Silent no more

Nov 2, 2010 by

Isn’t it fun to listen to recordings of unfamiliar tongues? But I especially like hearing the sounds of languages long dead. More and more such recordings surface on the internet and most of them are of older forms of English (for example, there are numerous and different recordings of Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales). But recently a new website by Martin J. Worthington from London’s School of Oriental and African Studies offers a collection of recordings in the Babylonian and Assyrian languages of ancient Mesopotamia.

Want to hear sections of the Codex Hammurabi, the codification from 1790 B.C.E. that is one of the world’s oldest set of laws? Or sections of the Gilgamesh Epic (available in both the Old Babylonian Version and in the Standard Version from the first millenium B.C.E.), in which the gods instruct the eponymous hero-king to prepare a boat ahead of a great flood, a tale familiar to anyone who’s read the Bible? Or how about the “Poem of the Righteous Sufferer”, which prefigures the story of Job?

Babylonian and Assyrian are members of the Semitic language family and as such are related to Hebrew and Arabic, as well as to Phoenician and Ugaritic, two extinct languages that were very important for the development of modern alphabetic writing (more on that in a future posting). For 2,000 years in ancient times, Babylonian and Assyrian (which are dialects of Akkadian, another extinct Semitic language) were major tongues of what is now Iraq and parts of Syria, Turkey, and Iran. They stopped being spoken in about 500 B.C.E., but continued to serve as scholarly and liturgical languages until the first century C.E. They faded from use under pressure from Aramaic, yet another Semitic language, which was presumably spoken by Jesus.

Babylonian and Assyrian were not known to the scholarly community 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 languages survived on hundreds of thousands of the tablets that were baked like pots in an oven during the fires that razed cities of ancient Akkad to the ground and killed their inhabitants or made them flee.

Of course, it is important to remember that the clay tablets preserved for posterity how Babylonian and Assyrian were written, not how they were spoken. But Worthington is relatively confident about the reconstructions of the pronunciation of these ancient tongues that are presented on his website. But how can we know how an ancient and long-dead language was pronounced?

While some doubt will always remain, Worthington and other specialists are able to approximate the sounds of Akkadian 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, Rubio points out that some experts who made the recordings on Worthington’s website 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. But to Worthington himself, that is all to the good, “because accentual variations can point to improvements in pronunciation of the ancient language”.

And although Assyrian is a long-dead tongue, Assyrians as a group are still alive. They are a modern community, several million strong globally, that claims to be the descendents of the ancient Assyrian empire-builders. They are the main Christian group of Iraq and neighboring countries, and as such they have been subject to much anti-Christian violence and ethnic cleansing in Iraq. You can read about modern-day Assyrians and their plight in today’s Geocurrents posting.

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