Lexical lists

Lexical lists were the basic tools of Mesopotamian schooling. They were used to teach both cuneiform script [/saao/knpp/cuneiformrevealed/aboutcuneiform/] and the Akkadian [/saao/knpp/cuneiformrevealed/akkadianlanguage/] and Sumerian languages. There are many different kinds of lexical lists, from the most mundane to the most sophisticated: syllabaries, god lists, thematic vocabularies, etc.

Lexical lists are monolingual (Sumerian) or multilingual (mostly bilingual Sumerian-Akkadian). They are usually divided into columns and sub-columns. The most basic ones have two columns, Sumerian word (logogram: one sign for one word) on the left and Akkadian translation on the right (syllabic writing). More columns may be added containing, for instance, the pronunciation of the sign or a further explanation, or the translation into another language, etc. This all depends on the type of list, the period, the region where the list was copied down.

Lexical lists were used at all stages of the scribal education. In a first phase, the learning was merely practical: the young apprentice learnt the cuneiform signs, basic vocabulary, proper nouns and gods' names, all information needed for his (or her) future professional life. A second phase comprised the learning of more complex lists. At this point teaching partially lost its practical character, and these advanced lexical lists were more like scholarly reference works. Some expressions or words mentioned in the lists do not actually occur in other kinds of documents, and were thus useless in everyday life. The learning of rare and obsolete signs and words lead to the creation of a Mesopotamian scribal identity. This education thus aimed to create an elite who were proud to be heir to a two-thousand-year-old tradition.

From the end of the fourth millennium until the early Hellenistic period, similar categories of lists are found: syllabaries, vocabulary lists such as the vast thematic list UR5.RA = hubullu, different types of god lists, lists of synonyms, antonyms and homonyms, and lists of professions. From period to period, the compositions in each genre are very similar to each other in their principles and general structure, but they also show many variations that mirror scribal choices over space and time, and may signify the habits of particular scribal communities. Usually, they tend to grow: hundreds of entries are progressively added to the basic lists of the third and second millennia until some first-millennium versions run to thousand of entries.

Lexical lists are well-attested in the Kalhu, Huzirina and Uruk "libraries", being the third most frequently attested genre in those assembances. But the vast majority in the CAMS/GKAB corpus comes from Uruk. Lists from the first phase of learning are very well represented in Uruk compared to both Assyrian findspots (around 60 manuscripts in Uruk compared approximately 10 in each of Kalhu and Huzirina), while the number of manuscripts belonging to the second phase is more equal (12 in Uruk, 10 in Kalhu and 5 in Huzirina).

Further reading

Marie-Françoise Besnier

Marie-Françoise Besnier, 'Lexical lists', The Geography of Knowledge, The GKAB Project, 2019 [http://oracc.museum.upenn.edu/cams/gkab/scribalapprenticeship/lexicallists/]

Back to top ^^
The GKAB Project at Oracc.org / Content released under a CC BY-SA 3.0 licence, 2007-14
Oracc sites use cookies only to collect Google Analytics data. Read more here; see the stats here; opt out here.