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Oldest written language to get a digital update
Update: In efforts to help researchers and to renew interest in ancient cultures, scientists are trying to convert cuneiform into the binary code used by computers.

By Michael Stroh
Sun Staff

If Bruce Wells were an ordinary legal scholar, he would sit down at a computer and sift through thousands of cases in a few minutes.

But the 32-year-old Johns Hopkins University grad student is searching for records of divorce and petty theft trials that occurred in ancient Assyria and Babylonia. They're written in cuneiform, copied from crumbling clay tablets and dusty scrolls, often obscure and unlabeled.

At this rate, Wells figures, his doctoral research will take another two years of tedious attention to "chicken scratch." But what if he could sit down at a cuneiform keyboard and tell his PC to do the work for him?

"That would be heaven," he says.

Scholars from Hopkins and other institutions who gathered at the Homewood campus earlier this month are trying to make life easier for Wells and fellow researchers by bringing the world's oldest written language to its newest medium.

In the process, they hope to renew interest in the ancient cultures that used cuneiform to record everything from trial verdicts to erotic poetry.

Invented more than 5,000 years ago, cuneiform was first adopted by the Sumerians, inhabitants of southern Mesopotamia whose scribes pressed stiff reeds into wet clay to make wedge-like marks. Over time, the script was adopted by the Akkadians, Assyrians, Babylonians and Hittites, among others.

The most famous example is the Code of Hammurabi, an ancient legal manifesto best known for its admonition: "An eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth."

But the last known cuneiform tablet was written in 75 A.D., and today there are only a few hundred people who can read it.

Most of their research is still done by paper and pen, laboriously recopying the complex marks from musty tomes in libraries or clay originals in museums.

"We're like the people who still use typewriters instead of word processors," says Karljuergen Feuerherm, a computer scientist and cuneiform scholar at the University of Toronto who attended the Hopkins conference.

By putting cuneiform in digital form, scholars hope to be able to type the script on the computer and create giant databases of the thousands of clay tablets in museums around the world.

"You could even write cuneiform e-mail," says Dean Snyder, a software engineer at Johns Hopkins University who organized the gathering.

To make it happen, scholars will have to agree on a scheme to convert cuneiform script into the digital ones and zeros that computers understand.

This was a simple matter in the early days of computing, when scientists converted English and other Western alphabetic languages into digital form by assigning each character and punctuation mark a number.

Expanding computer code

Their first effort, the American Standard Code for Information Interchange (ASCII), packed almost everything into a scheme of 128 numbers. The letter "A," for example, is recorded as 65.

Unfortunately, it wasn't quite enough.

"There isn't even a symbol for the British pound sign in ASCII," says Tom Davis, a professor of Bibliography and Paleography at the University of Birmingham in England.

Ancient tongues and pictographic scripts such as Chinese - with up to 100,000 written characters - were even more complex, and the computer industry eventually adopted a new numbering scheme, called Unicode, which has room for more than 1,000,000 characters.

That's enough for all the world's languages, alive and dead.

Web spurs interest

Most of the 7,000 languages in use today have been converted to Unicode, largely as a result of the growth of the Internet.

"What has really driven this has been the World Wide Web," says Kenneth Whistler, a software engineer at Sybase. "People using all kinds of different languages are busy putting up Web sites."

The researchers who gathered at Hopkins will have to decide how to fit cuneiform's 600 characters into the Unicode system.

But it might be too late for Wells - scholars expect the job will take up to four years.

Originally published Nov 13 2000

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