Proper names of Babylonia and Assyria

From Academic Kids


In the early days of the decipherment of the cuneiform inscriptions, the reading of the proper names borne by Babylonians and Assyrians occasioned great difficulties; and though most of these difficulties have been overcome and there is general agreement among scholars as to the principles underlying both the formation and the pronunciation of the thousands of names that we encounter in historical records, business documents, votive inscriptions and literary productions, differences, though mostly of a minor character, still remain. Some time must elapse before absolute uniformity in the transliteration of these proper names is to be expected; and since different scholars still adopt varying spellings of Babylonian and Assyrian proper names, it has been considered undesirable in this work to ignore the fact in individual articles contributed by them. The better course seems to be to explain here the nature of these variations.

The main difficulty in the reading of Babylonian and Assyrian proper names arises from the preference given to the "ideographic" method of writing them. According to the developed cuneiform system of writing, words may be written by means of a sign (or combination of signs) expressive of the entire word, or they may be spelled out phonetically in syllables. So, for example, the word for" name "may be written by a sign MU, or it may be written out by two signs s/lu-mu, the one sign MU representing the "Sumerian" word for "name," which, however, in the case of a Babylonian or Assyrian text must be read as shumu--the Semitic equivalent of the Sumerian MU. Similarly the word for "clothing" may be written SIG-BA, which represents again the "Sumerian" word, whereas, the BabylonianAssyrian equivalent being lubushtu it is so to be read in Semitic texts, and may therefore be also phonetically written lu-bu-ush-tu. This double method of writing words arises from the circumstance that the cuneiform syllabary is of non-Semitic origin, the system being derived from the non-Semitic settlers of the Euphrates valley, commonly termed Sumerians (or Sumero-Akkadians), to whom, as the earlier settlers, the origin of the cuneiform script is due. This script, together with the general Sumerian culture, was taken over by the Babylonians upon their settlement in the Euphrates valley and adapted to their language, which belonged to the Semitic group. In this transfer the Sumerian words--largely monosyllabic--were reproduced, but read as Semitic, and at the same time the advance step was taken of utilizing the Sumerian words as means of writing the Babylonian words phonetically.

In this case the signs representing Sumerian words were treated merely as syllables, and, without reference to their meaning, utilized for spelling Babylonian words. The Babylonian syllabary which thus arose, and which, as the culture passed on to the north-known as Assyria--became the Babylonian Assyrian syllabary, was enlarged and modified in the course of time, the Semitic equivalents for many of the signs being distorted or abbreviated to form the basis of new "phonetic" values that were thus of "Semitic" origin; but, on the whole, the "non-Semitic" character of the signs used as syllables in the phonetic method of writing Semitic words was preserved; and, furthermore, down to the latest days of the Babylonian and Assyrian empires the mixed method of writing continued, though there were periods when "purism" was the fashion, and there was a more marked tendency to spell out the words laboriously in preference to using signs with a phonetic complement as an aid in suggesting the reading desired in any given instance.

Yet, even in those days, the Babylonian syllabary continued to be a mixture of ideographic and phonetic writing. Besides the conventional use of certain signs as the indications of names of gods, countries, cities, vessels, birds, trees, etc., which, known as "determinants," are the Sumerian signs of the terms in question and were added as a guide for the reader, proper names more particularly continued to be written to a large extent in purely "ideographic" fashion. The conservatism which is a feature of proper names everywhere, in consequence of which the archaic traits of a language are frequently preserved in them, just as they are preserved in terms used in the ritual and in poetic diction, is sufficient to account for the interesting fact that the Semitic settlers of the Euphrates valley in handing down their names from one generation to another retained the custom of writing them in "Sumerian" fashion, or, as we might also put it, in "ideographic" form. Thus the name of the deity, which enters as an element in a large proportion of the proper names, was almost invariably written with the sign or signs representing this deity, and it is only exceptionally that the name is spelled phonetically. Thus the name of the chief god of the Babylonian pantheon, Marduk, is written by two signs to be pronounced AMAR-UD, which describe the god as the "young bullock of the clay"--an allusion to the solar character of the god in question. The moon-god Sin is written by a sign which has the force of thirty, and is a distinct reference to the monthly course of the planet; or the name is written by two signs to be pronounced EN-ZU, which describe the god as the "lord of wisdom." The god Nebo appears as PA-the sign of the stylus, which is associated with this deity as the originator and patron of writing and of knowledge in general--or it is written with a sign AK, which describes the god as a "creator."

Until, therefore, through parallel passages or through explanatory lists prepared by the Babylonian and Assyrian scribes in large numbers as an aid for the study of the language, the exact Dhonetic reading of these divine names was determined, scholars remained in doubt or had recourse to conjectural or provisional readings. Even at the present time there are many names of deities, as, e.g. Ninib, the phonetic reading of which is still inknown or uncertain. In most cases, however, these belong to the category of minor deities or represent old local gods assimilated to some more powerful god, who absorbed, as it were, the attributes and prerogatives of these minor ones. In many cases they will probably turn out to be descriptive epithets of gods already known rather than genuine proper 'names. A peculiar difficulty arises in the case of the god of storms, who, written IM, was generally known in Babylonia as Ramman, "the thunderer," whereas in Assyria he also had the designation Adad. In many cases, therefore, we may be in doubt how the sign IM is to be read, more particularly since this same god appears to have had other designations besides Ramman and Adad.

