By Renee Basick
Photo by Jason Smith

Eighty-six years after the inception of the Chicago Assyrian Dictionary, Martha Roth, Chauncey S. Boucher Distinguished Service Professor of Assyriology in the Oriental Institute, Near Eastern Languages & Civilizations and Dean of the Division of the Humanities, is the editor-in-charge who will most likely bring the project to a close. Long regarded a “ten-year project,” the dictionary has far exceeded the expectations of its editors and has grown since 1921 to become a comprehensive catalogue of over 2,000 years of the Assyrian and Ancient Babylonian lexicon.

Modeled after great lexicographic traditions such as the Oxford English Dictionary, the Assyrian Dictionary was conceived as an encyclopedic reference of the Acadian languages. Primary sources for entries are the millions of cuneiform tablets that have survived and surfaced through excavation over the last 200 years. This great wealth of data has also been the project’s primary hindrance—each tablet must be preserved or restored, deciphered, catalogued and finally analyzed for inclusion.

The final volume of the dictionary went to press in the summer of 2007, completing a predicted 27-volume set. Since 1956, when the first volume was published, the Chicago Assyrian Dictionary has influenced the field of Assyriology worldwide not only as an encyclopedic reference, but also as a training ground and post-doctoral study for 30–50 renowned scholars in the field.

As ongoing and future excavations reveal additional sources of lexicographic information, the project will evolve to include these new data sets in both hard copy and electronic versions. In an effort to make the entire text accessible, digitization of the dictionary is the next phase of this nearly century-old undertaking and will fulfill a promise to long time supporter, The National Endowment for the Humanities.

Originally published on February 18, 2008.