Back in the day, the PamAm Guide to America described the Yale Babylonian Collection as the only thing worth seeing in New Haven (no, not Sally’s). WEEKEND catches up with Benjamin Foster GRD ’75, the Laffan Professor of Assyriology and Babylonian Literature and Curator of the Yale Babylonian Collection to talk about extinct languages, the collection and the gods. If you want to experience the language for yourself, go during business hours (from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.) and they’ll be happy to let you in.]w
Q. So, Akkadian is kind of an extinct language right now.
A. It’s very extinct.
Q. What made you first interested in the language?
A. I would say that I became interested in the region first, and then once you become interested in any region of the world you consider the various languages in use there. Akkadian is one of the major languages of ancient Mesopotamia, so I began studying Akkadian as a graduate student and I haven’t lost interest since.
Q. What is particular about the language? Does it still need deciphering or is it fully resolved?
A. It’s a language that we don’t read as well as we read ancient Greek or Latin, but on the other hand we’ve come a long way in the last hundred years. We’ve reconstructed major works of literature and scholarship, a massive historic and administrative tradition with tens of thousands of documents in Akkadian.
Q. So I was wondering, how can you approximate sounds, do you know for sure what they sounded like or can you only guess?
A. We have vowels and consonants, but we’re pretty sure we can say Akkadian words and Akkadian sentences so that if an Akkadian speaker came down from heaven they would understand us. They would probably correct our pronunciation, our stress, all of these things, but we think we would be able to make ourselves understood. We wouldn’t be able to converse with the Babylonians because we don’t have that kind of facility with the language, but I think that if we read Akkadian out loud to them, they would get the drift of what we’re talking about.
Q. Is the literature in Akkadian limited to more formal scholarship?
A. We don’t teach conversational Akkadian, if that’s what you mean. Among the world’s first legal literature is in Akkadian. We have massive law material in Akkadian, we have numerous court hearings, we have correspondence about the law and we have collections of laws. Professors from the Law School often engage with us, as a matter of fact. We have everyday stuff as well. We have letters from children to their parents asking for money, but Akkadian was an elite writing system, so a relatively small percentage of the population knew how to read or write. So, the concerns of Akkadian reflect the concerns of an educated elite and professional people, much more so than, let’s say, farmers. The only way we can get at half of human history is through Akkadian, we have more written tradition B.C. than we have A.D., and we have more written documents from Mesopotamia than from the rest of the ancient world put together, and in many cases it’s much earlier. For example, the earliest known women’s writing in the world is a mass of letters from the 19th century B.C., and all of these are in Akkadian. If you go out on the hall you’ll see a display of the first use of the Pythagorean theorem, which is about 12 or 14 hundred years before Pythagoras, so that’s what our profession has to offer. So we don’t think that being first is necessarily wonderful, but what we saying is that there is a vast agenda out there which many people are not aware of, for example many Yalies are not aware of our collection.
Q. Do you get a lot of students?
A. Usually beginning Akkadian has very few, and undergraduates seldom take it. I taught a few undergraduates, and they were phenomenal. We tend to say that we have Snow White and the other majors have the seven dwarves. We have one great student once in a while, and the other majors can have all the rest, we don’t care. Very few undergraduates take Akkadian, and I usually try to talk them out of it. I tell them to learn a useful modern language like Italian and if they are still interested in Akkadian they can come back at graduate school.
Q. How large is the collection here at Yale?
A. The Babylonian Collection is the largest in the United States. It’s about 45,000 tablets and about 20 percent of it is published. So there is plenty of work here to do. We also have our own working library and our own classroom. It’s by far one of Yale’s most distinguished collections. Around the worldwide scene it compares to collections at the British Museum, in the Louvre, Istanbul or Baghdad.
Q. Do you have a favorite word?
A. That is a question I’ve never been asked. Let me think. I’m gonna say “usurtu.” The basic root means a drawing, something that is drawn out, like a plan or a building. “Usurtu” is a beautiful Akkadian word which means the kind of overall design and plans of things. That there is a scheme, there is an order, akind of rational basis for any situation in which you find yourself. You can only detect it, and what goes wrong in the world is when people don’t pay attention to these. They are not divine, you don’t worship them, but the gods sort of approve of them, understand them. And human beings, when they are smart, stick to them and follow them. They can identify them. You look down on the world and you see a kind of broad scheme, instead a set of random phenomena. I’m not sure it’s my favorite