Report of the First Conference

Initiative for Cuneiform Encoding

November 2nd & 3rd, 2000

Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, Maryland, USA

Cuneiform: From Clay Tablet to Computer

Participants in the Initiative for Cuneiform Encoding (ICE) Conference held at The Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, Maryland, USA, November 2nd and 3rd, 2000, reached consensus on key points relating to the computer character encoding of Sumero-Akkadian cuneiform, the world's oldest writing system.

In a series of animated discussions this international group of cuneiformists, encoding experts, software engineers, linguists, and font architects addressed the feasibility, scope, architecture, and organizational details of such an undertaking.

Consensus was reached on the following points:

1) It is both possible and desirable to devise a computer character encoding for Sumero-Akkadian cuneiform (hereafter "cuneiform").

2) Unicode is the appropriate technology for encoding cuneiform.

3) The encoding will not target the unrelated cuneiform script systems used for writing texts in the Old Persian or Ugaritic languages.

4) For various scholarly reasons, the encoding of proto-cuneiform is initially, but not necessarily ultimately, beyond the purview of the project.

5) The abstract characters of cuneiform will be encoded; information specific to the concrete glyphs of cuneiform will be conveyed by mechanisms above the plain-text encoding level (mechanisms such as text markup).

By "abstract characters" we mean those entities traditionally treated by cuneiformists as distinct signs and roughly corresponding to the sign numbers in the standard sign lists, such as those by Borger, Labat, and von Soden. By "concrete glyphs" we mean the actual, paleographic manifestations of those characters appearing on cuneiform tablets, inscriptions, etc.

6) [Provisional] Compound signs formed by the juxtaposition of two or more signs will be encoded as a sequence of two or more Unicode code points.

7) [Provisional] Compound signs formed by inscribing one or more signs inside another will be encoded as single Unicode code points, in order to keep the encoding simple, and easier to process.

8) Sign mergers and splits (of which there are expected to be 40 or so)
will be encoded using a principle of maximal distinction - when a sign has split over time, the split forms will be separately encoded; when signs have merged over time, the original antecedent forms will be separately encoded.

9) A five member working group will oversee the proposal process. Members of the group include:

Lloyd Anderson, Linguist, Font Specialist, Unicode expert contributor
Karljuergen Feuerherm, Specialist in Akkadian, Computer Scientist
John Jenkins, Unicode Consortium Technical Director (East Asian Scripts)
Rick McGowan, Unicode Consortium Vice President
Dean Snyder, Semitic and Classics Philologist, Software Engineer

The working group will be assisted by:

Simo Parpola, Prof of Assyriology, Neo-Assyrian specialist
Steve Tinney, Asst Prof, Middle Eastern Languages, Sumerian specialist

It is expected that the entire process, culminating in the formal acceptance and adoption into Unicode of a cuneiform proposal, will take approximately four years.

Members of the working group intend to make themselves available for presentations and discussion at the following conferences:

Baghdad Conference, March 2001, Baghdad, Iraq
American Oriental Society, March 2001, Toronto
RAI, July 2001, Helsinki


The full list of ICE conference participants includes:

Dr. Lloyd B. Anderson, Linguist (historical development of writing systems, Mayan hieroglyphs), Unicode expert contributor, Font Specialist, Proprietor of Ecological Linguistics, Washington D.C., USA

Dr. Jerrold S. Cooper, Professor of Assyriology and Sumerian, Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, Maryland, USA

T. R. Davis, Lecturer in Bibliography & Palaeography, University of Birmingham, England

Karljuergen Feuerherm, Ph. D. Candidate in Akkadian, University of Toronto, Computer Scientist, Montreal, Quebec, Canada

John Jenkins, System Software Engineer (MacOS 9), Apple Computer, Unicode Consortium Technical Director (East Asian Scripts), Salt Lake City, Utah, USA

Dr. Alasdair Livingstone, Reader in Assyriology, University of Birmingham, England

Rick McGowan, System Software Engineer (MacOS X, Unix), Apple Computer, Unicode Consortium Vice President (fluent in Japanese), San Jose, California, USA

Dr. Simo Parpola, Professor of Assyriology, University of Helsinki, Finland

Dean A. Snyder, Semitic and Classics Philologist, Software Engineer, Senior Information Technology Specialist (Humanities), Johns Hopkins University

Dr. Steve Tinney, Assistant Professor of Middle Eastern Languages and Cultures, University of Pennsylvania, Co-Director Pennsylvania Sumerian Dictionary project, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA

Dr. Kenneth Whistler, Linguist (Native American Languages), Software Engineer (Sybase), Unicode Consortium Technical Director, Managing Editor of The Unicode Standard, version 3.0


Submitted by Dean A. Snyder, November 7, 2000