Et in Akkadia ego

A dictionary of the extinct language of ancient Mesopotamia has been completed after 90 years of work. Having skimmed through one volume, it may take just as long to work out how to say, “Two beers, please.”

There are many stories about languages dying out, but rarely one about a language that has been revived. Assyrian and Babylonian – dialects of the language collectively known as Akkadian – have not been spoken for almost 2,000 years. Now, experts from around the world have compiled and published The Chicago Assyrian Dictionary. They studied numerous texts written on clay and stone tablets (including originals of The Epic of Gilgamesh) uncovered in ancient Mesopotamia, a country that lay between the rivers Tigris and Euphrates, and whose heartland was in modern-day Iraq.

The Chicago Assyrian Dictionary is 21 volumes long and encyclopaedic in its range. Whole volumes are dedicated to a single letter and it comes complete with extensive references to original source material. The dictionary is intended to provide more than a one-to-one equivalent of Akkadian and English words. By presenting each word in a meaningful context, usually with a full and idiomatic translation, it recreates the cultural milieu of its epoch. Its source material ranges in time from the third millennium BCE to the first century CE and in geographic area from the Mediterranean Sea to the Zagros Mountains in present-day Iran. The complete dictionary costs US$1,995 but individual volumes can be freely consulted online.

Mesopotamia is believed to be among three or four places in the world where writing first emerged. The cuneiform script used to write both Assyrian and Babylonian, and first used for the Sumerian language, is probably the oldest script in the world and was the inspiration for its more famous cousin, Egyptian hieroglyphics.

One of the best known events in ancient history is the conquest of Babylon by the Persian King, Cyrus the Great. In 539 BCE, the Persian Army entered the city of Babylon after a bloodless campaign. One month later Cyrus visted the city and issued a peace-making proclamation, inscribed in Akkadian on a clay barrel known as Cyrus’s inscription cylinder. It was discovered in 1879 in Babylon and is kept in the British Museum. Many historians consider it to be the first declaration of human rights.

After Cyrus’s death his son, Cambyses, became king. Eight years later, he died on the way back to Mesopotamia from Egypt. A high-ranking army officer named Darius seized the chance to assume the throne by assassinating the king’s brother. It is not known what really happened, but King Darius I went to considerable lengths to publicise his version of events by ordering a royal autobiography to be circulated to all corners of the empire. He also had the official account inscribed in Old Persian and Elamite (the two official languages of the empire) and in Akkadian (the lingua franca of the ancient Near East) on a rock face more than 300 feet above the main caravan route to Babylon, near the village of Behistun in present-day Iran, where it can still be seen today.

“Two beers, please” has definitely eluded me. But I did come across this useful phrase in the volume dedicated to the letter P:

Šumma še’um ina qāti nukaribbim ibašši muhuršu šumma la kīam šūribšuma ina bītim pa-a-as-sú  – “If the barley is in the gardener’s possession, take it from him, if not, bring him in and hold him in the house.” Now, who knows when that might not come in handy?


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