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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