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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  1. I suspect a Babylonian scribe would have written 'heart of the lion' as 'lib-bi UR.MAH'.

    Your friend correctly identifies the construct of 'libbum' as 'libbi', since if the dictionary form of a word is two syllables long and/or the second of the consonants is the feminine t, the case vowel is removed and -i is added in the construct form.

    UR.MAH is a Sumerogram for 'nēšu(m)', a much more common word for 'lion'.

    If you are interested in learning more about cuneiform, a good place to begin is the teaching website built by Eleanor Robson (University of Cambridge) for the 'Knowledge and Power in the Neo-Assyrian Empire' project. It teaches the student enough Akkadian to read basic laws from the code of Hammurabi:

    Alternatively, you might consider purchasing the Teach Yourself guide to Babylonian by Martin Worthington.

  2. The construct state in eastern Semitic is one way of denoting possessive. However the result you have would read more as "the lion's heart"
    the other way of denoting possessives is with the determinative pronoun "ša" for "of the" where the subject is in the nominative and doesn't take the construct and the following noun is in the genitive
    thus Libbu(m) ša Neši(m) = Heart of Lion (No definite or indefinite so it could be A heart of THE lion or THE Heart of A lion, etc)

    For the cuneiform, I vaguely recall that Libbum was mostly written with the logogram Šàg or something similar (I'm sat down now and my bookshelf is downstairs) - to spell stuff out like a child was considered very bad scribal form amongst the Tup Sharru)

    and my recommendation would be John Huenergard's Grammar of
    Akkadian - in the Harvard Semitic Museum studies series

    Out of print and hard to find, but so much handier to lug around than the CAD.

  3. What resources did you use to translate from akkadian (roman script) to akkadian cuneiform script?

  4. This comment has been removed by the author.

  5. How would be a LIONESS in akkadian? Is there a little-cute form in accadian languge? Like lioness -> lionessy.

    So lābu. May by you also know how to translate: Story of Lioness?

  6. Lioness is definitely "nēštu(m)". Not sure about "story" but and epic or poem or a song is "zamāru(m)". So maybe "Zamārum ša nēštim". Might mean more like "Epic belonging to a lioness" :S

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  8. This is the day four I hit the books on akkadian, looking for "snow-white sailor blouse", "cat's ear" and a few more word collocations like that))) Really hard to find out a pattern to construct "snow-white" in order to denote a specific color.)))

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