Lilith or Inanna: What difference does it make?
Stephen Trombley on the study of language and ancient texts.
When the English physicist and photographer William Fox Talbot took up the Ancient Near East as a hobby he was fascinated by language and the secrets it could squeeze from old stones. But Fox Talbot's belief in physics led him to suspect 'literary' knowledge. Physics seemed to yield exact, utilitarian results – photography proved that. So he tried an experiment. He persuaded his friends Sir Henry Rawlinson and Jules Oppert to join him in preparing separate translations of the same text. He was mightily pleased to discover that they were sufficiently similar to justify his continued interest.
We now know far more about ancient history, and computers can help with the comparison of lexical lists in Sumerian or Akkadian to establish more precise meanings, so perhaps Fox Talbot's empirical soul may rest in peace.
But the study of language rarely avoids questions of value, and some of what we know of antiquity comes from poetry rather than history texts. While poets are often regarded with scepticism, Sumerian studies are currently enjoying real benefits as a result of literary research.