ana ûsî šapârum. “Writing according to the rules” in Mesopotamia

Béranger Marine

In Mesopotamia, writers had to follow certain conventions: the written signs and their associated values varied from one kingdom to another and from one genre to another (letters, accounting documents, divinatory reports, royal chronicles…), as well as according to the

grammatical category of a given word. Research on writing systems has revealed that written signs are not limited to transcribing the words of a language: written signs and spelling also have a symbolic power. In Mesopotamia, “historical spellings” attested in proper names from the second millennium BCE reflect, for instance, the community identity of the scribes, and reveal its traditionalism.

The medium of writing also varied according to the genre of text, as well as the shape of the cuneiform signs. Variations of the shape of the signs have been widely studied for the transition from stone to clay, but the transition from one genre to another on the same medium (clay tablets) has not been sufficiently researched. Comparison with other writing systems (such as the Latin alphabet) is an incentive to undertake such research.

The many conventions that underpinned the act of writing in Mesopotamia, which operated at different levels – when choosing the appropriate medium, format, cuneiform sign, sign shape and sign value – are still largely unknown. Much research is still needed, both synchronically and diachronically, in order to inventory and understand the Mesopotamian rules of writing, and to write the story of their mutations. Our project aims to assemble a research group around these issues. First, we will bring together researchers working on Mesopotamian spelling conventions of the 2nd and 1st millennia BCE, in order to establish a research methodology and build a shared inventory of the graphic signs and values used in different Mesopotamian kingdoms at different times. This inventory will eventually be made available to the larger scientific community. Then, we will organize an international conference that will bring together a dozen epigraphers, historians, linguists and palaeographers whose work focuses on the cuneiform writing system. Together, we will investigate the many conventions behind the act of writing in Mesopotamia. Among other things, this conference will be an opportunity to develop research on the materiality  of writing, and more particularly on the conventions that dictated the choice of medium, format and shape of the signs in Mesopotamia.

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