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Completed Translation of Ancient World Dictionary
Posted In: Other Exciting News  6/4/11
By: Yona Williams

It took 90 years, but the completion of an ancient world dictionary has finally taken place. What started with a small assembly of scholars and a few index cards has morphed into a lifelong project that originated in 1921 at the University of Chicago. In this article, you will learn what happened during that time to achieve the final product and what was learned along the way.

The goal of working on the dictionary was to learn about the people that once used a language that had no longer been adopted by inhabitants. Researchers hoped to explore an ancient world that dealt with chariots, the worshipping of gods and goddess, as well as exciting royal secrets. The scholars set to recreate an Assyrian dictionary by using words recorded on clay or stone tablets that had been uncovered in ruins situated in Iraq, Iran, Syria and Turkey. The words came from a language that hadn’t been used in more than 2,000 years.

It was known that the project would take a long time to complete, but no one thought that the commitment would take this long. The longer it took, the more people joined the team…and they came from all over the world – Canada, the United States, Vienna, Paris, Copenhagen, Jerusalem, Berlin, Helsinki, Baghdad, and London. There were some dedicated scholars that joined the team in their younger years, who continued until they reached retirement. In the beginning, scholars used typewriters, index cards, and mimeograph machines. Over the course of the project, about 2 million cards had accumulated.

After 90 years, a completed dictionary came to life. Consisting of 21 volumes of Akkadian (a Semitic language with many different dialect including Assyrian), researchers have announced an officially complete Chicago Assyrian Dictionary. When you read the "dictionary," which is sometimes referred to as an encyclopedia, a glimpse of the ancient Mesopotamian world is revealed. Researchers have compiled an assortment of writing texts, including tax records, love letter, poem, religious works, and recipes.

Some may wonder why scholars went through all the trouble of working on a dictionary using a language that hasn’t been used in centuries. The language was last written around 100 AD, and only a small number of people in the world are aware of its existence. The words shed light on ancient society and help us understand the evolution of man. The culture associated with the Assyrian language is considered the first urban civilization in the world. Many firsts in the world can be traced back to this culture.

The translation of the cuneiform texts, which were originally written using characters shaped like wedges, showcase a range of emotions and everyday events – such as the birth of a child or the fate of a harvest. Researchers encountered inscriptions, omens regarding the stars and moon, as well as other superstitions. Just to think – the first deadline set for the completion of the dictionary was 10 years.


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