W04 – Spoken Words and More: The Early History of the Transmission of Meaning through Cuneiform Writing

Organizer: Gösta Gabriel (Georg-August-Universität Göttingen)


  1. Gösta Gabriel (Georg-August-Universität Göttingen)
  2. Klaus Wagensonner (Yale University)
  3. Nadia Linder (Universität Wien)
  4. Gianni Marchesi (Università di Bologna)
  5. Manfred Krebernik (Friedrich-Schiller-Universität Jena)
  6. Nadezda Rudik (Univerzita Hradec Králové)
  7. Marco Bonechi (Istituto di Studi sul Mediterraneo Antico (ISMA), CNR, Roma)
  8. Marc Van De Mieroop (Columbia University)
  9. Gebhard Selz (Universität Wien)

General Abstract

Looking back from today, probably the most influential legacy of ancient Mesopotamia was the invention of writing at the eve of the 4th millennium BCE. Most of today’s writing systems owe their existence to this epochal innovation in Mesopotamia (and other places). Modern (Western) systems are mainly a medium to store and record spoken language. It is exactly this quality that Jacques Derrida criticized as phono- and logocentric; writing would be much more than just a servant of spoken words. However, this criticism does not affect cuneiform writing to the same extent since its signs function in a more complex way.
While cuneiform signs first appeared in administrative contexts, they soon became more than a notation system supporting bureaucratic practices. Already in the earliest stratum of writing (Uruk IV), lexical lists were found. This may be the first example of the ongoing exploration of the communicative potential of cuneiform writing in various contexts such as epistemic and/or religious practices. Furthermore, although it becomes increasingly glottographic, cuneiform never turns into a writing system that solely communicates spoken language. It always possesses various sign functions such as syllabograms, determinatives, or logograms.
The workshop investigates the first millennium of the history of cuneiform writing. It tackles questions such as how various sign functions serve specific needs, especially with respect to efficient information processing in the context of distinctive cultural practices. The same focus is applied to the shape of graphemes, sign order (e.g. in lexical lists), and the phenomenon of ‘ontological’/’etymological’ writing. Finally, the papers investigate the communicative contexts in which early cuneiform was used (e.g. human–divine interaction). Thus, the workshop explores the specific epistemic potential of cuneiform writing.
Evaluating the differences between modern and ancient writing also helps us to understand today’s systems of communication in a more comprehensive way. This is especially true in a time when pictographic notation systems like Emojis have evolved, which apparently close a gap left by our alphabetic phonocentric writing systems. 

General Contact: Goesta.Gabriel@phil.uni-goettingen.de

Paper Titles with Abstracts

To view the abstracts, please click on the titles:

Introduction: Early Bureaucracy and the Principle of Least Effort
Gösta Gabriel (Georg-August-Universität Göttingen)

The very first artefacts of writing are the outcome of the complex administration in late 4th millennium BCE Uruk in Southern Mesopotamia. Max Weber describes bureaucracy as the most efficient and rational mode of organizing a society/polity, which suggests that these characteristics would also have an impact on the textual output of bureaucratic practices.
Accordingly, the preliminary case study investigates the early administrative record, approaching the question of why the archaic cuneiform signs look as they do. What is the pragmatics of their design? In a first step, the paper focuses on the process of producing signs. Following Adam Falkenstein’s observation of sign transformation between Uruk IV and Uruk III, George Zipf’s linguistic principle of least effort is applied to the early documents. The paper explores which of their features can be explained through this principle and which do not. In a second step, the approach is broadened to the principle of least collaborative effort by Herbert H. Clark and Susan E. Brennan. This framework does not only consider the production of signs, but also their reception and interpretation.
In the end, not all graphemic phenomena can be explained through these approaches. However, they highlight which aspects are based on efficiency and which ask for a different kind of explanation.

The Development of Classification in the early history of cuneiform writing
Klaus Wagensonner (Yale University)

There is nothing more basic than categorization to our thought, perception, action, and speech” (G. Lakoff, Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things (1987): 5) – This statement by George Lakoff is applicable to languages and scripts alike. Ancient writing systems such as cuneiform use elements in their repertory in order to flag categories. At first glance, the number of signs used to categorize or classify seems limited and less intrusive, in particular when compared to hieroglyphic writing in Egypt. Flagged categories or classifiers are, nevertheless, already present in the earliest texts at the end of the 4th millennium and are systematically included in the corpus of (thematic) word lists. The distinction between noun phrase and classified term is often unclear, as is an answer to the question whether classifiers were realized in the speech act or not. The paper will address some of these issues by sketching the early history of classifiers.

