0b. Cuneiform

Whatever its true origins, the earliest Mesopotamian writing was still largely pictographic, utilizing simplified drawings of objects to represent those objects. Drawing curved lines in wet clay was a challenge. Instead of drawing with the point of the writing tool, generally a reed, scribes began to imprint the flat edge of a cut reed into the clay to make distinctive wedge-shaped triangular marks. Their system of writing is known today as cuneiform, from the Latin cuneus meaning wedge.


Early writing tablet recording the allocation of beer from southern Iraq, c. 3100-3000 BC. The signs are grouped in registers, or boxes. The upright jar with pointed base represents beer and the circular and semicircular impressions are numbers. The human head with a tipped bowl in the bottom row on the left is the sign for “to eat.” © Trustees of the British Museum


Sumerian cuneiform tablet recording barley rations for two hundred workmen and their children by the Temple of Bau, dating from the 1st Dynasty of Lagash, (c. 2350-2200 BC), from Girsu, present day Tello, southern Iraq. (Find these locations on the map on the earlier post.) Notice how regular and abstracted cuneiform has become since the earlier tablet, and then compare that to the Cyrus Cylinder below. © Trustees of the British Museum

Cuneiform was created by scribes for scribes, and they needed to devise methods for its understanding. Scribes wrote lexical lists to establish and teach standardized depictions of signs, indispensable tools as the signs grew to resemble their sources less and less. Of the earliest writings found in Uruk, the origin of so many ancient documents many scholars believe writing originated there, 10-15% are lexical lists, the remainder being economic records.1 Scribal schools were established to teach the symbols to children of wealthy families (mostly just the boys), whose practice texts are found in large numbers.

Consisting of logograms, the earliest documents communicate information but not language. Phonetics are introduced around 3100 and grammar is in use by 2800.2 Before, scribes were restricted to denoting common objects for which signs existed, but now they had a flexible system to record that the sheep was given or taken, the name of the person who gave it, and the foreign name of their town. A sign for one word could represent a different word that sounded the same, so the sign for arrow, “TI,” could be used for the word life, also pronounced “TI.” And if each sign for monosyllabic words is considered a phonetic unit in this way, they can be combined to make multisyllabic words. There was no limit to what could be written using this rebus principle: messages, history, or poetry—though it did take a few centuries for writing to expand from its narrow usage in object and place names and short phrases to a facsimile of spoken language.

Two features of Sumerian remained difficult. Some sounds were represented by multiple words. Flax, neck, voice, and bull were all pronounced “GU,” a feature called homophony, and each of these homophones had its own sign conveying the sound “GU.” (Scholars tell them apart by adding numbers, so flax is GU, neck GU2, voice GU3, and so on.) Some signs, like that for voice (GU3), could also mean different related things: speak (DU11), word (INIM), mouth (KA), or tooth (ZU2), a feature called polyphony. To make things a bit easier, Sumerians added unspoken prefix and suffix characters called determinants to indicate that word was a city, a bird, or made of stone. The system utilized some six hundred signs with about half that number in use in a given era.

Just upriver from Sumer was Akkad, whose Akkadian language was a Semitic one, in the same family, but a bit older, than Hebrew and Arabic. An uncle, if you will.3 In 2334 BC, King Sargon established the prominence of Akkad, ruling an empire stretching from Syria to Iran, and to manage their government in their language, the Akkadians utilized the Sumerian cuneiform system as their own syllabary (written signs representing syllables). Akkadian had sounds that Sumerian didn’t, meaning some spellings didn’t reflect the pronunciation of words in Akkadian very well. Yet the Akkadians were only too eager to use cuneiform to write down everything, even incorporating certain Sumerian terms. Scribes made Sumerian-Akkadian dictionaries, which have proved very useful to modern archeologists. With hundreds and hundreds of signs to cover all the necessary syllables—GA and GI and GU, and KA and KI and KU, plus logograms and the like—learning to write wasn’t exactly easy so it remained restricted to the scribal class who had formal schooling. Many kings weren’t literate!

Video on the writing of cuneiform by the Getty Museum featuring the Cyrus Cylinder (Babylon, southern Iraq, c. 530 BC, written in Akkadian), which allowed the Jews to return to Israel from their exile in Babylon.

Soon neighboring peoples were borrowing Akkadian cuneiform as well, like the Hittites in present day Turkey, and the Urartians in the Caucus Mountains. Others, like Elam to the southeast, merely took the idea of cuneiform to create their own writing systems. Later scribes in the 7th-5th centuries BC discovered ancient Akkadian inscriptions and, fascinated, attempted to copy them. The last cuneiform tablet dates to Babylonia in 75 AD, ending three millennia of typographic tradition. But that’s not the longest enduring script by a few hundred years.

Next: Egyptian origins

Notes   [ + ]

1. C.B.F. Walker, Cuneiform, M.W. Green, “Early Cuneiform” in Origins of writing.
2. C.B.F. Walker
3. The term “Semitic” was coined in the 18th century to refer to a group of Middle Eastern languages that includes Hebrew, Arabic, Aramaic, Akkadian, and Amharic, among others, based on a supposed connection to Noah’s son Shem as the progenitor of Middle Eastern peoples. The connection is no longer taken seriously but the name stuck. Parallel nomenclature of a hypothesized larger African language family as “Hamito-Semitic” after Noah’s son Ham has, however, since been replaced by “Afro-Asiatic.”

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