After nine decades of work, scholars have completed the 21-volume “Assyrian Dictionary of the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago.” Although the set can be purchased for USD 1995, it is also available free of charge to download (with restrictions on use).
A language whose literature includes the “Epic of Gilgamesh,” Old Akkadian (akk) was spoken between 4500 and 4000 years ago, after which scholars consider the language to have broken into two dialects: Old Babylonian and Old Assyrian. These continued to develop, disappearing about two thousand years ago. The dictionary project covers all known stages of the 2600 years of the language.
Running about 9700 pages in length (not including the front matter), the dictionary includes 28,000 words, a number perhaps comparable to the number of unique words Shakespeare used.*
As with the Oxford English Dictionary, the plan for the Chicago Assyrian Dictionary Project was ambitiously wide in scope and the expected time to compile grossly underestimated. The database used to compile is nearly two million file cards, and the dictionary will surely be recorded as one of the greatest accomplishments of scholarship.
Will Assyrian/Akkadian be brought back to life as we see with Latin, Old English, Sanskrit and other ancient languages?
The article “Dictionary of dead language complete after 90 years,” one of the sources for this blog post, includes a short audio clip of Irving Finkel speaking Akkadian. The Department of the Languages and Cultures of the Near and Middle East at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, has a series of recordings, including many of the “Epic of Gilgamesh.”
John Heise maintains a site on Akkadian, including grammar lessons, where he suggests tuppi bitim ”home clay tablet” as the word for “home page.” The 1961 edition of the text Old Akkadian Writing and Grammar by I.J. Gelb can be downloaded as a PDF. The 1881 “A Sumero-Akkadian grammar” by George Bertin is also available for download.
Also, YouTube videos can assist in learning to write the language, such as “You Can Write in Akkadian, Lesson One” by GiskAkina:
Because no people today claims descent from the ancient Akkadians and no language exists that descends from Akkadian, it seems unlikely Akkadian will become the target of revitalization. The literature, however, will continue on and the “Assyrian Dictionary” will be a valuable resource for understanding this ancient culture.
* For the number of unique words Shakespeare used, see:
- “The Man Who Shakespeare Was Not (and Who He Was)” by Charlton Ogburn
- ”Shakespeare’s Vocabulary Considered Unexceptional” by zwischenzugs
- “Shakespeare’s Vocabulary: Myth and Reality” by Hugh Craig (I do not have access to this and have not confirmed the contents)