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This question concerns the Land of Israel circa 1,500-1,000 BCE.

Different sources mention different languages for this region:

  • This land was part of the New Kingdom of Egypt, so presumably Middle Egyptian and Late Egyptian would have been spoken (?)

  • Biblical Hebrew starts at the end of this period but should probably be included. I gather it was probably similar to Ugaritic.

  • The Armana Letters were in Akkadian.

I am by no means an expert, so I don't expect the above to be complete or accurate :-/

I expect colloqual languages and administrative/diplomatic languages would have been different, so the question I have is: which language(s) would ordinary citizens have spoken?

Would it have been normal to speak more than one language? And would this answer be consistent across the land, or would there be a geographic difference?

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In short, not at all. Part of the reason is that our modern concept of language, as a determinant of national identity, is a 19th century construct.

Prior to the rise of nationalism, and publicly funded national school systems teaching a standard enunciation and spelling, every village in the world spoke its own dialect. For each such village the idiom, vocabulary and pronunciation would vary slightly from its neighbours, slowly drifting in steps of 10 to 15 miles or so from national capital to national capitol. Those which historians and archaelogists refer to as the languages of the Middle East, are merely the particular dialects written in each national capital. These national capital dialects, now hundreds of steps removed from each other, vary considerably from each other, enough so to be regarded as different languages rather than dialects.

All of the languages you mention as of interest are Afro-Semitic languages, probably descended from a common language more recent to them than the time period is to us. Much as the modern Romance languages of Europe flow across the former territories of the Western Roman Empire, these Afro-Semitic languages likely flowed across the Middle East from Aswan to Baghdad.

That being said, each court would have had interpreters trained in writing and speaking the idiom, vocabulary and pronunciation of national capitals. Before the invention of the printing press, and widely distributed language primers, such multi-lingual interpreters (ie scribes) would have been highly regarded and well paid professionals.

  • Sources would improve this answer. – Mark C. Wallace Sep 28 '17 at 10:59
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    Not sure this is right. Yes, then and now, languages have dialect variation, but people did have the concept of different languages then. Rulers in various countries had scribes trained in Akkadian (language of Babylon & Assyria which was used as a 'lingua franca'). In one of the 'Amarna Letters' (Egyptian diplomatic archive from 14th Century BC) a distant minor ruler's court writes "the tablets that write to us, write to us in Hittite!", meaning they were too remote to know fluent Akkadian but they did know of and use the language of the Hittites. – Timothy Sep 28 '17 at 12:54
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They spoke .. proto-Canaanite later becoming Canaanite. Yes nice circular definition I know. Canaanite is a Semitic language in the same family as Aramaic and Hebrew. Egypt was the dominant political force in the region but Egyptian would not have been spoken by the general population. Akkadian was a lingua franca like Latin in Medieval Europe but only known to trained scribes.

It's really impossible to say how multi-lingual ordinary inhabitants were but as Jos says there's no reason to assume they were anything other than mono-lingual. Canaan was a cosmopolitan region with many merchants and traders so I'm sure it would have been easy to find foreign speakers if required.

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New Kingdom Egypt did have a loose overlordship over the semi-independent local minor principalities and city-states of much of the Palestine and Lebanon area although from time to time local rulers, especially those furthest from Egypt, might assert their independence or switch to accepting a different power such as Mitanni or later the Hittites as their overlord .

As you say, The Amarna Letters (which include correspondence between the Egyptian king and the Canaanite princes who owed allegiance to him were in the regional 'lingua franca' the Mesopotamian language Akkadian, not Egyptian, suggesting that Egyptian never became widely known outside Egypt.

While as others have said the mass of the rural population may often have lived their lives in one locality speaking the local dialect, we do know of different peoples migrating individually, invading an area en masse or living as nomads. Consequently, quite often more than one language may have been spoken in an area so even humble peasants may sometimes have found it useful to learn how to express themselves in more than one language.

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I doubt very much if most (95% of the population) could speak more than one language. Why would they? Those people rarely - if ever - moved more than 25 miles from their villages. Most people were farmers back then. They had to work from dawn to dusk on the fields. Those people would be illiterate as well, as they had no need for schooling.

Probably a few merchants could speak more languages, but that doesn't mean they all could read and write it. The courts would have had a few interpreters around.

  • Question: what do you mean by speaking a language? How much of its repertoire do you need to be able to understand or use actively? - Example: In parts of the region of Upper Swabia in Germany, over centuries everybody spoke a German dialect called Swabian. Cattle traders, however, were often Jews (at least in certain regions), and they used German as well as Yiddish. Especially for counting they used the Yiddish numerals. From that, Swabian farmers took the habit of counting in Yiddish when trading cattle. So, did they speak Yiddish? Somewhat, yes... – Christian Geiselmann Oct 8 '18 at 14:55

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