Martha Roth, dean of humanities at the University of Chicago, and Gil Stein, director of the Oriental Institute, examine ancient text.
The New York Times reports on the completion of one of the grand multigenerational academic projects.
Ninety years in the making, the 21-volume dictionary of the language of ancient Mesopotamia and its Babylonian and Assyrian dialects, unspoken for 2,000 years but preserved on clay tablets and in stone inscriptions deciphered over the last two centuries, has finally been completed by scholars at the University of Chicago.
This was the language that Sargon the Great, king of Akkad in the 24th century B.C., spoke to command what is reputed to be the world’s first empire, and that Hammurabi used around 1700 B.C. to proclaim the first known code of laws. It was the vocabulary of the Epic of Gilgamesh, the first masterpiece of world literature. Nebuchadnezzar II presumably called on these words to soothe his wife, homesick for her native land, with the promise of cultivating the wondrous Hanging Gardens of Babylon.
On all levels, this was the language of enterprise, the irrigation of lands and shipments of cultivated grain, and of fate foretold. Medical texts in Babylonia gave explicit instructions as to how to read a sheep’s liver to divine the future. …
This was probably the first writing system anywhere, and the city-states that arose in the Tigris and Euphrates River Valleys, mainly in what is present-day Iraq and parts of Syria, are considered the earliest urban and literate civilization. The dictionary, with 28,000 words now defined in their various shades of meaning, covers a period from 2500 B.C. to A.D. 100.
Oddly, for a work reflecting such meticulous research, its title, the Chicago Assyrian Dictionary, is an outdated misnomer. When the project was started in 1921 by James Henry Breasted, founder of the Oriental Institute, much of the written material in hand was attributed to Assyrian rulers. Also, biblical references left the impression that the term “Assyrian” was synonymous with most Semitic languages in antiquity, and so it is often used still to describe the academic field of study. Actually, the basic language in question is Akkadian.
And the dictionary is more of an encyclopedia than simply a concise glossary of words and definitions. Many words with multiple meanings and extensive associations with history are followed by page after page of discourse ranging through literature, law, religion, commerce and everyday life. There are, for example, 17 pages devoted to the word “umu,” meaning “day.”
The word “ardu,” for slave, introduces extensive material available on slavery in the culture. And it may or may not reflect on the society that one of its more versatile verbs was “kalu,” which in different contexts can mean detain, delay, hold back, keep in custody, interrupt and so forth. The word “di nu,” like “case” in English, Dr. Cooper pointed out, can refer to a legal case or lawsuit, a verdict or judgment, or to law in general.
“Every term, every word becomes a window into the culture,” Martha T. Roth, dean of humanities at Chicago who has worked on the project since 1979 and has been its editor in charge since 1996, said last week.