March 16, 2011

Review of Erica Reiner, An Adventure of Great Dimension: The Making of the Chicago Assyrian Dictionary

Erica Reiner. An Adventure of Great Dimension: the Launching of the Chicago Assyrian Dictionary. Transactions of the American Philosophical Society Vol. 92 Pt. 3 (2002) (available in libraries and on J-STOR).

Adventure is about the writing of the Chicago Assyrian Dictionary, the comprehensive dictionary of Akkadian in all its forms, by a scholar who joined the dictionary in 1954 and was editor-in-chief from 1973 to 1996. Because I’m not up to getting through that book, which stands at 25 volumes with one more on the way, I’ll review this history. (I don’t read Akkadian yet, either, but I’m sure I would by volume 19 or so.) There are no other reviews of Adventure readily available (the only one I turned up, although it is not available to me, is in Dictionaries: Journal of the Dictionary Society of North America 26: 211-13 (2005).

The CAD is a much-delayed dictionary: The Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago first started collecting material in 1921.  CAD volumes, alphabetized according to the 23 roman and romanized-Hebrew letters into which the initial sounds of Akkadian words are rendered, were published in the order completed. None were finished until 1956, when H came first and was followed by G the same year. Although the staff expected completion of the dictionary to take only about 10 years once compilation began, only a few volumes have come out each decade. A did not come out until 1964 and 1968, in two parts; T and Tet were each released in 2006; U/W still awaits release. From Reiner it’s clear that the main culprit (after the Second World War was over) was the huge amount of material and the relatively small staff.

Adventure is an interesting and pretty comprehensive book, although it is best read as a sequel to the history of the CAD by I. J. Gelb presented in volume A/1 of the dictionary (1968). That piece includes meat that Reiner does not, such as how citation cards were produced, sources sought out, and how outside scholars, at Chicago’s request, created new translations from which the dictionary could reliably extract meanings. Reiner’s book discusses the mechanics of assembling the entries in the dictionary and includes copies of drafts, but without in-depth, interesting analysis of puzzling cruxes or telling errors. The dictionary was assembled from slips filed away, since about 1920, in great cabinets of the third floor of the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago. Here is a circa 1921 example from an article by the Institute’s founder James Henry Breasted:

According to Breasted, such a card with a passage typed on it was copied 50 times; on each copy, a different word was highlighted, annotated and translated, so that each word in the passage could have its own card in the file cabinet.  By the mid-1960s there were more than 1.5 million cards (or slips), and by the ’90s about 3 million, but Reiner doesn't describe them.  Reiner also does not provide post-1950 examples, to show us how information-gathering changed over the decades.  Reiner does say that many of these old slips had become inadequate and outdated since the 1920s, making the staff have to get back to basics.  The typescript drafts of entries to H nonetheless are interesting as examples of the composition of entries.

Most of Reiner’s book covers the 1950s and 1960s and describes the lack of cooperation among the members of the editorial board.  The board members were, in more or less the descending amount of attention she pays each: Benno Landsberger, Leo Oppenheim, Ignace J. Gelb, and Thorkild Jacobsen.  Reiner describes them as brilliant, but each with his own distinct viewpoint on how the CAD should develop.  To actually produce the dictionary, two, Landsberger and Oppenheim, was company, while three and four turned out to be crowds.  Oppenheim’s view of the dictionary was that it be a straightforward listing of the entire Akkadian lexis, occasionally with a discursive, deeper-context paragraph in an entry.  Backed by the elder Landsberger, Oppenheim’s view eventually won out over the opinion of Jacobsen, which seems to be to have focused on fields of words to attack basic concepts, and the approach of Gelb, which to Reiner seems like one focused more on the technique and process of writing entries, than on getting on with it.  Gelb’s slow pace and reluctance to begin writing the dictionary are the most curious and interesting aspects of the personalities involved.

One fascinating aspect of the writing of the dictionary that Reiner covers very well is the impact of interaction with the Assyriology community, the audience for the dictionary.  The CAD was publicized early to a public skeptical that it would ever be published.  The staff did not help: Gelb unfortunately attempted to communicate with readers in 1954, before the first volume was even close to completion.  He circulated an over-long sample article of "ŝaṭarū," which, in addition to having an  impractical format and impractical length, was full of errors.  Drafts of H as finally compiled and distributed for discussion were also full of errors (the staff discovered the necessity of returning to cuneiform originals rather than relying on existing, some quite old, slips).  The crisis caused by this among an international advisory board, and for the dictionary’s continued funding, is dramatic.  Interesting, too, is an agreement that scholars in Germany would write a short Handwörterbuch, while American resources would go towards the lengthy CAD; the Handwörterbuch, which also took decades for its three volumes to come out, provided a valuable benchmark for the CAD’s progress over the years.

I would have liked to see suggestions of how to handle the inconsistencies in transliteration, translation, and citation of sources that crop up after such a long time in production.  A 2010 article by current editor Martha Roth does discuss the more-or-less consistent format eventually worked out in the CAD, and it is clear that the main force guiding consistency is the presence of a capable, involved editor of the manuscript.  Another problem Reiner points out, and that Roth acknowledges, is the unlikelihood ever of publishing corrections and additions.  An experiment with putting corrections to a volume in the next-published volume was dropped after the corrections to H were put in G.  With volumes out of alphabetical sequence, for a reader to find a particular set of errata would be very inconvenient. 

Bibliographies, apparently comprehensive, can be found at the end of Gelb’s history of the dictionary in CAD volume A/1, and in Martha Roth, “How We Wrote the Chicago Assyrian Dictionary,” Journal of Near Eastern Studies 69:1-21 (2010). 

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