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Assyrian Dictionary Project Finally Completed After 90 Years

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Assyrian Dictionary Project Finally Completed After 90 Years

Jun-05-2011 at 07:50 AM (UTC+3 Nineveh, Assyria)

Martha Roth, dean of humanities at the University of Chicago and editor-in-charge, and Robert Biggs, professor emeritus, browse through some of the nearly two million index cards that were part of the research in the compilation of university's Assyrian Dictionary at the school's Oriental Institute in Chicago. Ninety years after research began to assemble an Assyrian dictionary, based on words recorded on tablets unearthed in Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Turkey, and written in a language that hadn't been uttered for more than 2,000 years, the massive 21-volume collection is now complete. (Photo: Spencer Green | The Associated Press)
Assyrian Dictionary Project Finally Completed After 90 Years
by Sharon Cohen, The Associated Press. Saturday, June 4, 2011.

CHICAGO — It was a monumental project with modest beginnings: a small group of scholars and some index cards. The plan was to explore a long-dead language that would reveal an ancient world of chariots and concubines, royal decrees and diaries — and omens that came from the heavens and sheep livers.

The year: 1921. The place: The University of Chicago. The project: Assembling an Assyrian dictionary based on words recorded on clay or stone tablets unearthed from ruins in Iraq, Iran, Syria and Turkey, written in a language that hadn't been uttered for more than 2,000 years. The scholars knew the project would take a long time. No one quite expected how very long.

Decades passed. The team grew. Scholars arrived from Vienna, Paris, Copenhagen, Jerusalem, Berlin, Helsinki, Baghdad and London, joining others from the U.S. and Canada. One generation gave way to the next, one century faded into the next. Some signed on early in their careers; they were still toiling away at retirement. The work was slow, sometimes frustrating and decidedly low-tech: Typewriters. Mimeograph machines. And index cards. Eventually, nearly 2 million of them.

And now, 90 years later, a finale. The Chicago Assyrian Dictionary is now officially complete — 21 volumes of Akkadian, a Semitic language (with several dialects, including Assyrian) that endured for 2,500 years. The project is more encyclopedia than glossary, offering a window into the ancient society of Mesopotamia, now modern-day Iraq, through every conceivable form of writing: love letters, recipes, tax records, medical prescriptions, astronomical observations, religious texts, contracts, epics, poems and more.

In this May 27, 2011 photo, Martha Roth, dean of humanities at the University of Chicago, and Gil Stein, director of the Oriental Institute at the university, examine reliefs from the palace of Sargon II (721-705 BC in the Assyrian capital city of Khorsabad, in northern Iraq) in one of the institute's galleries in Chicago. Roth is the editor-in-charge of a project started 90 years ago by the institute to assemble an Assyrian dictionary based on words recorded on tablets unearthed in Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Turkey, and written in a language that hadn't been uttered for more than 2,000 years. The massive 21-volume collection is now complete. (Photo: Spencer Green | The Associated Press)

Why is there a need for a dictionary of a language last written around A.D. 100 that only a small number of scholars worldwide know of? Gil Stein, director of the university's Oriental Institute (the dictionary's home), has a ready answer:

"The Assyrian Dictionary gives us the key into the world's first urban civilization," he says. "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," Stein adds, "we have to understand this first great civilization."

The translated cuneiform texts — originally written with wedged-shaped characters — reveal a culture where people expressed joy, anxiety and disappointment about the same events they do today: a child's birth, bad harvests, money troubles, boastful leaders.

"A lot of what you see is absolutely recognizable — people expressing fear and anger, expressing love, asking for love," says Matthew Stolper, a University of Chicago professor who worked on the project on and off over three decades. "There are inscriptions from kings that tell you how great they are, and inscriptions from others who tell you those guys weren't so great. ... There's also lot of ancient versions of ‘your check is in the mail.' And there's a common phrase in old Babylonian letters that literally means ‘don't worry about a thing.'"

There were omens, too — ways of divining the future by reading smoke patterns, the stars, the moon and sheep livers.

"Like all people at all times, they wanted to try to find some way of controlling their world," says Martha Roth, the dictionary's editor-in-charge and dean of humanities. "It's very difficult to draw the line between actually believing and being superstitious."

Robert Biggs, professor emeritus at the university, devoted nearly a half century to the dictionary, sometimes uncovering tablets on digs in the Iraq desert, sometimes poring over texts in museums in London and Baghdad. His specialty is Babylonian medicine. For almost an entire year, he studied thousands of references to sheep livers.

For example: If a sheep's gallbladder — part of the liver — was long and pointed, it meant the defeat of the enemy king. If there was a certain kind of crease on the liver, it could mean the king was going on a journey. A lunar eclipse could mean danger for a king.

But the tablets reached far beyond royalty. Biggs says they included everything from a disputed paternity case to agricultural loans to famine, where desperate people sold their children for cash. "Life was very fragile ... it was much more risky that it is now," he says.

Making sense of it all was painstaking work. Some of the wedge-shaped characters changed over the thousands of years, and the tablets excavated from ancient temples, palaces and cities were frequently crumbling. Often there was no punctuation, so it was hard to know where one word ended and the other began.

"You'd sit in a room with a good light and turn the tablet in various directions to see as much as possible," Biggs explains. "Quite often the tablets were broken so you might see part of a sign. And different people looking at the same thing would see something different because of the way you'd hold it."

"Sometimes, it got to be very tedious," he adds. "Other times, there was a sense of exhilaration if you could solve some problem or figure out what a rare word means."

Regardless, the work continued.

There was much to research, much to record.

By 1935, scholars already had 1 million index cards. It would take more than 30 years before the first of the 21 volumes was published. Most cover a single letter. The entire collection spans about 10,000 pages and 28,000 words. The definitions are more fitting for an encyclopedia; they provide cultural and historical context, similar to those in the Oxford English Dictionary.

Now that the dictionary is finished, Roth says there's a feeling of tremendous accomplishment and "a little bit of a sense of loss.... This has occupied my waking and sleeping moments for 32 years. You dream this stuff."


The Assyrian Dictionary of the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago (CAD)

http://oi.uchicago.edu/research/projects/cad

http://www.atour.com/library/cad

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1. Ancient world dictionary finished after 90 years

Jun-05-2011 at 07:56 AM (UTC+3 Nineveh, Assyria)

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Ancient world dictionary finished after 90 years
by Associated Press. June 4, 2011.

CHICAGO (AP) — It was a monumental project with modest beginnings: a small group of scholars and some index cards. The plan was to explore a long-dead language that would reveal an ancient world of chariots and concubines, royal decrees and diaries — and omens that came from the heavens and sheep livers.

