Signs – Sounds – Semantics ––– Nature and Transformation of Writing Systems in the Ancient Near East

Gabriel, Gösta; Payne, Annick; Overmann, Karenleigh (eds.) (2022). Signs – Sounds – Semantics ––– Nature and Transformation of Writing Systems in the Ancient Near East. Wiener Offene Orientalistik: Vol. 13. Münster: Ugarit Verlag

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This volume, entitled Signs – Sounds – Semantics and offered as part
of the “Wiener Offene Orientalistik” series, presents eight essays
that emerged from talks given at two workshops during the 64th
Rencontre Assyriologique Internationale, which was held 16–20 July
2018 at the University of Innsbruck, Austria. Although the workshops
were initially conceived and presented independently, their shared
focus on the nature and transformation of writing in the Ancient Near
East made them eminently suitable for combined publication.

As both workshops did, the contributions in this volume explore
several topical issues in investigating early writing systems: the
relationship between language and writing; the influences and
pragmatics that affect sign form, organization, meaning, and purpose;
the techniques for and necessity of phonetic values; and the interplay
of the cognitive processes, behaviors, and material forms in producing
and interpreting writing. Cognitive processing in writing and reading
is a specific focus in the contributions here, as it was in both
workshops as well, and indeed, the addition of neuroscientific
findings to current interpretational methods and theories promises to
yield new insights in early writing systems.

The first workshop — “Spoken Words and More: The Early History of the
Transmission of Meaning through Cuneiform Writing,” organized by Gösta
GABRIEL (Freie Universität Berlin) — considered the invention of
writing in the 4th millennium BC as probably the most influential
legacy of ancient Mesopotamia. Today’s writing systems operate mainly
as a medium for recording, storing, and disseminating spoken language.
This very quality, or the perception that writing has this purpose and
nature — was exactly what the French philosopher Jacques DERRIDA once
criticized as phono- and logocentric, since he saw writing as so much
more than a mere servant of the spoken word. Yet because cuneiform
signs function in a highly complex way, the cuneiform writing system
has not been perceived as having quite the same function, making it
perhaps more an example of DERRIDA’s point than a target of his

While archaic signs first appeared in administrative contexts, they
soon became much more than simply a notation system supporting
bureaucratic practices. For example, the lexical lists — the ancient
glossaries that preserved, over thousands of years, the forms of
signs, their semantic and (eventually) phonetic values, and their
equivalents in other languages — began with the earliest stratum of
writing, the Uruk IV period (3350–3200 BC) . They may thus represent
the first step in what would become an ongoing and expanding
exploration of the communicative potential of cuneiform writing. And
while the earliest signs lacked phonetic specification and the writing
system would add phonetic details to become increasingly glottographic
— faithful to spoken language — over time, cuneiform would never
become a writing system that solely communicated spoken language, as
throughout its lifespan it maintained signs and functions with
semantic rather than phonetic functions and intent, including
logograms and determinatives.

The second workshop, “Heritage in Transmission: Adoption and
Adaptation of Writing Systems,” was organized by Annick PAYNE
(Universität Bern). This workshop considered both the adoption of
cuneiform writing among the different peoples of the Ancient Near East
and its subsequent adaptation as a cultural technology as the idea of
writing spread throughout the region over several millennia. Later
alphabetic and hieroglyphic forms share the same cultural heritage.
Questions that were addressed during the workshop included what
surviving ancient scripts are able to tell us about the intellectual
environment of their users, as attested either explicitly in the
literary record or implicitly in the structures of the respective
writing systems. The workshop also considered the role of
transformation as an intercultural contact phenomenon, paying
attention to matters like transmission routes and the modalities of
their diffusion across linguistic and cultural boundaries. Workshop
contributions also discussed the culture dependency of text format,
the status of new scripts as technology, the typology and cognitive
implications of writing mistakes, and the neurofunctional
interpretation and implications of writing in transmission.

The volume is organized in three parts that have been integrated
across both workshops. Part I examines signs, meanings, and language,
while Part II focuses on the pragmatics of signs and their production.
Finally, Part III is concerned with the organization of lists.

Item Type:

Book (Edited Volume)


06 Faculty of Humanities > Department of History and Archaeology > Institute of Archaeological Sciences > Near Eastern Archaeology

UniBE Contributor:

Payne, Annick Daniela


900 History > 930 History of ancient world (to ca. 499)
400 Language > 490 Other languages




Wiener Offene Orientalistik


Ugarit Verlag




Annick Daniela Payne

Date Deposited:

16 Mar 2022 13:54

Last Modified:

05 Dec 2022 16:10


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