It might seem odd to spend some 90 years deliberating on a dictionary of a language that has been dead for 2,000 years, but the Chicago Assyrian Dictionary is more than a simple reference book. It is an in-depth, 21-volume reference of ancient Mesopotanian dialects, and also acts as an in-depth study into one of the first-known writing systems, developed as far back as 30BC: cuneiform script.
The nearly 28,000 words compliled in this mammoth dictionary reflects more than just an old language, but a lot about its culture. Martha T. Roth, the editor in charge, states that “Every term, every word becomes a window into the culture.”
Words such as kalu meaning “detain, keep in custody, hold back” and di’nu, “case,” suggest that the language was a vital tool for the formation of the first recorded laws and government — anywhere. In addition, repeated reference in written records to ardu, meaning “slave,” provides evidence that slavery was common in ancient civilizations.
The language reflects the beginnings of land irrigation and the mass shipment of cultivated goods. One of the world’s earliest known works of literature, the Epic of Gilgamesh, is a series of Sumerian legends and poetry originally inscribed on clay tablets in the Akkadian language. In other words, if we understand the way that the world’s pioneers of literature, agriculture, and finance structured their thoughts, perhaps we can better understand ourselves.
This is a great achievement for all the scholars involved – it seems sad to me that anybody would think it a waste of 90 years.