Continuity in Change: Hermeneutic Principles of Old Babylonian Diri “Oxford” in the Light of the 4th and 3rd Millennium Lexical Lists
Nadia Linder (Universität Wien)

Writing has in the West long been seen as a secondary system, purely sub- servient to language (cf. DE SAUSSURE, Course in General Linguistics). The cuneiform writing system, antedating such Aristotelian notions, demonstrates that the written word can be more than merely the notation of sounds.
The Old Babylonian period constitutes a key point in the history of Mesopotamian cuneiform writing, one during which a scribal curriculum was instituted, to keep Sumerian traditions alive and facilitate the training of scribes. The revolutionary aspect of this and the changes as compared to the 3rd millennium are often emphasised (cp. VELDHUIS 2014, History of the Cuneiform Lexical Tradition).
In this presentation it will be demonstrated that the Old Babylonian lexical list Diri "Oxford", a reference text of advanced scribal education in Nippur, utilises a complex network of interactions and relations between lemmata to establish the internal structure of the text. The principles of these have been established in the 4th and 3rd millennium (cp. WAGENSONNER 2010, “Early Lexical Lists Revisited. Structures and Classification as a mnemonic device”).
Focusing on the Sumerian of the text, it can be shown that within Old Babylonian Diri "Oxford", a wide array of association principles was used. The sign order is established using principles of Identity and Similarity - on the graphemic level, the phonetic level, and the semantic level. The preliminary research from my dissertation shows that the hermeneutic principles employed by cuneiform scholars in commentary texts of the 1st (cf. FRAHM 2011, Babylonian and Assyrian Text Commentaries) and late 2nd millennium (cf. LENZI 2015, “Scribal hermeneutics and the twelve gates of Ludlul bel nemeqi”) were already mostly in use in the Old Babylonian period, drawing on the knowledge of the scribes of the preceding 3rd and 4th millennium.

Back to the Sumerian Problem: The Issue of the Language behind the Proto-Cuneiform Texts
Gianni Marchesi (Università di Bologna)

It is often stated that the proto-cuneiform writing of the Late Uruk and Jemdet Nasr periods in Mesopotamia stemmed from an earlier accounting technique that used small clay or stone objects of various shape – the so-called tokens – to represent commodities and to record economic transactions. In addition, some scholars argued that the proto-cuneiform graphemes did not represent words and phrases, but rather realia and actions. Finally, while the majority of scholars think that proto-cuneiform was invented by Sumerians, some are rather skeptical about this and observe that there is no compelling evidence for attributing this invention to Sumerians. On the contrary, a number of data would support the view that Sumerians were newcomers in the Mesopotamian alluvium and that they arrived after the invention of writing.
As I see it, proto-cuneiform is a complex semiotic system that has very little in common with the system of tokens. More importantly, the former is demonstrably glottographic from its very beginning. In fact, three important features of later cuneiform writing are already found in proto-cuneiform: the polyphonic character of signs, the use of phonetic complements, and the application of the rebus principle. A closer look at the texts reveals that they are probably written in Sumerian and that Sumerians were already there. Contrary to what is often repeated, not only Sumerian words but also bona fide Sumerian personal names consisting of Sumerian sentences can actually be identified in these early texts.

The Relationship between Language and Early Writing
Manfred Krebernik (Friedrich-Schiller-Universität Jena)

Cuneiform writing in its fully developed stage was glottographic, i.e. it represented words and phrases of natural languages. The cuneiform system was, however, not created for this purpose. It started ca 3300 BC as an advanced administration technique based on older sign and communication systems serving similar purposes (seals, tokens, numerical notations). The cuneiform signs seem to have been conceived as representations of objects, quantities, functionaries and operations rather than as representations of lexemes and sounds. The earliest, assumedly "object-oriented" phase of cuneiform is often called "proto-cuneiform". The ensuing evolution of glottography, and in particular phonography, implies, however, that a certain relationship between writing and language preexisted or became established. In my presentation, I would like to take a closer look at the evolution of cuneiform glottography and its implications, among them the much-debated problem of the language(s) behind the archaic texts.

