Visit Us | Contact Us | Membership | Make a Gift | Calendar | Order Online | What's New

Print this Page

Home > Research > Publications > News & Notes

THE CHICAGO ASSYRIAN DICTIONARY AT SEVENTY

By Matthew W. Stolper, Professor,
The Oriental Institute and the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations
The University of Chicago

(This article originally appeared in The Oriental Institute News and Notes, No. 129, May-June 1991, and is made available electronically with the permission of the editor.)


On a sunny morning in the autumn of 1980, I passed a tour group standing at Frank Lloyd Wright's Robie House, a few yards from The Oriental Institute. I was new to Chicago. I had studied architectural history years before, and it seemed to me that one of the fine things about working at The Oriental Institute was having a monument like the Robie House so close at hand. To my surprise, though, the tour guide was not talking about Frank Lloyd Wright. "That building," she said, pointing across the way, "is The Oriental Institute. They're writing a Babylonian dictionary there. They started work on it …oh, a long time ago, and they'll probably go on working on it forever."

I had come to Chicago to work on the Assyrian Dictionary project, but I thought of the work ahead as an extended but finite apprenticeship, not as a lifelong vocation to an eternal service, and considered interrupting the guide to tell the listeners "No, the Dictionary is mostly done. It'll be finished in ten years…or so." At the same time, the way the guide had characterized the Institute seemed remarkable. She might have said something like "That's where the mummies are," but instead she chose an example of long-term pure research. The arcane quality of the "Babylonian dictionary" was probably meant to be amusing, but only partly so.

She had picked an example that was more expressive than her listeners could possibly understand. The CAD was not primeval, but it was almost coeval with The Oriental Institute. It was conceived as a realization of the broadest and grandest original aims of the Institute. It was even one of the things that determined the physical layout of The Oriental Institute building itself.

The Assyrian Dictionary project came into existence in 1921, two years after The Oriental Institute was organized. At first, it was housed in the basement of the Haskell Oriental Museum, where "a commodious office has been built in, fitted with light, heat and ventilation and properly equipped".[1] (Readers of the recent biography of James Murray, the first editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, will appreciate this subterranean comfort for its contrast with Murray's galvanized metal hut and the boxes with which he kept his feet from the drafts.) By the time the new building was ready, the Dictionary's demands for space were already growing, but even if there is a hint of testiness in Breasted's curt statement in an otherwise expansive description of the new facility, "…the third floor of the Institute's building provides spacious accommodation for the Assyrian Dictionary project, which needs a large amount of room," [2] he had already taken a large view of the project in laying out the building plan, a view that is still plain in the interconnected rooms expressly designed for the tablet collection, the Dictionary's editors and assistants, the duplicating equipment, and the files.

Breasted's once temperate public utterances about The Oriental Institute and its projects came ever more to follow Daniel Burnham's celebrated exhortation to "make no small plans." In the hard times of 1933, Breasted characterized the Institute without a trace of academic deference as "essentially an organized endeavor to recover the lost story of the rise of man by salvaging the surviving evidence on a more comprehensive scale than has hitherto been possible and then by analysis and synthesis building up an account of human development on a broader basis of evidence than has heretofore been available."[3] Time and again, he emphasized the scope and scale of the Institute's projects, the resulting sense of solidity of the results that they promised, and the commitments of resources that they demanded; sometimes he invoked the long expenditures of time required by the works he considered as worthy intellectual models, such as the Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum: "although Mommsen [the German philologist and historian who was the principal founder of the Corpus] fully expected to see the completion of this impressive task in his own lifetime, the work is still under way a generation after his death, and …, although it has been going on for more than a century, it is still incomplete".[4] It seems that Breasted was used to the idea that some of the Institute's projects would outlive their founders and outgrow their founders' grandest expectations.

