London: A Cambridge academic has taught himself to speak ancient Babylonian and is leading a campaign to revive it as a spoken language almost 2,000 years after it became extinct.
Dr Martin Worthington, a fellow of St John’s College, has created the world’s first film in the ancient language with his Babylonian-speaking students dramatising a folk tale from a clay tablet from 701BC.
Titled The Poor Man of Nippur, it recounts the tale of a man with a goat who takes revenge on a city mayor for killing the animal by beating him up three times.
It is the culmination of two decades of his research into how the language, once the lingua franca of the Middle East used by Babylonian kings in Mesopotamia, Egyptian pharaohs and Near East potentates, was spoken.
He has also created a unique archive of recordings from different readers of stories and scripts from Babylon and set up an annual conference for sixth-formers interested in studying ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt.
Dr Worthington believes teaching spoken Babylon is the best way to understand and “get under the skin” of the language. “It enables students to enjoy the magic of authenticity and connect through words to a world that is lost and far away,” he said.
“There are letters from spies, treaties between states, diplomatic correspondence, incantations and medical prescriptions. You can encounter a civilisation that is similar to us in some ways but also very different.
“It’s an important part of the world’s cultural heritage.”
Dr Worthington has been learning the language since 2000 and says he could make a speech in it but admitted he was by no means fluent, more a “work in progress”.
He tells students on his Assyriology course it is “not too difficult”, adding: “The structures are extremely regular, and most learners find that at some point, often about seven months in, they suddenly get it: the structures click into place.”
He said educated Babylonians would understand today’s speakers as the language is Semitic, similar to Hebrew and Arabic which replaced it as the dominant language in the Middle East.
Spoken Babylonian died out by the time Jesus was born. The last known written tablet dates from AD75. It effectively remained extinct until 1857 when a learnt Victorian society decided to test whether it was a distinct language by asking four academics to analyse the script.
The language encompasses the Assyrians and Babylonians, two peoples who ruled modern-day Iraq, respectively controlling areas north and south of Baghdad for some two millennia.
Dr Worthington’s film, which is now available on YouTube, is opened by the world’s oldest Assyriologist, James Kinnier Wilson, 97, who taught at Cambridge University for 34 years.