The year: 1921. The place: The University of Chicago. The project: Assembling an Assyrian dictionary based on words recorded on clay or stone tablets unearthed from ruins in Iraq, Iran, Syria and Turkey, written in a language that hadn't been uttered for more than 2,000 years. The scholars knew the project would take a long time. No one quite expected how very long.

Decades passed. The team grew. Scholars arrived from Vienna, Paris, Copenhagen, Jerusalem, Berlin, Helsinki, Baghdad and London, joining others from the U.S. and Canada. One generation gave way to the next, one century faded into the next. Some signed on early in their careers; they were still toiling away at retirement. The work was slow, sometimes frustrating and decidedly low-tech: Typewriters. Mimeograph machines. And index cards. Eventually, nearly 2 million of them.

And now, 90 years later, a finale. The Chicago Assyrian Dictionary is now officially complete — 21 volumes of Akkadian, a Semitic language (with several dialects, including Assyrian) that endured for 2,500 years. The project is more encyclopedia than glossary, offering a window into the ancient society of Mesopotamia, now modern-day Iraq, through every conceivable form of writing: love letters, recipes, tax records, medical prescriptions, astronomical observations, religious texts, contracts, epics, poems and more.

Why is there a need for a dictionary of a language last written around A.D. 100 that only a small number of scholars worldwide know of? Gil Stein, director of the university's Oriental Institute (the dictionary's home), has a ready answer:

"The Assyrian Dictionary gives us the key into the world's first urban civilization," he says. "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," Stein adds, "we have to understand this first great civilization."

The translated cuneiform texts — originally written with wedged-shaped characters — reveal a culture where people expressed joy, anxiety and disappointment about the same events they do today: a child's birth, bad harvests, money troubles, boastful leaders.

"A lot of what you see is absolutely recognizable — people expressing fear and anger, expressing love, asking for love," says Matthew Stolper, a University of Chicago professor who worked on the project on and off over three decades. "There are inscriptions from kings that tell you how great they are, and inscriptions from others who tell you those guys weren't so great. ... There's also lot of ancient versions of 'your check is in the mail.' And there's a common phrase in old Babylonian letters that literally means 'don't worry about a thing.'"

There were omens, too — ways of divining the future by reading smoke patterns, the stars, the moon and sheep livers.

"Like all people at all times, they wanted to try to find some way of controlling their world," says Martha Roth, the dictionary's editor-in-charge and dean of humanities. "It's very difficult to draw the line between actually believing and being superstitious."

Robert Biggs, professor emeritus at the university, devoted nearly a half century to the dictionary, sometimes uncovering tablets on digs in the Iraq desert, sometimes poring over texts in museums in London and Baghdad. His specialty is Babylonian medicine. For almost an entire year, he studied thousands of references to sheep livers.

For example: If a sheep's gallbladder — part of the liver — was long and pointed, it meant the defeat of the enemy king. If there was a certain kind of crease on the liver, it could mean the king was going on a journey. A lunar eclipse could mean danger for a king.

But the tablets reached far beyond royalty. Biggs says they included everything from a disputed paternity case to agricultural loans to famine, where desperate people sold their children for cash. "Life was very fragile ... it was much more risky that it is now," he says.

Making sense of it all was painstaking work. Some of the wedge-shaped characters changed over the thousands of years, and the tablets excavated from ancient temples, palaces and cities were frequently crumbling. Often there was no punctuation, so it was hard to know where one word ended and the other began.

"You'd sit in a room with a good light and turn the tablet in various directions to see as much as possible," Biggs explains. "Quite often the tablets were broken so you might see part of a sign. And different people looking at the same thing would see something different because of the way you'd hold it."

"Sometimes it got to be very tedious," he adds. "Other times there was a sense of exhilaration if you could solve some problem or figure out what a rare word means."

Regardless, the work continued.

"You always saw the light at the end of the tunnel," Biggs says. "But the end of the tunnel kept getting further and further away."

An early 10-year completion deadline was soon deemed unrealistic. "Scholars always underestimated how difficult it would be," Roth says. "People always expected the project would end in their lifetime. What can I tell you? That's not always the way it goes."

There was much to research, much to record. By 1935, scholars already had 1 million index cards. It would take more than 30 years before the first of the 21 volumes was published. Most cover a single letter. The entire collection spans about 10,000 pages and 28,000 words. The definitions are more fitting for an encyclopedia; they provide cultural and historical context, similar to those in the Oxford English Dictionary.

"It's not such a word means king," Roth says. "It's a matter of understanding the thousands and thousands of references to the word king in every document in every period."

Roth notes that after arriving at the university in 1979, she asked to work on the word witness or witnessing. That took four to five years. On the other hand, there might be just a dozen references to a jar holding grain and that research could be complete in an afternoon.

Now that the dictionary is finished, Roth says there's a feeling of tremendous accomplishment and "a little bit of a sense of loss.... This has occupied my waking and sleeping moments for 32 years. You dream this stuff."

The end also brings a realization as more tablets are unearthed, more discoveries will be made.

"It's like driving a Porsche off the lot and looking in the Blue Book (listing a car's worth) and seeing how much value it's lost," Stolper says. "The moment it's done, it's out of date."

Biggs says the scholars are satisfied with the final version, but there is that lingering temptation.

"It might be nice to start over," he says, "but no one has the courage to do it anymore."

___

Online:

Chicago Assyrian Dictionary: http://oi.uchicago.edu/research/projects/cad

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2. Assyrian Dictionary Photo Gallery

Jun-05-2011 at 08:58 AM (UTC+3 Nineveh, Assyria)

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In this May 27, 2011 photo, Martha Roth, dean of humanities at the University of Chicago, and Gil Stein, director of the Oriental Institute at the university, examine one of two glazed molded brick lions from the Neo-Babylonian Period, about 604-662 B.C. in one of the institute's galleries in Chicago. Roth is the editor-in-charge of a project started 90 years ago by the institute to assemble an Assyrian dictionary based on words recorded on tablets unearthed in Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Turkey, and written in a language that hadn't been uttered for more than 2,000 years. The massive 21-volume collection is now complete. Photo: M. Spencer Green / AP

In this May 27, 2011 photo, Martha Roth, dean of humanities at the University of Chicago, and Gil Stein, director of the Oriental Institute at the university, examine reliefs from the palace of Sargon II (721-705 BC in the Assyrian capital city of Khorsabad, in northern Iraq) in one of the institute's galleries in Chicago. Roth is the editor-in-charge of a project started 90 years ago by the institute to assemble an Assyrian dictionary based on words recorded on tablets unearthed in Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Turkey, and written in a language that hadn't been uttered for more than 2,000 years. The massive 21-volume collection is now complete. Photo: M. Spencer Green / AP

