After 90 Years, a Dictionary of an Ancient World

June 11, 2011 · Posted in Uncategorized · Comment 
June 6, 2011



M. Spencer Green/Associated Press
Martha Roth, dean of humanities at the University of Chicago, and Gil Stein, director of the Oriental Institute there.


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.


BBC Russian radio hits the off switch after 65 years

June 11, 2011 · Posted in Uncategorized · Comment 
22 March 2011 Last updated at 21:44 ET


By Steven EkeEditor, BBC Russian Service

At the end of this week, the BBC’s Russian Service will close its radio frequencies for good.

The Russian Service began broadcasting to the Soviet Union in 1946 and quickly established a reputation with Soviet listeners, in the brief period before the onset of the Cold War.

From 1949 until 1987, the jamming of the signal by the Soviet authorities consumed vast amounts of money and technical expertise. For many years, a significant part of the USSR’s entire radio broadcasting system was devoted to blocking transmissions from abroad.

The BBC’s Russian Service was blocked selectively and varyingly. However, jamming was never totally effective, and listening to the Russian Service as well as other western broadcasters had, by the 1970s, become a ubiquitous phenomenon among the Soviet urban intelligentsia.

‘Soft’ on KremlinThis week, the Russian Service is playing out audio postcards from listeners, revealing how they listened, and what it meant to them. One especially memorable episode comes from a listener in Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, explaining how her family learned of the assassination of President Kennedy from the Russian Service’s news broadcasts.

The Soviet authorities had started broadcasting in foreign languages earlier – in 1929. There was never any ambiguity about its purpose. Indeed, the Great Soviet Encyclopaedia states it “serves as a powerful weapon in the propaganda of Communist ideology, a highly effective way to speedily inform the toilers in foreign countries about life in the Soviet Union”.

There was no pretence that the output of foreign language broadcasting – Inoveshchaniye – was an honest or necessarily accurate reflection of Soviet life.

The ideological conflict between East and West had a direct impact on the BBC Russian Service. On several occasions, over the decades, it was accused of being too soft on the Kremlin.

The persecuted dissident writer, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, insisted over the years that it should not endow the Soviet regime with a sense of legitimacy.

The respected Anatol Goldberg, who ran the service, was removed in 1958 after a public campaign to discredit him by parts of the British Establishment and a right-wing magazine. Decades later, in the aftermath of the murder in London of Alexander Litvinenko, the service again faced accusations that it was soft on Russian official statements and positions. It strongly denied the accusations, citing the need to work to the BBC’s editorial standards.

Media personalityThe BBC’s Russian radio programmes evolved over time, but it was the opening up of the Soviet Union under Mikhail Gorbachev’s policies of perestroika and glasnost that provided a massive leap forward. Mr Gorbachev said he had been a long-term listener. Suddenly, there was access to interviews and opinions from Russia itself.

Many of the Russian Service’s presenters were household names in Russia and the countries once part of the USSR. In particular, Seva Novgorodtsev, who was one of the Soviet Union’s first rock DJs and who opened up the western music scene to Russian listeners, remains a much-loved media personality in Russia.

The service recently celebrated his 70th birthday with a memorable evening hosted by him in St Petersburg. It attracted a great deal of local media attention.

In its heyday, the Russian Service provided a full range of news and current affairs, analysis, musical, medical, scientific, cultural and religious programmes. In the past week, the Russian Service has revived some outstanding material from the archives: an interview with Paul McCartney and a ground-breaking hour-long, live studio interview with Margaret Thatcher, answering questions from listeners across the Soviet Union.

It was an early, highly successful example of interactivity. A much more recent example was a live broadcast with students at Moscow State University, looking at the legacy of the USSR’s collapse 20 years later.

One memorable quote came from the famous TV presenter, Vladimir Molchanov, telling us that such a debate would have been impossible in Soviet times – and it would also be impossible on state-controlled national television today, even if the Russian internet remains uncensored.

Cooling relationsIn post-Soviet Russia, as Russia’s own media blossomed and modernised, partnerships were sealed with Russian stations, some of them with nationwide FM networks.

The BBC hoped to access a much wider radio audience with its mix of BBC standards and expertise. However, with the cooling of British-Russian political links in recent years, the strategy was revealed to be vulnerable. One after another, often without explanation, partner stations in Russia announced they would no longer collaborate. This cut off a big chunk of the audience, in a country where people will not return to the culture of short-wave listening.

Over recent years, the Russian Service has invested heavily in, boosting its audio-visual content, interactivity, as well as its presence in international and Russian social media.

The context and depth of BBC material will continue to boost the service’s coverage of key regional and global stories.

The BBC Russian Service goes on air for the last time on 26th March. However, the BBC’s Russian output will continue on, where two radio programmes will be broadcast every Monday to Friday and one will be broadcast on Saturdays and Sundays.