The Chicago Assyrian Dictionary: Opening a New Door on History

This is a writing assignment I did for a World Civ 100 class I’m currently taking.  Expect more regular updates soon.

The question:

First you should summarize the article, then give your thoughts about it and tell how it might be useful in our class and to the scholarly world in general. You can certainly include negative andpositive thoughts about the article.

The article:  After 90 Years, A Dictionary of an Ancient World (NYTimes)

My response:

The Chicago Assyrian Dictionary: Opening a New Door on History

After 90 years of effort on the part of the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago, a project titled the Chicago Assyrian Dictionary has finally been completed. This 21 volume dictionary compiles the definitions and usage explanations of words from the ancient Mesopotamian language, including its Babylonian and Assyrian dialects. This monumental achievement has opened a new door for all scholars interested in researching the Mesopotamian people and their culture.

According to a New York Times article published online (footnote was inserted here), this dictionary covers the language as it was used from roughly 2500 B.C. to 100 A.D. The project was initially started by Dr. James Henry Breasted in 1921, but didn’t make too much progress until after World War II, when the project was reorganized. The first volume of the set was published in 1956, with 20 following volumes being published over a 55 year period under the editorship of A. Leo Oppenheim, Erica Reiner and Dr. Martha Roth, the current dean of humanities at the University of Chicago. The dictionary is comprehensive, covering word usage and nuances, as well as cultural material available that relates to the word being defined.

The best way to understand any culture is by examining primary sources. The best primary source is a set of written records, but those records are meaningless if a scholar cannot completely understand the language. By unlocking the Assyrian language and making it accessible to scholars everywhere, the team at the University of Chicago has opened a door to new and hopefully more insightful studies of the Mesopotamian civilizations. Having a reviewed and reputable resource to draw from, scholars can now make better informed translations of the material they’re working with, whether it is a cuneiform tablet of a contract, or a literary work. The effort the team made in defining the nuances and various usages of the word, rather than giving simple definitions, added immense value to the work as a whole. The meaning of a text can sometimes change drastically based on a misinterpretation of one word. With a new standard to build from, scholars and translators can hopefully render the Assyrian language into English with greater efficiency and accuracy. Additionally, currently existing translations can now be vetted against this dictionary to check for accuracy.

This accomplishment can also greatly benefit classroom study. A common misconception among people today is that people from ancient civilizations were inherently less intelligent than modern people. By presenting examples of the Assyrian language (from entries in the Chicago University’s Assyrian Dictionary) to students today, a professor could demonstrate the complexity and depth not only of their language, but of their society as a whole. When discussing literature from Mesopotamia, the professor could introduce printouts of key terms from the work for classroom study so that students will have a greater understanding of the social constructs present in the work. As Gil Stein, the director of Chicago University’s Oriental Institute said in the New York Times article, this dictionary “is an indispensable research tool for any scholar anywhere who seeks to explore the written record of the Mesopotamian civilization.”

The compilation and publication of the Assyrian Dictionary by the University of Chicago will have a lasting and profound impact on the study of Mesopotamia. It is a vital and robust tool that can be used by professionals and scholars to make more accurate translations of the Assyrian language. For students, the dictionary will be an excellent tool for expanding their knowledge of the Mesopotamian world and ancient civilizations in general. The Assyrian Dictionary is a work of immense value that sheds new light on an ancient civilization and it will be used as a basis for research and study far into the future.


Wilford, John Noble. “After 90 Years, a Dictionary of an Ancient World.” The New York Times: Science. June 6, 2011. (accessed July 7, 2011).

This paper received an A, but I don’t think it was graded too critically.