Chapter 4 of John Heise's 'Akkadian language' on the origin and development of cuneiform.
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[clay tablet] [Fig. M.C. Carlos Museum]

4. Cuneiform writing system

Table of contents
  1. Origin
    1. 3-dimensional clay tokens
    2. pictograms
  2. Clay tablets
  3. Physical appearance of cuneiform signs
  4. Order of cuneiform signs in sign lists
  5. value of cuneiform signs
    1. phonogram (homophony, polyphony)
    2. logogram
    3. phonetic complement
    4. determinative
  6. Cuneiform Signs Lists
  7. cuneiform fonts for use in TeX and LaTeX

1. On the origin of the writing system

Writing is one of the essentials and characteristics of civilization. Urbanization, capital formation and writing are closely related. Writing developed at the end of the 4th millennium in the Middle East. The prime motivation was of an economic nature: the desire to administer economical and trade transactions. Almost all of the early cuneiform texts and a very large fraction of the 2nd millenium texts concern economy and administration.

A comprehensive theory concerning the origin of writing was developed by Denise Schmandt-Besserat, University of Texas.

1.1 Three dimensional clay tokens
Already from the 9th millennium onwards clay tokens (Lat. calculi) where used to depict objects and abstract numbers and was widely spread: from present day Sudan to Iran. The clay tokens in various forms and shapes were used as counters. Each type of counter represent e.g. a bull's head, a sheep, a basket, a bar of gold etc. They were, in many cases at least, pictographicallly used: that is, they depicted concrete objects. They have meaning in any language. Further specification was obtained with diacritical marks, such as scratches and strokes. It was the first steps towards an abstract notation.

In the second half of the 4th millennium clay bullae developed. (see a later example in this external image, or this external description): envelopes of clay used to contain the tokens. The bullae were used in transactions, as trafel documents, waybill, contract of carriage etc. To certify the content cylinder seals where used (see example in this external image, or this external description) that were roled over the wet clay.

It seems that a further step was to imprint the tokens on the outside of the clay bulla. The content could thus easily be identified. It was the first step in the development of a writing system. Numbers were given as simple strokes: one stroke for 'one', two strokes for 'two' etc. Note that the same is true for our currentthe symbols for the number 1, 2 and 3. The writing of the number 2 is merely two horizontal strokes, in cursive writing written with 'pen down' in between. Our symbol for the number 3 developed from three horizontal strokes on top of each other in cursive writing.
Larger units are obtained as an impression of the round rear side of a reed stylus.
Hold vertically the impression would be
A skew impression would give
Still larger units could be a combination
The actual meaning of these number symbols may depend on the units measured: one, six, ten, sixty, ten times sixty etc. In the famous stratification layer Ur-IVa (around 3200 BC) in the ancient city of Ur also symbols that represent the unit 100 are found. The symbols were collected in sections. The order of the signs within a compartment was not important.

A diacritical mark on a three dimensional token was often not clearly copied on the outside of a clay bulla and had to be inscribed by hand. In the two dimensional writing a symbol like could stand for 'sheep', not a pictogram anymore. Further diacritical marks, like removing a segment could indicate 'ewe' (female sheep) where as removing two segments could be an indication of a sheep in gestation.

1.2 Pictograms

At the end of the 4th millennium an explosion of new signs suddenly appeared, most of which have no counterpart as 3-dimensional token, of which there are only a dozen or so. (This, by the way, is also seen as sever criticism of the development from 3-dimensional tokens sketched above). This development took place simultaneously with the building of the first cities, large palaces and temples etc. In general with an economy that was more centralized and where the emphasis was shifted gradually from concentration of villages to larger units.

The writing system was born, basically as pictograms. The signs were curvilinear in shape. Symbols that never appear in a 3-dimensional form are:
A hand, that showed like
A head looked like
A foot was
The pubic triangle of a women as and stands for 'woman' or 'female' in general.
The word 'day' was symbolized as the sun at the horizon

Since the drawing of curvilinear lines in clay is cumbersome, lines are imprinted (stamped) with a reed stylus and curvilinear shapes gradually make place for straight lines, and the shapes simplified. Specific meaning was obtained with further diacritical marks, such as
and so cuneiform (In English and French, from Lat. cuneus 'wedge shaped', German 'Keilschrift') was born. In the Akkadian writing more than a millennium later one can still recognize (knowing the intermediate steps) the pictographic origin of the signs. The Akkadian logogram (word sign) for 'woman','female' is the sign munus developed from a straight line approximation and rotation over 90 degree from the pubic triangle
The logogram for 'mountain' kur was an actual drawing of a mountain peak. Mountains, however, are not present in Mesopotamia, which is in the alluvial plains around the rivers Eufraat and Tigris. The word 'mountains' (north of Mesopotamia) therefore also symbolizes 'abroad', 'foreign country'. The Sumerian word (and later the Akkadian logogram) for 'female slave' is represented by the composite logogram, in Akkadian:
munus.kur a combination of 'woman' and 'foreign/mountain', thus the word for 'female slave' is 'woman from the mountains/from abroad'
(Note that the English word 'slave' has a similar origin: Slavic people where brought in large numbers as slaves to western Europe in the 10th century, during an intense period of ''Christianization'')

