The Poor Man of Nippur.

Charles Hymas reports on another attempt to speak an ancient language:

A Cambridge academic has taught himself to speak ancient Babylonian and is leading a campaign to revive it as a spoken language almost 2,000 years after it became extinct.

Dr Martin Worthington, a fellow of St John’s College, has created the world’s first film in the ancient language with his Babylonian-speaking students dramatising a folk tale from a clay tablet from 701BC.

Entitled The Poor Man of Nippur, it recounts the tale of a man with a goat who takes revenge on a City mayor for killing the animal by beating him up three times.

It is the culmination of his two decades of research into how the language, once the lingua franca of the Middle East used by Babylonian kings in Mesopotamia, Egyptian pharaohs and Near East potentates, was spoken and pronounced. […]

Dr Worthington has been learning the language since 2000 and says he could make a speech in it but admitted he was by no means fluent, more a “work in progress.”

I approve of this sort of thing, even if it rarely results in natural-sounding speech (and hey, at least he’s modest about his accomplishments); I’ll leave it to those who know more about the language to comment. Thanks, Trevor!

Comments

  1. You left it to those who know more, but the first comment will be from me, who knows less.

    They should translate Bible into Babylonian and send missionaries to convert Babylonians to Christ.

  2. Babylonian (or Akkadian as it is more widely known) is one of the most documented ancient languages – I believe, literally millions of clay tablets were found to date in the Middle East.

    You could become fluent in it as surely as one becomes fluent in Latin or Sanskrit.

    Same can not be said about Sumerian, unfortunately – some of the essential pieces of Sumerian grammar and pronunciation remain unknown, so anything modern in Sumerian has to be mostly artificial reconstruction.

  3. Something about the pronunciation feels unnatural. Maybe it’s that the vowels all sound like textbook cardinal vowels, with no reduction.

  4. Athel Cornish-Bowden says:

    They should translate Bible into Babylonian and send missionaries to convert Babylonians to Christ.

    Not really necessary, nowadays. You just send a chap with no knowledge of the Sentinelese and no way of talking with them, to brandish a Bible at them in the belief that that will cause them to open their hearts to Christ. Surely the ancient Babylonians could be expected to learn modern English?

  5. Or, like St. Maël, you can preach to the auks.

    (I wonder, is that an old trope, the deluded missionary preaching to the unconvertable?)

  6. David Marjanović says:

    even if it rarely results in natural-sounding speech

    The acting is great, “[tablet broken]” in the subtitles saves my day, and the delivery does sound natural. But…

    It is the culmination of his two decades of research into how the language […] was […] pronounced.

    Yeah, no. Half the consonants are anachronistic at best, and that’s been understood for more than two decades.

    Something about the pronunciation feels unnatural. Maybe it’s that the vowels all sound like textbook cardinal vowels, with no reduction.

    No, that’s no less natural than Polish; and I think I’ve noticed some variation in e.

    But then, Polish doesn’t have long vowels (phonemic or phonetic), and Babylonian is supposed to. And yet, Tukultī-Ninurta, consistently so rendered in the subtitles, doesn’t get his once…

  7. @SFReader: Is it generally thought that the great number of apparent homophones in Sumerian were probably distinguished by some feature that wasn’t conveyed in writing?

    @DM: Which consonants do you mean?

  8. They should translate Bible into Babylonian and send missionaries to convert Babylonians to Christ.

    The Lord’s Prayer has of course been rendered into Akkadian. I have it on a poster from Mexico titled “El Padre Nuestro en 76 lenguas,” on which it’s called “acadiano” (of course) and assigned to–Canada.

  9. J.W. Brewer says:

    Fanciful attempts to claim such-and-such group as descended from the lost tribes of Israel are not uncommon, but not sure that anyone other than that Mexican poster-designer has claimed either the Louisiana Cajuns or the still-in-Nova-Scotia Acadians as descendants of the lost tribes of Babylon.

  10. Well, it’s time to give that version a running start!

  11. January First-of-May says:

    but not sure that anyone other than that Mexican poster-designer has claimed either the Louisiana Cajuns or the still-in-Nova-Scotia Acadians as descendants of the lost tribes of Babylon.

    Well, there’s the classic (alleged) college essay quotation…
    “Babylon was similar to Egypt because of the differences they had apart from each other. Egypt, for example, had only Egyptians, but Babylon had Summarians, Acadians, and Canadians, to name just a few.”

  12. Re Akkadian/Acadian, I once heard of a confused writer more familiar with Celtic Christian communities than the ancient world, who described Abraham as coming from “Ur of the Culdees”.

  13. J.W. Brewer says:

    You would think “lost tribes of Babylon” would have been a turn of phrase that multiple people would have independently come up with over the years, but the only google hit for it is from an 1873 review in the New Zealand Herald of a play by Alexandre Dumas, fils named La Femme de Claude, that was then playing in Paris. I’m not sure if the play has ever been translated into English, but it is sort of impressive to learn that the editors of the New Zealand Herald as of 1873 thought their readers were interested in reading reviews about what they might want to see in the theater if they happened to be in Paris and could follow stage dialogue in French.

  14. David Marjanović says:

    @DM: Which consonants do you mean?

    The tablet is from 701 BC, so I may be shooting my mouth off… but if e.g. the -t + š- = -ss- spelling rule was still active, that should mean s and š should be [ts] and [s̠], respectively, while [ʃ], instead of being very common, should be absent or at most allophonic.

  15. Snark taken. Still it should be pointed out that some large portion of the heirs of the Akkadian-speaking community ARE Christian-the Assyrians.

  16. which it’s called “acadiano” (of course) and assigned to–Canada.

    Wasn’t it spoken in Greece and Cyprus?

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arcadocypriot_Greek

  17. How about Akkad? I’ve always called it /əˈkɑːd/ since my middle school history classes, but apparently /ˈækæd/ is more traditional. (For the adjective, though, always /əˈkeɪdiən/.)

  18. I say /ˈækæd/ myself, but I have no idea why (presumably a long-forgotten schoolteacher).

  19. For me it rhymes with Assad, and i wonder whether that is the reason.

  20. And how do you pronounce Assad? It has two short vowels, and I pronounce it almost the same as “acid.”

  21. John Cowan says:

    I’m with Lazar.

  22. David Eddyshaw says:

    with no knowledge of the Sentinelese and no way of talking with them

    As far as I know, this describes everybody in the whole world apart from the Sentinelese themselves.
    I for one would rather like to know more about their language (but not to the point of seeking martyrdom.)

    /ˈækæd/ too, BTW. And /ˈæsæd/, come to that.

  23. I pronounce “Akkad” with a voiced stop, following the Sumerian, rather than late Akkadian.

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