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Ancient Accents

Some 2,000 years after falling silent, the Babylonian and Assyrian languages of ancient Mesopotamia are echoing again, online.

Want to hear sections of the Codex Hammurabi, the codification from 1790 BC that is one of the world’s oldest set of laws? Or sections of the Gilgamesh Epic, in which the gods instruct the eponymous hero-king to prepare a boat ahead of a great flood, a tale familiar to anyone reared on the Bible? Or how about the “Poem of the Righteous Sufferer,” which prefigures the story of Job?

All are now possible thanks to Martin J. Worthington, who offers Babylonian and Assyrian Poetry and Literature: An Archive of Recordings at www.speechisfire.com. There, the postdoctoral research fellow in Near and Middle East studies at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies has begun posting Babylonian texts and several colleagues’ recorded readings. The scholar has also just published Complete Babylonian: A Teach Yourself Guide, out this month from McGraw-Hill, while last year he won the American Oriental Society’s triennial Jonas Greenfield Prize for Younger Semitists for his study of how Babylonian and Assyrian influenced one another.

Reached in London, Worthington says the book and the web site are his efforts to provide useful tools to students learning the ancient languages and civilization—few in number, but typically highly motivated. On the web site, 30 sound files are posted—selections that are eclectic by modern standards, but would have resonated with any upstanding citizen of Babylonia—and more are on the way.

Says the scholar: “Most of my colleagues are too shy to contribute, but people have told me they are using it in teaching, all over the world.”

For 2,000 years in ancient times, Babylonian and Assyrian, which are really dialects of Akkadian, and related to Hebrew and Arabic, were major tongues of what is now modern-day Iraq and parts of Syria, Turkey, and Iran. They stopped being spoken in about 500 BC, but continued to serve as scholarly and liturgical languages until the first century AD. They faded from use under pressure from Aramaic, the language spoken by Jesus.

Babylonian and Assyrian would not surface again until the second quarter of the 19th century, when European archaeologists came upon clay tablets with cuneiform writing which they deciphered by mid-century. The language survived on hundreds of thousands of the tablets.

Says Worthington: “It’s one of the great ironies of studying ancient Mesopotamia that the same fires that razed cities to the ground, killing their inhabitants or making them flee, baked the clay tablets like pots in an oven, preserving them for posterity. So, for our purposes, the more pillage and destruction that went on, the better.” He says he set up his site because so many people asked him what the dialects would have sounded like.

He is relatively confident about the results. While some doubt will always remain, he and other specialists are able to approximate Akkadian’s sounds using such methods as deducing sounds through study of letter combinations and spelling patterns on the original cuneiform texts, and also by comparison with related languages, including Arabic, Hebrew, Ethiopic, and Aramaic. Assyriologists have drawn clues, as well, from more-arcane sources, such as changes over time in the way Babylonian cuneiform was written that indicate sound changes of predictable kinds.

Another Assyriology expert, Gonzalo Rubio, an associate professor of classics and ancient Mediterranean studies at Pennsylvania State University, says that “the pronunciations provided by various colleagues are quite revealing” because variants demonstrate, or betray, theories of how the language worked—for example, he says, some experts pronounce Akkadian as if it were Arabic, while others render sounds in ways that might surprise modern Arabic ears, but that seem, to him, “historically quite accurate, probably much closer to what the Ancient Mesopotamian speakers did.” Attentive listeners to the site can even notice that speakers’ Babylonian bears traces of their native language—Italians speak Babylonian with an Italian accent, the English with an English accent. That is all to the good, says Worthington, because accentual variations can point to improvements in pronunciation of the ancient language.

Visitors have listened to sound files on the site 236,000 times, to date, Worthington reports. No wonder, when they can pore over such material as an ancient incantation to keep alive people bitten by rabid dogs. The spell’s “prime purpose was to propitiate the gods and protect the patient,” says the scholar. “There would have been packs of rabid dogs in the ancient Near East, living on the outskirts of cities, coming in from rural areas, and they would have been scary things.”

Just as compelling is an account of the goddess Ishtar’s descent to the Underworld. That myth began in Sumerian and was later translated into Babylonian, and surely someone should make a Hollywood movie of the tale because artifacts about the saucy goddess of war and love include a hymn in which she sings the praises of her own genitals. “But that’s a Sumerian hymn,” Worthington notes, “so that won’t be going on my web site.”

The site is low-tech, and the scholar says he is fielding advice on improvements. Among his sources of counsel have been a priestess to Ishtar in the Republic of Georgia as well as disparate techies who have sent tips on how to spruce up the design.

For now, the scholar is unapologetic about any shortcomings. He says he has muddled along as best he can. That has meant, for example, making the recordings on a Dictaphone whenever opportunities have arisen.Worthington’s archive of recordings complements various print and online Akkadian-language resources, including a guide on the British academic website, Knowledge and Power. Online since 2007, it has placed online eight key but out-of-print volumes of Assyrian scholarly writings. It also has pages dedicated to Akkadian grammar and vocabulary.

The more resources, the merrier, as far as Worthington is concerned: “I’ve always had the feeling that not enough people in the world know that Babylonian exists. For people that like languages and how they work, it’s fantastic, because 90 percent of it is known, and 10 percent isn’t, so it’s very well poised for discoveries.”—Peter Monaghan

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