A Wild Idea About Cuneiform Literacy

and some numbers that may support it. And then again, they may not. In fact, my numbers may support something quite different or nothing at all. Like many of my more abnormal posts, this one is only a thought experiment. Please don’t take it too seriously but, if you are so inclined, do think about it.
In a survey paper on Namburbi ritual texts, Caplice, 13, says,

When the later [the suppliant as apposed to the liturgist] prays, he naturally speaks in his own name, detailing the danger in which he finds himself and requesting aid; since it is probable that in most cases the suppliant had not undergone scribal training and was incapable of reading cuneiform, it may be conjectured that the concrete practice in such a case was an antiphonal recitation, with the liturgist reading aloud sections of the text, and the supplicant then repeating them.

I don’t want to challenge Caplice’s conjecture too strongly. But I do wonder if scribes sometimes designed these texts so a semiliterate supplicant could read his own prayer. Did they dummy down the prayers?
The question came to mind some weeks ago when I worked my way first through the supplicant’s prayer in BAM 323:19-35 and then the ritual of which it is a part. The supplicant’s prayer was easier for me to read.
I posted a preliminary translation the prayer several weeks ago. I’m still considering whether or not to post the whole ritual. There may be a publication in it. Heck, there may be a publication in this but at this point it’s no more than a very crude idea. The idea sketched in this post may not even be original. I’m still looking but I haven’t found anything in the obvious places. Assuming the originality of the idea, I do hope no one steals it without attribution. If I find a source, I will let you know. If you know a source, please let me know.
After some pondering, I decided to do a rather crude count of sign utilization for the ritual surrounding the supplicant’s prayer and then for the prayer itself. Making no effort to correct for duplicate signs, I simply counted the number of logograms/sumerograms, the number of purely syllabograms and the number of determinatives in each line. Then I summed the numbers from each line of the supplicant’s prayer and each line of the of the ritual excluding the prayer. Regardless of the number of elements, I counted complex, multi-glyph, logograms/sumerograms as single logogram/sumerogram. I counted phonetic determinatives as determinatives rather than syllabograms. I counted any numerals plus ana and ina as syllabograms even though they were never spelled out. I figured they were so basic that anyone who knew only his TU TA TIs (the cuneiform equivalent of our ABCs, but a lot more glyphs) would also know the numerals plus ana and ina. The results wouldn’t change very much had I treated these as logograms. I also included sign counts for the rubrics, heavily logographic, before and after the supplicant’s prayer and before a incantation by the liturgist as if they were part of their respective prayers. Doing otherwise wound not have changed the results by even 1%. Here are my results.
The supplicant’s prayer:
Total signs = 352
19% logograms/sumerograms
77% syllabograms
7% determinatives
Ritual including the liturgist’s incantation but excluding supplicant’s prayer:
Total signs = 322
41% logograms/sumerograms
51% syllabograms
8% determinatives
Because of several rather arbitrary decisions and the broken portions of the tablet, one should probably assume a plus or minus 2% error in the percentages but not much more than that. So in the worst case for my hypothesis, the supplicant’s prayer would have 21% logograms/sumerograms and the remainder of the ritual would have 39% logograms/sumerograms. Is this statistically significant? I’m not sure. Does it point to dumbing down? I’m not sure about that either.
A survey of the 67 logograms/sumerograms in the supplicant’s prayer is instructive. The most common sumerogram is UTU, the sign for Shamnash. The next most common sign is DINGIR, “god,” as a substantive as opposed to a determinative. It also serves as a determinative five times. ANe u KItim for “heaven and earth” appears a couple of times. I counted this as two logograms/sumerograms, one syllabogram and two determinatives. One also finds ZI for “life.” That is not to say that all the logograms/sumerograms in the supplicant’s prayer are so easy. Line 29 has this all but incomprehensible (to me) string, UDUG MAŠKIM GIDIM u LÍL.LÁ, they are names/designations for various demons. But there isn’t a single case in the suppliant’s prayer where a logogram/sumerogram stands for a verb. That cannot be said of the rest of the ritual where one fines logograms/sumerograms standing for Akkadian verbs, with and without phonetic determinative, fairly regularly. Line 5 alone has TIL-su = tulabbas-su, “dress him;” UD.DU = tašakkak, “thread;” GAR = tašakkan, “put,” “place;” and DAB = tušabat, in this case “supply,” all without phonetic determinatives. None of this is particularly surprising. But nothing like it appears in the supplicant’s prayer.
Is the orthography of the supplicant’s prayer a case of dumbing down the text so at least some supplicants could read it? I really don’t know. Does kīam tušabbabšu, “you shall make him recite as follows,” just before the supplicant’s prayer, exclude making him read it aloud from the tablet? I see no reason to think that it should.
There are of course other explanations. The numbers may not really be statistically significant. If so, they would point to no conclusion. The suppliant’s prayer may be a plug-in from a source whose writing conventions were somewhat different. There may be other explanations of the differences. I haven’t really evaluated all the many details of sign utilization in this text much less compared those details with other texts. The supplicant’s symptoms as outlined in the protasis to the ritual appear to be in some tension with the symptoms listed in his prayer. I mentioned this problem in a previous post. This tension highlights the risk in comparing the details in the writing of the ritual and with the writing in the supplicant’s prayer.
This isn’t the first time I suspected grading for difficulty in cuneiform writing. The previous time I was looking at school texts. I would need to do a lot of work on many texts before saying much more than, “Hmmm.”
If you’re interested, the numbers for the liturgist’s incantation alone are as follows:
Total signs = 50
32% logograms/sumerograms
66% syllabograms
1% determinatives

Caplice, Richard I., “The Akkadian Numburbi Texts: an Introduction,” Sources from the Ancient Near East, 1:1, Los Angeles: Undena, 1974