[lg policy] After 90 Years, a Dictionary of an Ancient World
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Tue Jun 7 18:37:53 UTC 2011
June 6, 2011
After 90 Years, a Dictionary of an Ancient World
By JOHN NOBLE WILFORD
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.
At a conference on Monday, historians, archaeologists and specialists
in ancient Semitic languages assessed the significance of the
comprehensive dictionary, which Gil Stein, director of the
university’s Oriental Institute, said “is an indispensable research
tool for any scholar anywhere who seeks to explore the written record
of the Mesopotamian civilization.”
One scholar who has relied on the project’s research at various stages
since the 1960s, Jerrold Cooper, professor emeritus in Semitic
languages at Johns Hopkins University, said the dictionary’s
importance “can’t possibly be overestimated.” It opens up for study
“the richest span of cuneiform writing,” he said, referring to the
script invented in the fourth millennium B.C. by the earlier Sumerians
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
Even a dead language can prompt lively debate, as Matthew W. Stolper,
a Chicago professor long involved in the project, once wrote. The
dictionary’s translations, he noted, “run the gamut between
conclusions founded on an unshakable array of evidence and provocative
assertions about slim data.” All in all, he said, this “has provoked,
cajoled, advanced and shaped the scholarship of a generation of not
always cheerful Mesopotamianists.”
Dr. Roth expects more of the same. She said the full dictionary
“provides the foundation upon which all other scholarship will be
built,” and was “never intended to be the last word.”
So why did the project take so long to complete?
At the start, Dr. Breasted foresaw a set of six volumes, modeled on
the Oxford English Dictionary, being published simultaneously in two
or three decades. But entering words and examples of their use on
close to two million index cards was tedious work for the professors
and graduate students who were also busy with classes and other
research. The low-tech task seemed endless: Previously unknown words
or new usages of known words were always coming to light in
After World War II, the project was reorganized and the pace picked
up; the first volume was published in 1956. Under the vigorous
editorship of A. Leo Oppenheim, then Erica Reiner and finally Dr.
Roth, 20 volumes were released over 55 years.
A full set sells for $1,995, and individual volumes range from $45 to
$150. But they are also available, free of charge, online.
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