June 13, 2011

The Chicago Assyrian Dictionary is finished!


Martha Roth, editor of the Chicago Assyrian Dictionary

Well, no one can accuse this publisher of going to press too hastily.

Last week the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute brought to fruition a 90-year-long project started by the institute’s founder, James Henry Breasted, according to this article by John Noble Wilford in the New York Times.

The Chicago Assyrian Dictionary is a 21-volume dictionary 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.

So how do scholars feel about the milestone? Pretty excited. As Jerrold Cooper, professor emeritus in Semitic languages at Johns Hopkins University told Wilford, the significance of the completed dictionary “can’t possibly be overestimated.”

As the Times story notes, Akkadian is considered fundamental to humanity’s jump to literacy and modern civilization:

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.

“The Assyrian Dictionary is not simply a word list,” Gil Stein, director of the Oriental Institute, told William Harms for a story about the dictionary on the University of Chicago’s website. “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,”

The reason the dictionary was 90 years in the making are various. For one, it was a mammoth undertaking that required researchers to handwrite definitions on nearly two million index cards. For another, there was always new research and information coming to light. Not to mention the fact that the dictionary has been shepherded by at least four editors since its inception. The current editor, Martha Roth, who has been working on the project since 1979, told Harms that ”I feel proud and privileged to have brought this project home.”

So if you’ve found the definitions for words like ”umu,” ”ardu,” ”kalu,” or “di nu” elusive, you’re in luck.