Monday, July 29, 2013

Hittite and the Development of Alphabetic Writing

The beginning of writing and written records is the beginning of history. At various points in time, cultures and civilizations undertook a conscious redesign of writing systems. The earliest writing systems were ideographic and pictographic. People eventually modified such logographic elements into alphabetic elements, such as Egyptian hieroglyphs and Germanic runes. In this trend belong also various types of cuneiform writing.

Probably around 3300 B.C., in Ancient Near East, primarily in Mesopotamia and the Fertile Crescent, cuneiform writing systems emerged. Historians Warren Held, William Schmalstieg, and Janet Gertz note that

The Hittite cuneiform writing is derived from the Babylonian-Assyrian or Akkadian cuneiform. The cuneiform sings consist of wedge-shaped impressions made on a clay tablet with a stick (cf. Latin cuneus 'wedge'). This stick, a rectangular solid form four to six inches long, measured about 1/4 inches on each side to that each end, of course, had a square shape. It resembled somewhat a foreshortened chopstick. The scribe held the clay tablet in his left hand and in his right hand he held the writing stick with which he made the characters in the wet clay.

Many, even the vast majority, of early writing systems, and cuneiform writing systems in particular, were developed for Semitic languages: Egyptian, Babylonian, Akkadian, Ugaritic, Eblaite, Assyrian, and others. Hittite is an exception to this generalization, one of the few, or perhaps the only, Indo-European language to be recorded in cuneiform writing.

Given the predominance of Semitic languages among cuneiform texts, it may well be that a significant percentage of the scribes held the clay tablet in their rights hands. Cuneiform texts needed only for short periods of time, and not for permanent records, may have been inscribed on wax, or wax-coated, tablets; these, of course, are lost to history. On rare occasions, cuneiform characters were chiseled or carved into stone.

Since the writing stick was held at an angle in the right hand the horizontal and oblique wedge-shaped grooves are always deeper and wider at the left and the vertical wedge-shaped grooves are always deeper and wider at the top.

There are five main types of wedge created this way: four narrow wedges and one wide. The four narrow wedges distinguish themselves from each other by orientation on the tablet: a horizontal, a vertical, one with the wide end at the upper left leading to a point in the lower right, and one with the wide end at the lower left leading to a point in the upper right. Theoretically, it would be possible to have had two other such narrow wedges, with the wide ends in the upper right and lower right, but the wrist motion needed to make such wedges would have been very awkward, probably accounting for their absence. The one wide wedge seems to have always the same orientation on the tablet; it is given the technical name Winkelhaken among linguists.

The Winkelhaken was produced by impressing the end of the stick in the clay at a slight angle from the upright position, thereby producing a near triangle, the deepest part of which is the angle at the left. The five types of wedge are combined in various numbers to form a single cuneiform character. These individual wedges are combined in various ways to produce the various cuneiform symbols.

Cuneiform texts present significant interpretive challenges to the modern reader. One such challenge is the frequent use of loan words. Hittite tablets often include, in addition to Hittite words, words from Sumerian, Akkadian, Luwian, Proto-Hittite (known as 'Hattian'), Palaic, Hurrian, and Mitanni (an Indo-Iranian language). Another challenge is that a single cuneiform symbol may have both an alphabetic value, representing a phoneme, and a pictographic value, representing a morpheme - the reader must determine which value is meant in each occurrence of the symbol. Likewise, each symbol can have multiple values, one for each of the languages listed above.

The direction of writing is from left to right and typically the clay tablets have two columns, rarely three. The first column is on the left hand side and the columns follow from left to right. After completing the right-most column the scribe turned the tablet over and continued the right-most column on the opposite side, writing also on the bottom edge of the tablet. The columns on the reverse side follow then in a right to left direction, so that the final column is on the opposite side of the initial column. When finished, the tablet was baked in an oven to harden the clay.

As societies and civilizations undertook to redesign their writing systems from time to time, the net result was to create systems which were quicker and easier to learn. It took less time to learn to read, it took less time to learn to write. As a result, literacy rates increased. Likewise, the actual tasks of reading and writing, as opposed to the learning of them, also took less time. Therefore more was written and more was read.

The abandonment of early pictographic and ideographic systems for cuneiform, and the abandonment of cuneiform for later purely alphabetic systems illustrates this. Consider that in the modern world, the majority of any population can be relatively proficient in reading and writing by the age of five or ten years old. Rates like that were not possible with cuneiform. Thus the invention of the 22-letter consonantal alphabet by the Phoenicians and Hebrews represented significant progress and led to the final abandonment of cuneiform.