belonging (e.g. Abiliane-ḫə "of the tribe Abiliani", Argište-ḫə "son of Argišti") and -šə, forming abstract nouns (e.g. alsui-šə "greatness", ardi-šə "order", arniu-šə "deed").
The forms of the so-called "article" are -nə (non-reduced form -ne-) for the singular, -ne-lə for the plural in the absolutive case and -na- for the other forms of the plural. They are referred to as "anaphoric suffixes" and can be compared to definite articles, although their use does not always seem to match that description exactly. They also obligatorily precede agreement suffixes added through Suffixaufnahme: e.g. Argište-šə Menua-ḫi-ne-šə "Argišti (ergative), son of Menua (ergative)". The plural form can also serve as a general plural marker in non-absolutive cases: arniuši-na-nə "by the deeds".
The well-attested possessive suffixes are the ones of the first person singular -ukə (in non-reduced form sometimes -uka-) and -i(yə) (in non-reduced form sometimes -iya-): e.g. ebani-uka-nə "from my country", ebani-yə "his country".
The plural is expressed, above all, through the use of the plural "article" (-ne-lə in the absolutive case, -na- preceding the case suffix in the oblique cases), but some of the case suffixes also differ in form between the singular and the plural. Therefore, separate plural version of the case suffixes are indicated below separately. The nature of the absolutive and ergative cases is as in other ergative languages (more details in the section Syntax below).
Absolutive: sing. -Ø, plur. -lə
Genitive: sing. -i, plur. -wə
Dative: sing. -ə, plur. -wə
Directive: sing. -edə, plur. (archaic) -š-tə
Ablative: sing. -danə, plur. -š-tanə
Since the "complete" plural forms also include the plural definite article, they appear as -ne-lə, -na-šə, -na-wə, na-(e)də or na-š-tə, etc..
A phenomenon typical of Urartian is Suffixaufnahme - a process in which dependent modifiers of a noun (including genitive case modifiers) agree with the head noun by absorbing its case suffixes. The copied suffixes must be preceded by the article (also agreeing in number with the head). Examples: Ḫaldi-i-na-wə šešti-na-wə "for the gates (dative) of [god] Ḫaldi (dative)", Argište-šə Menua-ḫi-ne-šə "Argišti (ergative), son of Menua (ergative)".
The known personal pronouns are those of the first and third person singular.
The first person singular has two different forms for the absolutive case: ištidə as the absolutive subject of an intransitive verb, and šukə as the absolutive object of a transitive verb. The ergative form is iešə. Judging from correspondences with Hurrian, šu- should be the base for the "regular" case forms. An enclitic dative case suffix for the first person singular is attested as -mə.
The third person singular has the absolutive form manə.
As for possessive pronouns, besides the possessive suffixes (1st singular -uka- and 3rd singular -iya) that were adduced above, Urartian also makes use of possessive adjectives formed with the suffix -(u)sə: 1st singular šusə, 3rd singular masə.
The encoding of pronominal ergative and absolutive participants in a verb action is treated in the section on Verbal morphology below.
Demonstrative pronouns are i-nə (plural base i-, followed by article and case forms) and ina-nə (plural base ina-, followed by article and case forms). A relative pronoun is alə.
The paradigm of the verb is only partially known. As with the noun, the morphemes that a verb may contain come in a certain sequence that can be formalized as a "verb chain": root - root complements (of unclear meaning) - ergative third person plural suffix - valency markers (intransitive/transitive) - other person suffixes (expressing mostly the absolutive subject/object). It is not clear if and how tense or aspect were signalled.
The valency markers are -a- (rarely -i-) for intransitivity and -u- for transitivity: for example nun-a-də "I came" vs šidišt-u-nə "he built". A verb that is usually transitive can be converted to intransitivity with the suffix -ul- before the intransitive valency marker: aš-ul-a-bə "was occupied" (vs aš-u-bə "I put in [a garrison]").