The Words of Ningirim and their Grammar
Nadezda Rudik (Univerzita Hradec Králové)

Only a few hundred years separate the invention of cuneiform from the emergence of the first Sumerian literary texts known to us from the archives of Fara, ancient Šuruppak, and Tell Abu Salabikh. Some of them have been interpreted as incantations, i.e. texts aimed at restoring (or preservation) of the initial world order through a spoken word. These incantations are an integral part of Mesopotamian religious practices. They were regarded as the words of the gods themselves. Each incantation refers to the remote past when the gods walked the earth and an issue addressed in a particular incantation occurred for the first time. It was believed that this mythical time held the solution to the problem that had arisen.
The corpus of the earliest Sumerian incantations datable to the Early Dynastic (pre-Sargonic) period is comprised of 27 tablets with 74 incantations written on them (George, A. Mesopotamian Incantations and Related Texts in the Schoyen Collection, CUSAS 32, 2016; Rudik, N. Die Entwicklung der keilschriftlichen sumerischen Beschwörungsliteratur von den Anfängen bis zur Ur III-Zeit. Doctoral thesis, Friedrich-Schiller-Universität Jena. Online publication: https://www.db-thueringen.de/receive/dbt_mods_00026243). Most of these tablets were excavated at Fara (Šuruppak) and Tell Mardikh (Ebla) in Syria. With rare exceptions, they are labeled “the words/spells of Ningirim” (in a special rubric in the text), so the tablets appear to be the medium of record (and to storage) of the deity’s words.
This paper aims at exploring the ways in which the deity’s words were transmitted via cuneiform writing. The correspondence between the language and the way linguistic features (nominal and verbal morphology and syntax) are recorded will be examined and evaluated.
The order of signs and their function, as well as the cuneiform as means of communication between humans and gods (human-divine interactions) will be investigated.

The Logic underlying the Spellings. How the Ebla acrographic lexical List EBK-a is structured?
Marco Bonechi (Istituto di Studi sul Mediterraneo Antico (ISMA), CNR, Roma)

In 1975 dozens of cuneiform lexical lists were found in the Archive L.2769 of the royal Palace G of Ebla (Tell Mardikh ‒ Syria). Besides more common typologies with Mesopotamian parallels (e.g. thematic lists, practical vocabularies, ‘word lists’), the numerous lists starting with éš-bar-kin5 (EBK) stand out because they are unparalleled. The EBK can be unilingual (Sumerian) or bilingual (Sumerian ‒ Semitic), and many of them are remarkably long, given that they range from around 1200 to 1500 entries. Their ultimate origin and the modalities of their formation are still debated, but the acrographic principle informing them has been recognized long ago. Also the occasional interpolation of thematic sections (e.g. measures, animals, professions) is evident.
The main Sumerian EBK sources are eight. Among them, EBK-a (TM.75.G.2422+ = MEE 4 115+ = MEE 15 1-5+) is particularly important since it is the only manuscript displaying the entries in the same order adopted in the four sources of the Ebla Bilingual Lexical List. In fact, in the eight main Sumerian sources the order of the sections and also the order of the entries differ, a feature interpreted as sign of a work in progress. The reasons of the success of the recension to which EBK-a and its four bilingual associated sources belong have never been deeply investigated, although practical efficacy in both the school and the working places of the administrative scribes should be assumed. The aim of the present paper is to open a discussion on the arrangement of the sections of EBK-a, in order to detect if, behind superficial and local structuring criteria, the editorial choices of the scribes were also governed by a deepest and narrative logic, based on key-words rather than on key-signs.

Of Babylonian Grammatology
Marc Van De Mieroop (Columbia University)

The paper will examine Jacques Derrida’s concept of différance as it applies to cuneiform writing. It will argue that the two principles it contains – to differ and to defer – are applicable on two levels. In the syntagm meaning is only revealed when it has been read in its entirety – as Derrida claims is the case in every form of writing. But also on the paradigmatic level full understanding is achieved only when the entire paradigm has been completed. The paper will demonstrate these principles as they are in evidence in the later periods of Mesopotamian history, before applying them to the earliest periods of cuneiform writing. It hopes to show that they are an integral aspect of the Mesopotamians’ ideas on writing from the moment of script invention.

Writing and Reasoning; the Problem of Intellectual Systematization in Early Sumer
Gebhard Selz (Universität Wien)

In the last decades, numerous studies addressed problems connected with the evolution of Cuneiform writing. The system is usually described as a combining visual (iconic) and phonetic (linguistic) properties, resulting in a mixed logographic (ideographic) / phonetic (glottographic) script. Research on this system has focused so far on various aspects of sign formation and on the mixture of semantic and graphic organizational principles attested in the early lexical tradition. In this contribution I will concentrate on the principles of reasoning which can be uncovered in this early script. Applying results from the study of semantic priming and conceptual blending, I will argue that the advantages – and the persistence - of the mixed writing system is related to its linguistically grounded suitability for transmitting various sorts of intellectual endeavors.

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