Pictografic writing would have meaning in any language, but the development is usually ascribed to the Sumerians. The Sumerian language has no proven relation with any other language.


2. Clay tablets

Some of the earliest tablets can be seen on the Web, see Catalogue.


(to be written)

3. Cuneiform, the physical appearance of the signs

Cuneiform (from Latin meaning 'wedge-shaped') is composed of a series of short straight wedge-shaped strokes made with a stylus into a tablet of soft clay. The strokes are thickest at the top, like , on harder material it more looks like . At first, symbols were written from top to bottom; later, they were turned onto their sides and written from left to right. In later periods harder materials were also used.
Five basic orientations are applied: horizontal, two diagonals, a hook and a vertical stroke:

The up-diagonal stroke has limited use. These five components occur in two different sizes. A small hook often not being distinguishable from a short diagonal. The two diagonal strokes are not used as an individual sign, but the other types are. Reverse orientations (e.g. with the head of the wedge at the bottom) are hardly attested. The inverse vertical is rare on old tablets (sometimes the vertical in the sign for 'hand', which normally is . Already from the Old Babylonian period onwards this orientation is not seen anymore. A stroke from right to left does not occur at all, a characteristic on the basis of which one may recognize simple falsifications.
The signs underwent a significant evolution in the course of time (e.g. Old Babylonian in the 18th century BC, versus New Babylonian almost a millennium later), slightly different in the various dialects. Present day sign lists are sorted to New Assyrian shapes. The field of study is called Assyriology and originated in the previous century with the discovery of the Assyrian Library in Nineve. New Assyrian shapes are more quadratic. They void diagonal and hook shaped components as compared with the contemporary Babylonian scripts. E.g. the sign ni is in Assyrian form and in Babylonian form .
Students usually start learning cuneiform signs in New Assyrian orthography. For the grammar Old Babylonian is studied as a starting point. For educational purposes I have included an Old Babylonian text (the Codex Hammurabi) in New Assyrian transliteration, combining Old Babylonian grammar with easier-to-learn signs.


4. Order of cuneiform signs


The present day order of cuneiform signs such as used in sign lists is based on the following (arbitrary) sequence:

Also within the sequence starting with a horizontal stroke, this order applies to the remaining strokes. Within the signs starting with the sign precedes etc.
The different orthography of some of the signs makes this sequence not completely unique.

5. Value of signs

The function of cuneiform divide in four basic ways, summerized here and described in somewhat more detail below
  1. phonogram,
    representing a speech sound combination like ka, ak, kak, also called syllabogram when representing an entire syllable. [see 5.1]
  2. logogram,
    representing an entire word or concept, also called Ideogram. In Akkadian logograms are often named Sumerograms, because they originate from Sumerian or quasi-Sumerian (=following the pattern of Sumerian). [see 5.2]
  3. phonetic complement, to select the choice of logograms and indicate grammatical form. [see 5.3]
  4. determinative
    indicating a semantic content of a preceding or following word (either a logogram or a sequence of phonograms), e.g. when this word is to be considered the name of a deity, a man, a city, a thing made of wood, etc. They are not pronounced. Sometimes both preceding and following determinative are used. [see 5.4]

5.1 Phonogram


A phonogram is a signs that stands for a syllable, in general a two or three letter combination. It is said that the sign has phonetic value. With C a consonant and V a vowel, most signs have either CV or VC phonetic value, but (especially later in New Babylonian) CVC values occur more frequently. Akkadian phonograms are usually transcribed in italics, to distinguish it from logograms (capital or small capital).

The phonetic values are listed in the sign lists. Some of the signs have identical values throughout the Mesopotamian history and all of the dialects. Others are limited to the first half of the second milllenium, designated as "old" in the sign list, and mainly in use in the Old Babylonian Period. Sign values in use after this period are designated as "new" in the lists. An indication of geographical differences in the use of the signs are in these lists restricted to Assyrian (Ass.) and Babylonian (Bab.).