The person suffixes express the persons of the absolutive subject/object and the ergative subject. When both of these are present, a single suffix may expresses a unique combination of persons. The ascertained endings are as follows (the ellipsis marks the place of the valency vowel):
1st person singular: -də
3rd person singular: -bə
3rd person plural: -lə
1st person singular (ergative) - 3rd person singular (absolutive): -bə
1st person singular (ergative) - 3rd person plural (absolutive): -bə / -lə
3rd person singular (ergative) - 3rd person singular (absolutive): -nə
3rd person singular (ergative) - 3rd person plural (absolutive): -a-lə
3rd person plural (ergative) - 3rd person singular (absolutive): -it-…-nə
3rd person plural (ergative) - 3rd person plural (absolutive): -it-…-lə
Examples: ušt-a-də "I marched forth"; nun-a-bə "he came"; aš-u-bə "I put-it in"; šidišt-u-nə "he built-it"; ar-u-mə "he gave [it] to me", kuy-it-u-nə "they dedicated-it".
As the paradigm shows, the person suffixes added after the valency vowel express mostly the person of absolutive subject/object, both in intransitive and in transitive verbs. However, the picture is complicated by the fact that the absolutive third person singular is expressed by a different suffix depending on whether the ergative subject is in the first or third person. An additional detail is that when the first-person singular dative suffix -mə is added, the third-person singular absolutive suffix -nə is dropped. It should also be noted that the encoding of the person of the absolutive subject/object is present, even though it is also explicitly mentioned in the sentence: e.g. argište-šə inə arə šu-nə "Argišti established(-it) this granary". An exceptional verb is man- "to be", in that it has a transitive valency vowel, and takes no absolutive suffix for the third person singular: man-u "it was" vs man-u-lə "they were".
The imperative is formed by the addition of the suffix -ə to the root: e.g. ar-ə "give!". The jussive or third person imperative is formed by the addition of the suffix -in in the slot of the valency vowel, whereas the persons are marked in the usual way, following an epenthetic vowel -[i]-:e.g. ar-in-[i]-nə "may he give it", ḫa-it-in-nə "may they take it". The modal suffix -l-, added between the valency vowel and the person suffixes, participates in the construction of several modal forms. An optative form, also regularly used in clauses introduced with ašə "when", is constructed by -l- followed by -ə (-i in non-reduced form) - the following absolutive person suffix is optional, and the ergative subject is apparently not signalled at all: e.g. qapqar-u-l-i-nə "I wanted to besiege-it [the city]", urp-u-l-i-nə or urp-u-l-ə "he shall slaughter". A conditional is expressed by a graphically similar form, which is, however, interpreted by Wilhelm (2008) as -l- followed by -(e)yə: an example of its use is alu-šə tu-l-(e)yə "whoever destroys it". Finally, a desiderative, which may express the wish of either the speaker or the agent, is expressed by -l- followed by a suffix -anə; in addition, the valency marker is replaced by -i-: e.g. ard-i-l-anə "I want him to give …", ḫa-i-l-anə "it wants to take/conquer …".
Negation is expressed by the particle ui, preceding the verb. A prohibitative particle, also preceding the verb, is mi. mi is also the conjunction "but", whereas e'ə is "and (also)", and unə is "or".
Participles from intransitive verbs are formed with the suffix -urə, added to the root, and have an active meaning (e.g. ušt-u-rə "who has marched forth"). Participles from transitive verbs are formed with the suffix -aurə, and have a passive meaning (e.g. šidaurə "which is built"). It is possible that -umə is the ending of an infinitive or a verb noun, although that is not entirely clear.
Urartian is an ergative language, meaning that the subject of an intransitive verb and the object of a transitive verb are expressed identically, with the so-called absolutive case, whereas the subject of a transitive verb is expressed with a special ergative case. Examples are: Argištə nun-a-bi "Argišti came" vs Argište-šə arə šu-nə "Argišti established a granary". Within the limited number of known forms, no exceptions from the ergative pattern are known.
The word order is usually verb-final, and, more specifically, SOV (where S refers to the ergative agent), but the rule is not rigid and components are occasionally re-arranged for expressive purposes. For example, names of gods are often placed first, even though they are in oblique cases: Ḫaldi-ə ewri-ə inə E2 Argište-šə Menuaḫini-šə šidišt-u-nə "For Ḫaldi the lord Argišti, son of Menua, built this temple." Verbs can be placed sentence-initially in vivid narratives: ušt-a-də Mana-idə ebanə at-u-bə "Forth I marched towards Mana, and I consumed the land."  Nominal modifiers usually follow their heads (erelə tarayə "great king"), but deictic pronouns such as inə precede them, and genitives may either precede or follow them. Urartian generally uses postpositions (e.g. ed(i)-i-nə "for", ed(i)-i-a - both originally case forms of edi "person, body" - pei "under", etc..) which govern certain cases (often ablative-instrumental). There is only one attested preposition, parə "to(wards)". Subordinate clauses are introduced by particles such as iu "when", ašə "when", alə "that which".
