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Dictionary Of Ancient Akkadian Provides Glimpse Into Civilization’s Cradle

  • Richard Solash

Dean Martha Roth, the editor-in-charge of the Assyrian dictionary, places the final volume to be completed among the others. (photo: University of Chicago -- Jason Smith)

Dean Martha Roth, the editor-in-charge of the Assyrian dictionary, places the final volume to be completed among the others. (photo: University of Chicago -- Jason Smith)

"Like a vessel carrying carnelian or lapis, she is filled with carnelian or lapis -- but I do not know whether the child within her is carnelian or lapis."
In this ancient metaphor, and in the imagination of its author, a mother's ability to bear both male and female children and the resulting mystery of an unborn child's gender become a vessel for gemstones -- red carnelian for a female, blue lapis for a male.
While linguists can't be sure of stress, intonation, or accent, they say that these lines, written between 1700 and 1800 B.C. in the long-extinct Akkadian language, sounded something like this:
The Sound Of Akkadian


More than a bit of poetry, they now form part of the University of Chicago's Akkadian-English dictionary, a project that scholars say provides an unprecedented look into ancient Mesopotamia, "the cradle of civilization." Linguists and researchers of ancient Mesopotamia began compiling the dictionary in 1921.
90-Year Project

The newly completed mammoth project retains the title its first researchers gave it -- "The Chicago Assyrian Dictionary" -- even as a later generation of scholars proved that Assyrian was a dialect of Akkadian. The language was spoken thousands of years ago in what is now Iraq, as well as in parts of Syria, Iran, and Turkey. It a distant relative of Arabic and Hebrew.

The dictionary, which spans some 10,000 pages in 21 volumes, took no less than nine decades to complete. In the process, it outlived some of the nearly 100 scholars who devoted their careers to it.
The final volume, published just weeks ago, caps what editor-in-charge Martha Roth describes as something that goes far beyond a mere lexicon.
"There are about 28,000 entries in this -- 28,000 words -- that provide a window into the history, culture, and society of the ancient Near East. This was not designed to be a glossary. The entire project sought to explicate the world of ancient Mesopotamia through the words we have preserved," Roth says.
That world was one of history's most significant, laying the foundation for modern urban life, state societies, writing systems, time measurement, and bookkeeping.
Akkadian was the language of Hammurabi's law code, the language of the world's first empire-builder, Sargon the Great, and the language of the Assyrian kings who conquered Jerusalem in the Hebrew Bible.
The dictionary's ability to survey this ancient world comes from the multitude of references that accompany each word.
The pregnancy metaphor, for example, is given under the Akkadian word for "lapis": "uqnu."
Like each reference for each of the dictionary's words, it was discovered on one of the millions of tablets that have survived the centuries. And each line of wedge-shaped cuneiform writing, carved into the clay, has a story to tell.
Personal letters expressing love, fear, and vengefulness, official records, commercial documents, recipes, religious texts, and medical prescriptions all provide the snippets of life contained in the project.
Sheeps' Livers
The University of Chicago's Robert Biggs, who devoted some 50 years to the undertaking, spent a significant portion of that time solely on references to sheeps' livers.
Their importance in ancient Mesopotamia's belief system is proven by the thousands of references recorded in the dictionary.
A closeup of one of the some 2 million index cards that records information eventually collected in the dictionary. (photo: University of Chicago -- Jason Smith)

"The Babylonian diviners believed that the gods wrote on the livers -- [that] the marks you see on the liver are messages from the gods. So they were doing a lot of foretelling of events, particularly for the king and his military," Biggs says.
"Even when they had some other way of predicting, whether it from someone's dream or someone having a vision or whether it was from the stars, [looking at sheep's livers] was considered the most reliable way of checking a prediction."
Hard copies of the dictionary carry an almost $2,000 price tag, although it is also available for free online.
While intended for use by "Assyriologists," as specialists in the field are known, the project represents a milestone for others as well.
Many of Iraq's approximately 500,000-strong Christian minority trace their ancestry back to ancient Assyrian-speakers, and a modern-day relative of the language, Assyrian Neo-Aramaic, is spoken by thousands in the country.
Yousif Toma, the Baghdad-based editor in chief of "Christian Thought" magazine, tells RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq that many Iraqi Christians will be delighted to learn of the dictionary.
"This is tremendous news, because the study of the Assyrian language is a universally important discipline. We also hope that it will gain importance in Iraq. This is great news also because this dictionary represents a stone in a building of attention to the Assyrian language. I would like to thank all the participants in the project," Toma says.
Back in the United States, Roth, the dictionary's editor-in-charge, says now that the final volume occupies the spot long reserved for it on her office shelf, she is experiencing an array of emotions.
"I feel incredible gratitude that this project has been supported for so long by the University of Chicago and by scholars throughout the world; enormous gratitude and pride that I happened to be the one in the position to see it through to its conclusion; a little bit of regret that some of my colleagues are no longer alive to see it completed; [and] a little bit of sadness that a project of this magnitude is over and that there isn't really anything that is of comparable scope going on now in the scholarly world," Roth says.
with contributions from Radio Free Iraq’s Baghdad bureau

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