Homophony, different signs for the same value. The same sound combination may be represented by different signs. This is called homophony (from Greek homos 'same', phonè 'sound').
In transliterations the same sounds that are represented by different cuneiform signs are distinguished with an accent or an index. The signs for
ni, ní (i with accent-egu), (i with accent-grave), ni4, ni5, ...
are all different cuneiform symbols. may be called (and pronounced among Assyriologists) ni2 and as ni3.
These accents thus have nothing to do with word accent. Example:

ni


ni4
ni5

Since the use of accents is cumbersome in the html-language of this document (and because accents are difficult to read at some servers) I will often use ni2 for etc. and ni3 for


Polyphony, same sign for different values. The same sign may stand for different syllables, all given in the sign lists. This is called polyphony (from Greek ,i>polus, 'many', phonè 'sound'). The choice of phonetic values for a sequence of cuneiform symbols is made such that a sensible word comes out. Surprisingly, the choice is in most cases unique and rarely one is left with some ambiguity. Polyphony makes the reading of cuneiform difficult for the layman.
Polyphony and homophony of cuneiform signs exists already since the early times (3000 BC), since the pictographic origin.

5.2 Logogram


A logogram is the function of a sign as a concept, usually represented by an entire word. In Akkadian logograms are also called Sumerogram because most logograms have their origin in the Sumerian language, either taken from the Sumerian or as quasi-Sumerian: formed according to the rules of the Sumerian language (like Latin was used for new 'Latin-like' words in the church long after native Latin speakers existed).
The value of a logogram is usually transliterated in capital or small capital, using the Sumerian value, e.g. the sign used as a logogram for ilum 'god' is transliterated as DINGIR or dingir where dingir is the Sumerian word for 'god'.

Grammatical forms of a word (e.g. the case for a nomen or the conjugation for a verb) are not expressed in a logogram. A logogram could stand for a nomen or adjective, but the same logogram could also be used as a verb, e.g. in the present tense or the past conjugation.


5.3 Phonetic complement


A logogram may be complemented with a phonogram, called phonetic complement. It is the last phonetic value of the word for which the logogram stands. It can be used to determine which particular choice of the logogrammatic value is meant, and often it helps in the interpretation of the grammatical function.
An English example would be the logogram X that could stand for either 'cross' or 'Christ'. To facilitate reading and indicate what is meant the logogram is written with a phonetic complement -ing or -mas:
X-ing stands for 'crossing', e.g. in Ped X-ing 'pedestrian crossing'
X-mas is logogram X + phonetic complement -mas for 'Christmas'

Akkadian example: É + phonetic complement

The sign is developed from a pictogram showing a house. The ending -um (later -u) is the nominative (e.g. used when 'house' is subject in a phrase. The genitive ('of the house') is used to indicate that the word belongs to a noun (it modifies a noun). In Akkadian the genitive is also always used after prepositions. The genitive would be bïtim, with ending -i(m). One could write that is the logogram É with phonetic complement -tim to indicate that the genitive is meant.

Akkadian example: AN + phonetic complement
The sign AN as logogram could mean the god Anum and Šamû 'sky', 'heaven'. But with phonetic complement ú

it would mean Šamû 'sky', 'heaven'.

5.4 Determinative


A determinative (also called classifier) is the use of a sign to indicate to what class the following or preceding word belongs. This word could be either a logogram or a syllabically written word.
Example 1.
The sign AN is also used as a determinative to signal that the following word is a deity (or a demon). In that function the sign is in transcriptions abbreviated as d for Sumerian dingir 'god' (or an abbreviation of Latin deus 'god'), written in raised position: The god Anum which logographically is also written as AN, and is not preceded by a determinative.
Example 2.
My signature under these html-documents
lú.shab.tur shumallû 'pupil'
uses lu2 as a determinative for 'man' followed by e.g. the name of a profession. lu2 is also a logogram for awïlum 'man', '(male) person'. Šab.tur is a logogram. Some clay tablets contain the name of the scribe followed by this logogram, indicating that the texts was copied by a student.
See e.g. list of determinatives for other examples.
A noun in plural could be represented by a reduplication of the logogram: or as one of the logograms, e.g.:
A special type of determinative are the signs to indicate plural use of a logogram, mainly the sign MEŠ

6. Lists of cuneiform signs

  1. cuneiform sign lists as Web-pages
  2. cuneiform fonts for use in word processors TeX and LaTeX

As part of a colophon the ancient scribe could write the following (first 3 logograms and than phonetic values; bi is a Sumerian suffix, in Akkadian -shu, the pronoun 'his'):


gim sumun.bi shà-thir-ma u ba-rì

'as its original written and inspected'
by John Heise
lú.shab.tur shumallû 'pupil'
first installation on jan 6, 1995
last modification on May 4, 1995