In this May 27, 2011 photo, Gil Stein, director of the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago, and Martha Roth, dean of humanities at the university, stand in front of a 16-foot human-headed winged bull in one of the institute's galleries in Chicago. The sculpture was from Khorsabad, Iraq and originally stood on the throne room facade in the palace of the Assyrian king Sargon II who ruled from 721-705 B.C. Roth is the editor-in-charge of a project started 90 years ago by the institute to assemble an Assyrian dictionary based on words recorded on tablets unearthed in Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Turkey, and written in a language that hadn't been uttered for more than 2,000 years. The massive 21-volume collection is now complete. Photo: M. Spencer Green / AP

In this May 27, 2011 photo, Robert Biggs, professor emeritus at the University of Chicago, holds an Old Babylonian grammatical text stone tablet that was used in the research and assembly of the university's Assyrian Dictionary at the school's Oriental Institute in Chicago. Ninety years after research began to assemble an Assyrian dictionary, based on words recorded on tablets unearthed in Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Turkey, and written in a language that hadn't been uttered for more than 2,000 years, the massive 21-volume collection is now complete. Biggs has worked on the project for almost 50 years. Photo: M. Spencer Green / APIn this May 27, 2011 photo, Robert Biggs, professor emeritus at the University of Chicago, holds an Old Babylonian grammatical text stone tablet that was used in the research and assembly of the university's Assyrian Dictionary at the school's Oriental Institute in Chicago. Ninety years after research began to assemble an Assyrian dictionary, based on words recorded on tablets unearthed in Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Turkey, and written in a language that hadn't been uttered for more than 2,000 years, the massive 21-volume collection is now complete. Biggs has worked on the project for almost 50 years. Photo: M. Spencer Green / AP

In this May 27, 2011 photo, Robert Biggs, professor emeritus at the University of Chicago, holds an Old Akkadian text tablet that was used in the research and assembly of the university's Assyrian Dictionary at the school's Oriental Institute in Chicago. Ninety years after research began to assemble an Assyrian dictionary, based on words recorded on tablets unearthed in Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Turkey, and written in a language that hadn't been uttered for more than 2,000 years, the massive 21-volume collection is now complete. Biggs has worked on the project for almost 50 years. Photo: M. Spencer Green / AP

This May 27, 2011 photo shows volumes of the University of Chicago's Assyrian Dictionary on bookshelves at the school's Oriental Institute in Chicago. Ninety years after after research began to assemble the reference book, based on words recorded on tablets unearthed in Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Turkey, and written in a language that hadn't been uttered for more than 2,000 years, the massive 21-volume collection is now complete. Photo: M. Spencer Green / AP

In this May 27, 2011 photo, Martha Roth, dean of humanities at the University of Chicago, browses through the final volume of the the university's Assyrian Dictionary at the school's Oriental Institute in Chicago. Ninety years after research began to assemble an Assyrian dictionary, based on words recorded on tablets unearthed in Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Turkey, and written in a language that hadn't been uttered for more than 2,000 years, the massive 21-volume collection is now complete. Roth is the editor-in-charge of the project. Photo: M. Spencer Green / AP

In this May 27, 2011 photo, Martha Roth, dean of humanities at the University of Chicago, browses through the final volume of the the university's Assyrian Dictionary at the school's Oriental Institute in Chicago. Ninety years after research began to assemble an Assyrian dictionary, based on words recorded on tablets unearthed in Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Turkey, and written in a language that hadn't been uttered for more than 2,000 years, the massive 21-volume collection is now complete. Roth is the editor-in-charge of the project. Photo: M. Spencer Green / AP

In this May 27, 2011 photo, Martha Roth, dean of humanities at the University of Chicago and editor-in-charge, and Robert Biggs, professor emeritus, browse through some of the nearly two million index cards that were part of the research in the compilation of university's Assyrian Dictionary at the school's Oriental Institute in Chicago. Ninety years after research began to assemble an Assyrian dictionary, based on words recorded on tablets unearthed in Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Turkey, and written in a language that hadn't been uttered for more than 2,000 years, the massive 21-volume collection is now complete. Roth has worked on the project since 1979, and has served as editor since 1996, while Biggs has worked on the project for almost 50 years. Photo: M. Spencer Green / AP

In this May 27, 2011 photo, Martha Roth, dean of humanities at the University of Chicago and editor-in-charge, and Robert Biggs, professor emeritus Robert Biggs, browse through some of the nearly two million index cards that were part of the research in the compilation of university's Assyrian Dictionary at the school's Oriental Institute in Chicago. Ninety years after research began to assemble an Assyrian dictionary, based on words recorded on tablets unearthed in Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Turkey, and written in a language that hadn't been uttered for more than 2,000 years, the massive 21-volume collection is now complete. Roth has worked on the project since 1979, and has served as editor since 1996, while Biggs has worked on the project for almost 50 years. Photo: M. Spencer Green / AP

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3. Huge Ancient Language Dictionary Finished After 90 Years

Jun-06-2011 at 02:36 AM (UTC+3 Nineveh, Assyria)

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Huge Ancient Language Dictionary Finished After 90 Years
by the University of Chicago. May 5, 2011 at 2:30 PM EDT

21-volume work details the language and culture of ancient civilizations in Mesopotamia

CHICAGO, Illinois (Newswise)— An ambitious project to identify, explain and provide citations for the words written in cuneiform on clay tablets and carved in stone by Babylonians, Assyrians and others in Mesopotamia between 2500 B.C. and A.D. 100 has been completed after 90 years of labor, the University of Chicago announced June 5.

To mark the completion of the 21-volume Chicago Assyrian Dictionary, the Oriental Institute at the University, where the project was housed, will hold a conference Monday, June 6, during which scholars from around the world will discuss the significance of the achievement.

“I feel proud and privileged to have brought this project home,” said Martha Roth, editor-in-charge of the dictionary and dean of Humanities Division at the University of Chicago, who has been working on the project since 1979. “I feel this will be a foundation for how to do more dictionary projects in the future.”

“The Chicago Assyrian Dictionary is one of the most important and unique contributions of the Oriental Institute to understanding the civilizations of the ancient Near East,” said Gil Stein, director of the Oriental Institute. “The CAD is the single most impressive effort I know of to systematically record, codify and make accessible the Akkadian language that forms the heart of the textual record of civilization in the place of its birth: Mesopotamia.

“The CAD 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 and is an indispensable research tool for any scholar anywhere who seeks to explore the written record of Mesopotamian civilization,” he added.

The Chicago Assyrian Dictionary project was started in 1921 by James Henry Breasted, founder of the Oriental Institute and one of the country’s premier Middle Eastern archaeologists. It documents cultures that developed in what is now Iraq.

