Scribalism and Diplomacy at the Crossroads of Cuneiform Culture: The Sociolinguistics of Canaano-Akkadian
The following study examines Canaano-Akkadian, the unique cuneiform system used in the southern Levant during the Late Bronze Age (1550-1150 B.C.E.), as a diplomatic scribal code used in contexts of mediated diplomacy with Egypt. The methodologies presented draw upon recent work on the sociolinguistics of writing and script choice that best elucidate the genesis of this scribal system and its role in Egypt’s eastern empire. The classification of the language of the Canaanite Amarna Letters is still a matter of contention. The primary debate is whether or not the mixed Canaano-Akkadian forms are a reflection of a local dialect(s) of Akkadian, or a written scribal code––one that was quite distanced from the actual language underlying such messages.
Recent petrographic and paleographic analyses further complicate the correlation between language and writing in this corpus. Certain cuneiform scribes worked for multiple polities and, moreover, many tablets were created at quite a distance from the political centers generating this correspondence. For example, a number of letters were written at Egyptian administrative centers across the Levant and not at the local courts “sending” these messages. The Canaanite scribe emerges as the central figure in discussions of linguistic classification, as the language of these letters is a better reflection of scribal training during this period than what was actually spoken at local Canaanite courts. As such, there is a need for a reassessment of the scribal and administrative landscape of this period, and in particular, the system of scribes and messengers. This system of communication was a dynamic, complex process that entailed at the very least four linguistic layers: the spoken dialects of the original messages; Canaano-Akkadian, the scribal code of the written versions; the mediated reading of these letters once delivered, along with any additional socio-political or metapragmatic subtext; and the final translation into Egyptian.
The present study considers the metapragmatic, linguistic, orthographic, and rhetorical strategies employed by cuneiform scribes to bridge the geographic and cultural gulf between Canaanite polities and the royal court at Tell el-‘Amarna, Egypt. The Canaanite glosses and scribal marks resurface as unique evidence for how Canaanite scribes approached the problem of translation and linguistic “border-crossing” in these cross-cultural and multilingual exchanges. Such strategies added nuance and a metapragmatic commentary to guide the translation and interpretation of these letters and to ensure that they received a positive reception. The cuneiform script was not limited to a technological tool in such interactions, but entailed participation in a much larger cultural horizon—one shared by cuneiform scribes in Canaan and Egypt, who were the gatekeepers facilitating diplomacy throughout this period.