Saturday, June 11, 2011


Scholars at the University of Chicago have completed -- after 90 years -- 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.

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. Nebuchadnezzar II called on these words to sooth his wife, homesick for her native land, with the promise of cultivating the wondrous Hanging Gardens of Babylon.

At a recent conference, historians, archaeologist 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, Jerold Cooper, Professor emeritus in Semictic 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 ealier Sumerians in mesopotamia.

This was probably the first writing system anywhere, and the city-states that arose in the Tigris and Euphrates River Valleys (present day Iraq, Syria --the earliest urban and literate civilizations). 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.

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. For example, there are 17 pages devoted to the word "umu" meaning "day." And the word "ardu" for slave, introduces extensive material available on slavery in the culture.

"Every term, every word becomes a window into the culture," said 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.

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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