Erica Reiner. “Dead of Night.” in Studies in Honor of Benno Landsberger on his Seventy-Fifth Birthday. edited by Hans G. Güterbock and Thorkild Jacobsen. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press (1965), p. 247-251.

Erica Reiner describes her view of the proper methodology of a “successful philological analysis.” As the editor of the Chicago Assyrian Dictionary, she certainly speaks with authority in the area of Akkadian lexicography and philological methodology. Reiner asserts that determining the Grundbedeutung, or basic meaning, of a word is not enough—the use of language calls for a more nuanced examination:

The Grundbedeutung approach is not sufficient for successful philological analysis. Philology is, rather, a careful retracing of the fate of a word, following its changes of meaning in changing contexts and situations. Much is necessary to achieve it: a wealth of material and a painstaking search through it, a sensitive ear, and, not least, the lucky chance of happening upon an obscure or forgotten passage which suddenly elucidates the connection between an object and its name or the reasons behind a shift in meaning. Words are not abstractions but take their connotations, their meanings, from their environment, linguistic as well as situational; they do not ‘live’ in themselves, as if originally endowed with a ‘basic meaning’ from which, by some logical but rigid process, the meanings actually attested develop. Semantic development and transfer can only be illustrated from numerous contextual passages in which a shift of emphasis, or perhaps the inherent ambiguity, give rise to shifts in connotation, at first imperceptible, then progressively more pronounced, until the new meaning becomes completely divorced from the old (250).

This process of searching and examining the various contextual uses of a word in order to understand its nuances and shifts of emphasis is definitely more work than merely looking in a dictionary entry for a “basic meaning.” However, this process is becoming easier in languages such as Aramaic, Hebrew, and Greek that have searchable databases. One can obtain most of the uses of a word or phrase with merely a few keystrokes (if only it were this easy with Akkadian and Sumerian!). Then, one must use a “sensitive ear” and analyze the contexts and usages.

Even though Reiner’s approach is more work, it produces a result that is more precise and nuanced than “basic meaning” methodology and is worth every bit of expended effort. After all, you get what you pay for. Or rather, the quality of results is often directly correlated with the amount of properly directed energy expended. What do you think? Any insights on philological analysis?

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Charles Halton

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