Reading Akkadian

My last post reminded me of something sage Dr Greengus said in class last week, “Nobody reads Akkadian, we are really just deciphering.”

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9 Comments on “Reading Akkadian”

  1. Nobody Says:

    Neat website. Anyway, in re: the reading of Akkadian: NOT TRUE.

    For my part, I am not a cuneiform guy, and I am well in the “deciphering” camp. As in, semi-literate fumbling around for hours and hours with a map and a flashlight in Labat just to find a single sign value. So, this is not bragging.

    However, having taken two years of Akkadian at the University of Chicago, I can promise you that some people certainly do “read” Akkadian. Matthew Stolper reads Akkadian with dizzying speed (and expects his students to keep up). Ditto, Walter Farber.

    Frankly, they damn-near speak the language(s). I can recall numerous in-class discussions of how the Annals of Sennacherib ‘should’ have said this or that, or what Hammurabi ‘might’ have written, if the author had ‘meant’ to say such-and-such.

    If you want to meet people who read Akkadian, talk to the people who take — or have taken — a lot of classes with those two guys. If you want to become such a person, get yourself to Chicago. The OI is full of them.

    Other than me, I mean…

  2. Peter Bekins Says:

    Thank you for your comment. Certainly Dr Greengus was using a bit of hyperbole, the best Assyriologists reach quite a high level of proficiency.

    However, my point in mentioning it was related more to my last post and the perception of how many languages I speak. There is a quantitative difference between my competency in French and my competency in the ancient languages I study (using competency in the more technical sense, ie ability to create and understand sentences I have never heard before).

    Of these, I think Akkadian is probably the most deceptive since scholars have created a somewhat artificial grammar (especially phonology). So, the best Assyriologists indeed have mastery of that grammar, but how close are we to actual Assyrian or Babylonian or the multitude of sub-dialects? How well do we deal with exceptions and variants?

  3. Nobody Says:

    It seems to me as if the “quantitative difference” that you have in mind here is precisely the kind of difference that I am talking about. Many of our in-class discussions are about what amounts to the composition of Akkadian sentences, not otherwise attested in the documentary record. That’s well beyond the level of mere “decoding,” even if we allow that “decoding” may involve a relatively high degree of familiarity with the language under consideration. What we’re doing is working from one language into another language (sometimes, across dialects of Babylonian and Assyrian, in fact) for the purpose of producing intelligible communication, according to the known rules of grammar and orthography in the various dialects. That’s competency in the technical sense, is it not?

    I’m not sure what you mean by “artificial grammar (especially phonology).” This is not a rhetorical device intended to put you down. Seriously, I’m not sure what you mean.

    People like Caplice and Huehnergaard have produced general — and therefore, I suppose, artificial — grammars of Akkadian, by presenting the data primarily with reference to the conventions of grammar, phonology and orthography in one dialect or another of Akkadian (itself something of an artificial term), but that does not represent the true state of our knowledge of Babylonian and Assyrian in all of their historical particulars. The various corpora of Babylonian and Assyrian are by now relatively large and well understood, and they are — it seems to me, at any rate — subject to pretty clear lines of delineation, one from another. Thus, if you want to understand how they would have composed a particular sentence in Babylon during the time of (some guy) and compare it with how they would have composed the same sentence in Kanesh during the time of (some other guy), you can actually sit down and figure that out pretty reliably. Over time, you can even become technically competent in such a practice, and people do it all of the time. OK, maybe not all of the time, but enough to make my point.

    If what you mean is that there are no longer any native speakers of Akkadian in the world, then you are absolutely right. But if you actually just mean that no one possesses any degree of legitimate linguistic competency in Akkadian, then I can’t agree. I know people who seem to me to be perfectly good couter-examples.

    Is any of that a meaningful response to the point that you are making when you talk about an ‘artificial grammar’ of Akkadian?

    At any rate, maybe we’ll just have to agree to disagree on this one. I’ll leave the last word for you. Thanks!

  4. Nobody,

    First, why don’t you be a real awilum and use your name.

    Second, Greengus received his PhD from Chicago and studied under no less than Benno Landsberger.