Besides the divine element, proper names as a rule in the Babylonian-Assyrian periods had a verbal form attached and a third element representing an object. Even when the sign indicative of the verb is clearly recognised there still remains to be determined the form of the verb intended. Thus in the case ofthe sign KUR, which is the equivalent of na~ăru, "protect," there is the possibility of reading it as the active participle nd~ir, or as an imperative uriiur, or even the third person perfect i~ur. Similarly in the case of the sign MU, which, besides signifying "name" as above pointed out, is also the Sumerian word for "give," and therefore may be read iddin, "he gave," from nadanu, or may be read nădin, "giver"; and when, as actually happens, a name occurs in which the first element is the name of a deity followed by MU-MU, a new element of doubt is introduced through the uncertainty whether the first MU is to be taken as a form of the verb naddnu and the second as the noun shumu, "name," or vice versa.

Fortunately, in the case of a large number of names occurring on business documents as the interested parties or as scribes or as witnesses-and it is through these documents that we obtain the majority of the Babylonian-Assyrian proper names-we have variant readings, the same name being written phonetically in whole or part in one instance and ideographically in another. Certain classes of names being explained in this way, legitimate and fairly reliable conclusions can be drawn for many others belonging to the same class or group. The proper names of the numerous business documents of the Khammurabi period, when phonetic writing was the fashion, have been of special value in resolving doubts as to the correct reading of names written ideographically. Thus names like Sin-na-di-in-shu-mi and Bel-na-di-in-shu-mi, i.e. "Sin is, the giver of a name " (i.e. offspring), and "Bel is the giver of a name," form the model for names with deities as the first element followed by MU-MU, even 'though the model may not be consistently followed in all cases. In historical texts also variant readings occur in considerable number. Thus, to take a classic example, the name of the famous king Nebuchadrezzar occurs written in the following different manners:

  1. Na-bi-um-ku-du-ur-ri-u-~u-ur
  2. AK-DU u-~u-ur
  3. AK-ku-dur-ri-SHES

from which we are permitted to conclude that PA or AK (with the determinative for deity AN = Ncf-bi-um or Nebo), that GAR-DU or DU alone = kudurri, and that SHES = u~ur. The second element signifies "boundary" or "territory"; the third element is the imperative of nasdrw, "protect"; so that the whole name signifies, "0, Nebo! protect my boundary" (or "my territory").

It is not the purpose of this note to set forth the principles underlying the formation of proper names among the Babylonians and Assyrians, but it may not be out of place to indicate that by the side of such full names, containing three elements (or even more), we have already at an early period the reduction of these elements to two through the combination of the name of a deity with a verbal form merely, or through the omission of the name of the deity. From such names it is only a step to names of one element, a characteristic feature of which is the frequent addition of an. ending -turn (feminine), an, a, urn, atuin, ati~a, s/ia, etc., most of these being "hypocoristic affixes," corresponding in a measure to modern pet-names.

Lastly, a word about genuine or pseudo-Sumerian names. In the case of texts from the oldest historical periods we encounter hundreds of names that are genuinely Sumerian, and here in view of the multiplicity of the phonetic values attaching to the signs used it is frequently difficult definitely to determine the reading of the names. Our knowledge of the ancient Sumerian language is still quite imperfect, despite the considerable progress made, more particularly during recent years. It is therefore not surprising that scholars should differ considerably in the reading of Sumerian names, where we have not helps at our command as for Babylonian and Assyrian names. Changes in the manner of reading the Sumerian names are frequent. Thus the name of a king of Ur, generally read Ur-Bau at one time, is now read Ur-Engur; for Lugal-zaggisi, a king of Erech, some scholars still prefer to read Ungal-zaggisi; the name of a famous political and religious centre generally read Shir-pur-la is more probably to be read Shir-gul-la; and so forth. There is reason, however, to believe that the uncertainty in regard to many of these names will eventually be resolved into reasonable certainty. A doubt also still exists in regard to a number of names of the older period because of the uncertainty whether their bearers were Sumerians or Semites. If the former, then their names are surely to be read as Sumerian, while, if they were Semites, the signs with which the names are written are probably to be read according to their Semitic equivalents, though we may also expect to encounter Semites bearing genuine Sumerian names. At times too a doubt may exist in regard to a name whose bearer was a Semite, whether the signs composing his name represent a phonetic reading or an ideographic compound. Thus, e.g. when inscriptions of a Semitic ruler of Kish, whose name was written Uru-mu-ush, were first deciphered, there was a disposition to regard this as an ideographic form and to read phonetically Alu-usharshid ("he founded a city," with the omission of the name of the deity), but scholarly opinion finally accepted Urumu-ush (Urumush) as the correct designation.

For further details regarding the formation of Sumerian and Babylonian-Assyrian proper names, as well as for an indication of the problems involved and the difficulties still existing, especially in the case of Sumerian names, see the three excellent works now at our disposal for the Sumerian, the old Babylonian, and the neoBabylonian period respectively, by Huber, Die Personennamen in den Keiischrifturkunden aus der Zeit der Konige von Ur und Nisin (Leipzig, 1907); Ranke, Early Babylonian Proper Names (Philadelphia, 1905); and Tallqvist, Neu-Babylonisches Narnenbuch.

See also: Babylonia and Assyria

This article was originally based on content from the 1911 Encyclopćdia Britannica. Update as needed.


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