by Martin Worthington (University of Cambridge)
The Poor Man of Nippur, the world’s first film in Babylonian, was launched on YouTube by Cambridge Assyriology in November 2018. The Philological Society, through an Outreach grant, was one of the project’s sponsors.
The film accrued international media attention.
Why this story and not another?
The spark that led to the film was struck in an Akkadian (i.e. Babylonian) language class, in which one of the students suggested it would be ‘fun to dramatise’ the story. And, indeed, it’s perfect for dramatisation: multiple speaking roles, a fairly straightforward plot, no special effects (no gods!), and manageable length. One of the scenes which would have been hardest to film, the butchering of the goat, had helpfully been broken off the tablet. You have to wonder whether a prescient scribe two thousand years ago decided to help us …
More seriously, I think we were all also aware that in the years 2017–2018 there was a special resonance for a film about a ‘poor man’ to be made by a team at a UK University. With the United Nations calling the UK Government’s approach to poverty “punitive, mean-spirited and callous”, any highlighting of the issue, even in a medium as unusual as ours, feels like it has a streak of Resistance.
And that fact that the story is (as most people think, but some dispute) comical gave it a light-heartedness that helped compensate for our lack of experience.
What is the motivation behind the production?
There were lots of motivations that came together. Here are some of them:
- we all wanted to have some fun!
- we were curious to see how the final product would look
- it was a new way to think about a piece of Babylonian literature
- it was an opportunity to present Ancient Mesopotamia in a new way: in museums it always comes across as terribly static, and one can forget that it was full of real people who went about real lives (both boring and colourful, just like us today)
- more specifically: very few people realise that Babylonian is a language we understand quite well; a film is a great way to spread this message
- it gave students a new way to experience and think about a story they had studied on paper
- the film constitutes a lasting resource that can be used in Babylonian courses worldwide (there are, especially in Germany, more of them than you might think!)
And of course our biggest hope of all was that we might tempt some intellectually curious young people, with an interest in languages and the ancient world, to think seriously about studying Assyriology at University.
What material did you use as a guideline?
The film basically follows the wording on the manuscript from the site of Sultantepe (ancient Huzirina). You can read an edition of it here.
We changed a few small things, e.g. when three characters repeat the word ‘goat’, that the Guard has just said: the repetitions aren’t in the story. And when the fake Doctor is tying the Mayor up, we smuggled in some lines from the incantation series Maqlû; that’s why they’re not subtitled – they’re not part of the story’s original wording.
A breakthrough idea came from Zach Long who suggested that we could reassign lines from the narrator to narrators-within-the story. This made it much more interesting for the viewer, and also closer to the experience of listening to a storyteller, which is probably how the story often circulated in antiquity.
What about pronunciation?
We were essentially applying what you might call the ‘modern Assyriological conventional pronunciation of Babylonian’. This has been put together by many scholars, over a long period of time, and is still undergoing refinement. The main sources of information are:
- Comparison with other Semitic languages
Sometimes, Babylonian (and Assyrian) words are virtually identical to those in Arabic or Hebrew, e.g. Bab./Assyr. kalbum and Arab. kalbun, both meaning ‘dog’. Regular patterns of sound correspondence have also been found, so that e.g. the letter ayin (‘) disappears, turning neighbouring a into e. Thus Bab./Assyr. emēdu ‘to stand’ is cognate with Hebrew ‘āmad ‘he stood’.
- A bit of linguistic common sense
Thus it is not hard to see how imtahhar ‘he received each one’ might morph into indahhar.
- Spelling patterns on Babylonian documents
For instance, questions often contain a word written with an extra vowel (e.g. a-na-ku-ú for usual a-na-ku, representing anāku ‘I’). This is suspected to reflect interrogative intonation.
- Rare but very helpful cases in which Babylonian words are written in the Aramaic or Greek script
Examples of the latter, so-called ‘Graeco-Babyloniaca’, can be seen here.
Do you see a pedagogical value for UG / PG students in this production?
You can see the students talking about their experience in the video below.
For my part, something I put a lot of emphasis on as a teacher of Babylonian and other Mesopotamian languages is that they are not just tables of verbs and lists of vocabulary, but actual languages: they lend themselves to different intonations depending on context and mood, they were probably accompanied by lots of gestures, and, above all, while learning they need to be spoken aloud. The film was a great way for us all to experiment with this way of thinking about things.
The film was also a great way for the Mesopotamian community at my University to come together and collaborate on something, which is an excellent motivator.
What do you hope your viewers will take away from watching the video?
Thanks to an army of incredibly generous volunteers, the film can be viewed with subtitles in 19 languages. Such a powerful reach can potentially take Mesopotamian culture to people who weren’t even aware it existed, and maybe encourage them to look into it further. That would be hugely gratifying.
But, even for people who are already aware of Mesopotamia, we hope the film will give them a new perspective about it. And that it will generally excite and nurture people’s curiosity about the ancient world and ancient languages.
The Philological Society has a fund to support Community and Public Engagement projects such as the above. For more information and an application form, please visit the PhilSoc website.