After 90 years, scholars finish a 21-volume dictionary for an extinct language. Why?

With over 7,000 known languages spoken around the world today, it may seem fruitless for scholars to have spent the past 90 years creating a dictionary for a language that has been extinct for nearly 2,000 years. Hold on; Let’s look at the reasons for the immense effort, and form our judgements afterwards.

Originally modeled on the Oxford English Dictionary, the recently completed Chicago Assyrian Dictionary, or CAD, is a twenty-one-volume reference of ancient Mesopotamian dialects. Consisting of 28,000 words, the CAD offers an in depth study of the cuneiform script – one of the first known writing systems, with cuneiform deriving from the Latin cuneus, “wedge-shaped,” after the triangular shapes of the script (see the accompanying image for an example.)

(In related news, a lost, legendary dictionary was recently discovered. Find out where, and what language it may help to revive, here.)

When James Henry Breasted began compiling the dictionary’s content in 1921, all evidence, including preserved clay tablets and stone inscriptions, pointed to the Assyrian language as the common spoken word of the Sumerians. However, as further research proved, writing samples showed that the Akkadian language, part of the Afroasiatic language family, was probably more commonly spoken throughout the culture – deeming the dictionary’s name somewhat misleading.

According to editor in charge, Martha T. Roth, “Every term, every word becomes a window into the culture.” Words such as kalu meaning “detain, keep in custody, hold back” and di’nu, “case,” suggest that the language was a vital tool for the formation of the first recorded laws and government —  anywhere. In addition, repeated reference in written records to ardu, meaning “slave,” provides evidence that slavery was common in ancient civilizations.

The language reflects the beginnings of land irrigation and the mass shipment of cultivated goods. One of the world’s earliest known works of literature, the Epic of Gilgamesh, is a series of Sumerian legends and poetry originally inscribed on clay tablets in the Akkadian language. In other words, if we understand the way that the world’s pioneers of literature, agriculture, and finance structured their thoughts, perhaps we can better understand ourselves. Do you agree? Let us know.


  1. Gabriel .L -  June 4, 2012 - 6:05 pm

    i think if different countries have different langs, they have their own culture. :P

    • Billy -  June 10, 2015 - 7:41 am

      BRO, THAT IS SO TRUE! Oh my lawd, your wisdom is amazing. I love you so much <3

  2. Qasim -  March 13, 2012 - 4:25 am

    This is a wonderful report. No generation can lay claim to civilization. One can only know to the extent of where his sight can take him. The wonderful research the excellent scholars have done has also confirmed the above. I doff my cap for the scholars of our time. I am sincerely confirming that I had not wasted my time checking out this site. Without language, there can be neither culture nor tradition. Good Job! Keep it up.

  3. Kathleen -  March 11, 2012 - 2:23 pm

    @bass drum. It isn’t “ironic”. It’s a “coincidence”. :)

  4. neely -  July 3, 2011 - 9:50 am

    awesome work! quite good to be a part of ancient knowledge , nd hats off to a person who has done such a great job.

  5. savyatha -  June 16, 2011 - 1:44 am

    hi guys this article is the great gift by our scholars to our future and present society
    all the best n long live there credit it is really awesome rock on . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . this should not be stop at this point keep going as documentation of more should be done
    all the best

  6. Luck in W -  June 14, 2011 - 10:14 pm

    I recently read a children’s version of Gilgamesh. I imagine that it was originally written in cuneiform. I seem to remember a few letters (words?) on some of the pages. Truly a wonderful project in the Akkadian/Assyrian language.

    I hope that more such languages, both old and newer, can be documented and saved. It was just a few months ago that I read about a small group of people recently discovered in the Himalayas who spoke a language all their own. I find it truly a pity that there are languages that are dying out. Language is so much a part of identity.

  7. Churvaness -  June 14, 2011 - 5:27 pm

    even if it is a “thing of the past”… this civilization might have some knowledge(technologies, ideas etc.) that we haven’t discovered yet which could be very important in our present times. Its not a waste! I feel bad seeing people saying that its a waste of time, money etc. These people spend 90 years to make this…90 YEARS!

  8. Michael McAndrews -  June 14, 2011 - 11:31 am

    I believe understanding past cultures will help us understand our world a little more, and maybe create a possibility for improvements in our society. The possibilities are endless.
    I am curious to where I could purchase a copy of this dictionary for it would be quite fascinating to study.

  9. JJ -  June 14, 2011 - 8:25 am

    Wow! Genious! Don’t see this as a waste of time at all!

