Sunday, March 20, 2011

Fun with Akkadian

UPDATE: After this was posted on March 20th, a long-time reader argued that my final result is in fact incorrect. Scroll to bottom to see the debate and the new translation.

Recently a reader asked me how to translate "heart of lion" into Akkadian. More often than not I have to refuse requests to translate something into an ancient script because frankly (a) I can't possibly know every ancient language, and (b) I don't have the time to look it up and translate as a I learn. In this case I really knew little-to-nothing of Akkadian but since the phrase was fairly simple I took it on as a way to learn a bit more about Akkadian.

First, I looked up the words in the expression, namely "heart" and "lion". I also know that Akkadian was an inflectional language which means that the words change form depending on their function in a sentence. In particular, "of lion" is what is called the genitive case, and unlike English where this concept is expressed as a phrase, Akkadian would have it as a derivation of the root of "lion". In other words, I need to find the word for "lion" in Akkadian and then figure out how to modify it into the equivalent of "of lion".

I found this online dictionary which seems to be pretty good.

From this, I found libbu to be "heart; belly, tummy; wish, mind; center, inside". Since the first definition is "heart", my guess is that the rest are metaphoric extensions of the original meaning. Next I found lābu to be "lion". This seems to be pretty straightforward.

Now there is an extra wrinkle in that the Akkadian dictionary states that "mimmation is omitted". This reflects a historical change in the Akkadian language itself that during the Old Babylonian period (20th to 16th century BCE) many words ended in -m, so "heart" would've been libbum. However, the last -m is lost after that time, and the word would be libbu in later dialects like Assyrian. You can see for more information. I personally prefer to use mimmation form.

Next we want to create the construction "heart of a lion". Naively, we can see that "heart" is the main subject of the phase, the so called nominative case, which would be libbum in Old Babylonian. The expression "of a lion" is the genitive case that we discussed earlier, which would be lābim in Akkadian. So the entire translation should be libbum lābim, right? Wrong!

Turns out that when putting two nouns together in Akkadian there's a special case called the construct state in which the nominative case is shortened down to the bone. The entire nominative ending of -um is omitted, and in this case the double consonant -bb- is reduced to a single consonant, so the final form becomes lib lābim.

See for more details.

Next we move onto how to write the translated expression in Akkadian cuneiform. To write lib, we use the signs li-ib, so that we can indicate the final -b consonant. . Next up is lābim, where ā is a long vowel, and so we double the vowel [a] like so la-a-bi-im.

And here it is:

And yes, in a geeky way, it was fun.

I highly recommend the Akkadian Language site ( which touches on Mesopotamian history, cuneiform script, Akkadian grammar, and sample texts. Sometimes I've gotten lost in it for hours!

UPDATE: A friend Twitter disagreed with this conclusion of mine. This was followed by much tweeting back and forth and some more research on my part.

Specifically I found "A structural grammar of Babylonian" by Giorgio Buccellati on Google Books and it provided example of what I am looking for. Particularly I found the phrase libbi ālim which means "heart of the city" which is similarly enough to what I'm looking for, although lib ālim might still be correct in a more obscure way.

Here is the new translation in cuneiform:

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Tuesday, March 8, 2011

A grab bag of wiggling thoughts

It's March 2011 already? My last post was in November 2010 and to be honest I haven't had any ideas on what to talk about. There are, however, updates over at the very Web 1.0 Ancient Scripts website, including new page on Cretan Hieroglyphs and an update on Linear A.

For the next writing system I am going to jump across the globe and work on Rongo Rongo, the mysterious scripts of Easter Island. It's going to be fun to read about all the looney crackpot theories about this script. However, aside from dubious claims with the aliens, supernatural beings, and even wandering Greeks/Egyptians/Phoenicians, there are actually solid research but with various degrees of convincibility. I've done a bit of reading already and it's quite fascinating!

Another subproject that I really want to get started is bibliography on each page. Right now all my sources are available on the Reference page (, and I meticulously keep that updated. However, what would be really nice is to have each page lists its own source materials. It would be a bit of an undertaking, but it will really help one of my goals of Ancient Scripts which is to enable readers to go deeper (pardon the Inception reference) into a subject by providing both online and offline resources.