Akkadian Dictionary Finally Published

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Over 4,000 years after the death of Sargon the Great, scholars have finally finished compiling a dictionary for the Akkadian language.

The Akkadian language is probably the first language in the world that was written down, using a set of small, stylized pictures called cuneiform. From its origins in the ancient city-state of Akkad in what is now Iraq, use of the language spread along with Sargon’s empire to cover much of the Middle East. The Code of Hammurabi, one of the earliest known written legal codes, was written in this language.

Speaking to the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Gil Stein, head of the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute, which compiled the dictionary, explained the project’s importance:

“The Assyrian Dictionary gives us the key into the world’s first urban civilization. Virtually everything that we take for granted … has its origins in Mesopotamia, whether it’s the origins of cities, of state societies, the invention of the wheel, the way we measure time, and most important the invention of writing. If we ever want to understand our roots, we have to understand this first great civilization.”

Work on the dictionary started in 1921. Back then, scholars thought they were looking at the Assyrian language, so the project is called the “Chicago Assyrian Dictionary” even though the language in question was later found to be Akkadian, of which Assyrian is simply a dialect. 

Consisting of 21 volumes, the dictionary was the life’s work for many of the 88 scholars who contributed to it. Since the team sought to record all the known meanings for each cuneiform symbol, the entries for some words took years to complete.

Despite the fact that it took almost a century to get to this point, the project’s contributors still consider it a work in progress. After all when you’re working with a dead language that nobody has spoken in over 2,000 years and which has been pieced together using scraps of knowledge gleaned from ancient, crumbling tablets, there’s a lot of room for error and debate.In fact, Martha Roth, Chicago’s Dean of Humanities and the most recent editor of the dictionary, told the New York Times that the work “provides the foundation upon which all other scholarship will be built,” and was “never intended to be the last word.”

When it comes to deciphering ancient tongues, we’re so used to hearing about the amazing breakthroughs made possible through computers that you might think artificial intelligence played some part in bringing the project to a close. Actually, though, that’s not the case. Instead, the dictionary was compiled using decidedly low-tech methods: index cards, over 2 million of them!

If you’d like to explore the world of ancient Babylon, the online version of the dictionary is available here for no charge.