Although originally named after the Assyrian language, scholars found that Assyrian was a dialect of another Semitic language, Akkadian. Over the years, researchers filled out millions of index cards with references to the use of 28,000 words. The entries for each word denote various meanings and reference the contexts and ways in which it was used.

In the final volume, for instance, the listing for the word umu, meaning “day,” covers 17 pages and documents its use, for example, in the Epic of Gilgamesh: “Those who took crowns who had rule of the land in the days of yore.”

Robert Biggs, professor emeritus at the Oriental Institute, worked on the dictionary and also as an archaeologist on digs where he recovered tablets.

“You’d brush away the dirt, and then there would emerge a letter from someone who might be talking about a new child in the family, or another tablet that might be about a loan until harvest time. You’d realize that this was a culture not just of kings and queens, but also of real people, much like ourselves, with similar concerns for safety, food and shelter for themselves and their families.

“They wrote these tablets thousands of years ago, never meaning for them to be read so much later, but they speak to us in a way that makes their experiences come alive,” he said.

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4. VIDEO: Chicago Assyrian Dictionary: The Final Chapter

Jun-06-2011 at 02:48 AM (UTC+3 Nineveh, Assyria)

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Last edited on 06/06/2011 at 07:00 AM (UTC3 Assyria)
 

Archive: MP4 video file

VIDEO: Chicago Assyrian Dictionary: The Final Chapter
http://news.uchicago.edu/multimedia/chicago-assyrian-dictionary-final-chapter

Archive: audio file

Chicago Assyrian Dictionary: The Final Chapter
by Renee Basick
http://www.uchicago.edu/features/20080218_4.shtml

Martha Roth, Ph.D., Professor of Assyriology, discusses the final volume of the Chicago Assyrian Dictionary, a comprehensive lexicon of ancient Akkadian dialects 86 years in the making. Roth has served as Editor-in-Charge of the project for the past 11 years.

Eighty-six years after the inception of the Chicago Assyrian Dictionary, Martha Roth, Chauncey S. Boucher Distinguished Service Professor of Assyriology in the Oriental Institute, Near Eastern Languages & Civilizations and Dean of the Division of the Humanities, is the editor-in-charge who will most likely bring the project to a close. Long regarded a “ten-year project,” the dictionary has far exceeded the expectations of its editors and has grown since 1921 to become a comprehensive catalogue of over 2,000 years of the Assyrian and Ancient Babylonian lexicon.

Modeled after great lexicographic traditions such as the Oxford English Dictionary, the Assyrian Dictionary was conceived as an encyclopedic reference of the Acadian languages. Primary sources for entries are the millions of cuneiform tablets that have survived and surfaced through excavation over the last 200 years. This great wealth of data has also been the project’s primary hindrance—each tablet must be preserved or restored, deciphered, catalogued and finally analyzed for inclusion.

The final volume of the dictionary went to press in the summer of 2007, completing a predicted 27-volume set. Since 1956, when the first volume was published, the Chicago Assyrian Dictionary has influenced the field of Assyriology worldwide not only as an encyclopedic reference, but also as a training ground and post-doctoral study for 30–50 renowned scholars in the field.

As ongoing and future excavations reveal additional sources of lexicographic information, the project will evolve to include these new data sets in both hard copy and electronic versions. In an effort to make the entire text accessible, digitization of the dictionary is the next phase of this nearly century-old undertaking and will fulfill a promise to long time supporter, The National Endowment for the Humanities.

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5. Ancient world dictionary finished after 90 years

Jun-06-2011 at 10:51 AM (UTC+3 Nineveh, Assyria)

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The Chicago Assyrian Dictionary is now officially complete - 21 volumes of Akkadian, a Semitic language (with several dialects, including Assyrian) that endured for 2,500 years. Photo: M. Spencer Green / AP
Ancient world dictionary finished after 90 years
by Associated Press. June 4, 2011.

CHICAGO, Illinois (AP) — It was a monumental project with modest beginnings: a small group of scholars and some index cards. The plan was to explore a long-dead language that would reveal an ancient world of chariots and concubines, royal decrees and diaries and omens that came from the heavens and sheep livers.

The year: 1921. The place: The University of Chicago. The project: Assembling an Assyrian dictionary based on words recorded on clay or stone tablets unearthed from ruins in Iraq, Iran, Syria and Turkey, written in a language that had not been uttered for more than 2,000 years. The scholars knew the project would take a long time. No one quite expected how very long.

Decades passed. The team grew. Scholars arrived from Vienna, Paris, Copenhagen, Jerusalem, Berlin, Helsinki, Baghdad and London, joining others from the United States and Canada. One generation gave way to the next, one century faded into the next.

Some signed on early in their careers; they were still toiling away at retirement. The work was slow, sometimes frustrating and decidedly low-tech: Typewriters. Mimeograph machines. And index cards. Eventually, nearly 2 million of them.

And now, 90 years later, a finale. The Chicago Assyrian Dictionary is now officially complete - 21 volumes of Akkadian, a Semitic language (with several dialects, including Assyrian) that endured for 2,500 years. The project is more encyclopedia than glossary, offering a window into the ancient society of Mesopotamia, now modern-day Iraq, through every conceivable form of writing: love letters, recipes, tax records, medical prescriptions, astronomical observations, religious texts, contracts, epics, poems and more.

Why is there a need for a dictionary of a language last written around AD 100 that only a small number of scholars worldwide know of? Gil Stein, director of the university's Oriental Institute (the dictionary's home), has a ready answer: 'The Assyrian Dictionary gives us the key into the world's first urban civilisation,' he says. 'If we ever want to understand our roots,' Mr Stein adds, 'we have to understand this first great civilisation.'

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6. After 90 Years, a Dictionary of an Ancient World

Jun-07-2011 at 09:58 AM (UTC+3 Nineveh, Assyria)

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Martha Roth, dean of humanities at the University of Chicago, and Gil Stein, director of the Oriental Institute there.
(Photo: M. Spencer Green | The Associated Press)

After 90 Years, a Dictionary of an Ancient World
by John Noble Wilford. New York Times, June 6, 2011.

Ninety years in the making, 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, has finally been completed by scholars at the University of Chicago.

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.

On all levels, this was the language of enterprise, the irrigation of lands and shipments of cultivated grain, and of fate foretold. Medical texts in Babylonia gave explicit instructions as to how to read a sheep’s liver to divine the future.

At a conference on Monday, historians, archaeologists 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 who has relied on the project’s research at various stages since the 1960s, Jerrold Cooper, professor emeritus in Semitic 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 earlier Sumerians in Mesopotamia.

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.