  10. Mark Heffington -  June 14, 2011 - 7:09 am

    Actually, Akkadian, Assyrian and Sumerian were different languages, with Sumerian being used by the Sumerian people. Sumerian is a language isolate, meaning that heretofore it has not been related to any other language past or present.

  11. lkj -  June 14, 2011 - 7:00 am

    i find the article insulting. at the outset, the author implies that the reader would find the study of such a language superfluous and wasteful. it makes me want to vomit bile.

  12. Dixiesuzan -  June 14, 2011 - 6:48 am

    A excellent article. I always wanted to learn this. And especially how to translate cuniform tablets. There are thousands (20,000?) of ancient cuniform tablets at Claremont College in Southern California which have never been translated since recovered. To be the first one to read a 3,000 year old tablet since almost when it was written is a thrill I never had the chance to have. Every once in awhile one is extremely significant. Many turn out to be simply accounting records by the way. I loved classical antiquities, Latin, Greek and (unfortunately) just a smattering of Hebrew.

  13. Number Plates -  June 14, 2011 - 6:06 am

    very interesting article about language and the use of symbols, which continues today from numbering our cars through to picture signs in the work place or on roads

  14. Linda Short -  June 14, 2011 - 5:38 am

    How did the translators turn the unknown cuneiform letters into the Roman alphabet?

  15. David Joseph -  June 14, 2011 - 5:37 am

    There is about 5-8 million people around the world that call themselves Assyrians, I am one of them,and they speak the same language, but with the moderate letters not cuneiform shapes, so just to let you know that the language is not extinct, as a matter of fact more than one Assyrian scholar participated in this work. Go to The Old Assyrian Church of the East in Chicago, you will hear the language spoken every day especially in Sunday’s mass. Christian minority in Iraq is known to be Assyrians, and they have big community in Chicago, Detroit and other cities in USA, they are also known as Chaldeans or Syriac.

  16. pablo -  June 14, 2011 - 1:27 am

    90 years! …what a waste … for the 5 people who will probabl read it … think what else all that effort could have achieved …. we need to be looking forward rather than looking back all the time … i guess it gave someone a job for a FEW years !

  17. Teri -  June 13, 2011 - 10:57 pm

    The economical article lacked details on studying this subject further. Are any resources online? or anywhere? This fascinating, significant development is worthy of an indepth report so people may not only know of it’s existence, but have the opportunity to have at least a cursory understanding of the language.

  18. Marks2Much -  June 13, 2011 - 9:40 pm

    Just wait until the texts describing the Sumerian’s interactions with extraterrestrials, I mean Anunnaki, get translated next in more detail. (Why do you think Carl Sagan included ancient Sumerian among the 55 languages offering greetings aboard the Voyager spacecraft?) I’ll also be looking forward to reading more about what they had to say about Nibiru, since NASA is afraid to.

    Very timely.

  19. Reina -  June 13, 2011 - 9:07 pm

    Excellent work !!! But, are’nt you forgetting something …?

  20. Laura Nass -  June 13, 2011 - 8:37 pm

    Oh — but what I had wanted to write before I answered those two comments was: given that the language is so ancient, how do we know how the words were pronounced? I mean, how do we know that a particular written word is “kalu”? Were these phonemes just arbitrarily assigned?


  21. Christian Luca -  June 13, 2011 - 7:50 pm

    Thank you for sharing such an interesting article! I’m curious, though, how are Assyrian and Akkadian related–are they part of the same language family: Afroasiatic?

  22. Madame -  June 13, 2011 - 6:36 pm

    Oh, yes! We must continue to research and learn about ancient languages and cultures! I am happy to send tax dollars to fund these projects and wish that more young people could get inspired to study these fascinating subjects.
    Please bring us more articles on this sort of research!

  23. Fungible -  June 13, 2011 - 5:28 pm

    That is really cool and certainly no more pointless than keeping Latin known. In fact, maybe it is even more important to keep Assyrian alive since it is so much older than even Latin. Dead languages are important even if no one culture speaks them.

  24. Eudora -  June 13, 2011 - 5:14 pm

    I think this would be a great tool to have. I think we could learn a whole bunch more about ourselves and maybe even improve upon that which we do know.

  25. bass drum -  June 13, 2011 - 4:31 pm

    I find this article very ironic. I’m a seventh grader, and I’m currently working on a history project about the ancient Assyrians. (Hmmm… world event AND ancient cultures, all in one article…) Thanks for the info, guys!

