Report on PhilSoc-funded summer school

written by Vaughan Pilikian (PhilSoc associate member 2371)

Comparative study of the ancient world can be approached in different ways. Linguistic genealogical connections are evident, for instance, between Indo-European languages like Sanskrit and Greek, or Semitic languages, like Arabic and Akkadian. In addition, the Greeks were in contact with Mesopotamian peoples for centuries, and it is tantalising to consider how these different groups might have influenced one another. Indeed, Akkadian was the language of a high literary culture for over 2,000 years and, as the main vehicle through which we have contact with Sumerian (a language isolate), its significance extends at least a millennium prior to this period. There are extraordinarily beautiful and mysterious poems written in both languages and a vast quantity of mostly untranslated prose. With a background in Latin, Greek and Sanskrit, I had been for some time on the lookout for an opportunity finally to edge my way into the ancient Near East. Generous support from PhilSoc and the Martin Burr Fund made this possible for me at last.

Manishtusu obelisk in Akkadian by unknown artist – Mbzt, CC BY 3.0,

The Académie des Langues Anciennes is a utopian and brilliantly European endeavour, a peripatetic ten-day summer school offering courses in Latin, Greek, Sanskrit, Hebrew and several of their lesser-known cousins. Currently it is resident on the campus of the Université de Pau et des Pays de L’Adour in the south of France, a beautiful and serene arrangement of wildflower meadows and ingenious architecture that somehow shields its occupants from the region’s often formidable heat. I was studying the dialect of Old Babylonian with Dr Victor Gysembergh, a scholar of ancient Greek and Akkadian at the Sorbonne, who took us patiently through an elegant, compact and as yet unpublished introduction to the language written by two eminent French Assyriologists.

2nd millennium BCE (c. 1600 – 1400) Old Babylonian / Kassite divination text. Incised clay, 14cm x 10.5cm x 2.4cm. Département des Antiquités orientales © RMN, Musée du Louvre

The course was demanding and intensive but tremendously rewarding: the sinuous rhythms and sonorities of the Akkadian language are a true delight and Victor brought them potently forth. Of course, only a beginning can be made in a mere ten days. But the combination of ambition and rigour were bracing and there is always great advantage to working as part of a group when grappling with a new language. The one hundred or so students present at the Académie were mostly from France, as one might expect, but that need not be so. My own French is far from perfect: Victor was sensitive to the fact, and I found the organisers uniformly approachable and supportive. There was a single case of coronavirus while the school was in progress, but this was dealt with professionally and with minimal disruption. In sum, I can say that the entire experience felt like a blessing in these increasingly beleaguered times.

I am very grateful to the Society and to the Martin Burr Fund for supporting the trip. It was hugely stimulating, and it gave me the opportunity to take first steps into a topic I have been wanting to investigate for a good while. A new journey has begun.