Academic Dr Martin Worthington has spent the last two decades studying a language that has been dead for thousands of years.
Ancient Babylonian, or Akkadian, was the language of the people who once lived in what is now Iraq, a place known as the “cradle of civilisation”. The language vanished around 500BC.
Dr Worthington, Al-Maktoum Associate Professor in Middle Eastern Studies at Trinity College Dublin, came across the language when he was studying to be an Egyptologist at the University of Leipzig in Germany in 2000.
“Ancient languages have always seemed to me to glitter with a special brand of magic. As a child they fascinated me from the moment I clapped eyes on Egyptian hieroglyphs, and later I went on to discover that these are just the tip of an iceberg,” he said.
“I had no idea it would be my career. I was coming from a background of ancient Egypt. Somehow it clicked. Babylonian philology is one of the few things that I really understand.”
He estimates that there are around 100 people in the world who have some knowledge of anicent Babylonian and 10 who understand it as well as he does.
“Am I properly fluent? Nobody is properly fluent. If you put me in front of King Nebuchadnezzar I’d have to think about what I was saying.”
Enter Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU)and its adaption of its comic series Eternals, which is about a time-travelling fictional extraterrestrial race of humanoids sent to save the human race from alien invaders.
Eternals is one of the blockbuster films from the hugely successful Marvel franchise which has produced the Iron Man, The Avengers and Captain America films among many others. Eternals has taken $161 million to date at the box office though it has also garnered mixed reviews.
“I wish they would give some of that money to me,” Dr Worthington joked.
It’s safe to suggest that more people will have seen the film than have read Dr Worthington’s Principles of Akkadian Textual Criticism or Ea’s Duplicity and the Gilgamesh Flood Story.
In the film, the ancient language is used by immortal heroes who reunite to defend humanity from monstrous creatures called the Deviants, when they speak to inhabitants of the ancient city of Babylon.
It is directed by Chloé Zhao, who last year made history by becoming the first woman to win a best director Oscar for Nomadland.
The Eternals boasts an A-list cast including Angelina Jolie, Gemma Chan and Salma Hayek as well as Dubliner Barry Keoghan. Dr Worthington provided written translations and audio recordings, which the actors practiced with the film’s dialect coach.
Brought to life
“It was thrilling to create these translations and send them out into the ether for an actor to speak them aloud, imbue them with gestures, and bring them to life,” he said.
“Film is such a powerful medium, which can summon a past full of moving, breathing and talking people. Eternals will raise awareness of Ancient Mesopotamia and its fascinating cultures, and I hope people will go on to explore them further.”
“Thanks to over a century of scholarly work, we have built up a very good understanding of the structures and vocabulary of Babylonian as well as other languages of the ancient Middle East, such as Sumerian and Hittite. With patience and dedication, it is to some extent possible to ‘think in’ these ancient languages.”