“Better late than never” might be the motto scholars could apply to the completion of a comprehensive dictionary of a language that has not been spoken for more than 2,000 years. It took nearly a century, but scholars at the University of Chicago say they have now completed the definitive dictionary of Akkadian, which was spoken in ancient Mesopotamia during the time when the first civilizations began to flourish there.
Traces of Akkadian live on in languages like Arabic and Hebrew, and the basic achievements of the Akkadian-speaking people of ancient times are directly linked to our modern civilization.
The Chicago Assyrian Dictionary, as it is called, began in 1921 as an attempt by University of Chicago scholars to assemble all the known documents and translations of the ancient language into a single resource. At that time, scholars called the language of the first civilizations Assyrian, but they later learned that Assyrian developed from the more ancient tongue they call Akkadian.
“Akkadian was the most commonly used language throughout the Near East for thousands of years,” says Gil Stein, Director of the University of Chicago's Oriental Institute. He says the study of Akkadian has been aided by the analysis of the modern languages which evolved from it.
“Akkadian is a Semitic language that is related to modern-day languages in the Middle East like Arabic and Hebrew. The Akkadian word for house is beyth or betu, which is the same as the Arabic beyt or the Hebrew beyt,” he explains.
Much of what scholars know of Akkadian comes from clay tablets found in archaeological sites. These were, in a sense, the first books, used for record keeping as well as basic communication.
Ancient civilization lives on in modern society
Civilization began in what is now Iraq more than 4,000 years ago and Stein says many of the basic advances achieved in that time live on today: complex agriculture, the use of the wheel for transportation, the development of great urban centers and writing. In fact, the oldest known written epic story is that of Gilgamesh, a Mesopotamian king who sought immortality, but learned that he, like all men, would die.
Listen to a passage from “Gilgamesh,” read by the Oriental Institute's Mathew Stolper:
Stolper says knowing modern languages helps scholars determine how Akkadian may have sounded, but much of it is guesswork.
“With the vowels, you know that some were long and short, but you do not know exactly how various people in various times would have pronounced a long and short vowel,” he notes.
Studying ancient tablets, glimpse into the ancient world
Nineteenth century researchers compiled fragments of ancient tablets found at a site near Mosul, Iraq to translate the Gilgamesh story from Akkadian into English and other modern languages. They were fascinated to find the epic involved a great flood similar to the story of Noah found in the Hebrew Bible.
Stolper says study of ancient tablets gives scholars a direct view of life in the ancient world that differs from that presented in much more polished works like the histories written by the Greeks and Romans. These clay tablets, he notes, contain many letters and short messages sent between friends, family members and businessmen. Researchers have even translated requests from young students, asking their parents for more material support, a tradition that has proved to be even more resilient than most ancient monuments.
Stolper finds humor in many of the pleas for money.
“It's like stand-up comedians. They are constantly saying, 'We are dying here, why don't you help us out?’ One of my favorite expressions in old Babylonian letters is somebody replying to what is obviously a legitimate complaint by saying, 'Don't worry about a thing.' They say that again and again, 'Don't worry about a thing,'" he says.
Stolper says this kind of insight into the most ancient civilizations is something very modern, made possible by archaeological discoveries and the ability to decipher ancient texts. This is something he says the Greeks and Romans, who came along some 2,000 years later, did not have.
“One of the great achievements of modern scholarship is that we know more about the history that was already ancient for Greeks and Romans, we can recover that record in a way that they never could,” he adds.
Creating a new dictionary
The newly completed dictionary is a research tool that will help advance those studies because - as Gil Stein points out - it goes well beyond what the word dictionary might imply.
“The Chicago Assyrian Dictionary is not like a glossary where it would say this word in English would mean this word in Akkadian. The best way to think about it is as kind of a cultural encyclopedia of ancient Mesopotamia. What it does is give a word and then it tells you the whole history of the uses of that word and by doing that you get to see the entire civilization of Mesopotamia in the way that it evolve,” Stein says.
The entire dictionary is now posted on the University of Chicago's Oriental Institute web site for individual researchers or students to access at no cost.