Friday, May 6, 2011

Hammurabi's Code

Since there seems to be some interest in Akkadian I decided I would give you more of a taste of the language. I think the most famous work written in Akkadian is Hammurabi's Code. I remember studying this in World History in high school. Hammurabi's Code was one of the earliest law codes ever written down. I remember my teacher telling me that the laws were written on a stele in the center of each town so that anyone could come by and read the law. This way everyone would know what the punishment for each crime was there was no arbitrary decision on the part of the judge. What my high school teacher failed to tell us was that most people couldn't read anyway. In fact its very likely the king couldn't read either that is what scribes were for.

In my Akkadian class we've begun to translate parts of the law code and its very slow going. To the left we have the first step. This is Hammurabi's law code number 10 in cuneiform. It is probably best if you click to enlarge the picture so you can really see what the symbols look like. Each symbol can have several different values. For example one sign can mean dam or tam. But there is extra added fun, the Akkadian language was written with Sumerian characters. This would be like me trying to write English with Chinese characters. So sometimes the sign stands for a Sumerian word. Continuing the above example that same sign could also stand for the Sumerian word DAM.GAR which stands for the Akkadian word tamkārum which means merchant. So you look at each individual sign and you have to decide which meaning the each sign has in this sentence. The reason each sign can have different meanings is because Akkadian didn't have an alphabet.

Now that you have decided which meaning each sign has in this sentence you have something that looks like the picture to the right. In between each dash is the meaning of one sign. It can take several hours to arrive at this step. But wait your not done yet the fun continues!

The next step is called normalization. In this step you take the above and put the words together. Here you have to decide if one letter is double or not, sometimes the doubled letter is an indicator of a certain tense. This step also requires you to mark the long vowels which are sometimes the only indication that a word is plural. Since this was my homework assignment I had to type this part up so here is the result of Step 3:

Šumma šayīmānum nādin iddinušum u šībī ša ina maḫrišunu išamu lā itbalam bēl ḫulqima šībī mūde ḫulqišu itbalam šayīmānum šarrāq iddâk bēl ḫulqim ḫuluqšu ileqqe

Now for step 4 translation. The translation of law code number 10 is as follows:"If the purchaser does not produce the seller who sold it to him, and the witnesses in whose presence he purchased it (and) if the owner of the lost property produces witnesses to identify his lost property, the purchaser shall be put to death as a thief, the owner of the lost property shall recover his loss."

Explanation: Law code 10 is a continuation of law 9. Law 9 talks about a man who has lost something and then sees his object in the possession of another man. The second man says that he bought the object and says he can produce witnesses. The matter is brought before a judge so the original owner brings witnesses saying the object is his and the second man brings witnesses saying they saw him buy the object. In this case it is the seller who was the thief and he is put to death. So law 10 is another circumstance of the same crime.

I think that gives you a basic idea of what it's like to study Akkadian. Hope you enjoyed it.


  1. Your Akkadian coursework looks challenging. I can't imagine working with a language that has no alphabet which results in different meanings. Taking us through one day of homework with Hammurabi's law code number 10 in cuneiform was challenging. Sumerian characters, normalization and onto translation before you determine the meaning of a code was hard work. How grim trying to survive daily life during this time period when you can't read. Appreciate the explanation.


  2. That's an amazing process. It makes my brain hurt to think about you learning that; especially along with everything else you're learning.

  3. It looks like the story my history teacher told wasn't that far off. You picked a random law and, sure enough, the penalty is death. Makes you wonder how we made it this far. Congratulations on your success in what amounts to cryptoanalysis.

    That normalization thing could be a problem. Sometimes wordplay and puns depend on the ambiguity of single/double letter combos. But maybe its not all that likely that a stele covering a rather grim set of laws would also have jokes.

    Thanks for a fascinating post.