Why We Need AkkadianAs Joseph I. Lauer observes on his list, this review serves indirectly as a buttress to a recent Haaretz piece by Miri Eliav-Feldon, Nanotechnology 1, Assyrian 0 , which decries today's current anti-intellectual cost-cutting atmosphere in which "Assyrian" has apparently become a byword in some circles Israel for an irrelevant esoteric field that contributes nothing to society. Excerpt:
How One Semitic Language Sheds Light on Another
By Jerome A. Chanes
Published August 11, 2010, issue of August 20, 2010.
An Akkadian Lexical Companion for Biblical Hebrew: Etymological- Semantic and Idiomatic Equivalents With Supplements on Biblical Aramaic
By Hayim ben Yosef Tawil
KTAV Publishing House, 456 pages, $125
Reading the Tanach, the Hebrew Bible, is tough. For one thing, it’s very, very old, and not refracting the text through our 21st-century prism is difficult. For another, it’s written in two odd languages, Hebrew and Aramaic, in such a way that even those familiar — even fluent — in these tongues find that the simplest passages beg analysis.
“What’s the p’shat?” — the basic meaning of the text — is the toughest question of all.
Where does Akkadian fit into this question? What indeed is Akkadian? The word itself comes from the place name “Akkad,” which is found in the Bible and is a reference to an ancient city of Mesopotamia and also to a third-millennium BCE Mesopotamian dynasty. Akkadian, written in cuneiform — Mesopotamian wedge writing — left to right, on clay tablets, is actually a generic term for the languages spoken by the Babylonians and the Assyrians. These two peoples dominated the Tigris-Euphrates region of Mesopotamia, and far beyond, for centuries, and developed a vast literature. The narrative portions of the Tanach contain many references to Assyrians and Babylonians, mostly as enemies, and almost always in terms of wars, conquests and exiles.
From Abraham (an erstwhile resident of Ur in Mesopotamia) onward, Ashur and Bavel are a constant trope in the Hebrew Scriptures, and Akkadian, as a Semitic contemporary of biblical Hebrew and Aramaic, is a truly invaluable — and underused — resource in the understanding of biblical words, expressions, usages and concepts. Now Hayim ben Yosef Tawil’s “Akkadian Lexical Companion,” directly compares the Akkadian and biblical Hebrew in an effort to explicate difficult words, idioms, phrases and whole verses in the Bible. And the book succeeds. The paradoxical fact is that Akkadian lexicography is further advanced than that of biblical Hebrew, and Tawil exploits this discrepancy for our benefit.
The processes that Grafton, Nussbaum and Thomas warn of have been affecting Israeli academia for about a decade, and much has been written about them. Cutbacks resulting from government policy and the economic crisis have led to the dismissal of hundreds of lecturers, to a brain drain and to shrinking (indeed, almost closure ) of important areas of research in local universities.Britain comes in deservedly for strong criticism as well, and the United States also has its share, and perhaps more, of such sentiments.
In such an atmosphere, and with a prevailing anti-intellectual mood here, the first victims have been liberal arts fields, since it is impossible to measure their contribution and difficult to see their practical, material and immediate benefits. It is easy to consider them luxuries that ought to be discarded at times of austerity.
Should resources, and particularly public funding, be invested in researching cultures and languages that died out thousands of years ago, such as the Assyrian language? For some reason, Assyrian, the northern dialect of Akkadian, has become the most common example of an esoteric field that engages local researchers in the faculties of humanities. Those who ridicule it usually know nothing about the importance of the Semitic language in the development of cultures of the ancient East, or in that of the modern Hebrew language. Moreover, critics say, who needs to deal with the culture, history and thoughts of dead white European men (known popularly in America as DWEMs )? How does such a pursuit contribute to the gross national product? At the most, it is nothing more than a hobby.
