Margins of Writing, Origins of Culture: New Approaches to Writing and Reading in the Ancient Near East
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Writing and the state both first began in the ancient Near East. The origins of history are traced to the place where they met. But what did they actually have to do with each other? Most of ancient Near Eastern philology consists of careful examination of the leavings of the state scribes; it has revealed a treasure-house of ancient culture, from haunting poetry to onion archives. But there is a crucial blind spot in our perspective on the largest and oldest archive of the ancient world: the relationship between the vast body of official writing and the actual life of language as spoken, understood, and imagined by ancient Near Eastern people. The vital relationships between language and ethnicity, the connections between languages of empire and local identity, and way languages are born, live and die in writing has remained the subject of more speculation than rigorous research. If recorded history began in the ancient Near East, we are just beginning to explore the powerful creative relationship between writing and the political identities of the Near East's cultures. Collectively, the articles here provide well-documented challenges to conventional wisdom about that for which people actually used Sumerian, Egyptian, Hittite, and Hebrew. This conference was the first to bring leading philologists together with anthropologists and social theorists to explore what writing meant to politics in the ancient Near East.
commentary, where no version existed written without the comment. There were regimes of truth with their own semiotic technologies, not made by, for, or about the state. And the states were much weaker. I wish we had more space for a tale of two texts that could make this matter clearer. Patañjali’s commentary on PΩn≥ini’s grammar, titled the MahΩbhΩœya or great commentary, is the text I refer to at the outset of this essay, conferring on Brahmins the calling of Sanskrit, knowing and using
oi.uchicago.edu 30 JOHN KELLY ation of humans from ownership of their own means of being, before the alienation from means of production and before alienation from means of coercion. If the advent of writing, and/or of grammar, is not literally alienation of the means of communication, since after all people can still talk, it is certainly alienation from the means of knowledge; henceforth, one needs to be within the circle of the educated and to deal in their codes to see, hear, know, let
including consonantal signs used to approximate certain vowel sounds, to transcribe phonetically foreign names and titles.32 This “alphabetic” device was not entirely new to the Egyptian scribal tradition. Since the late Old Kingdom (ca. 2200 B.C.) foreign toponyms and personal names could be spelled out in so-called group or syllabic writing, which was widely used for transcribing Semitic loanwords in the New Kingdom (ca. 1540–1075 B.C.). This writing system uses a limited selection of common
Nippur enjoyed, even at a late date, as the hub of things Sumerian. Nippur was a real Sumerian city, with Sumerian, to extrapolate from the evidence of personal names, being spoken on the streets at least through the Isin-Larsa period. For its sister-city, Isin, a relative upstart, no similar claim can be made, at least not to the same degree, despite the city’s considerable literary output. Already in the twentieth century Akkadian personal names outnumber Sumerian names by a wide margin and by
production of the Bible in Hebrew is inconsistent with the portrait of the Persian province of Yehud upon which archaeologists and historians have agreed. It is difficult to reconstruct a social situation where Jewish scribes would have been trained specifically in Classical Hebrew during this period. To be sure, Hebrew and Aramaic are related languages and the Aramaic scribal training could have served for composing and editing some literature in Hebrew. Yet, the evidence for Hebrew in this