All Things Assyrian
Master of Extinct Languages
Anadolu Agency
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A renowned Turkish assyriologist has been shedding light on extinct languages for over 56 years.

Veysel Donbaz, who retired from working as a manager of cuneiform archive department in Istanbul's Archeology Museum, talked to Anadolu Agency about the languages of the ancient Hittites and Akkadians and how many words used in modern Turkish are rooted in these extinct tongues.

Donbaz, who was born in December 1939 in Turkey's southwestern Denizli province, completed his bachelor's degree at Ankara University's Faculty of Language History and Geography in 1962 where he studied as the sole student of the department of sumerology in one-on-one classes with his professors. He was then appointed to the Istanbul Archeology Museum.

Following retirement, Donbaz continued his passion for studying clay cuneiform tablets and extinct languages. He has become one of the most experienced scholars illuminating this era of ancient history.

Donbaz describes himself as an "assyriologist", a field of study which "includes both the Sumerian and Akkadian languages."

"Assyrian is a dialect of the Akkadian language," Donbaz said, noting that 'sumerologist' would be a better title in Turkish.

Donbaz said Akkadian language -- which belongs to Semitic Languages Family -- has two most important dialects, Assyrian and Babylonian languages.

"Akkad is a state. Sumerians brought their cuneiform scripts around 3500 BC or were told to invent their language there," he said. "In 2800 BC, the writings allowed them to realize literary texts. There has been a massive improvement in about 1,000 years."

Donbaz said Sargon of Akkadia united the city-states and formed the Akkadian Empire in 24 BC, but did not overshadow Sumerian language and translated them into Akkadian language.

"Some of the writings are bilingual. There are over 75,000 cuneiform scripts in the Istanbul Archeology Museum. You can see the examples there," he said.

The renowned assyriologist said there are more than 100 words that transformed into Turkish from Assyrian and Babil languages, "but there are nearly no words expect a few which came from Sumerian languages to Turkish".

Donbaz gave an example, saying that the word in Turkish "ekalliyet" [minority] is rooted in Assyrian and Babil dialects as "egallum".

Apart from lingual traces from the era, Donbaz noted that the modern 7-day week and 30-day month are also the product of ancient Mesopotamian civilization.

Donbaz said many countries around Turkey use a different alphabet than Latin letters, countries like Iran, Syria, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Russia, Bulgaria, Greece.

"We managed to describe our language with Latin letters, the same happened with cuneiform scripts in ancient history," he said.

Donbaz explained that the Sumerian language is monosyllabic and, as in Arabic and other modern tongues, distinguishes between masculine and feminine words.

"For example the word 'mayi' is rooted to our language from Sumerian, meaning liquid," he said. "It equals to the word 'ma' in Akkadian and Assyrian language. 'A' is the Sumerian one. They used a determinative before every word to make it simpler. If you use the word 'tok' before a word, then you will know that 'tok' describes something related to the word dress.

Donbaz stressed that in order to learn and fully understand Sumerian and Akkadian, you need to learn both languages.

"If you don't know the other language, you cannot progress in those languages. You need to know every syllable's meaning in both Sumerian and Akkadian," he said.

Further explaining the roots of the words, Donbaz gave another example.

"The names also have meanings. If one becomes a father, he always says the prayer 'Iliddin', meaning 'God Given'. The word 'Ilbani'. We use these words in our language too. [God given means Allahverdi in Turkish]

"Ilum means divinity. Ilbani means, 'to do'. In all it means 'God is the creator'," said Donbaz, who managed to find around 100 words and publish them with meanings in Turkish.

- 'Extinct language means translation of what was written before'

Explaining the meaning of the extinct languages, the veteran philologist said it refers to the languages that are no longer used by human beings, but the translation of which were written before.

In Sumerian, the first sign writings were the anther drawings. "In Sumerian, this means Sheyhum, means barley, dough, it was translated to Akkadian as sheyhum. There is the word 'Harshatum' which means wheat as well.*

Donbaz said the Babylonians used the Akkadian language in international communication.

"There are 38 known agreements. 19 of them were in Hittite language, 16 others were both in Akkadian and in Hittite language. It starts with Hittite but continues with Akkadian. They use cuneiform scripts. Inside those cuneiform scripts, there are Sumerian ideograms. For example, gold, silver, tin, copper... whatever there is they use it to describe with ideograms. They do not have names, they took those exactly like it was Sumerian."

He added that trade during this time was conducted in tin, while gold was used for investment.

Noting an interesting feature of Sumerian culture, Donbaz related that onions served as an indicator of social status.

"You could figure the eminence of a man from the stench of his breath," he said.

Donbaz explained there are lots of extinct languages to this day that were discovered, but a "written source is obligatory to define them as extinct," he says.

He also added that many Turkish words used today, contrary to the common thought, come not from Arabic or Persian, but from Akkadian. Donbaz mentioned that the Turkish names of seven months out of 12 come from Babylonian.

However, Donbaz said that it is impossible to prove that Turks come from Sumerians or Sumerian people were Turks.

Giving information about his prior works, Donbaz said he has made 30,000 inventories off of 60,000 cuneiform scripts' study so far, publishing 2,500 of those.

"A part of those cuneiform scripts are in the British Museum, the rest in Turkey," he said.

Donbaz also mentioned that on Ataturk's orders -- modern Turkey's founding father -- Turkish Historical Society was founded in 1931 and during late Education Minister Resit Galip's tenure, 23 different language departments opened, including Hittite and Sumerian.

The sumerologist also mentioned that Sargon managed to translate Sumerian literature and prevented it from vanishing.

When asked about Turkey's role in hosting tablets, Donbaz said Turkey is home to 150,000 of those.

"We [Turkey] come second when it comes to the number of cuneiform scripts," he said. In British Museum, there are around 200,000 cuneiform scripts rooted in Babylonian language.

In Ankara there are 50,000 to 60,000 tablets; in Istanbul there are 73,213.

When asked about how the cuneiform scripts were written and how they are being preserved, Donbaz said the scripts were firstly written on tablets without ever being cooked before.

The cuneiform scripts were written by mud, the mud that will not crack or split after it dries. The writings are generally preserved in palaces or in temples, Donbaz mentioned.

"In order to ensure the scripts' permanence, they are being cooked in a special oven," he said. "The cuneiform scripts should be baked at 110C for 24 hours straight. If you cook them at 115C, then they will explode."

In the second part, after the cooking is done, the scripts are left to wait in an oven at 450C for 6 hours to let go of the gas, then another process took them to 750C for another 6 hours.

The assyriologist -- who is also fluent in German and English besides Sumerian, Hittite and Akkadian languages -- gave out some suggestions to the youth, who are interested in learning languages.

"You need to study hard and repeat countless times in order to learn a language. You need to be a little bit talkative person, too," he said.

When asked about which languages are hard to learn, the extinct ones or current ones, Donbaz said every language has its own grammar.

"For example, German language's grammar is unique when it is compared to the other languages," he said.

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