Friday, 4 November 2011

Hearing History

It is fascinating to read about history but it can sometimes be difficult to really visualise it. Texts read on a screen or on the pages of a book can sometimes seem dead and lifeless as our imaginations fail to really capture the spirit of times past. Sometimes we require aids to spur the imagination.

Victory Stele of Naram-Sin, king of the Akkad
            Last year I discovered a site where academics attempted to recreate how ancient languages sounded. This site deals with the Akkadian language. Akkadian is a Semitic language, related to Hebrew and Arabic but thousands of years older than either and spoken mainly in what is now Iraq. It first makes an appearance around the early centuries of the second millennium BC and became the official language of the Akkadian Empire (the first empire the world has ever seen). Our best copies of the Epic of Gilgamesh, which is the world’s oldest epic and still a fantastic tale despite the passing of centuries, are written in Akkadian.

In the Bronze Age, when the kings and emperors of the Near East would communicate with each other they would use this language. It was at different times the language of commerce, of science, of sacred texts and of diplomacy. It was spoken as a proper language for millennia but, like Latin in the European Middle Ages, eventually became a dead language, preserved merely among the intellectuals. After Alexander’s conquests the old temples and centres of learning were gradually abandoned and the language died out around two thousand years ago. The tablets upon which it was written were lost and buried in Iraq to be discovered and deciphered in the late nineteenth century AD.
Ancient Akkadian clay tablet from the Epic of Gilgamesh
          Working backwards from Semitic languages spoken today and using all the texts available to us, scholars have recorded themselves speaking in this language. I am not a linguist but I can only imagine the amount of work (and/or guesswork) that went into this project. It is one thing to translate a text but quite a different thing to try and understand how it was pronounced. I will leave you with a link to the site, which can be found here. I found it slightly eerie but intriguing to listen to our civilisations attempts to vocalise the works of the world’s first great literate civilisation. Enjoy.