Thursday, June 16, 2011

The Sounds of Ancient Mesopotamia

Dr Irving Finkel of the British Museum speaks ancient Akkadian for the BBC. Who knows how it sounded? Interest in this topic has been generated by the 21-volume publication of the Chicago Assyrian Dictionary on which scholars have been working for 90 years. Entries in the dictionary include 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.

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, according to Dr Finkel, the oldest script in the world, and was an inspiration for its far more famous cousin, hieroglyphics.
Its angular characters were etched into clay tablets, which were then baked in the sun, or fired in kilns.
This produced a very durable product, but it was very hard to write, and from about 600BC, Aramaic - which is spoken by modern-day Assyrians in the region - began to gain prominence, simply because it was easier to put into written form, researchers believe.
The dictionary was put together by studying texts written on clay and stone tablets uncovered in ancient Mesopotamia, which sat between the Tigris and the Euphrates rivers - the heartland of which was in modern-day Iraq, and also included parts of Syria and Turkey.
And there were rich pickings for them to pore over, with 2,500 years worth of texts ranging from scientific, medical and legal documents, to love letters, epic literature and messages to the gods.
"It is a miraculous thing," enthuses Dr Finkel.
"We can read the ancient words of poets, philosophers, magicians and astronomers as if they were writing to us in English.
"When they first started excavating Iraq in 1850, they found lots of inscriptions in the ground and on palace walls, but no-one could read a word of it because it was extinct," he said.

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