    What Greengus referred to when he said that we are all deciphering is not exactly applicable to your example in which you referred to texts that people prepare ahead of time before class–and classes that the mentioned professors have probably taught at least 5 times before (I mean no slight against these professors, they are most certainly brilliant leaders of the field). Of course Pete and I can speed through Hammurapi because we basically have it half memorized anyhow. Throw me a Babylonian liver omen and I need to do some deciphering and I bet that most Assyriologists who do not actively work in liver omens would need to do the same. If you have read Akkadian you know that each region, time period and scribe writes a little bit differently and each modern copyist copies a bit differently so if you’re reading from a copy you have two levels of deciphering to go through.

    As an aside: have you ever looked through the CAD and seen how many different ways the same lines in the Code of Hammurapi have been translated? Even the luminaries that produced that volume constantly disagree on how to understand the most studied cuneiform document.

    One of the wisest things we can learn when approaching texts is to have some humility. Talk to the greats of the field and they have it with respect to their approach to the language.

    Yes, truly, we are just deciphering.

  5. Jay Says:

    Sorry, Nobody, I’ve got to agree with Pete and Charles on this one. Given any text, anyone, even the best in the field, will stumble through at least some parts the first they read it. Of course, these would decipher it faster than the rest of us. In that sense, it may be considered “reading” . . . come the second, third, or fourth time around.

    I think what Pete is getting at (though I certainly don’t speak for him) regarding “artificial grammar” is that we’re working from the data we have available and attempting to reconstruct a dead language based upon what can be determined from that limited data.

    Personally, I’m always a bit skeptical when I hear someone say “it should say such” in reference to a dead language. Who are we to correct native speakers? (Although, granted, in some instances, scribes were not native speakers of, say, Sumerian) In doing so, we are forcing our perceptions of a static grammar upon a native speaker. Sort of like differentiating between formal English and colloquial English . . . yes, we can correct someone to use “proper” grammar, but linguistically, a native speaker can construct the language however he sees fit if he communicates clearly, because he “understands” it–communication over “correctness”.

    Thus, like Pete noted, none of us “read” dead languages in the sense that we are not competent in them.

  6. Peter Bekins Says:

    Gee, I didn’t expect this post to be so controversial. My basic point remains that we should be careful to keep our knowledge of ancient languages in perspective, especially Akkadian. Not only is it a dead language with no native speakers, it was a forgotten language that had to be deciphered from scratch (and its only been about 150 years!)

    Thus, as for a “somewhat artificial grammar” I merely mean that the decipherment process forced scholars to begin with assumptions based on comparable languages, largely classical Arabic. It is then an iterative process. Where we have enough data we can revise those assumptions, but where we don’t then we don’t. Many things remain which are mere conventions, ie where we mark length.

    Certainly I don’t mean that scholars don’t have “any degree of legitimate linguistic competency.” But what degree? I just don’t know how many scholars could pull a fresh tablet out of the ground and start reading it like a newspaper. Maybe if they got lucky and it fell within their area of specialty. But could you ever imagine a situation where there were thousands of unread Hebrew inscriptions sitting in museums around the world?

  7. Nobody Says:

    I don’t know, guys. It seems to me as if you are putting the bar pretty high for what a person needs to do to be able to do to be considered “competent ” in the reading of a particular language.

    If, in order to be “competent” in a language, you need to be able to read all possible texts as if they were modern newspapers, then I am not actually competent in English. To tell the truth, I can only make out the Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution after carfeul consideration much of the time. And even then, I am often working as much from context and prior knowledge of the documents as anything else. If you were to give me a random selection from either work — as is often the case with Akkadian documents — the task would only become that much more difficult. At that level then, I can only “decipher” those documents. But I don’t actually think that that means that I’m not a technically competent user of the English language.