Oddly, for a work reflecting such meticulous research, its title, 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.

And 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. There are, for example, 17 pages devoted to the word “umu,” meaning “day.”

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.

“Every term, every word becomes a window into the culture,” 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, said last week.

Even a dead language can prompt lively debate, as Matthew W. Stolper, a Chicago professor long involved in the project, once wrote. The dictionary’s translations, he noted, “run the gamut between conclusions founded on an unshakable array of evidence and provocative assertions about slim data.” All in all, he said, this “has provoked, cajoled, advanced and shaped the scholarship of a generation of not always cheerful Mesopotamianists.”

Dr. Roth expects more of the same. She said the full dictionary “provides the foundation upon which all other scholarship will be built,” and was “never intended to be the last word.”

So why did the project take so long to complete?

At the start, Dr. Breasted foresaw a set of six volumes, modeled on the Oxford English Dictionary, being published simultaneously in two or three decades. But entering words and examples of their use on close to two million index cards was tedious work for the professors and graduate students who were also busy with classes and other research. The low-tech task seemed endless: Previously unknown words or new usages of known words were always coming to light in archaeological ruins.

After World War II, the project was reorganized and the pace picked up; the first volume was published in 1956. Under the vigorous editorship of A. Leo Oppenheim, then Erica Reiner and finally Dr. Roth, 20 volumes were released over 55 years.

A full set sells for $1,995, and individual volumes range from $45 to $150. But they are also available, free of charge, online.

A version of this article appeared in print on June 7, 2011, on page D2 of the New York edition with the headline: After 90 Years, a Dictionary of an Ancient World.


The Assyrian Dictionary of the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago (CAD)

http://oi.uchicago.edu/research/projects/cad

http://www.atour.com/library/cad

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7. One letter at a time

Jun-07-2011 at 10:25 AM (UTC+3 Nineveh, Assyria)

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As the final volume of the Chicago Assyrian Dictionary goes to press, Martha Roth, its editor for the past 11 years, heads to the Humanities dean’s office.
One letter at a time
by University of Chicago Magazine. July/August 2007. Volume 99, Issue 6.

The room looks foreign now to Martha Roth. Empty, orderly. A week ago the sprawling, odd-angled space on the Oriental Institute’s third floor was still home to the Chicago Assyrian Dictionary project. Piles of papers smothered desks, and windowsills acquiesced to coffee mugs, Post-it notes, jumbled stacks of books. But with the effort to document every word of ancient Akkadian nearing completion after 86 years, Roth, the dictionary’s current editor-in-charge, is consolidating. She’s culled countless duplicate index cards and consigned dozens of filing cabinets and yellowing binders to a janitor’s closet across the hall.

“The Assyrian Dictionary,” Roth says, “has occupied an expanding and shrinking number of rooms at the OI for decades.” The latest withdrawal is permanent: the U/W volume—the 26th and final installment—goes to press by the end of August. Roth describes the exodus as a strange unburdening: “like cleaning out your parents’ house while they’re still alive.” Now awash in gabled sunlight and a fresh coat of pale blue paint, the space looks bright and tidy. Not for long, though: tomorrow the Hittite Dictionary staffers move in from down the hall. Only 32 years into their project, they’ve still got half a century to go. Walking the length of the room, Roth traces the linoleum grooves left behind by long rows of filing cabinets. She takes off her glasses and smiles.

A twinge of nostalgia?

“No,” she says, looking faintly puzzled at the idea. “No.”

Roth, who on July 1 succeeds classics professor Danielle Allen as dean of the Division of Humanities, believes in getting on with things. Her students in Near Eastern languages & civilizations, the department in which she has taught for 27 years, describe her as eagle-eyed but unpatronizing, an enthusiastic coach. As the University’s deputy provost for research and education from July 2004 through this past June, Roth helped push through a long-needed overhaul of graduate-student aid, and she proved “crucial,” says Regenstein Library Director Judith Nadler, in negotiating with faculty to solidify plans for the library’s westward expansion. “She’s very direct,” Nadler says. “She doesn’t walk the cat around the milk pot.”

Martha Roth at the University of Chicago Oriental Institute Museum.

Her directness is one of the first things those who know Roth mention about her. “She makes decisions,” says Linda McLarnan, AM’82, an Assyrian Dictionary staff member for 20 years. “It’s like steering a battleship. Each manuscript is thousands of pages long. There are hundreds of entries, tens of thousands of details. You just can’t let it get bogged down.” Since 1979 the dictionary has been the central focus of Roth’s career. That October she dropped off her doctoral dissertation at Penn’s Oriental Studies department and walked outside, where her husband picked her up in a moving truck, and the two of them set off for Chicago. Roth started work at the OI the following Monday, a “dictionary slave,” she says, helping to input corrections to galleys and page proofs. (By the following autumn she was also an assistant professor.) In 1996 then-editor Erica Reiner, PhD’55, passed the reins to Roth, who promptly repeated a prediction made by almost every editor since 1921, when James Henry Breasted hired five people to begin compiling Akkadian etymologies in the basement of the Haskell Museum: the dictionary, Roth said, would take only another ten years to complete. It took 11. “Almost made it,” she says. “Now it’s time to move on.”

For Roth, moving on entails tackling the complexities and conundrums of Humanities, a division encompassing Caribbean studies and Slavic literature, ancient philosophy and contemporary cinema: 21 departments, committees, and degree programs in all. Roth formulated no specific agenda before assuming office—getting the lay of the land, she reckons, will take six months or more—and she’s disinclined to “change things just for the sake of change.” She does, however, express an overarching objective: “to grease the wheels.” Professors need to teach, scholars need to do research, and students need to finish their degrees. The dean’s task, Roth says, is to “clear the hurdles.” Mostly that means getting faculty and students “the resources they need: the libraries, the press, classrooms, computers.” She offers Regenstein as an example. “Colleagues come from all over the globe to work here because our books are actually on the shelves,” she says. “You don’t have to hand somebody behind a desk 17 slips of paper and then wait three days. You can just go to the stacks and get everything in ten minutes and then get back to writing your book.”

Teaching, she says, should be similarly unencumbered. “We will almost certainly,” she predicts, “have to make the case for more faculty.” As the College’s enrollment climbs, professors find themselves with more papers to grade. Last fall 4,790 undergraduates registered for classes; ten years earlier the number was 3,616. “There are some faculty members”—particularly in English and Romance languages & literatures—“who are advising dozens and dozens of BA papers every year,” Roth says. “We need to look at that.”

