10. Spoken Words and More: The Early History of the Transmission of Meaning through Cuneiform Writing

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


Gösta Gabriel (Göttingen), „Introduction. Early Bureaucracy and the Principle of Least Effort“ – Manfred Krebernik (Jena), „The Relationship between Language and Early Writing“ – Nadezda Rudik (Leipzig), tbc – Gebhard Selz (Vienna), „Writing and Reasoning: the Problem of Intellectual Systematization in Early Sumer" – Marc Van De Mieroop (Columbia), „Of Babylonian Grammatology“ – Klaus Wagensonner (Yale), „The Development of Classification in the 4th and 3rd Millenium BCE“


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. 

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