    Beyond that, not all texts are as straightforward as a modern newspaper. Texts may be inherently complicated for any number of reasons unrelated to the competency of the reader in any sense. Such texts will require a good deal of time in order to be made sense of, even by native speakers. Take for example, poetic texts or highly technical treatises. Does the fact that I am forced to “decipher” Ulysses, or the Four Quartets, or even any number of highly technical journal articles in my own academic field mean that I am not actually “reading” the English language? Does the fact that legal scholars disagree about the exegesis of the founding documents of the United States mean that we are not ‘competent’ in our interpretation of them? Are the meanings of Joyce and Eliot now lost forever into the mists of time, because the authors themselves are no longer among us to confirm or deny our readings? Probably not, I think.

    So, I remain un-convinced that the entire field of modern Assyriology should be thought of as comprised of non-competent readers, just because they can’t always pull a tablet right out of the ground and read it to you like I read “Goodnight Moon” to my daughter.

    As for the legitimacy of discussions about how someone “should” have written or said something at some point in the past, of course they are speculative in some significant sense. However, it is perfectly possible — for what are by now very large corpora of texts (150 years is actually a pretty fair chunk of time in the academic world) — to make entirely legitimate statements about the observable norms of grammar and orthography among those specific corpora, and to compare those statements with the data in this or that text. At that level, those converations are not really artificial or speculative at all. They are part of what seems to me to be a quasi-scientific attempt to compare new data with previous observations and to increase the overall state of knowledge in a particular field.

    Yes, we are merely approaching the objective truth about some aspects of these languages, and that approach may only be asymptotic in the final analysis. That far, I agree with all of you that we should all show a little humility about the things that we do or don’t (can or can’t!) “know” in the strictest possible sense. But let’s not rubbish the entire enterprise and all of the legitimate progress that has been made over the last century and a half, just because Akkadian is an undeniably difficult language to learn.

    So, your’e right that we may still have work to do on topics such as stress patterns and vowel length. But the orthography and the grammar and the lexicon of both Babylonian and Assyrian are all generally solid and subject to pretty fine-grained description at this point, and that has to count for something considerable, I think. On balance then, I can’t agree that we’re all just fumbling around in the dark when it comes to the reading of Akkadian.

    As for the possibility of imagining thousands of unread Hebrew inscriptions sitting in museums around the world, I guess I don’t really have that much trouble with the idea at all. If we were still in the process of unearthing well into the seven figures of Hebrew inscriptions from various digs throughout the entire Middle East, then I am more-or-less certain that we would be in precisely that position. The problem with Akkadian in that regard isn’t that we lack the capability to read the inscriptions, it’s that we lack the manpower to get the job done. Also, it seems to me as if there are still plenty of perfectly good questions to be asked about the fine points of grammar, orthography and pronunciation, even in a relatively small corpus like the one for Hebrew inscriptions. Does that mean that we are all just “deciphering” those texts as well? Surely, you guys don’t think that, do you?

    Lastly, I think that my example — using Hammurabi’s code and Sennacherib’s annals — of the potential for “correcting” the grammar of native speakers is perfectly apt. After all, was Professor Greengus not making the statement about ‘decipherment’ in a class for which he had previously prepared numerous times (and all of the students showed up with their homework in good working order)? If he can make such a statement in a discussion of previously published and well-known texts, then why can’t I use a counter-example from the discussion of other previously-published and well-known texts? Moreover, those kinds of discussions take place all of the time, not just in relatively low-level intro Akkadian classes, so the objection misses my point even if I’m not entitled to my example.

    Perhaps the disagreement here has to do with where we apply the predication “deciphering.”

    If you guys mean to say that we are still at the “deciphering” stage with either the Babylonian or Assyrian language as a whole, then I think that I can’t possibly agree with you.

    If on the other hand, you simply mean to suggest tht there are:

    a. certain very narrow aspects of either language’s conventions of vocalization and writing; or

    b. some specific kinds of texts

    for which we are still in the process of “deciphering” the known data, then I guess that I can see where you’re coming from. Does that help to bridge the gap at all?

  8. Nobody Says:

    For Charles:

    In my dialect of Akkadian, we say “amilum.”

    “If you have read Akkadian, you know that each region, time period and scribe (etc.).”

    Anyway, I will be happy to tell you my name, but I will only do it in Akkadian signs. Once I have extracted an admission from you that you possess sufficient competency in the language to make sense of it, I will pass the information along.


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