Artificial language in ancient Mesopotamia - a dubious and a less dubious case

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In the 1930s, Neugebauer suggested that the ideograms of the Old Babylonian "algebraic" texts constituted an "algebraic symbolism". Closer reading shows that this claim was accompanied by strong reservations, but the claim had a greater impact in the general historiographic literature than the reservations. Analysis of some text examples will show that the use of ideograms would often make the texts ambiguous, which is not what we normally expect from an algebraic symbolism. In order to clarify the relationship between the Babylonian mathematical texts and the topic of symbolism/artificial language, a second look at Nesselmann's distinction from 1843 between "rhetorical", "syncopated" and "symbolic" algebra will serve; so will a review of certain aspects of the origin of the Babylonian script. The final section of the paper looks at the earliest writing as a genuine instance of artificial language, more so than later written language.
Original languageEnglish
JournalJournal of Indian Philosophy
Issue number1-2
Pages (from-to)57-88
Number of pages32
Publication statusPublished - 2006


  • algebraic symbolism

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