Such criticism is leveled at us, lecturers and researchers in the faculties of humanities, by the public - not just by "the man in the street," but even by our friends and colleagues, including engineers and accountants. Indeed, they say, it is nice sometimes to enter the world of culture, to hear a lecture about Amos Oz's latest book or the findings in the archaeological digs in Beit She'an, especially when they are accompanied by slide-show presentations. Indeed, it is important that our children learn a bit of the Bible and Jewish history in school, but such pleasures do not justify paying salaries to hundreds of researchers and scholars in such fields, in the universities and colleges of our small and poor country.
Similar claims are made, more and more frequently, by people who are actually involved in higher education in Israel: Finance Ministry officials, heads of the Council for Higher Education, the committee that determines budgets for colleges and university, and even some of their rectors. "What can we do," they sigh. "If there is no kemah there is no torah."
There are indeed disciplines that are critical to producing knowledge or other things that help sustain our lives: engineering, computer and applied sciences, economics. But when the budgetary pie shrinks, there is no alternative but to give up the "luxuries." Nanotechnology instead of Assyrian, people declare - as if the speakers even have a clue about nanotechnology. Or Assyrian. Business administration instead of philosophy, computers rather than literature.
I'll say at the outset that the humanities to some degree have this type of scrutiny coming, because significant sectors of it have bought in overly much to intentionally obscurantist and, frankly, lazy postmodern approaches. Regular readers will be well aware of my sympathy toward poststructuralism, which I sometimes fine helpful in my own work, and my willingness occasionally to go out on a limb with related methods if I think there's a payoff. Still, it's undeniable that the reputation for the piling up of impenetrable and meaningless prose in humanities publications is not entirely undeserved, and the demand of governments and funding bodies for more accountability is not entirely unreasonable. But these problems have nothing to do with Assyriology.
Also, regular readers will have no doubt about my sympathy toward – indeed, enthusiasm for – nanotechnology and related edge-of-the-edge technologies. There is simply no conflict between investing in such things and investing (by comparison a trivial amount) also in the humanities.
One argument in defense of Akkadian, as Joe quite rightly points out, is that it helps us better understand the Bible, a foundational text for Western Civilzation. But I think we can mount a more robust defense. Consider that a couple of centuries ago the entire history of the ancient Near East – Iraq, Iran, Egypt, Anatolia, the Levant – was entirely lost apart from some very limited references and legends in the Hebrew Bible and some very garbled half-memories in Herodotus and a few other classical authors. With the decipherment of Egyptian, Akkadian, Sumerian, Hittite, etc., thousands of years of human history involving crucial developments in our civilization have now been recovered and are known in astonishing detail. If the bean-counting, superficially practical mentality that now threatens our educational system had been operating over the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, this whole history would still be lost to us – and that would be a tragedy. We owe it to ourselves and to future generations to build on that foundation and to keep learning more about those civilizations to which we owe so much. (As an aside, I had a good chuckle over the notion (above) of ancient Near Eastern civilizations being the product of those much maligned dead white European men.)
It is certainly true that investment in science and technology has consistently produced more immediate, direct, and quantifiable payoffs than investment in the humanities. But the massive cultural contributions of the humanities like those outlined in the previous paragraph (and I didn't even get to the Dead Sea Scrolls!) mustn't be taken for granted, and it has to be remembered that the price tag of this contribution is miniscule compared to the costs of scientific research. There is always some crisis, financial or otherwise, which tempts us to think of serious research in the humanities as a luxury we can forgo. Think of the procession of wars and financial downturns over the last two centuries that could have tempted our predecessors to close shop on the humanities, and be thankful that they resisted the temptation. Our society must do the same if it is not to be remembered as a decadent dark age.
We in the humanities, of course, have a duty to keep explaining our work to governments and the public and to make sure they are aware of the good reasons for maintaining their support for us. That's one of the reasons I spend some time on this blog nearly every day.
UPDATE: Peter Bekins comments at Balshanut.
UPDATE (17 August): Roger Pearse comments and Duane Smith comments at Abnormal Interests.