Q&A: Dead Languages Reveal a Lost World

Gonzalo Rubio spends his days reading dead languages that haven't been spoken for thousands of years. An assyriologist at Pennsylvania State University, Rubio studies the world's very first written languages, Sumerian and Akkadian, which were used in ancient Mesopotamia (an area covering modern-day Iraq).

Sumerian appeared first, almost 5,000 years ago around the year 3,100 B.C. This writing was scratched into soft clay tablets with a pointed reed that had been cut into a wedge shape. Archaeologists call this first writing "cuneiform," from the Latin "cuneus," meaning wedge.

Sumerian and Akkadian were the languages of the ancient Mesopotamian civilization, which flourished during the Bronze Age in a region often called the Cradle of Civilization, because it gave birth to the world's first complex urban cultures. Here not only written languages, but important advances in science, mathematics, art and politics were developed. Rubio talked to LiveScience about what these ancient people's leftover love poetry and sales receipts reveal about a lost world.

LiveScience: What's so exciting about Assyriology, and what drew you to it?

Rubio: New archives and new texts come out all the time; archaeological sites in Syria and even in Iraq – in spite of the current situation – regularly yield new materials. This is an incredibly exciting field in which perspectives and assumptions need to be constantly modified and nuanced in the light of new evidence. I felt that I needed to work in a field in which I could not only say new things but also see new things.

LiveScience: What does it mean to call Sumerian and Akkadian dead languages?

Rubio: Sumerian and Akkadian are dead languages in the most literal sense: They died out for good and no one knew them, was able to read them, or taught them, for almost two millennia. Akkadian began to be understood again in the mid-19th century and Sumerian really only in the 20th century. Differently from languages such as Latin, Greek and Hebrew, there is no uninterrupted tradition in terms of studying Sumerian and Akkadian. Their very deadness poses an incredible intellectual challenge for modern scholars, and challenges are inherently attractive.

LiveScience: What is it like to study a dead language?

Rubio: In many regards, we are resuscitating a dead civilization through the understanding of its dead languages. When one studies an economic document from ancient Mesopotamia, there are names of individuals entering a contract or making a purchase, normally in front of a number of named witnesses: These are all people who lived three or four thousand years ago, people whose names were forgotten and buried in the sand until modern scholars brought them back to a modicum of life in their articles and books.

When an assyriologist holds a tablet inscribed with cuneiform characters, be it in Sumerian or in Akkadian, there is a chance that she or he may be the first person to read that text again after millennia of oblivion. Even if one is not the epigrapher who first looks at the tablets found at an archaeological site, even as a scholar reading texts at a museum, there is an overwhelming feeling of discovery and recovery, the excitement of bringing a civilization back to life by understanding it, text by text, tablet by tablet.

LiveScience: Do you ever have conversations in Sumerian or Akkadian with other researchers?

Rubio: We don't even try. Since these are dead languages, which were not spoken or written for millennia, it makes little sense to try to generate new texts or sentences. Even the act of utterance could be complicated. In the case of Sumerian, there would be limited agreement about how to actually pronounce many words. In the case of Akkadian, there is a very interesting project by a young colleague at [the University of] Cambridge, Martin Worthington, who is asking assyriologists to record themselves reading passages from the "Babylonian Gilgamesh" and other works. ["Babylonian Gilgamesh" is the world's oldest epic poem.]

LiveScience: What kinds of documents are left from this time?

Rubio: Alongside literary compositions, myths, royal inscriptions and royal annals, we have tens of thousands of economic documents, legal texts of all sorts, thousands upon thousands of letters from all periods, and other records that open multiple windows onto the daily lives of ancient Mesopotamians.

Moreover, we have texts that cover all aspects of human intellectual life beyond economy, politics, and literature, such as scientific and scholarly texts of all genres (medical, mathematical, astronomical and astrological texts). We can delve into the subtle and not so subtle differences between official cult (as attested in many rituals) and popular religion and religiosity, for which we get glimpses in magical texts, incantations, divination texts, and so forth. Mesopotamians were particularly concerned with divination, as we have a number of fascinating omen series that go from celestial omens to liver omens –they would observe the liver of a slaughtered sheep in accordance to preexisting clay liver models and search for irregularities they interpreted as signs.

An assyriologist can go from reading a love poem or a tale of the deeds of a mythical king or a deity, to medical texts on epilepsy or omens about sexual behavior. The amount of information one can extract from these many texts and genres of texts is so impressive that many assyriologists have become more and more specialized in recent decades.

LiveScience: Do you think ancient Mesopotamians were very different from people today?

Rubio: No, not at all. The idiom used to convey one's experience may be conditioned by one's culture and context. But we all have similar fears and desires. Reading Mesopotamian letters, for instance, often opens a window into the daily life of people whose aspirations, likes and dislikes are not different from ours. It is true that some authors have talked about a dramatic difference in perception or in the nature of awareness between ancient cultures and civilizations and ours; but I strongly believe that such assumptions are mostly ethnocentric nonsense.

LiveScience: How similar are Akkadian and Sumerian to languages still in use today?

Rubio: Akkadian is a Semitic language, so it is very similar in grammar and structure to Arabic and Hebrew.

Sumerian is quite different. In terms of structure, Sumerian is much closer to American Indian languages, for instance, than it is to Akkadian. Modern languages that structurally resemble Sumerian – though they are not related at all and have no cognates in common – include Japanese, Turkish, Finnish and Hungarian.

LiveScience: How did the development of the first written language represent a major turning point for human civilization?

Rubio: Writing constitutes a very useful and transformational technology. It is important to note that one needs not to be literate for writing to be important. In ancient Mesopotamia, only a small group of people were sufficiently literate as to read a tablet or an inscription. Of all the Mesopotamian kings of all the Mesopotamian cities during three millennia, probably only one of them can be said with sufficient certainty to have been literate: Assurbanipal. [He is also called the last "great" king of Assyria.]

Still, writing, with its multiple functions and the prestige attached to it, most certainly influenced everyone. The presence of writing can modify the nature of economic transactions and legal decisions, because it creates a system of recordkeeping that has certainly practical and even cognitive ramifications.

Writing also becomes a main tool in the state apparatus, both as a means of control through records, and even bureaucracy, and as a vehicle for political propaganda. One might not have been able to read an inscription of King Hammurabi or a proclamation by Chairman Mao, but its presence and display in a public place plays an important role in the way the state influences people's opinions, shapes their will, and manufactures social consent. Even for the illiterate, an official or royal inscription is more than a conversation piece: It may often be a conversation stopper.

LiveScience: Scientists think that Sumerian was the first written language in the world, but is it likely that spoken languages were around much earlier than this?

Rubio: There were most certainly languages spoken before Sumerian, but they had no writing system. Languages without writing systems disappear when their speakers die.

Some experts in human evolution place the development of the capacity for some form of language (or language-like) communication at about 500,000 years ago. The earliest Mesopotamian written texts are about 5,000 years old. So there was a lot of talking before anyone thought of writing anything down.

Clara Moskowitz
Clara has a bachelor's degree in astronomy and physics from Wesleyan University, and a graduate certificate in science writing from the University of California, Santa Cruz. She has written for both Space.com and Live Science.