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Alphabet Politics: What Caused the Development of Writing?

The Greatest Invention: A History of the World in Nine Mysterious Scripts

by Silvia Ferrara, translated from the Italian by Todd Portnowitz

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 289 pp., $29.00

Inventing the Alphabet: The Origins of Letters from Antiquity to the Present

by Johanna Drucker

University of Chicago Press, 380 pp., $40.00

Last summer a group of scholars announced that they had cracked Linear Elamite, a Bronze Age script used in the trading cities of Elam in the highlands of southern Iran, through which Central Asian tin, a crucial ingredient in bronze, was transported north to the Mesopotamian kingdoms of Babylon and Assyria.

 First identified by archaeologists in 1903, it’s a beauty: stark geometric characters composed of diamonds and triangles, circles and straight lines. It has also long resisted decryption, not least because there is so little of it: only forty texts are known.

Early clues came from objects found at the Elamite capital of Susa with inscriptions in both Linear Elamite and Akkadian, a Semitic language spoken in Mesopotamia and written in patterns of wedge-shaped (“cuneiform”) marks made in clay with a blunt stylus. Akkadian was deciphered in the nineteenth century as a largely syllabic script—one whose characters represent syllables rather than individual sounds, as an alphabet does—and although the Linear Elamite inscriptions weren’t direct translations of the Akkadian ones, it was always a good bet that they would contain some of the same names, which should sound the same in both languages. One Akkadian inscription, for instance, refers to a local god, Sushinak (“Lord of Susa”), and a local king, Puzur-Sushinak; in this case the overlap meant that if Linear Elamite was a phonetic writing system it should be possible to find the same two names by looking for partially identical sequences of Linear Elamite signs. Once these sequences were indeed identified, specific sound-values could be assigned to the individual characters they contained.

By the 1920s nine of the seventy-six signs that appeared more than once in the small corpus had been tentatively read. By 2018, however, that number had only risen only to twelve. Then came another breakthrough, when investigators focused on a group of inscriptions written on chunky silver beakers, luxury items that must have belonged to kings and courtiers. Here there were no Akkadian inscriptions for comparison, but the texts did contain the names of known Elamite rulers, some of which were relatively easy to recognize: a phonetic rendering of the name Shilhaha, for instance, must contain the same sign or signs written twice in a row, and the sign for “shi” was already known from the Susa texts. In a stroke of luck, the writing on the beakers also turned out to overlap with other Elamite-language texts written in a different system, a version of the cuneiform used to record Akkadian. Since scholars had already been able to decode a fair amount of Cuneiform Elamite, including names, titles, and formulaic phrases that they now identified on the beakers as well, the puzzle came together quickly, and these scholars believe that they can now read seventy-two Linear Elamite signs with confidence.

Their efforts have courted controversy. The Linear Elamite beakers are of uncertain provenance and are held in private collections, and one was impounded by the Norwegian police in August 2021 because “the evidence on balance…indicates modern looting, smuggling, and illicit trading.”

 No major objections to the decipherment itself have yet been published, but it is early days, and scholars are resourceful.

Being able to read a script is not the same as understanding a language. Even if the new hypothesis does find general acceptance, significant gaps will remain in our knowledge of Elamite grammar and vocabulary. It doesn’t help that Elamite is “isolated,” that is, unrelated to any other known tongue. All the same, there is now reasonable hope of translating what survives of the records these adventurous ancient traders left of their world.

Read entire article at New York Review of Books