In many ways Roth’s deanship may be more a continuation than a change. During her tenure as deputy provost, she became known as a collaborator who worked with faculty and students even as she led them. Cooperation is certainly part of the job, but Roth undertook it with particular zeal. “No matter how busy she is, Martha always sets everything aside and says, ‘I’m available to you,’” Nadler says. “And it’s not just a shallow mannerism; it’s true.” Planning for Regenstein’s $42 million expansion, Nadler enlisted Roth’s help in coaxing faculty members to accept compact storage of some library materials. Researchers feared losing the open-stack serendipity of encountering a crucial book by chance. Administrators argued that building open stacks for every volume would cost more than $70 million. Eventually holdouts on both sides agreed to a compromise, thanks in part, Nadler says, to Roth’s powers of persuasion. Under the current plan, monographs would stay on the shelves while some serials and archival materials head to “high-density storage.” “Martha appeals to traditional scholars because they respect her judgment,” Nadler says, “but she also has an understanding for the younger generation of faculty. Both groups know that she is their advocate.”

She is an equally reliable advocate for graduate students. Ask her about the faculty or research or the Humanities division’s $65 million budget, and the conversation eventually circles back to graduate students. In particular, she’s concerned about how long they linger on campus. Too often and too easily, she says, doctoral work engulfs entire decades. Nationally humanities students spend an average of 11.3 years getting their PhDs. At Chicago it’s 8.25 years (excluding those who spend two decades or so on their doctorates). But a PhD is not a life’s pursuit. “Being a graduate student in the Division of Humanities is a stage, a stepping stone—it has to be seen that way,” says Roth, who at 27 earned a doctorate that takes most Assyriology students ten years or more to complete. “Nobody says undergraduate life should be open-ended.” The same principle should hold for graduate students.

Easier said than done, she knows. Roth calls it “ironical and unfortunate” that most postcollegiate study coincides precisely with young adulthood’s rush of responsibilities: marriage, children, making ends meet. “If you have to spend all your time worrying about where you’re going to get the rent money, you can’t study for your comprehensives,” she says. Recently she’s been corresponding with a graduate student whose wife is expecting their third child. “It’s very, very hard.”

Roth has had practice mitigating such ordeals. She’s also had practice enduring them. The mother of two high-schoolers and a 25-year-old, she jokes that she had “an assistant-professor baby, an associate-professor baby, and a full-professor baby.” Academic life didn’t make room then for maternity leave. Roth plowed through anyway, a wife, mother, teacher, and scholar who sometimes lived on very little sleep. “I don’t know how much I’ve shortchanged any of the parts of my life,” she says, “but I think I’m a better person for doing more rather than less. Somehow I just refused to make a choice.” Refusing to choose between family and work should be less arduous, she believes. From the provost’s office she helped forge a University policy that offers leaves of absence, academic extensions, and course-work “modification” to student-parents. “As a working parent, you’re always juggling,” she says. “You work yourself silly.”

Paying the bills is another juggling act. The effort to enhance graduate students’ financial footing proved Roth’s most difficult and colossal task as deputy provost. She spent months coordinating an initiative to enlarge the Humanities and Social Sciences divisions’ graduate stipends and benefits. “The problem now is that every student has a different package,” Roth explains. “You could be sitting in class next to someone doing just as well as you, but although you have full tuition and $18,000 a year for five years, the other person might only be getting tuition and $3,000 a year for three years. And there’s no rhyme or reason to it.” In February President Robert J. Zimmer announced a remedy: Chicago would spend an additional $50 million over six years to support incoming graduate students, 250 new matriculants each year. Beginning this fall, a basic five-year package includes tuition, health insurance, a $19,000 annual stipend, and two summers of paid research.

The DC–based Council of Graduate Schools applauded the decision, as did faculty and administrators across campus. Current students found less to cheer about. Their dilemma clearly troubles Roth, but she doesn’t see a way out of it. “It’s difficult for them,” she says. “They feel that they’re here and we should support them rather than throwing our support to people who aren’t here yet.” She adds, “I understand that position.” The University has committed $1.5 million to extend health benefits to those enrolled since 2003, Roth says, but folding them into the new package would be prohibitively expensive. Still, she emphasizes, “Graduate students need to be attended to. They have not always been attended to sufficiently at this university, and we’re going to try to do better, across the board.”

Getting graduate students out the door isn’t only a matter of policy; it’s also a question of personal attention. Jake Lauinger, AM’01, PhD’07, a graduate student for eight years in ancient Near East history and Roth’s Assyrian Dictionary research assistant for the past year and a half, recalls that when he began interviewing last year for teaching jobs, Roth gave him some advice. Knowing that campus interviews typically consist of several meetings and a sit-down meal, she asked him, “What are you going to order for lunch?” Lauinger was puzzled; she explained: “Order something you can eat with a fork, nothing that you have to pick up with your hands. Nothing messy.” He got the quiche. “Who would think to tell her graduate student that, besides a pro?” he says. Later, when the faculty-hiring committee at Virginia’s Roanoke College invited Lauinger to teach a lecture, Roth helped him settle on a topic—the invention of writing—and loaned him her collection of cuneiform-tablet casts: a shard from the epic of Gilgamesh, a 3,000-year-old will, a court document, a writing lesson with a student’s loopy scrawls on one side and the teacher’s upright script on the other. “It was a great hands-on addition to my lecture,” Lauinger says. “Everyone came up after class to ask questions.” He starts work at Roanoke College this fall.

By turns Roth’s student, assistant, and dissertation advisee, Lauinger has spent years at her elbow. He calls her scholarship “selfless.” Sacrificing other research, she devoted herself to the dictionary, a project whose legend will always belong more to Breasted, who launched it, and A. Leo Oppenheim, who published the first volume in the 1950s, than to anyone else. “Academics is big egos crashing into each other,” Lauinger says. “But not Martha. She is giving herself up to something much bigger—which is what scholarship is supposed to be about, right? Contributing to the big flow.”

Roth doesn’t mind the minutiae. Her career is built on taking the long view, delaying gratification, constructing order out of bits of chaos. “Jake and I can spend six weeks trying to figure out a problem,” she says, “and it results in my changing a single comma or a semicolon in the dictionary. Nobody will ever know.” The same goes for her deputy-provost duties, in which she’s worked closely with the registrar’s office, the dissertation office, the student-disciplinary committee—“all things that remain invisible until you need them.” At home she devours crossword after crossword, and she weaves on the loom her husband gave her five years ago to revive an undergraduate pastime. (That the words “text” and “textile” derive from the same Latin root is a fact not lost on Roth.) “It’s all little pieces that get put into place,” she says. Crosswords, weaving, the dictionary, even committee work—they’re all threads from the same fabric.

