Why do scripts and writing practices die out?

The death of scripts is something Pippa and I have been thinking about a fair bit recently. We gave a talk about it at the Cambridge Festival of Ideas back in the autumn, and presented a poster at a couple of recent conferences. Why do people stop writing in a particular script? It’s a simple question but one that’s received surprisingly little academic attention, perhaps because almost by definition, evidence for why something stops happening will be scarce. This is true with any tradition or cultural practice, and relates to a broader discussion of how we conceptualise and reconstruct ancient social change. But since writing is one of our key sources of evidence as well as the practice we’re investigating, the problem of evidence is particularly acute there.

The first thing we need to be sure of is that a script really has died out, rather than people merely changing what they use it for or the materials on which they write it. The ancient East Mediterranean offers a good example of this with the case of hieroglyphic Luwian. In the Late Bronze Age, this seemed like a script (and associated language) on the rise. It was widely spoken in Anatolia and seemed to be gaining ground, perhaps even among the Hittite royal elite by the end of the thirteenth century BC. The Hittites used Luwian writing alongside their usual cuneiform script, and it’s best preserved now in monumental rock-cut inscriptions, such as those from the capital, Hattuša. As CREWS Visiting Fellow Willemijn Waal has argued, it may also have been written on wooden tablets.

2600971646_c11ba3eacc_k
Luwian hieroglyphic reliefs from Hattuša. Photo by flickr user travellingrunes, CC BY-SA.

Continue reading “Why do scripts and writing practices die out?”

Writing indigenous languages

Did you know that 2019 is the UN’s International Year of Indigenous Languages? There are thousands of languages spoken in the world today, but many of them are strongly localised and in danger of dying out because of the small size of their speech communities, and because their speakers often choose to use successful global languages over their local languages. IYIL sets out to raise awareness of indigenous languages in order to benefit their speakers and to bring about a better appreciation of their important contribution to the world’s cultural diversity.

What I want to talk about briefly in this post is the writing down of indigenous languages, in the ancient world as well as the modern – really just a few collected thoughts on diversity of experience.

yil_logo_small.png

IYIL2019_visual_3_en.jpg

Continue reading “Writing indigenous languages”

Exploring the social and cultural contexts of historic writing systems: the CREWS conference

The second of our three big CREWS project conferences took place recently: Exploring the Social and Cultural Contexts of Historic Writing Systems (14th-16th March 2019, see here for programme). I had been excited about it for a long time, but when it came I was absolutely blown away by the quality of the presentations and the new things I learned and the ways it has developed my thinking on writing practices. I’m going to use this blog post to try to pass on some of what I learned by telling you about themes that kept turning up over the three days, even in papers on completely different topics.

Pic

DSCN5399.jpg
Questions during Natalia’s paper.

Continue reading “Exploring the social and cultural contexts of historic writing systems: the CREWS conference”