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Dictionary of oldest written language finally completed after 90 years.
June 12, 2011 10:13 PM   Subscribe

90 years in the making, the 21-volume Chicago Assyrian Dictionary is finally complete. The full set is $1995, or free PDF downloads. If you can wait a little longer, the Chicago Hittite Dictionary will be complete in 2045 (begun in 1975), while the Pennsylvania Sumerian Dictionary has no completion date.

The Assyrian Dictionary is of the ancient Mesopotamian language now known as Akkadian, whose dialects include Babylonian and Assyrian. Notable Akkadian historical figures and works include Sargon the Great, Hammurabi, the Epic of Gilgamesh, and Nebuchadnezzar II.

As the Times says:
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.
From third link:
“The Assyrian Dictionary is not simply a word list. By detailing the history and range of uses of each word, this unique dictionary is in essence a cultural encyclopedia of Mesopotamian history, society, literature, law and religion.”
By comparison, the first version of the Oxford English Dictionary took about 50 years and was about 11 volumes (12 with a supplement).
posted by stbalbach (26 comments total) 27 users marked this as a favorite

 
I wonder how they figured out pronunciations.
posted by shivohum at 10:27 PM on June 12, 2011


Gives me hope for The Art of Computer Programming getting finished.
posted by silby at 10:42 PM on June 12, 2011 [3 favorites]


shivohum, one way that linguists figure out pronunciations from ancient languages is poetry. They make educated guesses about the pronunciation based on rhyme as well as other historical tidbits (like relations to other nearby languages).
posted by readyfreddy at 11:17 PM on June 12, 2011 [1 favorite]


If these people are going to flee the chaos of their own failed states to come to Chicago, they should at least learn English.
posted by orthogonality at 11:52 PM on June 12, 2011 [16 favorites]


Enkidu!
posted by bardic at 12:26 AM on June 13, 2011


Enki-dinky-doo!
posted by JHarris at 12:37 AM on June 13, 2011 [1 favorite]


Well, this has made my wife happy. Ta.
posted by rodgerd at 4:06 AM on June 13, 2011


Ah, I remember discussing this as an undergrad with one of my archaeology professors. Due to increasing international conflict, I remember deciding not to go to grad school for the Near Eastern field, since it seemed at the time that my choices were Penn or Chicago to deal with one or the other unfinished resource and write a dissertation on grammar.
posted by cobaltnine at 4:44 AM on June 13, 2011


Gilgamesh and Enkidu at Uruk!
posted by tommasz at 5:43 AM on June 13, 2011 [3 favorites]


Gives me hope for The Art of Computer Programming getting finished.

Knuth has a habit of inventing systems to overcome difficulties with his projects- TeX, METAFONT, etc. My current theory as to why TAoCP is taking so long, is that Knuth is busy inventing strong AI. KnuthBot 3.1415 will be churning out new fascicles before we know it!
posted by zamboni at 6:13 AM on June 13, 2011 [3 favorites]


Everything's relative.

The Acta Sanctorum, a 68 volume work by the Société des Bollandistes, was proposed in 1607, and the first volume was published in 1643.

The final folio was published in 1940, 297 years later. You can now access the whole thing online.
posted by zamboni at 6:26 AM on June 13, 2011 [3 favorites]


Somehow I thought the Chicago Assyrian Dictionary would be a compendium of street slang used up in Skokie.
posted by rlk at 7:23 AM on June 13, 2011 [3 favorites]


I love old Near Eastern history and archaeology. My naming convention for the handful of computers I own is to name them after Mesopotamian cities. ('Akkad' was stolen when someone broke into my apartment.)

