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Ninety years to complete a dictionary

What kind of dictionary takes 90 years to complete? One from the ancient world apparently.

Scholars from The University of Chicago have just completed an Assyrian dictionary that was started in 1921. Lots of staff have worked on the project, with scholars from Vienna, Paris, Copenhagen, Jerusalem, Berlin, Helsinki, Baghdad and London in addition to those from the US and Canada.

The dictionary was compiled from words recorded on clay or stone tablets from ruins in Syria, Turkey, Iran and Iraq.  When the project started the technology used included typewriters and mimeographs. Over 2 million index cards were used. The Chicago Assyrian Dictionary is comprised of 21 volumes, around 10,000 pages and 28,000 words. Some volumes only cover one letter.

So what is the value of a dictionary that showcases a language that died so long ago?

Gil Stein, director of the university’s Oriental Institute (the dictionary’s home), has a ready answer:

“The Assyrian Dictionary gives us the key into the world’s first urban civilization,” he says. “Virtually everything that we take for granted … has its origins in Mesopotamia, whether it’s the origins of cities, of state societies, the invention of the wheel, the way we measure time, and most important the invention of writing.

“If we ever want to understand our roots,” Stein adds, “we have to understand this first great civilization.”

The translated cuneiform texts – originally written with wedged-shaped characters – reveal a culture where people expressed joy, anxiety and disappointment about the same events they do today: a child’s birth, bad harvests, money troubles, boastful leaders.

“A lot of what you see is absolutely recognizable – people expressing fear and anger, expressing love, asking for love,” says Matthew Stolper, a University of Chicago professor who worked on the project on and off over three decades. “There are inscriptions from kings that tell you how great they are, and inscriptions from others who tell you those guys weren’t so great. … There’s also lot of ancient versions of `your check is in the mail.’ And there’s a common phrase in old Babylonian letters that literally means `don’t worry about a thing.'” (Source: AP/Seattle Times)

Quite a story!