Proto-Elamite Sign Frequencies

CDLB 2002:1

Cuneiform Digital Library Bulletin (ISSN: 1540-8760)

Published on 2002-04-29

© Cuneiform Digital Library Initiative

Creative Commons License This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

proto-cuneiform, proto-Elamite, sign-list

This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 0000629.

§1. Efforts to decipher the proto-Elamite writing system have long been hampered by the absence of basic tools such as a reliable sign list. Recently, the CDLI team has transliterated all known proto-Elamite texts using the sign list of P. Meriggi.[2] We currently count approximately 1,600 texts and more than 10,000 lines of text.[3] From this raw data set we have produced a sign list with ca. 1,900 non-numerical signs.[4] This number is deceptively high, as discussed below. Except for the fact that some of the proto-Elamite texts appear to be numero-ideographic, while others appear to have a more developed structure, we have found no internal development in the writing system.[5] The sign repertoire of the much later so-called linear Elamite shows no resemblance to that of the proto-Elamite; the few similar ideograms — the linear inscriptions lack numerical notations entirely — are graphically as close to the signs of the ancient Chinese oracle bone inscriptions as they are to the much older proto- Elamite signs.[6]


§2. In a recent publication, P. Damerow presented statistics of proto-cuneiform signs frequencies[7] and concluded that the rapid development in sign forms visible in the corpus indicated the way in which writing began.[8] Initially proto-writing featured a large body of signs and variants which later pro-gressed into a system made up of a limited number of signs in a standardized repertoire. An investiga-tion of the frequency of the proto-Elamite signs suggests a statistical distribution of signs resembling that of proto-cuneiform. In both writing systems, a multitude of signs occur only once, and a small core of signs were used regularly throughout the entire body of texts.[9]


§3. Of the approximately 1,900 non-numerical signs, ca. 1,050 appear only once, ca. 300 signs appear twice. Approximately 1,700 signs are represented a maximum of 9 times.


TABLE 1: Frequency 1-9


attested one time attested two times attested a maximum of 9 times
1050 signs 300 signs 1700 signs




§4. A number of signs are attested more frequently:


TABLE 2: Frequency 100+[10]


100+ 200+ 400+ 500+ 700+
M305 (107) M387 (206) M218 (453) M388 (528) M288 (709)
M36 (128) M9 (213)      
M32 (132) M297 (222)      
M66 (139) M157 (247)      
M1 (152) M346 (253)      
M263 (164) M54 (266)      
M376 (172) M36-A-Z (221)      
M96 (194) M371 (290)      




§5. If we exclude the variants or group them together we see changes in the statistical distribution of signs as indicated by the examble M36 as shown by table 2. It is clear that in some, and possibly in most cases the variants can be discounted.[11] In table 2, M36[12] has been highlighted and appears twice: in the group of 100+ and in the group 200+. M36 is one of the most productive signs of the proto- Elamite sign repertoire, but many of its variants occur only very rarely. When all the variants are added together the frequency of M36 jumps from 128 to 221 occurrences. The same holds true for certain other signs such as M387, but not for all signs.


§6. Except for M157[13] and M346,[14] all of the most frequent signs[15] in our statistical analysis are signs of either grain products, containers[16] or persons.[17]


§7. The primary objective of this brief investigation is to indicate how we are working on our data set, as well as to facilitate the creation of a new sign list. The new sign list will be electronic, and it will feature sorting possibilities according to both graphic and semantic value, hopefully aiding the further study of proto-Elamite.


TABLE 3: Drawings of the most frequent proto-Elamite sign


Table 3



Version: 29 April 2002