Cuneiform is read from left to right . This is from the decagon

cylinder in the British Museum .

From History of Assurbanipal George Smith 1871 .

 Click image for larger view .




Cuneiform was used for such varying languages as Semitic such as Akkadian and Indo-European languages such as Hittite  and other isolated language groups such as Hurrian, Elamite and Sumerian. The word, cuneiform is derived from the Latin cuneus "wedge" + form .  


Cuneiform originated in Babylonia, its inventors being the Sumerian or non- Semitic people who inhabited that country before its settlement by the Babylonians. It was developed from picture-writing, and indeed some of the more highly significant of the pictorial signs can still be faintly traced in their cuneiform equivalents. This early picture-writing was inscribed on stone, but eventually soft clay was adopted as a medium for the script, and it was found that straight lines impressed upon this medium tended to the shape of a wedge. The pictures therefore lost their original character and came to be mere conventional groups of wedges.


The plural was represented by doubling the sign, and a term might be intensified by the addition of a certain stroke : thus the sign for ' house,' if four small strokes were added to it, would mean * great house,' and so forth. The script was badly suited to the Assyrian language, as it had not been originally designed for a Semitic tongue.


Many of the signs have more than one syllabic value, and they may be used as ideograms as well as phonetically. As in the Egyptian script, determinatives are employed to indicate the class to which the word belongs : thus, a certain sign is placed before the names of persons, another before territorial names, and a third before the names of gods and sacred beings. The date of the epoch in which this writing first began to be used was probably about 4500 B.C. and it persisted until the first century b.c. The Assyrians employed it from about 1500 b.c. until about the beginning of the sixth century b.c. This ancient form of writing was thus used first by the Sumerians, then by their Babylonian and Assyrian conquerors, then by those Persians who finally overthrew the Babylonian and Assyrian empire.



A circular cuneiform tablet from Lagash, circa 1980 B.C .

Many round tablets were used by apprentice

scribes in learning to write cuneiform .


The use of cuneiform declined after the conquest of the last of the great Near Eastern empires, the Persian Empire by the Greeks . Cuneiform was rivaled by the Phonecian alphabet from the 7th century A.D onward , and with the conquest of the Persian Empire by Alexander the Great (336-323 B.C.) cuneiform lost its official support. The last known cuneiform text was an astronomical tablet dating to 75 A.D. Soon, cuneiform, which had lasted for 3500 years would be forgotten and not Deciphered until the 1830s .


A winged bull ( Akkadian: lamassu  'protective spirit') from the Palace of Ashurnasirpal II at Nimrud, 883-859 B.C . These were placed

at the gates of the city to project power. To protect houses, the

lamassu were engraved in clay tablets, which were then buried under the

door's threshold.




Cuneiform became the source for the writing system many of the great city states, kingdoms and empires of the world starting with Sumeria in what is today southern Iraq and was adapted for the writing of the Akkadian, Eblaite, Elamite, Hittite, Luwian, Hattic, Hurrian, and Urartian languages, and it inspired the Ugaritic and Old Persian alphabets for the Persian Empire.


Origin of Cuneiform


Cuneiform evolved from pictographs and was the invention of the Sumerian and is estimated to have been invented between 3400 to 3300 B.C. As life became more complex and the need for record keeping increased , the use of pictographs were simplified to wedge shaped marks for speed . Shortly before the end of the fourth millennium B.C.,the clay tablet emerged as the standard vehicle of writing in ancient Mesopotamia. The earliest writing  found on small  clay tablets were unearthed from the ancient city of Uruk. Uruk in modern day Iraq, lies about 50 miles northwest of ancient Ur (biblical  Erech, modern Arabic Warka) was once a thriving city on the banks  of the Euphrates. Some have asked, how did it come about that the Babylonians and Assyrians used characters composed of groups of wedges, instead of employing picture-signs like their contemporaries who dwelt in the valley of the Nile and in China ? The Sumerians, Babylonians and Assyrians had clay as their medium to write upon, while the Egyptians and Chinese has papyrus, wood sticks and paper to write upon .


The evolution of cuneiform signs

 Click image for larger view .


Though the earliest known writing comes from Uruk, we cannot  be entirely certain that this is where writing was actually invented.  However, later Sumerian legend also places the first writing there. The  invention is ascribed to Enmerkar, said to have been king of Uruk after  the Great Flood of Sumerian legend. Enmerkar was engaged in a contest of wills with the lord of far-off Aratta. He had sent three messages  demanding tribute and had been denied three times. His final move  was to send a written clay tablet. The written message reduced the lord  of Aratta to submission, perhaps in recognition of the significance of  the invention.



The Sumerians


Commodities such as wood, stone, and metal had to be imported  into Sumer, but thanks to the Euphrates and Tigris rivers the land was  rich in mud. The right kind of mud produced clay. Almost everything  in Sumer was made of clay: bricks for houses and temples, tools, and  even writing surfaces. Clay tablet  frequently they survived, damaged or not, the destruction of buildings in which they were kept, in particular conflagration, the constant threat to perishable writing materials such as papyrus or parchment. Fire could even improve their durability, and probably more tablets in antiquity were baked and preserved by random fires than by deliberate baking in tablet ovens.

