A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

The Chicago Assyrian Dictionary: A Monumental 90-Years-in-the-Making Work Available for Free Download

This blog has been stuck in the third millennium most of the past few weeks, what with the developments in Egypt, Syria, etc. so I thought I'd talk about something dealing with a rather older period. A colleague sent me a link to a story from June of last year on the completion of the Chicago Assyrian Dictionary, surely one of the most monumental contributions to the study of the Ancient Near East ever attempted. That may now be old news (that's the BBC account; the New York Times story is here), but since they started compiling the dictionary in early 1920s and finished it in 2011, a year late in talking about its completion seems about par for the course. Especially since the language which now has a 21-volume dictionary hasn't been spoken for about 2,200 years. (Though it was used for maybe 2,400 years up to that time.)

We're talking here about the language(s) collectively usually called Akkadian today, and its later dialects Assyrian and Babylonian. When Egyptologist James Henry Breasted founded the Oriental Institute in 1919 and started the project in 1921, the language was called Assyrian in all its forms, and the dictionary has been stuck with what is now an anachronistic term usually restricted to the later form; the Chicago dictionary deals with Akkadian-Assyrian-Babylonian in all its time periods. The BBC account refers to it as "the language of Ancient Mesopotamia," which must have gotten them some angry letters from Sumerians and some Elamites, but it was indeed both the primary language of Ancient Mesopotamia for and the lingua franca of the Ancient Near East until the rise of Aramaic.

The dictionary was produced by the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago, one of the great temples of classical Ancient Near Eastern scholarship.

Let me note as well that friends who do comparative Semitic linguistics tell me this should be of interest to anyone dealing with any Semitic language, since it gives us the most comprehensive record of the oldest Semitic language (depending on how you date the earliest extant Hebrew) which is well-enough attested to really study comparatively. An example of that below. So a serious linguist in Arabic and Hebrew might have occasion to refer to it for comparative reasons.

And that brings us to the reason I bring it up on this blog: obviously a serious student of Arabic or Hebrew linguistics (or Syriac or Aramaic or South Arabian or Amharic or any other Semitic language) might have need to refer occasionally to such a work. But works on Ancient Near Eastern languages are notoriously expensive. Most are priced beyond the reach of students or even professors; in the case of Middle Eastern scholars, even the university libraries may not have them. And indeed, ordering all 21 volumes of the Chicago Assyrian Dictionary will set you back $1,995.

Or, if you lack room on the shelf or don't have two grand in your pocket, you can download the whole thing in PDF files for free. 

That's right, the whole thing, subject to the usual sort of terms of use:
Terms of Use: The electronic files are only to be distributed from the Oriental Institute's Web site. Individuals, libraries, institutions, and others may download one complimentary copy for their own personal use. ©The University of Chicago. Links to the Institute's Web site are welcomed.
And that fact is being appreciated. Completed a year ago in June 2011, by last August the dictionary hat hit 100,000 downloads.   As a press release at the time noted:
“The fact that there have been more than 100,000 downloads of the Assyrian Dictionary reflects the tremendous value of this work as a resource for scholarship,” said Stein, who is pleased that PDFs of all Oriental Institute-published research are available free on the Internet.
“This is especially important because it makes publications like this easily accessible to scholars in the Middle Eastern countries, who often have difficulty obtaining the print versions of the dictionaries and other research in archaeology and ancient textual studies,” Stein added. “The Internet is helping us make the CAD — the key to the Akkadian language — available to researchers in Iraq, ancient Mesopotamia, the land that gave birth to written language.”
I was trying to think of a way to make my point that a comprehensive study of Akkadian could be of interest to those doing Arabic or Hebrew linguistics. I could pick an entry dealing with some common Semitic cognate for writing or speaking or some such, but that wouldn't make a lasting impression. Then it hit me: pick a dirty word and they'll remember it. Arabic speakers, even native speakers, may not realize the antiquity of a common if somewhat vulgar term for copulation, the Arabic verb naka and its various noun forms, which are generally equivalent to their well-known vulgar English equivalents starting in "f". Though everyday speakers may not realize it this is not only a very old root in  Semitic, occurring in Akkadian, but it also appears in Ancient Egyptian (where its hieroglyphic is quite graphically obscene in its own right) and is found in many Afro-Asiatic languages as well. That may be a future post if I think I can get away with it, but here is the erudite Chicago Dictionary's treatment of that same Arabic root's ancestor in Akkadian:

See what I mean?

1 comment:

David Mack said...

Thanks. Have sent this along to a couple of linguist friends.