W17 – Heritage in Transmission: Adoption and Adaptation of Writing Systems

Organizer: Annick Payne (Universität Bern)


  1. Gebhard Selz (Universität Wien)
  2. Orly Goldwasser (Hebrew University of Jerusalem)
  3. Paola Cotticelli-Kurras (Università di Verona)
  4. Karenleigh A. Overmann (University of Colorado)
  5. Robert Hawley (École Pratique des Hautes Études)

General Abstract

Cuneiform writing famously began at Sumer, and as a cultural technique, writing successfully spread far beyond the circle of its original users. Further script inventions such as alphabetic and hieroglyphic share the same cultural heritage of the idea of writing. This workshop will consider both the adoption and adaptation of cuneiform amongst different peoples of the Ancient Near East and the spread of the concept of writing over several millennia. Questions to be addressed include what surviving ancient scripts tell us about the intellectual environment of their users, attested either explicitly in the literary record, or implicitly in the structures of the respective writing systems. The workshop will consider the role of transformation as an intercultural contact phenomenon, with attention to the question of transmission routes, and their modalities such as mono- or multidirectionality of the diffusion across linguistic and cultural boundaries.
Confirmed workshop contributions will discuss the culture dependency of text format, the status of new scripts as technology, the typology of writing mistakes, and the neurofunctional perspective of writing in transmission.

General Contact: annick.payne@iaw.unibe.ch.

Paper Titles with Abstracts

To view the abstracts, please click on the titles:

The puzzling logogram and bilingualism as hermeneutical mover
Gebhard Selz (Universität Wien)

Starting point of this contribution is the observation that already at a very early stage of writing (3rd mill.) the plurilingual Mesopotamian environment incited some rather unexpected interpretation of the so-called logograms. It will be further argued that sign interpretation in cunjunction with (Sumerian) homophonies and phonetic similarities (puns) must be considered as major hermeneutic tools, which provided the foundations for Mesopotamian reasoning and consequently her cultures. In a final part, it will be argued that such observations on the Near Eastern writing systems might also considerably improve our understanding of Mesopotamia's intellectual heritage.

Alphabets as "Disruptive Technology" in the Ancient Near East
Orly Goldwasser (Hebrew University of Jerusalem)


Schreibfehler im Fokus: die anatolischen Schriftsysteme des II. Jahrtausends im Vergleich
Paola Cotticelli-Kurras (Università di Verona)

Der Vortrag behandelt die anatolischen Schriftsysteme aus dem Blickwinkel der "Fehler", ausgehend aus der "Fehlertypologie für die hethitische Keilschrift" (Cotticelli-Kurras 2007), ferner Busse 2015), mit dem Ziel, sie zu vertiefen, die Fehler der "phonetischen"-Schrift von denen der logographischen Schrift (in all den "Logo"-Variationen) womöglich zu trennen. Ferner werden die Fälle untersucht, bei denen wir nicht wissen, ob die zugrunde liegende Worte hethitisch oder sonst gelesen wurden, und schließlich diese Typen mit den Fehlern bei der Hieroglyphenschrift verglichen.

Writing system transmission and change: A neurofunctional perspective
Karenleigh A. Overmann (Center for Cognitive Archaeology, University of Colorado, Colorado Springs)

Complex systems like literacy and numeracy emerge through multigenerational interactions of brains, behaviors, and material forms. In such systems, material forms—writing for language and notations for numbers—become increasingly refined to elicit specific behavioral and psychological responses in newly indoctrinated individuals. These material forms, however, differ fundamentally in things like semiotic function: language signifies, while numbers instantiate. This makes writing for language able to represent the meanings and sounds of particular languages, while notations for numbers are semantically meaningful without phonetic specification. This representational distinction is associated with neurofunctional and behavioral differences in what brain activity and handwriting contribute to literacy and numeracy. In turn, neurofunctional and behavioral differences place written representations for language and numbers under different pressures that influence the forms they take and how those forms change over time as they are transmitted across languages and cultures.

The different cuneiform alphabets of the 13th century BC, and their (occasional) passage from socially marginal experiments to institutionalized ‘official’ status
Robert Hawley (École Pratique des Hautes Études)

The Eastern Mediterranean in the 13th century BC seems to have been the stage for a certain amount of locally concentrated, yet culturally audacious graphic experimentation and innovation with the alphabetic principle, especially with respect to the more conservative and firmly established prestige writing systems (such as Mesopotamian cuneiform), and the scholarly languages with which they were often associated (Sumerian, Babylonian and Hurrian, for example), all of which had already been actively used locally for several centuries. After a brief survey of the diverse sources, this paper will explore some of the parameters of the rise and ultimate social validation of alphabetic writing on the eastern Mediterranean seaboard in the 13th century BC, and the concomitant (relative) decline of other writing systems which had previously been in use.

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