Continuing to read Ostler (see this post), I just hit this passage I have to share with you. He’s been discussing the spread of Aramaic, which replaced the earlier lingua franca Akkadian thanks to the Stalinesque Assyrian policy of deporting entire conquered populations (many of which were from the west and spoke Aramaic) and relocating them elsewhere in the empire, and the repercussions of the new ink-and-papyrus writing system it brought in its wake:

The short-term practical advantages of the new media (less bulk, greater capacity) must soon have made an impression. A new word for ‘scribe’ came into use in Akkadian, sēpiru. as opposed to the old ṭupsarru, ‘tablet writer’, which went right back to the Sumerian word dubsar. Pictures of scribes at work from the mid-eighth century show them in pairs, one with a stylus and a tablet, the other with a pen and a sheet of papyrus or parchment. As with the onset of computers, good bureaucrats must have ensured that the old and the new coexisted for a long time: the ‘clay-free office’ did not happen in Assyria till the destruction of the empire by the Medes in 610 BC. ([footnote]In Babylon some diehards were still writing Akkadian on clay six centuries later.)


  1. “The Library of Alexandria burned to the ground today and the United Tupsarru Workers of the Known World released a statement saying, ‘We told you so.’ A spokesman for the union added, ‘Nyah!'”

  2. Right. When a clay library burns down, so much the better for the documents in it.

  3. I’m pretty sure I would have been right there with the UTWKW, decrying the newfangled technologies as flimsy and untrustworthy. “In my day we inscribed Gilgamesh on tablets and liked it! You kids and your sedge-pith extracts!”

  4. The time seems ripe for a rerun of that wonderful youtube video introducing new technology into the monastic workplace.

  5. rootlesscosmo says

    A dotte matrickse prynterre was gode enow for thy grandsire, sonny!

  6. …I vote enthusiastically for a post dedicated to the whys, wherefores, and cultural consequences of korenizatsiya. (Been a long time since I was in school, FWIW.)
    Then too, I’ll vote for anything that’ll lead someone smarter than me to piss on Stalin’s grave.

  7. David Marjanović says

    Clay-free office! LOL!
    I thought cuneiform didn’t distinguish plain voiceless consonants from “emphatics”? How was ṭupsarru reconstructed then?

  8. Akkadian cuneiform does distinguish emphatics – Sumerian doesn’t, obviously because Sumerian doesn’t have emphatics. There are some specific problems with affricates and sibilants of a rather complex nature, but the stops, I think, are very clearly marked out.

  9. David Marjanović says

    Oh. I must have misremembered. Thanks.

  10. Leo Caesius says

    You may be thinking of Old Akkadian and Eblaite, which do not distinguish between voiced, voiceless, or “emphatic” consonants. Later dialects of Akkadian do, but only in certain contexts (particularly syllable-initial). Even then, the script makes no real distinction between “emphatic” and “non-emphatic” consonants (employing the same sign for the emphatic segment as either the voiced or voiceless counterpart), and no distinction whatsoever between voiceless, voiced, or “emphatic” in syllable-final environment.

  11. ePSD for dubsar (𒁾𒊬) actually says ţupšarru.

  12. David Marjanović says

    …where Akkadian s and š are suspected by some to have actually been [ts] and [s], right?

  13. David Marjanović says

    I forgot to mention one important thing: it wasn’t just a switch in the writing system, it was a switch in language. As far as I know nobody ever got the idea of writing Akkadian on papyrus/parchment (and/or in letters) or for that matter Aramaic on clay.

  14. Leo Caesius says

    Actually, the scribes did occasionally scratch Aramaic onto the sides of the tablets or their dockets. And there is at least one cuneiform clay tablet in Aramaic rather than Akkadian or any of the other cuneiform languages – it is an incantation, discovered at Uruk.

  15. Well, there are more than a few examples of Aramaic writings on clay, e.g.
    But you are naturally right about the switch in language. Which makes me wonder: are there any examples of Akkadian purists grammar mavens decrying the rise of Aramaic and all the usual signs thereof like replacing native Akkadian words with Aramaic loans? That would be fund to read 🙂

  16. It’s a great book. Although, because it spans so much history, it is hard to imagine mistakes weren’t made.

  17. David Marjanović says

    At Uruk of all places! Wow.
    Finding such a prescriptivist work would be fun indeed! 😀

  18. Writing cuneiform (in any language) with pen and ink would be a nightmare, almost as bad as writing Klingon. (My theory of Klingon is that the ductus shows it was originally written using potato stamps.)

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