An AP story by Sharon Cohen brings us the big news in Assyriology:

The year: 1921. The place: The University of Chicago. The project: Assembling an Assyrian dictionary based on words recorded on clay or stone tablets unearthed from ruins in Iraq, Iran, Syria and Turkey, written in a language that hadn’t been uttered for more than 2,000 years. The scholars knew the project would take a long time. No one quite expected how very long.

Decades passed. The team grew. Scholars arrived from Vienna, Paris, Copenhagen, Jerusalem, Berlin, Helsinki, Baghdad and London, joining others from the U.S. and Canada. One generation gave way to the next, one century faded into the next. Some signed on early in their careers; they were still toiling away at retirement. The work was slow, sometimes frustrating and decidedly low-tech: Typewriters. Mimeograph machines. And index cards. Eventually, nearly 2 million of them.

And now, 90 years later, a finale. The Chicago Assyrian Dictionary is now officially complete – 21 volumes of Akkadian, a Semitic language (with several dialects, including Assyrian) that endured for 2,500 years. The project is more encyclopedia than glossary, offering a window into the ancient society of Mesopotamia, now modern-day Iraq, through every conceivable form of writing: love letters, recipes, tax records, medical prescriptions, astronomical observations, religious texts, contracts, epics, poems and more. …

An early 10-year completion deadline was soon deemed unrealistic. “Scholars always underestimated how difficult it would be,” Roth says. “People always expected the project would end in their lifetime. What can I tell you? That’s not always the way it goes.”

There was much to research, much to record. By 1935, scholars already had 1 million index cards. It would take more than 30 years before the first of the 21 volumes was published. Most cover a single letter. The entire collection spans about 10,000 pages and 28,000 words. The definitions are more fitting for an encyclopedia; they provide cultural and historical context, similar to those in the Oxford English Dictionary.

“It’s not such a word means king,” Roth says. “It’s a matter of understanding the thousands and thousands of references to the word king in every document in every period.”

Here‘s the Assyrian Dictionary Project website, which was last updated December 22, 2010 and does not mention the completion. But I guess if you’re working on a millennia-old language and your dictionary has been in the works for almost a century, you have a different sense of time and urgency than ordinary folks. Besides, they may still be celebrating.


  1. It might not mention the completion but it is available in the catalog of publications.
    Very very interesting!

  2. Not a moment too soon!
    It will make a fine addition on my bookshelf beside “First Steps in Assyrian: A Book for Beginners”, “Being a series of historical, mythological, religious, magical, epistolary and other texts printed in cuneiform characters with interlinear transliteration and translation and a sketch of Assyrian grammar, sign list and vocabulary.” The 400-page volume was prepared by I. W. King, M.A., Assistant to the Dept. of Egyptian and Assyrian Antiquities at the British Museum. It was published in London, in 1898, by Kegan Paul, Trench Trübner & Co., Ltd., Paternoster House, Charing Cross Road, and printed by Adolphus Holzhausen of Vienna. In letterpress, of course. No fooling around with that newfangled offset method.
    In his preface, King notes that “It is of the greatest importance for (the beginner) to become master of the so-called Ninevite script as soon as possible for almost every work found in Ashur-bani-pal’s Royal Library at Nineveh is written in it.” Immediately following is a list of Assyrian grammars and dictionaries, some 15 works in all.
    For those who know Hebrew, its relationship to Assyrian, aka Akkadian, is made immediately apparent through the transliterations. In fact, the book contains a number of pages of correspondences between Assyrian vocabulary (displayed in cuneiform script) and Hebrew vocabulary (displayed in the modern Hebrew alphabet).

  3. dearieme says

    It’s nice to see a few remaining achievements for Western Civilisation before it perishes. Now the dictionary can be buried in the basements of university libraries awaiting future archaeologists.

  4. Better bury it alongwith OED, which relieves those future archeologist of the formidable 90-year task to compile a dictionary for English.

  5. Better bury it alongwith OED, which relieves those future archeologist of the formidable 90-year task to compile a dictionary for English.

    Well, English hasn’t been around for 2500 years, so it should be faster to make a dictionary for it.

  6. “10,000 pages and 28,000 words”?
    Is that a typo for 28,000,000 words or do they mean 28,000 headwords? 28,000 headwords seems awful small, considering the fact that they had a million index cards.

  7. There is typically one index card per quotation per word; of course, not all words in a quotation are suitable. The old OED guideline was that if a word was rare or unusual, every instance of it in a source should go on a dictionary slip; but if not, only specially good instances should be written up. I fear that whoever read The Water-Babies a century ago did a sad job of it; he missed bloke ‘fool’ and seemingly didn’t file a slip for peth-winds at all, which may well be a hapax legomenon.

  8. So we’re not sure if it’s a typo or what?

  9. Well, we can check this off our to-do list. That leaves the Poona Sanskrit dictionary and the Diccionario Griego-Español. I suppose we’ve all given up hope that the Yiddish Groyser Verterbuch will ever be finished.

  10. Marc: No, it clearly means ‘convolvulus’. It’s probably a dialect word, though it didn’t make it into the English Dialect Dictionary.

  11. Evan: I agree the Groyser Verterbukh seems a lost cause, but I doubt it was ever close to completion in the first place. I treasure the several volumes of it that I own, though. There are other Yiddish lexicographical projects of merit that are actually under way right now.

  12. Zachary —
    I know of Beinfeld et al reworking the Yiddish-French dictionary into English. What other interesting projects are underway?

  13. Until we see a Hittite-Klingon dictionary, civilization will always have something to work towards.

Speak Your Mind