Listening to the dead; talking to computers

In the past few months, I’ve taken an interest in early Semitic languages, mentioned in the post below. One of the most interesting aspects of studying languages like Babylonian is the concept of normalization. What this means is that after you get done transliterating the phonetic syllables, you start figuring out how the transliteration corresponds to a standardized reading of the language. Take the word “nertam,” the accusative of “nertum” (murder). In the first law from the Code of Hammurabi, it is written ne-er-ut, with ut having an alternative reading “tam.” So a polished transliteration is ne-er-tam. You still have to run this together, though, to get “nertam,” which is the way you write the form in a normalized transcription.

I find a peculiar relationship between normalizing Babylonian and writing computer code. In both cases, you’re taking an imperfect human notation and converting it to something standardized. It’s just that with normalization, you’re making something more readable for people, starting with you so that you can do the translation!

Incidentally, the post title mentions listening to the dead. Pretty spooky, I know! Actually, though, there’s a site where you can listen to and follow along with a selection of hymns, excerpts from Gilgamesh and more, read by Assyriologists taking their best shot at what the language sounded like. I recommend Doris Prechel’s reading of the Hymn to Ishtar. Here is a link for the recordings.

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About G Barto

I've been learning languages more than 20 years and teaching them for at least 15. Here I share the joys and frustrations of teaching yourself new languages.
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2 Responses to Listening to the dead; talking to computers

  1. Alex Moen says:

    Interesting stuff. Are you wanting to learn how to decipher ancient texts? I imagine it would be pretty tough to learn languages like this, since you can only really practice with a handful of other people also taking their best guess in the language. So, I was wondering what your particular language goals are here, as they’re likely different than most.

  2. G Barto says:

    It can be extremely difficult to learn languages like this. Indeed, the leading experts on them are usually quick to acknowledge they haven’t yet. For Akkadian, much remains less than 100% clear. For others, like Sumerian, even when we’ve exhausted the material left to us there will be far more that we don’t know than that we do know. That said, what can be gleaned through picking through the old texts gives you a sense of people who came long before we did who in some ways are similar and in other ways are quite different. I wouldn’t not pretend to a goal of learning these languages the way I learned, say, French. It’s more a matter of keeping enough straight for long enough to be able to work out then read through a passage and thereby experience the world through different eyes.

    Some time ago, I took an interest in Ancient Sanskrit. Whenever you read translations of Sanskrit, it’s so often flowery and overwrought. When you go to the original texts, what you find may include a lot of compounds upon compounds, but there’s an economy to it as well. It fits the meter, it flows from line to line, and you don’t find yourself out of breath from trying to read somebody’s overblown effort to encompass every possible shade of meaning within the translation. And so you find that passages from the Rig Veda that are dreadful in translation are gorgeous in the original.

    When I dip into ancient tongues that I won’t actually get a chance to speak, I don’t pretend to the idea of truly learning them. It’s more a matter of learning enough to start to get a feel for what’s going on. A little bit of grammar and a little bit of vocabulary can serve as a sort of tour guide to the literature – you won’t have the same appreciation as somebody who knows the local lore from growing up there, but you’ll at least have an idea what to look for so that you can form an ever so slightly discerning impression of what you’ve seen.

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