I am trying to figure out why it is that Babylonian (and Assyrian) king names do not match their Akkadian transcription.

For example, in the one known inscription for Nabonassar, which is written in Akkadian, his name is given as "AG-URU-ir", but it is translated as "Nabu-nasir". How is the translator (Grant Frame?) obtaining Nabu-nasir from AG-URU-ir?

This same phenomena is true not just for kings, but lesser officials as well. For example, in the same inscription, the viceroy of Babylon is named as AG-GIN-NUMUN and this is translated as Nabu-mukin-zeri. I would guess this is supposed to be the same name in a different language? In other words the cuneiform symbols have different soundings depending on the language. So, AG=Nabu, URU=nas, GIN=mukin, etc. What is the explanation?


1 Answer 1


This comes down to the ambiguities in the Cuneiform script.

Cuneiform doesn't have a one-to-one correspondence between signs and sounds. The sign DIŊIR is a good example. The sign started out in Sumerian meaning an, "heaven". It was used for both the sounds /an/ and for the word an. Because it was pronounced /an/, it started being used for the word An also, the name of the sky god. And this led to it expanding to cover the word diŋir "deity" as well.

In Akkadian, this sign was still used for /an/ as in Sumerian, but also for the word il, Akkadian for "deity", or šamû, Akkadian for "heaven". And due to the "deity" meaning it started representing the sounds /il/ in other contexts as well.

So now the same cuneiform sign can mean /an/, /il/, šamû, diŋir, or even just indicate that the following word represents the name of a deity. When cuneiform is transliterated into Latin letters, all of these different meanings are conventionally written DIŊIR (in capital letters). It's up to the translator to figure out which of the meanings was actually intended.

Similarly, the sign AG can mean the sounds /nabu:/, or Nabû, the god of reading and writing: this last one was written with the two signs DIŊIR-AG, to indicate that it was a divine name.

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    Would you say this situation is similar to the use of Kanji in Japanese? These are sometimes read with a pronunciation similar to one from a Sinitic language, and sometimes read as the native word. Commented Apr 12, 2018 at 11:09
  • That's a really good analogy! I'd say it's very much like that.
    – Draconis
    Commented Apr 12, 2018 at 16:30
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    It has some similarity to the use of kanji, (especially in a sign having both a "native" and a "borrowed" pronunciation). But a significant difference is that every kanji is pronounced in some way, while at least some Sumerian signs are sometimes used as classifiers or semantic hints, and not spoken themselves. In this use, they are more like the radicals in kanji - many kanji contain a part which is a semantic classifier.
    – Colin Fine
    Commented Apr 12, 2018 at 23:45
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    @Colin Fine: that sounds like the use of multi-kanji units (jukujikun), like 大人 big-person for the monomorpheme otona "adult" (rather than dainin), or 煙草 smoke-herb for tabako, or 下手 low-hand for heta "unskilled", 五月雨 fifth-month-rain for samidare (ibid.) and so on and so forth. In such compounds the individual kanji readings aren't used, and the sounds aren't attributed to the individual kanji, which instead perform a semantic role. Commented Apr 13, 2018 at 13:53
  • @boiko - I suppose it is in a way; but typically (though I don't think always) the other signs used for writing the word can be put in correspondence with the spoken parts of the word (morphemes or phones), but the classifier (uniquely) does not correspond to any particular part of the word. That's why I said they were more like the semantic part of a complex kanji.
    – Colin Fine
    Commented Apr 13, 2018 at 15:54

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