Proto Cuneiform


A Sumerian scribe (dubsar in cuneiform ) .

Most Sumerian scribes came from the upper classes

and began their training at the age of six.


The first written tablets are in a script we call proto-cuneiform.  There  no reason to suppose that the primitive Sumerian system of writing was the invention of a single mind or of a single generation. It probably grew up gradually from small beginnings, being extended and enlarged from time to time by the addition of new or modified characters and combinations, the work of the scribes , whose art and mystery it constituted.


Babylonian Tablet with Envelope . About 2 1/4 inches by 1 7/8 inches. The tablet dates about 1822-1763 BC from the reign of Rim-Sin, King of Larsa a contemporary of Hammurabi. The tablet is a receipt for grain sufficient for 6 month supply. The same text is contained on the envelope and on the tablet. The envelope could be broken if there was any dispute over the text, so that the tablet inside could confirm the reading on the envelope.


About 85 percent of them are of an administrative or accounting nature,  while the remaining 15 percent are lists of words. The latter were spelling  lists, used by scribes practicing the signs for the various professions,  agricultural produce, and commodities. The same word lists, written  in the same order, were used for hundreds of years; conveniently, this  fact allows modern Sumerologists to use the later lists to identify early  proto-cuneiform signs.  Proto-cuneiform signs  were often pictographic, though not always, as the sign for "sheep" shows.  By late cuneiform the pictographic origins are hard to spot. The primary pictograms or picture-characters of the cuneiform system had already disappeared at the remote period of the fourth millennium b. c, to which the earliest extant monuments of the Sumerian language apparently belong.


An example of proto-cuneiform


The dawn of the third millennium B.C. saw the emergence of true  cuneiform. The name cuneiform refers specifically to the wedge-shaped  impressed lines that make up the individual signs of the script.  Drawing curved lines on clay is relatively hard; stamping marks into  clay is much easier. And so over time the curvilinear signs of pro to-cuneiform gave way to the angular signs of true cuneiform, pressed  into the clay with a stylus made from the end of a reed. The writing now ran consistently from left to right within the boxes.  Over time the boxes widened, so that the writing eventually ran in  lines across the full face of the tablet. The number of signs grew substantially to about 1,200, then shrank again as the writing system  became systematized and the phonological aspect of the script grew.  By the middle of the third millennium B.C. the number of different signs  in use was about 800, and by the end of the millennium it had stabilized at about 600.


It is early in the third millennium B.C. that we begin to truly recognize the Sumerian language in its writing. The proto-cuneiform tablets  contain relatively little phonological information, and no grammatical  information, so they tell us relatively little about their language. From  later tablets we learn that Sumerian was an agglutinative language, which  means that it expressed grammatical information and the relationships  between words by adding prefixes and suffixes to its words. As in  English, grammatical features such as verb tense, possession, and plurality would be expressed with affixes (the collective term for prefixes  and suffixes). Thus there were Sumerian analogs for the English past  tensed, the possessives, and the plural -(e)s. But unlike in English,  other grammatical features were also expressed with affixes. We use  prepositions like from, to, and with and modal verbs like will, would,  and could as free-standing words, while in Sumerian these concepts  would have been expressed with affixes. Nouns and verbs carried up to three suffixes, while verbs could have up to six prefixes and nouns  one or none.


Cuneiform on the victory stele of Narim-sin,

King of the Akkadian Empire

( reigned ca. 22542218 BC )

Click image for larger view .


The way the Sumerians went about expanding their writing system  was to listen to the sounds of their words. Already in the proto- cuneiform period they had occasionally used rebus writing, using one  logogram to represent another word that sounded the same. Now they  began to use signs to represent only a part of a word, to represent just  a syllable, regardless of whether that syllable meant anything in itself.  This syllable could be used in spelling out an affix, a personal name,  or a foreign word.   This use of syllabograms was a significant advance, not just in  writing, but in linguistics. The logical individual unit of language is  the core morpheme, like sheep, house, or go. Pronouncing incomplete  pieces of words by themselves is not natural. Given a word like  feeling, we might find ourselves with reasons to mention the core  morpheme, feel, but we rarely find ourselves called upon to pronounce  the suffixing by itself, and we are even less likely to think about  the fact that when we speak, the final syllable of feeling is in fact ,  including part of the core as well as the suffix. Yet the Sumerians  realized that their words were made up of smaller, pronounced units  - syllables. And so a sign like gi came to mean not only "reed," and  not only "render," but also merely the syllable [gi], independent of what  word it appeared in.


Sumer occupied only the southernmost part of Mesopotamia, a land  of growing city-states in the first half of the third millennium. The  language of the Sumerians was unrelated to any other language that  we know of. It was a language isolate, like Basque, with no known relat-  ives. East of Sumer was the land of Elam, where the Elamite language  was also a language isolate. North of Sumer, in what is now central  Iraq, was the land of Akkad. The Akkadians spoke a Semitic language  related to Hebrew, Aramaic, and Arabic, but entirely unrelated to  Sumerian. The linguistic diversity of the region may be reflected in the  biblical story of the tower of Babel, which describes the building of a  ziggurat (temple) at Babylon, near the Sumer-Akkad border.







Cuneiform in the

Akkadian, Babylonian and Assyrian Empires