The oldest materials that provide strong evidence for a specifically linguistic conceptualization of the world are the lexical lists from ancient Mesopotamia (approx. 3300 BC–200 CE). The Mesopotamian tradition of list-driven notation and analysis was often organized—at least on the micro-textual level—by orthographic form, but it also developed higher-order principles of organization that presupposed the awareness of semantic fields or structural features such as ‘Semitic roots.’ In the Old Babylonian Grammatical Texts (OBGT), for example, we find a number of technical terms in an indigenous metalanguage for describing the morphological form of Sumerian verbs.
This much of the story is well-known and serves as our point of departure, but in this conference we would like to focus on how the existence of this metalinguistic awareness affected other parts of the cuneiform textual record as well as neighboring writing systems such as Hieroglyphic Luwian. In particular we want to understand how metalinguistic awareness was coded through (a) the use of logograms in syllabically written materials, (b) the use of purely syllabic writing in a tradition that was largely logographic (syllabically written Sumerian) and also (c) the use of frozen syllabic orthographies in a logographic way.
The hypothesis that we hope to test in the course of our meeting is that advances in metalinguistic awareness can only occur in tandem with an increasingly detailed system of metalinguistic notation. In a Mesopotamian context, we suggest, one of the crucial notational means for expressing this awareness was the contrast between relatively fixed entities (logograms and frozen syllabic writing) and syllabic elements operating within a relatively free, regional ‘dialect’. Changes in the use of logograms from one historical period to the next may also provide significant evidence for the reality of this opposition. This hypothesis also leverages ongoing discussions of the materiality of communication and the role of notational practice in human cognition and neurobiology.
Contact: J. Cale Johnson (jcale[at]zedat.fu-berlin.de)
Nov 17, 2014 - Nov 18, 2014
SFB-Villa, Schwendenerstr. 8, 14195 Berlin-Dahlem