One of the more eye-catching quotations from The New York Times reads like this:
It’s a word I had been heretofore unfamiliar with, and doubt that I’ll find many occasions to use, at least in that particular form, since I find it quite unpronounceable. Nonetheless, I’m glad to know it’s still there, that it can be heard and even understood after some 5,000 years, and that a very few in the world today can even speak it again.
That word—and thousands of others—will find its way into the world’s newest dictionary and the very first of its oldest written language, Sumerian, a language unrelated so far as scholars know to any other, but a language from which our words for “abyss” and “Eden” are derived. The dictionary will finally be issued after all these millennia by scholars at the University of Pennsylvania, who, of course, have never heard the language spoken as it was, and have had to piece it together from the thousands of fragments on which the written language still survives, the most enduring legacy of mankind’s first great civilization. There are 30,000 tablets in the collection of the University of Pennsylvania alone, and other collections, some of them larger, are scattered throughout the world. The first volume of the dictionary will be published next month under the editorship of Ake W. Sjoberg and his co-editor, Eric Leichty.a
Professor Sjoberg made his first Sumerian word-card in 1949. In 1976 the National Endowment for the Humanities gave him and his team of five funding, and work on the dictionary proceeded apace. There are now 400,000 cards. Professor Sjoberg, who is 59, does not expect to see the dictionary, the great scholarly work of his life, completed in his lifetime.
The Sumerians were prolific writers, scratching their cuneiform script with a stylus on moist clay tablets (a skill that may become useful once again). They recorded stories and poems, songs and technical data, laws, receipts, medical prescriptions. They recorded, it seems, everything of interest in their world and to their imaginations, and much of what they recorded has survived, an enormous body of documentation that surpasses that of the Romans and the Chinese. “We have more from the Sumerians than from any culture in history before the invention of the printing press,” Professor Leichty told The Times. We know the names of their gods and the list of their kings; we know their epics—including the world’s first tales of creation and of the Flood, and the oldest written tale of paradise—and, whether we realize it or not, we know their legacy: the legal and religious tradition the Sumerians bequeathed to Israel, and of the magical, astronomical and mathematical fare bequeathed to Greece. We know it because it is part of our legacy, too.
So why does it matter that six dedicated scholars are toiling away in the University Museum in Philadelphia on an obscure language in a field whose professionals number about 250? Why is it important that the National Endowment for the Humanities will have given the project $810,000 over nine years through 1986, and that private foundations have also contributed to it? It matters because those words contain the record of a people, and the record is important. The facts are important. History is important—important, that is, if we are important, for what we are is what we came from, and words are the means by which we know both.
Words are infinitely precious, and language the very sine qua non of civilization itself. No matter that the Sumerian civilization is dead, the civilization from which the particular word quoted earlier comes; no matter that most of us know little more about Mesopotamia and the Fertile Crescent than we learned in freshman history or grade-school geography, that the Tigris and the Euphrates join to form the Shatt-al-Arab; what does matter is that Sumer was in fact a great civilization that existed and for a time flourished, a civilization in which men and women lived and fought battles and made poems and wove legends about where they came from, what they were doing there and where they were going—even as we do today: different legends, perhaps, but the impulse—the uniquely human impulse—remains the same. It is to record, to register, to make a mark, to tell, and it was as true of the Sumerian poets whose names are lost as it was of the unknown author of the Book of Job, as it was of Herman Melville, who wrote on the last page of Moby Dick the line from Job, “And I only am escaped alone to tell thee.”
To that impulse to tell the tale of our lives, to say who we are, I can only say, “Hallelujah!” Or, as the Sumerians would put it,
The Sumerian Dictionary will be available in September. Orders and inquiries may be directed to The Sumerian Dictionary, Babylonian Section, University Museum, University of Pennsylvania, 33rd and Spruce Streets, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 19104. Telephone: (215) 898–4000.