Scripts can be used universally to write any number of languages, and any relation between script and language is formally one of convention, not necessity. For this reason, the alphabet has been adapted to numerous languages, without regard to the fact that it was first invented for recording the phonology
One of the chief advantages of an alphabet over a syllabary was the ability to organize data simply and effectively. Not only do the alphabetic characters always appear in a standard sequence, but each letter is associated with a numeral reflecting this order.2 There is no equivalent to such within a cuneiform syllabary
From this point on in Nabnitu, beginning with the eighth tablet, no body parts are specifically mentioned and the head-to-foot pattern is less clear, although now explained by Finkel as verbs that could be associated with the “mouth” (ie. manû to recite, zamāru to sing, akālu to eat) or the “hand” (e.g. šaṭāru to write, edēlu to bolt, etc.). Finkel sees the next division of tablets as reflecting the “feet,”6 with incipits having verbs such as to “coil” (kanānu), to “flatten” (sapānu), to “pass by” (etēqu), or to “jump” (šahāṭu). After Tablet 30, this order appears to break down entirely. Nevertheless, the patterns are clear enough to consider that certain ordering principles
Similarly, nasāhu to “uproot,” gullubu to “shear” (or “shave”), mahāṣu to “strike,”9 kanānu to “coil,”10 sapānu to “flatten”11 could reflect the common uses of such terms in hand-working or crafts. By the same token, verbs such as etēqu to “pass by,” šahāṭu to “jump,” arāhu to “hasten,” re’û to “shepherd,” arādu to “descend,” and erēbu to “enter”12 may have described different paces of walking or moving. The point is that the ordering principles may vary from one section to another, but some sort of order based on semantics
Within the individual tablets, however, another ordering principle
We are obliged to conclude that the processes of lexicography
had engendered at least a partial understanding of the root system, since it is, after all, a natural outcome of any classification of Semitic vocabulary . It seems doubtful, on the other hand, that the refined concept of a tri-radical root such as was developed by the Arab grammarians and lexicographers of the ninth century CE can be posited for Mesopotamia of the second millennium BCE.16
To substantiate this point, Finkel points out that verbal forms are first listed as G-Stem infinitives often followed by the same verb in its derived forms,17 or with nominal and adjectival derivatives of a verb.18 Moreover, homophones are collected into successive lists,19 and in many other instances roots are listed in sequences which show consistent phonological
The question is whether this ordering of sequence of Akkadian words could only have been accomplished after the invention of the alphabet, which is based primarily upon Semitic roots. Were native speakers
and then reverting to a homonym
|13||kul.kul||banû ša qaqqadu ša SAG.KUL.KUL||be beautiful (referring) to the head and (god) Sagkulkul|
|14||mud||banû ša alādi||to create (referring) to giving birth|
The difficulty is whether these associations were purely semantic or influenced by a theory or awareness of Semitic roots. From an etymological viewpoint, only the terms nabnītu “form” and banû “create” are actual cognates
One of the more intriguing examples of word association occurs in Nabn. IV 19–28,23 in which we find a series of words beginning with an entry for “tongue” (lišanu), but the Sumerian
|20||lú.eme.tuku||ša lišānu||(man) having a tongue (speaker)|
|22||lú.eme.nu.tuku||lā išānû||(Sum. one lacking a tongue), unimportanti|
|23||lú.sag.du.nu.tuku||MIN||(Sum. one lacking a head), unimportant|
|28||mu x x||laššu||there is not|
The pattern here shows variations of various Semitic roots with playful associations between them, and the rulings in Nabnitu show this section to be a discrete unit.
The initial entry lišānu “tongue” (corresponding to the root Semitic √ lšn ) alternatives with a negation of išû , “to have,” followed by the verb lâšu “to knead” and the noun līšu “dough,” but ending with another negation of “to have” ( laššu < la išû ). These terms have little in common with each other except for the sequence of the /l/ and /š/ phonemes, while vowel length is ignored entirely (e.g. lišānu vs. lā išānû vs. laššu). It is the lack of interest in the vowel quantity which could suggest a focus on “consonants,” similar to what one might expect from an alphabetic orthography
Another example of lexical correspondences not based upon semantics occurs in Nabn. IV A, 206–216:
Tab. 9.4: MSL 16, 84–85
The mixture of forms in this list has been set apart by rulings, indicating a discrete unit which only has one thing in common, a sequence of /d/ and /n/ or /m/ phonemes,24 with little attention paid to vowel quantity, as before. Various permutations of words do not indicate any evidence of the awareness of Semitic roots, however, since no single tri-radical root can be identified to explain this sequence of entries.