Which isn’t to say Roth hasn’t been able to put her name to a few books. Over the past three decades she has become an expert on Mesopotamian marriage and family law, and she hopes the dictionary’s homestretch (final page proofs won’t clear her desk for another two years) will allow her to finish two other projects. One, a book on Mesopotamian lawsuits, trials, and depositions, needs only “an uninterrupted month of work before it’s done.” The other is a study of religion’s role in legal proceedings. “Every loan document in Mesopotamia, every deposition, has a religious element,” she says. People swore oaths by the gods and called curses upon themselves for violating agreements. They took legally binding pledges at the temple. “When you borrow barley and you swear by the gods that you’ll pay it back by a certain date, why are you invoking the gods in this, and what power does that give to this transaction?”

During the eighth week of spring-quarter classes, Roth—named the Chauncy S. Boucher distinguished service professor of Assyriology in January—puts those same questions to the three graduate students in her Friday morning translation seminar. They sit in Roth’s OI office around a table strewn with brittle hardbacks and Xeroxes of cuneiform tablets that resemble misshapen maps more than decipherable script. The students have been examining legal records from the ancient city of Nuzi, near modern-day Kirkuk, Iraq, and most of the texts concern quotidian problems: 3,500-year-old disputes over an irrigated field, a borrowed donkey, a widow’s rightful inheritance. But each lawsuit also involves a “river ordeal,” a procedure Mesopotamian courts resorted to when witnesses or evidence were lacking. The tablets don’t spell out what lay in store for those sent to the river—“An oath?” Roth wonders. “A dunking, a test of endurance?”—but ordeals were a way of leaving justice to the gods.

Andrew Dix, AM’06, leads off, decoding part of the first tablet. “Asha-u-ru-shimi-na,” he reads, sounding out the Akkadian syllables. “Sha-geri-zu-oor-ree-edu.”

“Good, yes,” Roth answers. Legs crossed, she leans on an elbow, three books open in front of her. She gives the impression that this two-and-a-half-hour class is the only thing happening in her life, that she might just sit here all day with Dix and his classmates, analyzing the intricacies of minor legal quarrels more than three millennia old. As the students translate the cuneiform into English, the text reveals that when one claimant to a piece of land called for a river ordeal, the other petitioners abandoned their suit. “Just the threat is enough to make them back down,” Roth declares, looking up from her notes. Comparing the river ordeal to the American practice of swearing in trial witnesses on the Bible, she says, “Nobody is going to know if you’re lying, so you’re turning it over to a higher authority. But it only works if you believe it. That’s the real ordeal—it’s what you believe will happen when you say the oath.”

She pauses a moment to let the idea sink in. Then, turning the page, she says: “OK, let’s move on.”


The Assyrian Dictionary of the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago (CAD)

http://oi.uchicago.edu/research/projects/cad

http://www.atour.com/library/cad

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8. Assyrian language: what is it?

Jun-18-2011 at 07:55 AM (UTC+3 Nineveh, Assyria)

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In this May 27, 2011 photo, Martha Roth, dean of humanities at the University of Chicago and editor-in-charge, and Robert Biggs, professor emeritus Robert Biggs, browse through some of the nearly two million index cards that were part of the research in the compilation of university's Assyrian Dictionary at the school's Oriental Institute in Chicago. Ninety years after research began to assemble an Assyrian dictionary, based on words recorded on tablets unearthed in Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Turkey, and written in a language that hadn't been uttered for more than 2,000 years, the massive 21-volume collection is now complete. Roth has worked on the project since 1979, and has served as editor since 1996, while Biggs has worked on the project for almost 50 years. Photo: M. Spencer Green / AP

Assyrian language: what is it?
Assyrian is a dialect of Akkadian, an extinct Semitic language that was spoken in ancient Mesopotamia.
by The Telegraph (UK), June 06, 2011 at 12:09PM BST.

It was in use for 2,500 years but has not been spoken for more than 2,000 years.

The Assyrian dialect of Akkadian was spoken in the Northern areas of Mesopotamia, modern-day Iraq. The Babylonian dialect was spoken in central and southern Mesopotamia, Mariotic in the central Euphrates, and Tell Beydar in northern Syria.

There have been different phases in Assyrian's development. Old Assyrian was spoken between1950–1530 BC, Middle Assyrian between 1530–1000 BC, and Neo-Assyrian between the years 1000–600 BC.

Assyrian served as the lingua franca during much of the Old and Middle times, and was extremely popular.

During the first millennium BC, Akkadian progressively lost its status. Neo-Assyrian received an upswing in popularity in the 8th century BC when the Assyrian kingdom became a major power.

But after the end of the Mesopotamian kingdoms, which fell due to the Persian conquest of the area, Akkadian disappeared as a popular language, however, the language was still used in its written form.

The latest identified Akkadian text comes from the 1st century AD.


The Assyrian Dictionary of the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago (CAD)

http://oi.uchicago.edu/research/projects/cad

http://www.atour.com/library/cad

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10. Dictionary of ancient language completed

Jun-30-2011 at 01:03 AM (UTC+3 Nineveh, Assyria)

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Dictionary of ancient language completed
by UPI. Published: June 6, 2011.

CHICAGO, June 6 (UPI) — A dictionary of a language written on clay tablets and carved in stone in Mesopotamia between 2500 B.C. and A.D. 100 is done after 90 years, U.S. academics say.

The goal of project at the University of Chicago was to identify, explain and provide citations for the words written by Babylonians, Assyrians and others in the region, a university release said Monday.

"I feel proud and privileged to have brought this project home," said Martha Roth, editor-in-charge of the 21-volume Chicago Assyrian Dictionary.

James Henry Breasted, founder of the university's Oriental Institute and one of the country's premier Middle Eastern archaeologists, began the Chicago Assyrian Dictionary project in 1921.

The dictionary entry for each word denotes various meanings and the contexts and ways in which it was used.

Robert Biggs of the Oriental Institute worked on the dictionary and also as an archaeologist on digs where he recovered tablets.

"You'd brush away the dirt, and then there would emerge a letter from someone who might be talking about a new child in the family, or another tablet that might be about a loan until harvest time," he said.

"You'd realize that this was a culture not just of kings and queens, but also of real people, much like ourselves, with similar concerns for safety, food and shelter for themselves and their families.

"They wrote these tablets thousands of years ago, never meaning for them to be read so much later, but they speak to us in a way that makes their experiences come alive."

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11. Dictionary of Ancient Akkadian Provides Glimpse into...

Jul-20-2011 at 02:42 AM (UTC+3 Nineveh, Assyria)

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Dictionary Of Ancient Akkadian Provides Glimpse Into Civilization's Cradle
by Richard Solash — Radio Free Europe, Radio Liberty (RFE/RL). June 18, 2011.