  26. arun -  June 13, 2011 - 4:03 pm

    not being a linguist,can not state with certitude that a language builds both the vocabulary & grammer structure,along with ability to build new words in scieitific way,unless that language is in use for a very very long time.To my mind “Sanskrit” is one such Indian language alongwith “Tamil”.The present article was very interesting making me to look forward to such articles(brief but rich in contents) innear future.

  27. Eyewitness -  June 13, 2011 - 2:07 pm

    Simply, utterly fascinating: I wish the article had been longer.

    Of course, this is not a futile exercise in pedantry. It is an immense, collective achievement for the society of learned peoples everywhere, and for those who may not consider themselves same, but who aspire to knowledge as precious in unmeasurable–litterally priceless–ways, paticularly knowledge not driven by the profit motive.

    This achievement reminds us that meaningful life existed before the marketing department and the mall arrrogated to themselves a leadership role to inform contemporary, mass society what to buy in order to acquire significance: as if I need Calvin Klein, et al, to tell me what my values should be so I can meet the cool requirement.

    Heaven bless everyone associated with this effort, including those ever-curious, assiduous, dilligently-typing, empowering research/blog writers at Dictionary.com. I am so proud of you all, and I am so fortunate to enjoy the merit of your good company.

    This may seem a digression, perhaps even diatribe, but I see in this achievement parallels to space exploration. Of course, these endeavors are expensive, and no, they don’t keep the pork barrel as full as other forms of legislation. Take this comment as screed if you must, but people who have the drive, imagination, curiosity, and intellect to pursue these kinds of long-term exercises in knowledge collection are not the majoriy. And in such matters as these, the majority should not rule.

    I don’t care that an estimated twelve million illegal Mex_i_can im_mi_grants in the United States don’t have subsidized medical insurance. I do care that knowledge gathering “expeditions” such as the Chicago Assyrian Dictionary and the Hubble Telescope get funded. Is this politcal debate? No. It is priority setting. Is it ever completely devoid of factionalism? No. Do I really care that mass opinion has to be placated? No.

    Is a copy of the Chicago Assyrian Dictionary to be made available to the public? I remenber, after several years and a certain amount of political in-fighting, the entire inventory of Dead Sea Scroll fragments was put online, for the public to enjoy the (ultimate?) jig saw puzzle experience.

    Might the public have access to online copies of the pages of this lexicon, also? Thanks to everyone.

  28. Eric -  June 13, 2011 - 1:06 pm

    To answer questions:

    @Tammy D: The picture is correctly oriented right now (they may have changed it since you commented)

    @Book Beater: Yes, Egyptian hieroglyphs were an independent development, at the same time or slightly later than Sumerian cuneiform. You might enjoy S.D. Houston’s “The First Writing: Script Invention as History and Process”

    @Rich Mollohan: You can purchase the full set from University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute for $1599.00, or you can download pdfs of the entire dictionary from the Oriental Institute’s website for free!

    @Eliezer B.: You’re right in connecting Akkadian to Hebrew, since the two are related pretty closely, but ardu is actually cognate with the Hebrew yarad “to descend.” A slave is someone in a lower social position.

  29. Me -  June 13, 2011 - 10:32 am

    I almost didn’t read the article. I was interested, but the beginning was not very catchy. Cool though. I’d like to be able to get something meaningful out of history.

  30. louis paiz -  June 13, 2011 - 9:33 am

    thanks to dictionary.com this type of letters are the ones i have in question last time when i asked for, remember the alfabet that i discrive as made of or with rose buds. thank you very much this morning when i so the extint language or alfabet i was so exited about it to see the answer right at front of me.keep enriching our intelelect.i am so proud of you guys whom made this possible.

  31. SSB -  June 13, 2011 - 8:56 am

    The better we understand the history of man, the better our understanding of the nature of man. Knowledge is power and the more knowledge we gain the more powerful we become as a collective solution to our seemingly insurmountable challenges.

  32. Mahalene -  June 13, 2011 - 8:25 am

    If the first language that ever existed can and does open a window into the soul, what kind of window could be open if we were to pay attention to the the ancient languages that have NOT changed form since their inception and are still spoken and written, the only two known to mankind being Chinese and Hebrew?

  33. aramamurthi -  June 13, 2011 - 8:03 am

    now iam in india many languages used litarly& unlitarly one word meaning change in other languag, this problem many tribals in asis and other placess please seethis spealists.

