Sumerian Dictionary to Decipher Ancient Texts

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The dictionary being produced in Philadelphia is more than just a simple translation tool, such as an English-French dictionary. Sumerian is so different from any current language that to understand each word requires a detailed entry explaining how each word was used and its various shades of meaning, both literal and metaphorical.

The written language consists of about 600 symbols, each representing what we would call a syllable or word fragment. The syllables can be words by themselves or can be combined with others, and they often have multiple meanings. Ca (pronounced kah), for example, means "mouth," "voice," and "to speak."

Some of the symbols are believed to have originated as pictographs, but by 3000 B.C., they had become completely abstract.

In the staff-only back rooms at the Penn museum, three Sumerologists—experts in a field that combines the humanities with archaeology and linguistics—apply skills ranging from research to sleuthing to puzzle-solving.

British-born Steve Tinney started working on the dictionary project in 1991 and officially took over this month as director. Tonia Sharlach is a researcher and specializes in reconstructing the economic system of the ancients. Another researcher, Phil Jones, fills out the team.

They are building on work started in the 1970s by Penn Museum Sumerologist Ake Sjoberg. He began the compilation by volume and got through words starting with sounds of A and B.

Intricate Marks

The clay tablets and tablet pieces—30,000 of them, sorted in wooden drawers by category—were collected by Penn museum archaeologists in expeditions that started in the late 1800s and continued through much of the 20th century. Most come from Nippur, one of the major Sumerian cities, along with Ur and Uruk.

Some contain poetic, literary text. Others are just accounting records: lists of household possessions, of goats and sheep, or tax receipts. Many appear to have come from a school where young boys were learning the art of writing—a system called cuneiform, named for the wedge-shaped script created by pressing reeds into clay.

Even the lists of grazing animals are beautiful, intricate objects, the writing a complex mix of strokes that, to the Western eye, bear a resemblance to Japanese or Chinese characters.

Tinney brings out one particularly exquisite object: a clay letter with its own envelope, like a three-inch-wide pillow in a clay pillowcase. The envelope was closed with an official seal, imprinted in the clay, so that no one could tamper with the letter inside, said Tinney.

Many words in the dictionary were already known to scholars through tablets that ancient people created as guides to translation between Sumerian and Akkadian, a Semitic language spoken in the same part of the world at the time. Akkadian evolved into other languages that eventually branched into modern Hebrew and Arabic.

Hundreds of words have no Akkadian translation, however. To decipher these, Tinney and Sharlach study the context.

Some are simple concepts, said Sharlach. "A dog is a dog is a dog." Other words are more abstract. Ma, for example, seems to mean "that without which life is not possible."

Sharlach recalls one mysterious word written as part of a list of three things that priests should not eat before performing rituals. The other two were fish and leeks, which suggested, she guessed, that the priests were being told they should not have bad breath while talking to the gods.

At first the researchers thought the word was cress, the leafy green, but in other contexts it was described as a spice, and it appeared to be used to flavor beer. She now thinks it more likely means cardamom, which was a common flavoring in food and drink.

Electronic Format

By the mid-1990s, Tinney decided to change how the dictionary was compiled. With the advent of the Internet, he realized their work could be released as they progressed.

In an electronic format, scholars elsewhere could make use of the mountain of translations they've already completed, while Penn's Sumerologists continued to puzzle out the rest.

While the original A and B volumes have long entries for each word with many shades of meaning, something like the Oxford English Dictionary, Sharlach and Tinney have gone all the way to Z with simple translations for thousands of words.

They show a printout of some of their work. There are all kinds of translations—words for counting and for farm animals and for professions, words for heroic men and sorcerers. There are multiple words for female genitalia. "You have to remember, many of these came from a school," explained Sharlach, a school attended by preteen and teenage boys.

And lots of lists. "They liked lists," Sharlach said. "They liked controlling their environment," and cataloging the names for things seemed to be a part of that.

Their list of gods has about 2,000 entries. Sumerians believed in a whole shadow world of gods in every city. All the gods had their own families and servants, also made up of gods.

The Sumerians wrote proverbs, too. Tinney's favorite is "The road is bad, beer is good." That, he said with a chuckle, seems to mean "travel is hard, but the beer is worth it."

The Sumerians also wrote the first known epic, Gilgamesh, consisting of a dozen different stories about a man's quest for immortality. It started as a series of Sumerian myths and evolved into a Babylonian legend. One of them tells of a great flood, and of a man who builds a boat and loads it with pairs of each type of animal.

Gilgamesh has been translated, but like much of the writing in Sumerian, many phrases are still not fully understood. The language gets richer year by year, said Tinney. "The dictionary is a process, not a project."

Copyright 2002 Philadelphia Inquirer

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