When I got my WiFi access point, I found the name Enlil — 'en' means 'lord of', and 'lil' is the substance that makes up the air. You could loosely translate it as 'Lord of the Wind'. How perfect is that?
posted by benito.strauss at 8:18 AM on June 13, 2011


I had a brief fling with Babylonian, Akkadian and Sumerian mythology a few years ago (suprisingly not related to Snow Crash) and it's an absolutely fascinating subject. I ended up reading a ton of stuff about creation mythology and the like and have always enjoyed all the references back to the older mythology there is in the bible. Flood mythology, Baal, the relationship between El = Elohim etc. Really good fun to dig up the history of religion and see where all the sundry parts were stolen from.
posted by longbaugh at 10:45 AM on June 13, 2011


Projects like this are so inspiring. Idiot legislatures that want to cut funding for universities should be reminded by things like this that the worth and timeframe of truly important monumental scholarly projects is not easily measured in dollar value output or getting results published in People magazine within an election cycle.
posted by LobsterMitten at 11:02 AM on June 13, 2011 [2 favorites]


> shivohum, one way that linguists figure out pronunciations from ancient languages is poetry. They make educated guesses about the pronunciation based on rhyme

This is completely not true. For one thing, ancient poetry does not use rhyme. There are all sorts of ways pronunciation is figured out, and sometimes they get it wrong (and a later find clears it up). It's pretty complicated.
posted by languagehat at 11:21 AM on June 13, 2011


Er.. why does the Times article quote say that Assyrian is the oldest writing system? I thought that went to Sumerian (and Wikipedia, bastion of reliability, seems to back this up).
posted by curious nu at 12:13 PM on June 13, 2011 [1 favorite]


Really good fun to dig up the history of religion and see where all the sundry parts were stolen from.

Farming and civilization existed in that region since at least 9000 BC - and the sources are from around 2000 BC and earlier - so probably these legends and myths (which are essentially farming based, not hunter-gatherer animal myths) were very old indeed by the time they were written down. Who knows where they originated or by whom, though native to Mesopotamia is a logical conclusion.

why does the Times article quote say that Assyrian is the oldest writing system?

Actually the Times article doesn't say Assyrian is the oldest, but it is confusing, as explained in this paragraph:
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.
According to Wikipedia, Akkadian is "the earliest attested Semitic language, it used the cuneiform writing system derived ultimately from ancient Sumerian". So the dictionary is treating Assyrian and Babylonia as dialects of Akkadian, even though the dictionary is called the "Assyrian".
posted by stbalbach at 12:28 PM on June 13, 2011 [1 favorite]


Well, sure, so earliest Semetic writing system, but that Times article specifically says, "This was probably the first writing system anywhere...". I was just checking that I hadn't missed some update in the chronology of ancient languages.
posted by curious nu at 1:26 PM on June 13, 2011


I am awed, amazed, and impressed by the sheer audacity of the project. They said: "Let's reconstruct a language dead for over 2,000 years using nothing but chicken scratches in mud bricks!" And then they did.

That's borderline hubris level audacity, and I mean that in a completely complementary way.
posted by sotonohito at 2:12 PM on June 13, 2011 [2 favorites]


90 years in the making

Too bad we can't keep that kind of determination and perseverence going in the leadership sphere. A couple of days ago I was astounded to discover that in 1896 there was an earthquake just 200 miles NE of Sendai, Japan that produced tsunami up to 38.2 meters (125 ft) high. Sound familiar?

So it goes.
posted by Twang at 2:41 PM on June 13, 2011


so earliest Semetic writing system, but that Times article specifically says, "This was probably the first writing system anywhere..."

Sumerian archaic cuneiform script is generally considered to be the first writing system. The original Sumerian script was adapted for the writing of the Akkadian, Egyptian, Eblaite, Elamite, Hittite, Luwian, Hattic, Hurrian, and Urartian languages.
posted by stbalbach at 4:49 PM on June 13, 2011


> Er.. why does the Times article quote say that Assyrian is the oldest writing system?

Yeah, the article is a bit misleading. It switches from talking about the language to talking about the writing system without explanation and then back again:
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.
Akkadian cuneiform was an adaptation of Sumerian cuneiform, which was "probably the first writing system anywhere." So it's the Sumerian city-states that would be "considered the earliest urban and literate civilization."
posted by nangar at 4:57 PM on June 13, 2011


Egyptian?
posted by nangar at 4:59 PM on June 13, 2011


Egyptian writing may or many not have been related to Sumerian script. It's one of the big questions, did writing emerge as an independent invention in Egypt and Sumeria, or just Sumer.
posted by stbalbach at 5:24 PM on June 13, 2011


Obligatory: GIRUGAMESH!
posted by Tom-B at 10:00 AM on June 17, 2011


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