  34. Eliezer B. -  June 13, 2011 - 7:40 am

    Regarding the words mentioned in the article:

    kalu: “detain, keep in custody, hold back”
    di’nu: “case”
    ardu: “slave”

    These all sound (not surprisingly) very similar to Hebrew words:

    “keleh”: prison
    “din”: case
    “eved”: slave

  35. Rich Mollohan -  June 13, 2011 - 7:16 am

    How can I get a copy?

  36. Gary -  June 13, 2011 - 5:51 am

    Bravo to all the scholars for their selfless effort towards their bits on preserving world heritage.

  37. espirooz -  June 13, 2011 - 4:22 am

    Hope it opens new door to human’s knowledge

  38. Bo the Wolf -  June 13, 2011 - 1:44 am

    One cannot know where one is going unless one knows where one has been.
    This applies to language, sport, art, history, warfare, politics, or walking down to the corner gas station for a gallon of milk.

  39. Vatsal -  June 13, 2011 - 12:24 am

    This is awesome work done by the scholars of our mankind to know our own history.

  40. Buck -  June 12, 2011 - 11:00 pm

    Yes! Access to the Akkadian language and Sumerian culture gives us all a picture of who we human were long ago, back when humans first developed a writing system that could be used widely, thus giving us insight into how we’ve developed and what new ideas may be developed in the future. Of course, as the Preacher of Ecclesiastes wrote, “There is nothing new under the sun.”

  41. Amit -  June 12, 2011 - 9:10 pm

    I salute the scholars who worked so hard so long, so that we are able to peep into the societies and institutions of our ancestors.

  42. YC -  June 12, 2011 - 8:29 pm

    Finding the true history is always good…

  43. snowy -  June 12, 2011 - 6:46 pm

    Fascinating. It always make me happy when people preserve ancient, fading bits of history. I dislike it when any knowledge it lost.

  44. Nostrodames -  June 12, 2011 - 5:10 pm

    Totally. Now you are talking my langy. You are talking to a person who likes talking to a person who likes to talk. Words.. even the letters are history in miniature and there is only one story but the infinitely connected chapters and characters speak volumes with or without saying a word. A lifetime is as short as a straight line. but the story is so wide you can’t get around it. conscious or unconscious of it, History is the glue that binds us to ourselves and to each other. Maybe Sapiens were more content before speech and abstract distinction. Didn’t you ever look at horses just standing there all day in some cold field and wonder what the hay could they possibly be thinking? And why so long in the face?
    Apparently they have no need for the distraction of history. except maybe Mr. Ed…
    But I Equus.

  45. Book Beater -  June 12, 2011 - 4:30 pm

    @ D.com posters
    Did Egyptian hieroglyphs evolve independently or not?

  46. JACL -  June 12, 2011 - 4:06 pm

    how interesting! i love studying language, and learning new languages too.

  47. Linda -  June 12, 2011 - 3:35 pm

    insightful article with sidebars to how modern humans are understanding their heritage.

  48. ASSYRIAN | BLOGCHI@mayopia.com -  June 12, 2011 - 3:23 pm

    [...] Mesopotamian paleography — much more that we can handle. — If it’s fund-able, it’s doable — toss in a bit of scandal. — The earth was flat, a Frisbee, — tossed from God to Goddess. — An easy task at any rate — only greener grass they could see. — Often when they got there and became a cultivator — examining the tuber, — potato became patater. — Any knowledge historically — for evolutions sake — the expansion of the consciousness communicated another break — for the creation of creators having faith in what they could make. — ‘Communication Indigestion’ never came from any Tower Babel — making it up as we drink from the cup, creating another label. –>>L.T.Rhyme [...]

  49. Tammy D -  June 12, 2011 - 2:29 pm

    I think picture of the Cuneiform writing at the top of this page is turned sideways. It needs to be turned 90 degrees clockwise. The right side of the picture should be the bottom.

  50. Gwong Deme -  June 12, 2011 - 12:59 pm

    An immense contribution towards uplfting mankind without asking for a dime.

  51. Maureen -  June 12, 2011 - 12:46 pm

    The root of languages, the lovely historical progression of meanings, and the sheer poetry of the words themselves is a joy to read about in your reports. Used to be I just logged on the plat the daily crossword; now I find myself going to your Hot Words entries.

  52. Salman Naseer Ahmad Khan -  June 12, 2011 - 12:10 pm

    Wonderful article describing such
    sensitive and important topic very briefly delicate. Thumbs up for the people who tirelessly work for the mankind without them knowing!


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