Sumerian dictionary opens door on an ancient Mideast culture

Man's earliest known writers literally held language in the palms of their hands. In a place called Sumer in the Mideast, these early scribes used reeds to impress cuneiform symbols onto virtually indestructible clay tablets. Now, 5,000 years later, holding history in their hands, scholars have made a dream come true for two civilizations by publishing the first dictionary ever compiled for Sumerian, man's most ancient known language.

The first volume of the 18-volume dictionary, published late last November by the University of Pennsylvania, caused something of a media stir after the hiladelphia Inquirer listed the $40 book in a Christmas gift guide as the ``Cabbage Patch Doll of the intelligentsia.'' Wire services picked up the story, and a Texas TV talk show even flew Sumerican scholar Dr. Earle Leichty out for an interview. ``It gave us a thrill,'' says Mr. Leichty. ``Things were really hopping around here for a few days.''

With 550 books sold, it won't appear on best-seller lists. But sales are far ahead of expectations, and a second edition of 750 will be produced much sooner than anticipated. Mr. Leichty estimates that 300 books were sold to people who wouldn't usually buy it (based on sales of a University of Chicago-produced Assyrian dictionary).

Homeland of the world's first known civilization, Sumer was in the arid, wind-swept plain formed by silt deposits from the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. According to Samuel N. Kramer, author of ``History Begins at Sumer,'' the intellectually gifted Sumerians recognized the potential fertility of their valley and, by means of irrigation, ``made the land so productive that modern scholars tend to identify it with the Biblical Garden of Eden.'' Perhaps it is more than coincidence that one of the words the Sumerians passed down to us is ``Eden.''

In taking the language of ancient Sumer from marks on clay tablets right into the computer age, the team of scholars at the University of Pennsylvania Museum have enriched our knowledge about many aspects of the Sumerians, taken the knowledge of the Sumerian language from the private to the public arena, and found out that human nature hasn't changed much in 5,000 years.

A small honeycomb of offices at the University Museum houses the linguistic sleuths and their tools of investigation. Dr. Ake W. Sjoberg, editor of the Sumerian dictionary, enthusiastically opens four-inch-deep drawers filled with a cache of clues -- clay tablets covered edge to edge with wedge-shaped cuneiform writing. Other drawers are opened to reveal 400,000 3-by-5 cards upon which Dr. Sjoberg began to record information in 1949.

The University Museum is the natural place for such a project to make its home, for it has been pursuing ancient Near East studies ever since 1887, when a group of Philadelphia scholars organized the first American archaeological expedition to ancient Babylonia (southern Iraq). The expedition brought back tens of thousands of cuneiform tablets which became the basis of the museum's renowned collection.

Dr. Earle Leichty explains, ``When the Victorian adventurers began extracting thousands of cuneiform tablets . . . it became immediately apparent that more than one language was written in the cuneiform script.'' Some tablets were written in Akkadian, a Semitic language; others were written in ``an unknown language which later came to be called Sumerian.'' Unlike Akkadian, which could be deciphered with the help of the related Hebrew and Arabic languages, ``Sumerian is a unique language, unrelated to any other known language, living or dead,'' Leichty says. ``Progress was painfully slow. . . . In addition, Sumerologists had to labor tediously to piece together the broken fragments of tablets in order to establish a corpus of texts from which tools could be constructed.''

The scholars in Philadelphia have a kiln in which they baked a number of originally unbaked tablets to preserve them. As Sjoberg casually placed a 4,800-year-old tablet in this reporter's palm, his assistant, Dr. Hermann Behrens, remarked, ``Unlike many other linguists who must deal with paper manuscripts, we are very used to having originals in our hands.'' Sjoberg added, ``You can hardly destroy a text. And at that, you can always glue it together.''

The fact that the tablets are so durable accounts for the extraordinary number and variety of records available. Sumerologists may give their attention to everything from business records and property deeds to hymns, poetry, proverbs, love letters, and even practice tablets written by students.

``The vast majority of texts that we have are essentially throwaways,'' Dr. Behrens notes. ``I think if they wanted to preserve a text they would do it on stone.'' In fact, many of these tablets were probably used as building material, as they were found embedded in ceilings or walls.

The first volume of the dictionary to be published comprises 248 pages of words, which, when transliterated, begin with the English letter ``B.'' The volume for the letter ``A'' and 16 other volumes will follow. (``B'' was chosen as a start because words beginning with B present all the problems likely to be found in organizing such a dictionary without the overwhelming number of words beginning with ``A.'')

Behrens explains: ``Sumerian had no alphabet, as such. The language is a combined word and sound process.'' For example, English has the letter ``X'' with a sound assigned to it in the alphabet. ``But an `X' drawn over a picture of a cigarette may mean `no smoking,' so `X' has a meaning there. You might also write `Christmas' with an `X,' or `crossing' with an `X.' '' Sumerian similarly employs its symbols in numerous ways. ``They did all of these things with their signs and they used about 3,000 of them!'' Behrens says, smiling.

But even 5,000 years ago, ``Only a few people were taught and wrote in Sumerian,'' Sjoberg says. ``Both men and women, probably of the upper classes, were taught the language by teachers who had their own libraries of tablets. Later, in Old Babylonian Nippur, there was a kind of university. They called it a `tablet house.' ''

``Sumerian was probably the first subject they had,'' he adds, ``They had guiles between the teachers and the students. There was really very much humor. For instance, someone describes another student by saying, `Your father is a swindler in the house of the businessman; your mother is a cook in the city; your brothers, they dig canals; and your sisters, they are all strange.' ''

But these personable scholars who say that reams could be written about the new meanings they have discovered are careful not to be too personal or interpretive. Behrens emphasizes, ``A dictionary is a tool; it is not a playground for bright ideas. Common sense is the most useful tool we have.''

The major value of the new dictionary will lie in the groundwork it provides for scholars of Sumerology and related fields.

The lack of a dictionary in the past has meant that each scholar toiled to understand the language, aided by the beneficence of professors who would pass on to favored students their own word lists. ``We are trying to break ground, to make Sumerian a public knowledge. Up to now it really was restricted to specialists,'' Behrens says.

The National Endowment for the Humanities is the main benefactor of the Sumerian dictionary project. Other sources of support include the William Penn Foundation, the University Museum, the American Oriental Society, and American Schools of Oriental Research. The project is expected to take 25 years to complete and will require additional funding.

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