Wash Post article
Wash Post article
Scholars Perform Autopsy on Ancient Writing Systems
Cause of Death Related to Lack Of Accessibility
By Guy Gugliotta
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 25, 2003; Page A07
When a system of writing begins to die, people probably don't even notice at first. Maybe the culture that spawned it loses its vitality, and the script decays along with it. Maybe the scribes or priests decide that most ordinary people aren't able to learn it, so they don't teach it.
Or a new, simpler system may show up -- an alphabet, perhaps -- that can be easily learned by aggressive upstarts who don't speak the old language and don't care to learn its fancy pictographic forms.
Or perhaps invaders take over. They decide the old language is an inconvenience, the old culture is mumbo jumbo and the script that serves it is subversive. The scribes are shunned, discredited and, if they persist, obliterated.
In the first study of its kind, three experts in the study of written language have described the common characteristics that caused three famous scripts -- ancient Egyptian, Middle Eastern cuneiform and pre-Columbian Mayan -- to disappear.
"Thousands of languages have come and gone, and we've studied that process for years," said Brigham Young University archaeologist Stephen D. Houston, the study's Maya specialist. "But throughout history, maybe 100 writing systems have ever existed. We should know more about why they disappear."
The collaboration among Houston, University of Cambridge Egyptologist John Baines and Assyriologist Jerrold S. Cooper of Johns Hopkins University began at a meeting that Houston hosted earlier this year to discuss the origins of writing. What resulted was "Last Writing," an essay on script death published recently in the British journal Comparative Studies in Society and History. Its basic conclusion: Writing systems die when those who use them restrict access to them.
"The sociological and cultural dimension is crucial," Houston said. "Successful systems don't have these prohibitions. Once there's this perception that the writing is only for this function or that function, script death is almost a self-fulfilling prophecy."
On the surface, the disappearances of the three ancient scripts appear to have little in common.
Both Egyptian and cuneiform survived for 4,000 years, a millennium longer than the Latin alphabet that Westerners use today, and both died in the early centuries of the Christian era after long declines. Mayan, by contrast, lasted about 2,000 years and died relatively abruptly around 1600 because of active repression by Spanish conquerors.
Both Mayan and Egyptian served only one language, while cuneiform, invented by ancient Sumerians around 3500 B.C., was adopted by many different Mesopotamian peoples who spoke Semitic and Indo-European languages and other tongues completely unrelated to Sumerian.
Mayan and cuneiform took one basic form, while Egyptian was actually four related but different systems. Hieroglyphics, the lovely script that adorns the pyramids and monuments of the pharaohs, was the most elaborate.
Mayan never had a real competitor, while cuneiform eventually succumbed to rough-and-ready local Semitic alphabets -- principally Aramaic -- that better served the region. Egyptian endured centuries of onslaught from the Greek and Latin of its invaders before finally giving way.
Despite the differences, all three writing systems fell victim to some of the same mistakes: "There's discrimination against everyday use, so that while religion may help a script survive, it does not extend its reach," Baines said. "And when the people [or conquerors] begin to identify the religion and its script as something heretical or dangerous, there's nobody left to protect it."
For ancient languages, the margin for survival was always narrow: "We're so used to universal literacy that we forget that the whole Mayan [literate] population may have been a third of the number of people who go to a college football game today," said Pennsylvania State University anthropologist David Webster, a Maya expert. "I don't think most of us focus on just how limited literacy was in a lot of these societies."
For centuries Egyptian script thrived because it served a relatively homogeneous people who lived on the edge of the known world unchallenged by outside forces, Baines said. This changed with conquests first by Alexander the Great in the 4th century B.C. and later by the Romans.
Greek became Egypt's official language during the Hellenistic period, and the Romans discriminated against indigenous nobles by taxing those who didn't speak it: "This was a body blow," said Cambridge's Baines.
But the Romans, who saw themselves as the heirs of the pharaohs, invested heavily in temple building, which helped hieroglyphics survive and even thrive, he added. It wasn't until polytheism went into disrepute with the strengthening of Christianity that Egyptian script lost its anchor and finally died.
In Mesopotamia, cuneiform benefited for about 2,000 years by being the only script in the region. Even as Sumerian civilization began to decline, the Semitic Akkadians who replaced them adopted their writing system around 2500 B.C. Other peoples followed.
Cuneiform continued into the first millennium B.C. as the script for ritual, administration and commerce, but later tablets show notes in the margin written in the more recently developed Aramaic alphabet, an ominous sign.
Besides that, said Johns Hopkins' Cooper, "the fact that nobody spoke the [Sumerian] language [by about 1400 B.C.] put the script in jeopardy." Finally, he added, "the texts depended on a certain kind of belief system that was changing, while the texts weren't."
The script began to disappear, lingering in temples and then disappearing altogether after a last flowering among Chaldean astronomers who probably used it, Cooper said, because cuneiform's numerical system is based on 60, offering a much less cumbersome mathematical mechanism than anything else that existed at the time.
The fate of Mayan script differed from cuneiform or Egyptian, because it appears to have suffered a largely self-inflicted wound. Long before the Spanish conquest, use of the elaborate glyphs that had flourished for 1,500 years was sharply restricted, Penn State's Webster said, probably because they "were so closely identified with rulers whose rule had been discredited" by wars and corruption.
By the time the Spaniards set out to systematically destroy the remains of Mayan civilization, the script may have needed little more than a coup de grace.
© 2003 The Washington Post Company
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