As It Happens

A Cambridge lecturer and his students shot an entire film in ancient Babylonian

Cambridge lecturer Martin Worthington recruits his students to produce the first film ever performed entirely in ancient Babylonian, a language no one's spoken for well over 2,000 years.

A poem on a tablet excavated in southeast Turkey provided the screenplay, says Martin Worthington

On the set of The Poor Man of Nippur, a 3,000-year-old comic folk tale in Babylonian. (Submitted by Martin Worthington)

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The premise of Martin Worthington's movie The Poor Man of Nippur isn't so odd. It's basically a revenge flick set a couple thousand years ago.

What's unusual is the dialogue. It's entirely in Babylonian — a language that hasn't been spoken for some 2,000 years. 

Worthington, a lecturer of Assyrian history and linguistics at Cambridge University in England, believes it's a cinematic first. 

He spoke with As it Happens host Carol Off about the film, which stars his students and is available for viewing on YouTube. Here is part of their conversation. 

Who is the audience for a movie in a language that is no longer spoken?

To some extent, we're going to see. It's already been seen by about 10,000, and it's growing, so clearly there's lots of interest out there. 

It really is fascinating to listen to, the rhythm and the sound. And of course we can follow along with the subtitles. But how did you manage to get the film written, scripted in Babylonian?

There is a tablet excavated in southeast Turkey, which bears a poem 160 lines long — the poem that today we call The Poor Man of Nippur.

And so we simply followed that wording.

We occasionally threw a couple of things in for fun.

A screenshot from The Poor Man of Nippur, believed to be a cinematic first — featuring dialogue entirely in Babylonian. (Cambridge Archaeology/YouTube)

How difficult was it for the actors and performers who had to do their lines in Babylonian?

Well, we have subtitles in 16 languages. So I'm very glad that none of us had to do all 16 of those. We could just keep ourselves to the Babylonian, which for us is the easy bit.

The way this arose is we have been reading The Poor Man of Nippur as part of the Assyriology teaching at Cambridge University. And it was one student who said, "This is a fun story. It would be nice to dramatize it."

And one thing led to another, and a few months later, there we were running around Cambridge and other places with costumes and a goat.

Martin Worthington directs his star at Cambridge University. (Submitted by Martin Worthington)

We did the film a week after the exams, so it was a story they'd had to learn pretty well and they knew it pretty well. I think to act it and speak it out loud posed a fresh set of challenges, which I think they rose to admirably.

I'm terribly proud of them.

It's a folk tale told in the form of high poetry. So the language is actually quite elevated. But the content is universal.- Martin Worthington, Cambridge University

But if there are no native speakers of Babylonian, how do you know you got it right?

(Laughs) That's a very good question. And, of course, we can't be absolutely certain we've got it right.

What we can do is we can say that the sounds of Semitic languages — of which Babylonian is one — tend to be fairly stable. So we already have a fairly good guess of the sort of sounds we expect to find in Babylonian.

But the atom bomb is that we actually have transcriptions of Babylonian words into the Greek and Hebrew alphabets.

We've got something, I think, which literate Babylonians would at least understand and recognize as their own language, even if our Europeanisms might give us away.

The Poor Man of Nippur is kind of a parable or an allegory. What's the story there?

It's a folk tale told in the form of high poetry. So the language is actually quite elevated, but the content is universal.

A man goes to the mayor, from whom he wants help, because he's very poor. He takes him a goat — it's the last thing he has.

The mayor takes the goat, but gives him nothing in return except bone and gristle, and has him thrown out — at which point the man picks himself up, and tells the gatekeeper: "You tell your master that for that one wrong he did to me, I will repay him thrice."

And it's the motif of the three-fold revenge.

Worthington is a lecturer of Assyriology. (Sang Tan/Associated Press)

And so no. 1, he dresses up as a nobleman, no. 2, he dresses up as a doctor, and no. 3, he finds a decoy — so he tells this random person, "Why don't you go up there and say it was me?"

So the unsuspecting person goes up and says, "Hi, it was me."

And all the guards chase him out because they assume that he was the perpetrator, of course leaving the mayor vulnerable to be beaten up by our hero for the third time in the story.

That's how it ends.

Produced by Kevin Robertson. Q&A edited for length and clarity.


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