The explicit models for the Assyrian Dictionary were the Oxford English Dictionary and the Berlin Egyptian dictionary. The CAD, initiated as these dictionaries were nearing completion, was to share some of their characteristics: it was not to be a bald correlation of Akkadian words and English definitions, but was to consider and display every citation of every word in an extended context; it was to be organized historically, to reveal the evolution of meanings over the two millennia in which Akkadian was written; it was to draw on the cooperation and expertise of an international community of scholars; and it was to include, insofar as it was possible, the whole known corpus of Akkadian texts, to be a "thesaurus," a compendious encyclopaedia of the literal contents of Akkadian texts and, indirectly, of Mesopotamian civilizations.

While the dictionary itself was in process, its burgeoning files were to be a unique foundation for basic historical research. Breasted quoted Albert T. Olmstead, professor of ancient Near Eastern history in the Institute:

The filing of cards with full context in one drawer permits an examination of all the material hitherto gathered on any one subject. For example, under ardu, "slave," we find all the material available for any desired study on slavery.[5]

In retrospect, of course, this notion that complex social and economic relationships can be understood merely in lexical terms by tracing some words associated with them seems naive and even misleading, but it was true nevertheless that the resources for historical exploration that the files offered to scholars at the Institute and that the Dictionary promised to open to the whole scholarly world were unparalleled in scale and quality.

The Oxford English Dictionary had begun work in 1879 and published the last volume of the "Principal Dictionary," as the main set excluding the supplements was known, just under fifty years later, in 1928. The speedier Egyptian dictionary had begun work in Berlin in 1897 and published the last of its five volumes in 1931. How long was the CAD, conceived on a similar scale, to take? Breasted was at first optimistic:

It is as yet hardly possible to hazard a guess which would be of any value, as to the length of time required to complete the Assyrian dictionary; but eight to ten years of such progress as has already been made will probably be sufficient to bring it near completion.[6]

but later he became purposely vague:

With perhaps sixteen years altogether to be devoted to the carding of the texts, an indefinitely long period to be required for the preparation of the word- treatments, and further years to be needed for publication of six large and highly technical volumes, the outstanding magnitude of the Assyrian Dictionary project becomes somewhat easier to visualize.[7]

After the Second World War, as the project reached the age of twenty-five, an impatient administration encouraged the reorganization under a plan with the basic requirement

…that the Dictionary be completed and ready for publication within a ten-year period. The task was to be started in October 1947…, and it was to be finished by the end of 1957.[8]

Over time, as the tour guide's comment suggested, the project's perdurability became a distressingly conspicuous public quality:

The folks at the University of Chicago's Oriental Institute say that the last of the hoped-for 21 volumes won't be out until around 1980.[9]

The Chicago Assyrian Dictionary Project... may itself qualify as ancient. Work began in 1921, the first volume emerged in 1956, the 14th in 1977, and the world may be shuddering at the gates of 1984 before the CAD reaches an honorable conclusion.[10]

But these joking suppositions that the Dictionary is unending and in some sense unchanging misapprehend the accomplishments of the project and the changing character of the task.

In fact, most of the main part of the job is in hand, and it exceeds even Breasted's generous expectations of its scale. Breasted guessed that the final product might run to about 3,000 pages in six volumes[11] but the first fifteen published volumes (A, B, D, E, G, , I/J, K, L, M, N, Q, S, , and Z) already include about 6,200 pages. Of the six volumes that remain, the first part of one () has just been published (another 492 pages) with the balance of it in press, the manuscript of another (T) is about to be sent to press, and the basic drafts of three more (P, R and ) are nearly complete. Only one volume (U/W) remains to be started from scratch, and even here, because of historical and phonetic peculiarities of Akkadian, much of what other dictionaries or glossaries would enter under U or W has already been published under A or M. The end of the "Principal Dictionary" is in sight, even if the date of the end is unknown.

