"All writing has the capacity to be both looked at and read, to be present as material and to function as the sign of an absent meaning." Words are never simply "ideas"; they are ideas anchored to and expressed through things in the material world. That "thing" may be the human voice, or it may be a set of stone tablets, but it is, somehow, a medium and thus, in some sense, material. ... we cannot divorce the significance of a sign from its material qualities because, as Jerome McGann stresses, "language is always materialized and embodied in one form or another."
--Matthew Engelke, A Problem of Presence: Beyond Scripture in an African Church, 10-11
For the Ugaritic god of craftsmanship and magic, Kotharu-wa-Hasisu, words were material things. Maker of bows and palaces splendid enough for gods to crave, he had impeccable credentials as an armorer. But in the Baal epic's most famous battle scene he literally bludgeons the sea-god Yammu to death with a pair of sentences. The gigantic warrior Baal stands passively as Kotharu activates the incantations with a word; they spin in his hands and slam into his enemy. The terrifying Yammu, who had intimidated all the gods, is felled by a pair of phrases— self-referential ones at that.
Today we work in the opposite way from Kotharu, treating language as basically immaterial, only accidentally borne by inscriptions and ostraca. Philologists typically publish texts without much analysis of what they look like, prying apart scribe and inscriber. When we interpret the inscriptions we separate them from the objects and contexts that bear them. We also do not go into much depth about where they are, and what that means: Geographically, we tend to give little thought to the precise distribution of texts across landscapes and regions. And no standard edition of a corpus of Iron Age linear alphabetic texts presents the words as their ancient audiences saw them: as physical, visual things in space.
Hence, a set of modest proposals, or theses nailed to the door of the internet, on the human relationships that made our inscriptions.
1. There is no history of writing, only a history of genres of writing. Because genres are the most basic way that communication is socially organized, it is difficult to make any meaningful statement about writing's use without considering its markers of relationship to human social organization.
2. The idea of a strict division of labor between literate scribes and illiterate craftsmen has little to no support in the Iron Age IIb Levant. Their relationships played out differently among different communities, and when we attend to the distinct evidence of each site we can expect to find different configurations. The people who cast texts in linguistic form and the people who chiseled them into physical forms were sometimes one and the same, sometimes worked closely together, and sometimes had nothing to do with one another.
3. The starkest example of an inscription carved for the carvers themselves is the Siloam tunnel inscription, a well-composed and beautifully incised monument to the work of anonymous stonecutters. Nobody but craftsmen and technicians would ever have seen this text, unique in the entire architectural history of the ancient Near East in being an anonymous building inscription. Beginning, “this is the tunnel, and this is the story of the tunnel,” it is quite literally a signature on a massive work of stonecutting.
4. Examples of close coordination between text-composer and image-carver might be found in the inscriptions from Zinjirli, where the same artistic techniques are used to produce both words and images in one well-organized visual space. Yet this still does not tell us whether the carvers could read, or collaborated with scribes on a carefully prepared wax tablet. Certainly the languages of Zinjrli inscriptions were not directly determined by local speech. Identified by Dennis Pardee as representing several related dialects of Ya'udic Aramaic, the history of alphabetic writing at this site points to bigger problems. Beginning with Phoenician and ending with standard Aramaic, the different texts may instead represent different choices. The variety within Ya'udic suggests not several dialects but multiple attempts at adapting one local variety to a regional Aramaic standard. Like the surprisingly varied representations of the dead, the languages of the inscriptions may also be the result of negotiations between patrons and craftsmen, and vary from instance to instance based on local desires: custom cars, not mp3s.
5. The near-total disconnect between image-maker and scribe may be found in the text wrapped around the Tel Fekheriye statue. Its two bilingual dedications to Hadad, themselves internally hybrid, seem to either enrobe or deface the ruler's image, whose presence they carefully point out in words strikingly cognate with the biblical terms for the image and likeness of God.
6. “Dialects” may be as much art objects as individual monuments and images. This does not mean that they are not vital sources of information for language, but that the grammar of an inscription is no more of a tape recording of a local dialect than the image on a monument is a snapshot of its patron. In the Iron Age Levant, despite invaluable work on dialect geography, there are disturbing ways that dialect is not geographical.
7. In a world where to read is to publish and “readers” may include anyone within earshot, the concept of “literacy” may be worse than useless. We should seriously consider abandoning it in favor of more concrete and illuminating ways to talk about how people used writing.
--more modest proposals to come--