Syllabus: Finding the Words

By Mary K. Zajac

A close look inside the classroom

Picture a clay tablet embedded with a series of signs made up of spiky triangular wedge shapes joined to vertical or horizontal lines. To an untrained eye, the signs might look like a row of trees, a small fish, the seed head of a dandelion. In reality, though, the signs are non-representational, and their meanings have no relation to these fanciful interpretations. This is cuneiform, the ancient writing system invented to write Sumerian (ca. 3200 B.C.) and later associated with several ancient Near Eastern languages.

This semester, under the auspices of the Department of Near Eastern Studies, a small group of undergraduates is learning one of those languages: the Babylonian dialect of Akkadian. Perhaps most recognized as the language used for the Epic of Gilgamesh, Akkadian was written and spoken in Mesopotamia—all of what is now Iraq and parts of modern-day Syria—for nearly 3,000 years, from the middle of the third millennium B.C. until the end of the first millennium B.C. Its large lexicon of signs and vocabulary and considerable body of surviving texts—including records, contracts, mythological texts, and narratives—contribute insight into the ancient world.

Of course, learning any new language is an intellectual undertaking, but Akkadian brings its own set of unique challenges. Unlike languages written in the Latin alphabet, Akkadian uses cuneiform as its writing system, and each cuneiform sign can stand for either a sound or sounds (a syllabic value) or a word or several words (a logographic value).

“Getting from the cuneiform signs to the language that’s underneath them adds an extra, complicated step to the learning process,” explains Paul Delnero, associate professor of Assyriology, and one of two professors sharing teaching duties for the course. “You have to start by deciphering the cuneiform signs. Then you have to learn the vocabulary, be able to recognize it, translate it. So it’s all the work that you would normally do for learning any language, plus the extra work of learning the writing system—which is complicated. It’s like learning Chinese.”

Students spend the first half of the semester gaining basic proficiency in reading Akkadian. In class, they work at the chalkboard while Jacob Lauinger, an assistant professor of Assyriology, guides them through a set of translation exercises. They read the cuneiform aloud and write out three lines: a transliteration of the names of cuneiform signs, a transcription that represents a phonetic rendering of the Akkadian utterance, and a translation into English.

“Most of the signs are going to stand for multiple syllables and also multiple words, and part of the joy of it all is figuring out in the particular context, what does it stand for here?” Lauinger reminds the class. “You have the tools [to figure this out] right now, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy.” By midterm, the goal is to gain enough proficiency to spend the second half of the semester reading the Code of Hammurabi, the world’s oldest law code.

“Being able to understand how the writing system works and being able to interact with the text in the original is a big part of experiencing the ancient world as it was,” says Delnero. “If they like the thrill of discovery and the mystery behind the writing system, they will really get it.”

Justine Pinkerton ’19, a double major in Near Eastern studies and international studies, compares the translation exercises to puzzles. “The most difficult part can be putting in the correct piece,” she says. “But now [at midterm] that we’ve had a lot of practice and the phrases are longer so that we can use context clues, it’s getting a lot easier.”

Justine Pinkerton ’19, Billy Bernardoni ’20, and Assistant Professor Jacob Lauinger observe Coco Tian ’18 decipher cuneiform signs.