Tuesday, November 03, 2015

On cuneiform

ASKING THE IMPORTANT QUESTIONS: What the Heck is Cuneiform, Anyway? (Anne Trubek, The Smithsonian). Inspired by the recent recovery of additional lines from the Gilgamesh Epic (on which more here), this article is not without merit, but it has a number of errors and misunderstandings. My understanding (which may now be out of date) is that the invention of cuneiform seems to go back before the Sumerians, because its applicability to the Sumerian language is imperfect, as thought it had been invented for a language with a somewhat different phonology.

Be that as it may, on the term cuneiform:
Cuneiform means "wedge-shaped," a term the Greeks used to describe the look of the signs.
I know of no record of ancient Greeks discussing this writing system. If they had, it would have been remarkable if they had used the Latin term "cuneiform." I think the word was coined by modern scholars. Google says it originated in the 17th century (C.E.!).

Then there's this howler:
By the 4th century B.C., the Sumerians had taken this system to another level of abstraction and efficiency, moving it from proto-writing to writing.
That should be the fourth millennium B.C.

On the decipherment of Akkadian:
As with the Rosetta Stone, on which the same text is written in hieroglyphics, demotic, and Greek, Rawlinson discovered the cliffs of Behistun also contained the same words written three times in three different languages: Old Persian, Elamite, and Babylonian. Since the other languages had been translated, he could thus translate cuneiform.
Almost. Old Persian was already know through Avestan and its script was easier to decipher. Rawlinson and others used it to decipher the Babylonian (Akkadian). Elamite is still imperfectly understood. The issue was transliterating cuneiform; it can't be translated. It's a writing system, not a language. It was the Babylonian (Akkadian) that required translating once the cuneiform was transliterated. Naturally the process of transliteration and translation overlapped to some degree.

The final paragraph is also a little confusing when it talks about "cuneiform" (meaning "Sumerian") being "taught as a classical or dead language for generations after it ceased to be a living language." Again, Sumerian is a language, cuneiform is a writing system.

The article could also have said a little about the syllabic nature of the cuneiform writing system.

There may be more problems, but I don't have any more time to comb through the article. Caveat lector!

Some additional reflections on the importance of cuneiform literature are here. More on Henry Rawlinson's work is here. (There are other past posts on him, but the links have rotted.)

UPDATE: More on the Elamite version of the Behistun inscription is here.