What Would Hammurabi & Nebuchadnezzar Say?: 21-Volume Ancient Assyrian Dictionary Published

These days when I need to check the definition of word I’m more likely to go to Google and do a quick search instead of reaching for my trusty Webster’s. Earlier this week, the University of Chicago published a dictionary whose entries require a bit more than a web search query to consult. The 21-volume Assyrian Dictionary of the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago was 90 years in the making by scholars and graduate students painstakingly putting the information from clay tablets at least 2000 years old onto over two million index cards.

The project was started in the 1920s, barely 100 years after cuneiform script (there’s an example in the photo above) had been deciphered. The dictionary records the language of ancient Mesopotamia and its Babylonian and Assyrian dialects. If you’re wondering who spoke these languages, a bit of background courtesy of the New York Times:

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.

In other words, it’s the language used when writing, law and literature were novel inventions. The dictionary doesn’t just contain entries with cut-and-dry definitions, that “umu” = “day” and “di nu” = “case”: This is the kind of dictionary that is a storehouse of our knowledge about these ancient cultures:

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….

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.

With 28,000 words from a period from 2500 B.C. to A.D. 100, the dictionary makes the point that just a single word can shed much light onto our sense of an ancient culture, of what was it like to live in the city-states that developed in the Tigris and Euphrates River Valleys. Today, some places that are much in the news — Iraq and Syria — are located just where those ancient civilizations were, as I frequently point out to my students. As a Classics professor, the ancient Mediterranean world is the focus of my teaching and study, but I always feel it’s necessary to make sure my students know about the countries, peoples, religions, languages, cultures that are there now (indeed, more than a few of my students are from these very places).

The full 21-volume set of the Assyrian Dictionary is $1,995, with individual volumes costing from $45 to $150. But we are living in a digital age and the University of Chicago has kindly made online versions (in PDF file format) available for free. I’m right now downloading these onto my phone.

Yes, I suspect it’s a different sort of “tablet” than the ancient Sumerians, not to mention James Henry Breasted who founded the Oriental Institute in 1919, were accustomed to.

Photo of Tablet of Zimri-Lim, king of Mari, concerning the foundation of an ice-house in Terqa. Baked clay, ca. 1780 BC. From Wikimedia Commons

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KrassiAWAY B.
Krasimira B.4 years ago

Very interesting article, thank you Kristina for posting.

Deena Yako
Deena Yako4 years ago

yes there are people in the Middle East that still speak the language, the Assyrian people that are currently being targeted by extremists in IRAQ for their ethnicity, they are being slaughtered and are on the verge of becoming extinct in their homelands. I am one of those people that left my homeland in the hopes to survive! Thanks for all the comments and the interest shown.

Natalie Scerri
Natalie S.4 years ago

Your article brought back so many memories of my earliest years of studying history in primary school. Even though I continued to study the subject in secondary school, the emphasis there was on recent history (19th and 20th century). Sadly I had to give up my history studies in order to study something that would earn me a living (accounting), but the love for the subject survives and reading these articles is a way of keeping the interest going until I may have time to take them up again when I grow older!

Danuta W.
Danuta Watola4 years ago

thanks for sharing.

Laurie S.
Laurie S.4 years ago

To the Laurie S who has a profile photo: Wow, I didn't know there were two of us! I read Riane Eisler when I was younger too, and I've softened on my interpretations a bit, so there's less feminism in my archeology these days, but if you're interested in pursuing it (or anyone else is for that matter) try William Hallo and Samuel Noah Kramer as translators, they've dome some good work. Also Diane Wolkenstein. You may need interlibrary loan for Hallo, there aren't many of those left out there and he's definitely out of print.

Laurie S.
Laurie S.4 years ago

You might have noticed that she mentioned 2400 BC, which would make some of it 4400 years old. However, much of it is older than that; we can track the language of this area of the world back in primitive pictographs to nearly 5000 BC, which is 7000 years. Many texts that are actually in cuneiform have been translated, including some of the religious literature. Here is a sample, about the Goddess Inanna:

At the end of the day, the Radiant Star,
the Great Light that fills the sky,
the Lady of the Evening appears in the Heavens.
The people in all the lands lift up their eyes to Her.
The men purify themselves, the women cleanse themselves,
the ox in his yoke lows to Her.
The sheep stir up the dust in their fold.
All the living creatures of the steppe,
the four footed creatures of the high steppe
the lush gardens and orchards, the green reeds and trees,
The fish of the deep and the birds in the heavens,
My Lady makes them all hurry to their sleeping places...

My lady looks in sweet wonder from Heaven...

The Lady of the Evening is radiant on the horizon.

Translation by Diane Wolkenstein and Samuel Noah Kramer, "Inanna, Queen of Heaven and Earth: Her Stories and Hymns from Sumer"

Marilyn L.
Marilyn L.4 years ago

Very interesting.

Linda F.
Linda F.4 years ago

How amazing to find a piece of a tablet approx. 2000 yrs old with a known language of that time...I wonder what it was like living in that time. What kind of world it was way back then...

Dana W.
Dana W.4 years ago


Heather G.
Heather G.4 years ago

Thank You for the article, Ms. Chew : )