The sample below is from inscription 372 by Menua, son of Ishpuini, based on G. A. Melikishvili's corpus of Urartian Cuneiform Inscriptions.
For each sentence, the transliteration is given in Italic, the morphological transcription in bold, the translation in a plain font.
1. dḫal-di-ni-ni uš-ma-ši-ni DIŠme-nu-a-še DIŠiš-pu-u-i-ni-ḫi-ni-še dḫal-di-ni-li KÁ (3) ši-di-íš-tú-a-li
Ḫaldi=ni=nə ušma=ši=nə Menua=šə Išpuini=ḫi=ni=šə Ḫaldi=ni=lə KÁ šidišt=u=alə.
"Through Haldi's might, Menua, son of Ishpuini, built Haldi's gates."
2. URUa-lu-di-ri-i-e (4) É.GAL ši-di-iš-tú-ni ba-du-si-e
Aludiri=ə É.GAL šidišt=u=nə badusi=y=ə.
"For (the city of) Aludiri he built a fortress to its perfection (?)."
3. dḫal-di-ni-ni uš-ma-ši-ni dḫal-di-ni-ni ba-a-u-ši-ni DIŠme-nu-a-ni DIŠiš-pu-ú-i-ni-e-ḫé i-ú LÚa-te-i-ni e-si na-ḫa-a-be KURša-ti-ru-ú-ni du-ur-ba-i-e ma-nu
Ḫaldi=ni=nə ušma=ši=nə Ḫaldi=ni=nə bau=ši=nə Menua=nə Išpuini=ḫə iu ate=y=n(ə)=ə esi=ə naḫ=a=bə, Šatiru=nə durbayə man=u.
"When, through Haldi's might and Haldi's command, Menua, son of Ishpuini, ascended to his father's place (i.e. throne), (the land of) Šatiru was rebellious."
4. ḫal-di-ni uš-ta-a-be ma-si-ni šu-ri-e ka-ru-ni URUḫu-ra-di-na-ku-ú-ni ka-ru-ni URUgi-di-ma-ru-ú-ni ka-ru-ni KURša-ti-ru-ú-i KURe-ba-a-ni dḫal-di-ni ku-ru-ni dḫal-di-ni-e šu-ri-i ku-ru-ni
Ḫaldi=nə ušt=a=bə masi=nə šuri=ə, kar=u=nə Ḫuradinaku=nə, kar=u=nə Gidimaru=nə, kar=u=nə Šatiru=yə ebanə. Ḫaldi=nə kurunə, Ḫaldi-ni-yə šuri kurunə.
"Haldi marched forth with his weapon(?), conquered Huradinaku, conquered Gidimaru, conquered the land of Shatiru. Haldi is powerful, Haldi's weapon(?) is powerful."
5. ḫa-ú-ni URUḫu-ra-di-na-ku-ú-ni URUgi-di-ma-ru-ú-ni ḫa-ú-ni KURša-ti-ru-ú-i KURe-ba-a-ni-i URUtar-zu-ʼa-a-na-a-na-ni
Ḫa=u=nə Ḫuradinaku=nə, Gidimaru=nə, ḫa=u=nə Šatiru=yə eban=i=yə Tarzuana-nə.
"He (Menua) captured (the cities) Huardinaku, Gidimaru, Tarzuana of the land of Shatiru."
6. ku-ṭu-ni pa-ri KURbu-uš-tú-ú-e pa-ri KURma-al-ma-li-i-e
Kuṭ=u=nə parə Buštu=ə, parə Malmali=ə.
"He reached as far as (the city of) Buštu, as far as (the city of) Malmali."
7. URUḫu-ra-di-na-ku-ú-ni ... a-ru-ni-e dḫal-di-še DIŠme-i-nu-ú-a DIŠiš-pu-u-i-ni-e-ḫi-ni-e
Ḫuradinaku=nə … ar=u=nə Ḫaldi=šə Menua=ə Išpuini=ḫi=ni=ə.
Haldi gave (the city of) Huradinaku to Menua, son of Ishpuini."
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