Tag Archives: Ilimilku

Hieroglyphs

The word “hieroglyph” translates to “sacred writing.” If you’re like me, your first attempts to learn writing were probably not very sacred at all. Tongue pressed to the corner of my mouth, eyes staring fixedly at the paper flat in front of me, my hand going anywhere but where I wanted it to, writing was a burden. I soon grew to love it though, not realizing it was changing my brain even as I was assimilating how to do it. Anne Trubek introduces quite a few new angles to the story in The History and Uncertain Future of Handwriting. She begins at the beginning, cuneiform, not hieroglyphics, and offers a brief sketch of how handwriting developed into the phenomenon we know today. And how it is now becoming something very different than what it once was.

Trubek’s book is full of delightful surprises about the development of scripts and the technologies that attend them. Like most non-specialists in cuneiform suppose, she suggests handwriting is basically anonymous therein. In fact, it’s not. Molding clay into a smartphone-shaped tablet doesn’t seem like technology, but the process of writing took a leap forward when someone figured out how to do this. Those who work with cuneiform can learn to identify handwriting. In the Ugaritic corpus, the tablets “signed” by Ilimilku can be distinguished from those written by others, and not just by his name. Technology has been devised to measure depth and order of stylus strokes in the clay, the angle the stylus was held, and many other seemingly insignificant features. Handwriting was present from the very beginning.

Perhaps what is most striking about Trubek’s study is how religion enters the discussion at almost every stage. Very early on writing was identified as a sacred activity. This continued through the middle ages when monks were those who performed writing as part of their non-secular duties. Even those who piloted penmanship in the modern period often noted that a person’s moral, Christian disposition could be measured by how said person made their letters. Writing, as those who do it for a good while know, becomes a sacred activity. Most world religions have holy books. Many of those books were the reason for an interest in literacy in several cultures. Even a surprising number of secular writers have understood the activity to have spiritual dimensions. Trubek’s book gives bibliophiles plenty to ponder. She doesn’t see the rise of keyboarding as a threat to writing because even in the computer age, individuality comes through. And for those who truly understand hieroglyphs, all writing is sacred.

Artificial Ugarit

Yesterday a friend pointed me to an article in the MIT News entitled “Computer automatically deciphers ancient language.” The language in question is Ugaritic. The article, by Larry Hardesty, narrates how three computer scientists have developed a program that may potentially decipher as yet non-readable languages. Ugaritic was chosen as a test-case because it has already been decoded and since it meets the specific criteria needed for the program to work. Results from the program could be measured against the standard translations already produced by specialists. Perhaps Ugarit will have another day in the sun.

The larger issue, of course, is technology and its role in understanding the human endeavor. Written texts are an extension of the human mind and those of us who practice it copiously know that the written piece is a piece of the author. Ancient texts may not suffer the same burden of individuality – some undoubtedly were rote pieces set to clay only after a lengthy oral life – nevertheless they participate in the constant paronomasia that is the human psyche. We invent the myths that Ilimilku and his colleagues inscribed so carefully over three millennia ago. Computers may indeed aid us in unlocking their often obtuse forms of expression, but how close will they put us to laughing at Ilimilku’s jokes or wondering deeply at his profundities?

Having been involved in a research project involving computerization and the Ugaritic texts (I was an editor in the now defunct Ugaritic Tablets Digital Edition) I am very aware of the benefits that technology brings to the table. As a sometime writer, I am also aware of the ironies involved. Our ancient predecessors, humans like ourselves, wrote texts that they considered worthy of preservation. Their civilization collapsed. Their language died. We rediscovered it and eagerly wanted to know what they had to say. We, however, have lost the ability to understand. Computers have taken on a dominant role in disseminating the written word. They daily participate in the human experience. Perhaps some day it will be AI that is scrutinizing our whimsical words and trying to decipher what in the world we meant. When they succeed they will find we are not that far from where Ilimilku began.