Two Unfortunate Choices of Script
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Categories: Ancient

Two Unfortunate Choices of Script

My Internet connection is having trouble uploading, which it making it difficult to post some pictures which I wanted to talk about. Instead, I think I will use this post to gripe about design choices in another kind of information technology. My first career was in programming, but programming languages were not the first where it proved very difficult to change early decisions as their disadvantages became apparent or the context changed.

The first scribes to write Akkadian adapted the cuneiform script which had developed for writing Sumerian, a language with a very different inventory of sounds. While each form of cuneiform script has its own quirks, the Neo-Assyrian script which is often printed today has trouble distinguishing /i/ from /e/ and distinguishing among its rich collection of dentals /d/ /t/ and /ts/, velars /k/ /g/ and /q/, siblants /s/ /z/ and /ṣ/, and labials /b/ and /p/. It also retained polyphony (multiple phoenetic readings for some signs) and the logographic values for signs, now translated into Akkadian by the reader. Writing Akkadian could be rather simple; writers with modest education and nobody to impress could use a small set of signs with fixed readings and few logograms. But many scribes wished to save space or show that they knew the logograms too. I don’t know if “the cleverest code you can write is too clever for you to debug” had its counterpart amongst scribal lore, but I’m told that some texts make one think of it.

When Akkadian was rediscovered in the nineteenth century, scholars had to decide how to typeset it. Creating a typeface for all 600 or so signs would have been very expensive, and would have not helped scholars who wished to type Akkadian words on a manual typewriter, while it was also useful to be able to distinguish between different readings of the same sign. Rather than adapt one of the Semitic abjads such as the Hebrew script, Assyriologists chose to use the Latin alphabet. This created two problems: the lack of sufficient consonants in the Latin alphabet, and the existence of several cuneiform characters with the same pronunciation. Alphabets sometimes deal with the first problem by ignoring it (most linguists distinguish between two /th/ sounds in English) and sometimes by giving a group of letters a special reading (English “ae” and “ng” are not pronounced as two sounds) but the first solution makes philologists frown and the second would make the internal structure of an Akkadian word unclear. So Assyriologists borrowed diacritical marks from other European alphabets, and added numerals after signs once they ran out of accents, to produce a script which contrasts â ā and b ḫ and t ṭ. This makes typographers wince, but it satisfies Semitic philologists, who are confident that the system distinguishes all of the sounds which Akkadian did, and perhaps even some which it did not.

I still haven’t worked out a convenient way to type Akkadian, but at least I can use most fonts, and I didn’t have to learn a new alphabet for transcriptions in addition to the cuneiform signs. Still, the needs of scholars in the age of mechanical typewriters and lead type cast a long shadow.

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