Reading Akkadian
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Categories: Ancient

Reading Akkadian


Here we have a sketch of the Old Babylonian copy of the epic of Gilgamesh stored in Pennsylvania. It corresponds to the end of the first tablet of the better-known Standard Babylonian version from Nineveh, where Gilgamesch has some prophetic dreams and Shamkhat persuades Enkidu to visit the city. As everything slows down before the holidays, I thought that I would dust off another draft and talk about some of the challenges in reading Akkadian cuneiform.

Akkadian cuneiform rarely marks vowel lengths, double consonants, and divisions between words. This is less problematic than it would be in English, because most words have standard prefixes and suffixes which carry grammatical information. Nevertheless, the reader sometimes needs to use their judgement and check the transcription against a sketch or photo of the original tablet.


Lets focus on a single line. The previous lines read “The mother of Gilgamesh, the all-knowing,/said to Gilgamesh/’certainly Gilgamesch, someone like you’.” Although the wedge surrounded by a ring of dots is hard to understand, this line is best read as nine characters, reasonably clearly written. The difficulty is where to assign the second sign /i/ with its five horizontal strokes.

If we group it with the preceding sign we have /i-na ṣe-ri i-wa-li-id-ma/, a prepositional phrase (ina ṣerī “on the steppe, in the back country”) and a verb in the third person singular, past tense, passive voice (iwwalid “was born”) with the suffix ma which binds this clause to the next one. If we group it with the following sign, then this line reads /i-na ṣe-ri-i wa-li-id-ma/, and we also have a grammatical clause: a prepositional phrase (ina ṣerī “on the steppe, in the back country”) and a verb in a form called the stative which is sort of like a progressive tense in English (walid “is being born”) with the same suffix ma. In one reading we have “someone like you was born on the steppe” and in the other “someone like you is being born on the steppe.” While this is not very important, and we can compare this tablet with other versions to understand what the scribe probably meant, there are other occasions where a line can have several different senses depending on how we divide the signs into words.

I hope that you all have quiet holidays and some time for reading, whether in Akkadian or younger tongues.

Further Reading: A.R. George, The Babylonian Gilgamesh Epic (OXford University Press, 2003, and my source for the above drawings)

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