"Like a vessel carrying carnelian or lapis, she is filled with carnelian or lapis -- but I do not know whether the child within her is carnelian or lapis."

In this ancient metaphor, and in the imagination of its author, a mother's ability to bear both male and female children and the resulting mystery of an unborn child's gender become a vessel for gemstones -- red carnelian for a female, blue lapis for a male.

While linguists can't be sure of stress, intonation, or accent, they say that these lines, written between 1700 and 1800 B.C. in the long-extinct Akkadian language, sounded something like this:

The Sound Of Akkadian

More than a bit of poetry, they now form part of the University of Chicago's Akkadian-English dictionary, a project that scholars say provides an unprecedented look into ancient Mesopotamia, "the cradle of civilization." Linguists and researchers of ancient Mesopotamia began compiling the dictionary in 1921.

90-Year Project

The newly completed mammoth project retains the title its first researchers gave it -- "The Chicago Assyrian Dictionary" -- even as a later generation of scholars proved that Assyrian was a dialect of Akkadian. The language was spoken thousands of years ago in what is now Iraq, as well as in parts of Syria, Iran, and Turkey. It a distant relative of Arabic and Hebrew.

The dictionary, which spans some 10,000 pages in 21 volumes, took no less than nine decades to complete. In the process, it outlived some of the nearly 100 scholars who devoted their careers to it.

The final volume, published just weeks ago, caps what editor-in-charge Martha Roth describes as something that goes far beyond a mere lexicon.

"There are about 28,000 entries in this -- 28,000 words -- that provide a window into the history, culture, and society of the ancient Near East. This was not designed to be a glossary. The entire project sought to explicate the world of ancient Mesopotamia through the words we have preserved," Roth says.

That world was one of history's most significant, laying the foundation for modern urban life, state societies, writing systems, time measurement, and bookkeeping.

Akkadian was the language of Hammurabi's law code, the language of the world's first empire-builder, Sargon the Great, and the language of the Assyrian kings who conquered Jerusalem in the Hebrew Bible.

The dictionary's ability to survey this ancient world comes from the multitude of references that accompany each word.

The pregnancy metaphor, for example, is given under the Akkadian word for "lapis": "uqnu."

Like each reference for each of the dictionary's words, it was discovered on one of the millions of tablets that have survived the centuries. And each line of wedge-shaped cuneiform writing, carved into the clay, has a story to tell.

Personal letters expressing love, fear, and vengefulness, official records, commercial documents, recipes, religious texts, and medical prescriptions all provide the snippets of life contained in the project.

Sheeps' Livers

The University of Chicago's Robert Biggs, who devoted some 50 years to the undertaking, spent a significant portion of that time solely on references to sheeps' livers.

Their importance in ancient Mesopotamia's belief system is proven by the thousands of references recorded in the dictionary.

"The Babylonian diviners believed that the gods wrote on the livers -- the marks you see on the liver are messages from the gods. So they were doing a lot of foretelling of events, particularly for the king and his military," Biggs says.

"Even when they had some other way of predicting, whether it from someone's dream or someone having a vision or whether it was from the stars, was considered the most reliable way of checking a prediction."

Hard copies of the dictionary carry an almost $2,000 price tag, although it is also available for free online.

While intended for use by "Assyriologists," as specialists in the field are known, the project represents a milestone for others as well.

A closeup of one of the some 2 million index cards that records information eventually collected in the dictionary. (photo: University of Chicago -- Jason Smith)

Many of Iraq's approximately 500,000-strong Christian minority trace their ancestry back to ancient Assyrian-speakers, and a modern-day relative of the language, Assyrian Neo-Aramaic, is spoken by thousands in the country.

Yousif Toma, the Baghdad-based editor in chief of "Christian Thought" magazine, tells RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq that many Iraqi Christians will be delighted to learn of the dictionary.

"This is tremendous news, because the study of the Assyrian language is a universally important discipline. We also hope that it will gain importance in Iraq. This is great news also because this dictionary represents a stone in a building of attention to the Assyrian language. I would like to thank all the participants in the project," Toma says.

Back in the United States, Roth, the dictionary's editor-in-charge, says now that the final volume occupies the spot long reserved for it on her office shelf, she is experiencing an array of emotions.

"I feel incredible gratitude that this project has been supported for so long by the University of Chicago and by scholars throughout the world; enormous gratitude and pride that I happened to be the one in the position to see it through to its conclusion; a little bit of regret that some of my colleagues are no longer alive to see it completed; a little bit of sadness that a project of this magnitude is over and that there isn't really anything that is of comparable scope going on now in the scholarly world," Roth says.

with contributions from Radio Free Iraq’s Baghdad bureau

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Assyria \ã-'sir-é-ä\ n (1998)   1:  an ancient empire of Ashur   2:  a democratic state in Bet-Nahren, Assyria (northern Iraq, northwestern Iran, southeastern Turkey and eastern Syria.)   3:  a democratic state that fosters the social and political rights to all of its inhabitants irrespective of their religion, race, or gender   4:  a democratic state that believes in the freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture in faithfulness to the principles of the United Nations Charter — Atour synonym

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Assyrian \ã-'sir-é-an\ adj or n (1998)   1:  descendants of the ancient empire of Ashur   2:  the Assyrians, although representing but one single nation as the direct heirs of the ancient Assyrian Empire, are now doctrinally divided, inter sese, into five principle ecclesiastically designated religious sects with their corresponding hierarchies and distinct church governments, namely, Church of the East, Chaldean, Maronite, Syriac Orthodox and Syriac Catholic.  These formal divisions had their origin in the 5th century of the Christian Era.  No one can coherently understand the Assyrians as a whole until he can distinguish that which is religion or church from that which is nation -- a matter which is particularly difficult for the people from the western world to understand; for in the East, by force of circumstances beyond their control, religion has been made, from time immemorial, virtually into a criterion of nationality.   3:  the Assyrians have been referred to as Aramaean, Aramaye, Ashuraya, Ashureen, Ashuri, Ashuroyo, Assyrio-Chaldean, Aturaya, Chaldean, Chaldo, ChaldoAssyrian, ChaldoAssyrio, Jacobite, Kaldany, Kaldu, Kasdu, Malabar, Maronite, Maronaya, Nestorian, Nestornaye, Oromoye, Suraya, Syriac, Syrian, Syriani, Suryoye, Suryoyo and Telkeffee. — Assyrianism verb

Aramaic \ar-é-'máik\ n (1998)   1:  a Semitic language which became the lingua franca of the Middle East during the ancient Assyrian empire.   2:  has been referred to as Neo-Aramaic, Neo-Syriac, Classical Syriac, Syriac, Suryoyo, Swadaya and Turoyo.

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