Why we need Akkadian

Jim Davila has an interesting column entitled Why we need Akkadian.  

I think we all know that the earliest civilisation of mankind arose in Sumer and Akkad, in the plains of Mesopotamia, when men started to build mud-brick houses, build cities, and soon to produce those curious cuneiform tablets, the earliest widespread writing system of men.  The “wedge” enjoyed a very long life, longer far than Roman script, and perhaps ceased to be used some time in the Roman period.  I remember reading an article, “The last wedge”, dedicated to just this question, although sadly I forget the answer.

Very early on, cuneiform was used for semitic languages – that vast group of closely related tongues which exists today in modern Hebrew and Arabic, and once encompassed biblical Hebrew, Aramaic and Syriac.  I learn from Jim’s article that Akkadian is the term for all these early languages, which relate closely to the Hebrew of the bible.  It was, after all, from Ur of the Chaldees that Abraham set out on his journey.  Not that anyone at the time would have seen anything special about a man setting out with a camel or two.  But that journey changed the course of history.

The study of these early languages and their culture must mainly be undertaken from archaeology.  The early volumes of the Cambridge Ancient History, imposing as they are, are very dry for just this reason.  But what is learned from them can illuminate our understanding of the Old Testament.  The article Jim quotes says of the latter, and quite rightly:

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.

This lovely image of understanding highlights a real difficulty; and study of Akkadian is one of the solutions.  It gives us more information about the sacred text.

But Jim then moves on to consider the plight of the humanities in an age of cost-cutting.  Such pleas we have all seen before, many, many times.  The self-interested pleadings of the idle herd who graze on the public purse need not move us unduly.  Jim’s comments deserve a hearing because he acknowledges that much of what is written does not.

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.

Sections of the humanities have engaged in any amount of elitism.  If we wanted an example, we could look at how Latinists have eliminated J and V from texts, in favour of texts only using I and U — and then printed them, not in capitalis, but in the lower case script invented in the 15th century!  The process introduced a barrier to ordinary people, made the learning and reading of Latin harder, and privileged a caste of professional scholars.  Claims that it was more authentic merely sought to sugar-coat the real effect — and the real purpose — of the change.  Such elitism, the creation of professional classes, the claims that disciplines like history — or theology — are owned by those drawing salaries are malevolent.  Once the people who pay are excluded, they will naturally ask why they are paying.

It is unlikely that archaeology, which has reached out so successfully to the world, will suffer as some might.  The mighty popular image of Indiana Jones stands in the way of such cutbacks.  Papyrology may perish; but Raiders of the lost ark will preserve much.

I do not think any here will suspect me of undue reverence for the humanities.  My training is as a scientist, and the use of the humanities to decorate with authority the claims of some political or religious position is why I can’t take much of it seriously.  The manner in which some disciplines have been prostituted for political purposes is known to us all.  Sociology died of such a process; economics barely survived being gang-banged for the ends of state socialism.  Theology does not deserve to survive unless it purges its culture of Christian-baiting and seeks to escape the process whereby the assured results of scholarly investigation have always reflected the desires of those who control university appointments.  The way in which the scholarly study of Lucian in 19th century Germany reflected precisely the attitude of the state authorities towards anti-semitism, lucidly documented by Holzberg in “Lucian and the Germans”, indicates that classics has no objective standard on which to operate.  The list might be extended probably endlessly.

But let us be clear.  A modern state must produce trained men to operate the machines on which our society depends.  It must produce scientists, lest we all die from superbugs.  It must produce men able to read and write, although the weevils have been at work, and it is questionable whether it does.  But whether this process has much to do with education in the sense in which it would have been understood in the renaissance must be questionable.

Why history?  Why teach it?  What does it matter, how the despots of the Byzantine empire fought off their foes?  Do we care about the processes whereby the Fathers decided whether Cyril or Nestorius should be condemned?

It does matter.  It matters deeply to us all.  Our society came into being by the rediscovery of the classical world.  The education provided by the classics, both those of the Greek and Latin world, and of the English-speaking world, is one that can never become outdated, except in the eyes of those whose hate for our society exceeds reason or sanity.  To know them is to become an educated man.  To listen to their voices is to escape the tyranny of the present.  To love them is a liberal education.

A man who suffers a certain kind of brain damage loses the ability to remember more than a few minutes of his life.  Such men are thereby crippled.  An old man is far less likely to be deceived by the promises of politicians than the young.  Man is an ape, in that he is ever forgetful of what is not before his eyes.  But history is the means whereby we can extend our memory back before we were born.  It is the means whereby we can learn much, that those who seek to cheat us in our own day would prefer we do not know.  A nation without memory is a nation without a future.  A nation that cannot read what people said in the past cannot access that memory.

Thus we need Akkadian. 

Johnson once remarked that a civilised nation should be able to celebrate in a multitude of dead languages.  And so it should.  It indicates power of mind.

Our academics have become lazy.  I was shocked to learn that a certain Oxford college considers a don hard-working if he engages in five hours of teaching a week.  Reform is indeed necessary.  But it will be a poor land, where a boy cannot learn Latin and Greek, where undergraduates do not sit in a punt with a volume of the classics. 

I remember the last time I ever went punting at Oxford.  I bought, in a now vanished bookshop in St. Clements, an old ‘Everyman’ volume to read.  The cover had gone, and someone had recovered it with some brown paper.  Written on the brown paper in felt-tip were the words, “A century of English essays”.  But I took it with me, and read as we punted into the Cherwell, along the green-brown muddy river and under the trailing trees.  I have it still.  It introduced me to the essays of Augustine Birrell.  These in turn led me to Dr. Johnson, to an appreciation even of Gibbon, whom I might otherwise have known only as a less-than-honest polemicist, and a score more.  Such is education, and a university the opportunity to acquire it.

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