The Dictionary has distinctly not become the sort of thesaurus that Breasted envisioned, for various reasons. One is the fact that although the language is dead, the corpus of Akkadian texts is very much alive. Newly published texts produce a constant supply of "new" words, "new"' nuances of known words, evidence of usage from "new" sites and areas, and new evidence of known usages. Another reason is less apparent, the result of a basic policy decision.

Breasted's supposition in 1933 about a six-volume CAD presumed that the whole dictionary would be published more or less simultaneously, an internally consistent document that would reflect the best scholarly results of a given time, enhanced precisely by the broad perspectives and exact insights that would be enforced by making the whole document consistent. The ten- year plan of 1946 still held to a similar assumption, proposing that actually writing the dictionary would take the last five years of the period. But in 1954, the decision was made to publish one volume per letter of the alphabet, and to publish the volumes as they were ready, one volume at a time for as long as it would take to finish the Dictionary. That decision completely changed the original notion of the Dictionary's consistency, and endowed the Dictionary with development and change, a career of scholarly publication, and even a sort of personality.

The first volumes ( and G, published in that order in 1956) were, among other things, field trials meant to shake out problems of procedure, format and content that would be remedied in later volumes. By the early 1960s, the editorial format of the Dictionary was mostly set. The Dictionary had found its voice and had begun to engage philologists and historians in a series of debates that has continued throughout the thirty-five years in which volumes have been published. The present editor-in-charge, Erica Reiner, is quoted in this way:

This is not a bland dictionary. …We stick out our necks, and then somebody comes along ten years later and corrects the guess. I don't think corrections will come out unless we say something. One writes a dictionary against something-against an accepted opinion. [12]

As a result--and to the distress of users who want a dictionary to be a simple key to the word-by-word decoding of another language, precise, exact and immutable--the Dictionary's translations run a gamut between conclusions founded on an unshakable array of evidence and provocative assertions about slim data. The field responds by writing against something, too--against the Dictionary's authority--in critical scholarship on the vocabulary of social and economic institutions and practices, material culture, the natural setting of Mesopotamian societies, and other such complex conceptual and historical fields. To a degree that is not always readily apparent, the process of bringing forth the Dictionary has provoked, cajoled, advanced and shaped the scholarship a generation of not always cheerful Mesopotamianists.

A feedback loop results--actually, at least two such loops. The criticism that the Dictionary provokes is incorporated into later volumes in the form of reconsideration, rebuttal, amendment or mere changes of emphasis. Furthermore, to an ever-growing degree, collaborators on the Dictionary have had their basic understanding of the language and the issues of interpreting it shaped by the Dictionary itself from their earliest professional training.

In effect, the Dictionary itself has had a career, in scholarship. When it was thirty-five years old, like a junior scholar at the peak of his powers, it produced its first volume and began to learn from its public mistakes. Now, at seventy, after a career of vigorous debate with the Assyriological community, it has some of the characteristics of an eminent senior scholar: set, sometimes old-fashioned ways of expression, coupled with such attributes of maturity as an immensely complex and subtle understanding of the material and its interrelationship. Constant reflection and re-evaluation, leading sometimes to refinement of older views, sometimes to acknowledgment of uncertainty, and often to wholly new insights about the words, the texts that carry the words and the historical moments that produced the texts.


1. James Henry Breasted, American Journal of Semitic Languages, v. 38 (1921/22), p. 297.
2. James Henry Breasted, The Oriental Institute (1933), p. 125.
3. The Oriental Institute, p. ix.
4. The Oriental Institute, p. 13.
5. The Oriental Institute, p. 393.
6. American Journal of Semitic Languages, v.38 (1921/22), p. 305.
7. The Oriental Institute, p. 400.
8. J. Gelb., Orientalia, N.S., v. 18 (1949)9 p. 376.
9. The Wall Street Journal, November 19, 1972, p. 1.
10. Israel Shenker, Harmless Drudges (1979). p. 39.
11. The Oriental Institute, p. 400.
12. Harmless Drudges, p. 41.

Revised: July 30, 2007

Home > Research > Publications > News & Notes