rebus puzzles

sisterofiris  asked:

Hi! May I ask for advice on studying Akkadian (and Mesopotamia in general)? I'm an Ancient Greek student seriously considering taking more classes in the Mesopotamia department next year, but although it's a subject that interests me a lot, I don't know much about studying the language. How difficult is it? What should I expect? Any other tips? Thanks in advance :) I really enjoy your blog by the way, it's always nice to see your translations of ancient texts on my dash!

First, lucky you for having a Mesopotamia department at your university!  I totally encourage you to take a class or two about the culture, history, or religion, whether or not you study the language; the durability of clay tablets means that we know a lot more about Mesopotamia than most ancient civilizations, and its cultural heritage is really rich.

As for studying the Akkadian language, my answer is twofold.  Akkadian (a.k.a. Ancient Babylonian) is a Semitic language, like Hebrew and Arabic, so if you know one of those, it’ll help.  Just like knowing English helps with learning ancient Greek, you’ll come across root words that you already know, or grammatical features that work the same way.  If you’ve never studied any Semitic languages, then it’ll be more challenging, but it’s definitely an achievable challenge.  After all, if Babylonian five-year-olds could speak Akkadian, so can you. :-)

The tricky part comes when you shift from Akkadian as a language to cuneiform as a writing system.  Unlike English, Greek, Hebrew, and Arabic, cuneiform is not an alphabet; Akkadian cuneiform isn’t even a simple syllabary.  There are hundreds of cuneiform signs, and almost all of them have multiple meanings; the same sign could potentially mean several syllables, different entire words (ideograms), or a determinative (a silent sign that tells you about the word that follows, sort of like capitalizing a person’s name), and the only way to figure it out is from context.  There’s a reason that being a scribe was a respected occupation that took years of study.  Of course, the additional complexity also means that cuneiform has the potential for wordplay and literary cleverness that simple alphabets don’t allow.

Different universities teach Akkadian differently.  Some of them introduce you to cuneiform from the beginning, while others teach you the basic language in transliteration, then progress to cuneiform in later semesters.  For an undergrad beginner, I honestly think that the latter approach is better, since it lets you dive into reading actual texts more quickly, but your university probably only offers one or the other.  If you are learning cuneiform from the beginning, then my advice is to use flashcards (SO MANY FLASHCARDS) and be patient.  Decoding a line of cuneiform can be a lot like solving a rebus puzzle; the effort can be frustrating, but when everything clicks into place, it’s such a rewarding feeling.

Does that help?  I’m happy to answer more questions, publicly or privately!