This being the case, let us review the best arguments posed by Irving Finkel and Lutz Edzard for detectable Semitic roots in Nabnitu. Finkel25 gives as best evidence for the concept of the root in Nabnitu the following entries from Nabn. XVI, 1–63:
|[ mahāru ša ŠE u KÙ.BABBAR] |
|to receive (referring) to barley and silver
|[MIN (= mahāru ) ša ] qiš-ti |
|ditto (referring) to a gift
|[MIN (= mahāru ) šá IGI |
|ditto (referring) to the eye / face, be pleasing
|[MIN] ša mahirti |
|ditto (referring) to upstream
|qabal lā mahār |
|battle not to be faced
|qablu ša lā immahharu |
|battle which cannot be faced
|mihru ša ÍD |
|barrier (referring) to a river
|MIN (= mihru ) ša zamāri |
|refrain, (referring) to singing
|ditto (= divine name)
|muhra qurribšu |
|approach! present it!
|[a.ba ......] |
|mannu māhiršu |
|who can rival him?
|galab māhiri |
|lišān mithurti |
|of equal size
|gišMÁ muhra |
|sail the boat!
|gaba.ri [..] x |
|mihra muhra |
|face the facts!
|sag.í.[l h]u.tùm |
|muhrû libilšu |
|let the foremost fetch it
|first (above all)
|lugal.ra gaba.ri.[gi].íb |
|šarra muhur |
|approach the king!
|ur.sag è x [..].íb |
|qarrada MIN |
|approach the hero!
This discrete section of Nabnitu, enclosed by a ruling, certainly shows awareness of cognates related to the infinitive mahāru, to “receive” or “oppose,” with various derived idiomatic expressions referring to “divergent” but “equal” forces meeting each other (such as in a market or in battle or in contrasting languages). So while the list is a remarkable study in semantics
Another argument in favor of a tri-radical root in Nabnitu is the appearance of metathesis in certain groups of words, which might suggest conscious manipulation of root radicals. Lutz Edzard gives the following example from Nabn. 17: 295–291:
|275||gaz||kasāpu||break into pieces|
|289||hul.gál||kispu||funerary offering (Sum. = “be evil”)|
The point of this passage is that Akkadian has homonyms
Since there is nothing in the evidence so far considered enabling one to make a prima facie case for the awareness of the Semitic root system in Nabnitu, one other possibility remains, namely that Mesopotamian
The original intention of this paper was to substantiate the theory of Irving Finkel and Lutz Edzard that the unusual Sumerian-Akkadian lexical list Nabnitu
MSL = Materials for the Sumerian Lexicon
This article was made possible through “BabMed – Fragments of Cuneiform Medicine in the Babylonian Talmud: Knowledge Transfer in Late Antiquity.” The BabMed project has received funding from the European Research Council under the European Union’s Seventh Framework Programme (FP7/2007-2013), ERC Grant agreement no. 323596.
Edzard, L. (2011). Die SIG7.ALAN = Nabnitu-Liste und das Konzept der semitischen Wurzel. Zeitschrift der Deutschen Morgenl ändischen Gesellschaft 161:17–39.
Finkel, I. L. (1982). The Series SIG7.ALAN = Nabnītu. In: Materials for the Sumerian Lexicon Vol. 16. Rome: Pontificium Institutum Biblicum.
Heeßel, N. (2000). Babylonische Diagnostik. Münster: Ugarit Verlag.
Lemaire, A. (2001). Nouvelles tablettes aram éennes. Geneva: Droz Publisher.
Scurlock, J. (2014). Sourcebook for Ancient Mesopotamian Medicine. Atlanta: SBL Press.
For a relatively brief period, Aramaic letters were incised with a stylus on clay tablets, but this soon became obsolete; see Lemaire (2001).
Even in the case of Arabic, the numerical equivalents remain even after the order of the alphabet was changed.
See Finkel’s scheme, MSL 16, 27.
The entry is mahāru ša še’i u kaspi, “to receive referring to barley and silver.”
As argued in MSL 16, 25–26.
The entry is mahāṣu ša amēli, “to strike referring to a man,” which could be a kind of manual activity.
The entry is kanānu ša šipri, “to coil referring to work” (not a snake).
MSL 16, 26–27.
MSL 16, 27.
As explained by Finkel, MSL 16, 38.
MSL 16, 36–38.
MSL 16, 38
MSL 16, 29f.
MSL 16, 31.
MSL 16, 33.
MSL 16, 34–35.
The assumption is that speakers of Ugaritic or Akkadian in Ugarit would have recognized Semitic roots, once they grew accustomed to alphabetic writing.
MSL 16, 77.
MSL 16, 36.
It should be noted that line 290, omitted by Edzard, is more consistent with Sumerian lexicography, giving Sumerian ki.sì.ga as corresponding to Akkadian kispu, “funerary offering,” and for which there is also a Sumerian loanword into Akkadian, kisikkû.
See CAD K 555.
CAD K 425.
Which also has an alternative lexical writing kispu, see CAD K 336.