- Benjamin Fortson
Cuneiform denotes any of at least three writing systems of ancient Mesopotamia and the surrounding areas. It is characterized in its classical form by signs consisting of one or more wedge-shaped strokes (cf. Latin cuneus, “wedge”). The first such script to emerge, and the one most widely used, was Sumero-Akkadian cuneiform, which developed in what is now southern Iraq in the late 4th millennium bce. Its antecedents were more primitive methods of mercantile record-keeping using pictograms and tally marks. The earliest stages of the script contained patently pictographic signs drawn in clay with a pointed stylus. A later shift to the use of a reed with the end cut at an oblique angle produced the classic wedge-shaped impressions. The breaking-up of images into sets of wedges together with a gradual reduction in the number of strokes plus a ninety-degree rotation of the signs increased their abstractness and elevated the wedges (initially just an accidental byproduct of the writing technology) to an important design element. It became aesthetically prized in its own right and was carried over onto other media such as stone. The wedges were also imitated in the two other unrelated scripts that are also called cuneiform: Old Persian and Ugaritic.
The very earliest documents in Sumero-Akkadian cuneiform, consisting only of pictograms or logograms, do not permit a specific language to be identified. The values of the original set of pictograms were expanded through the use of metonymy, as well as the rebus principle (by c. 2800 bce), which created syllabic values for some of the signs (see Figure 1).
Only this advent of a phonetic component allows the earliest language written in the script to be identified (Sumerian). As an example of these developments, the sign for the Sumerian word for “heaven” (an), originally a picture of a star, came also to represent the word for “god” (diĝir, dingir) by metonymic association; subsequently, by the rebus principle, it further acquired the syllabic value “an,” used wherever that syllable occurred in a longer word.
By the mid-3rd millennium bce, Sumerian cuneiform had spread to the neighbouring Akkadians, who greatly increased the script’s utility by expanding its inventory of syllabographic values. This allowed the morphological structure of Akkadian, a language entirely unrelated to Sumerian, to be clearly represented. The resultant “Sumero-Akkadian” script was adopted in the course of the 2nd millennium bce by many other peoples to write languages such as Elamite, Eblaite, Hittite, Hurrian, Cuneiform Luvian (Luwian), and Urartean (see Figure 2).
After the death of some of these and the spread of Aramaic and Greek as administrative languages in the 1st millennium bce, cuneiform ceased to be used as a primary mode of everyday written communication, but continued on in scholarly use into the 1st century ce.
Old Persian cuneiform, used in the Persian Empire under the Achaemenids beginning with Darius I in the 6th century bce, was almost entirely phonetic, consisting of a mixture of alphabetic and syllabic signs plus a very few logograms. Created in imitation of Sumero-Akkadian cuneiform, it was used up through the reign of Artaxerxes III in the 4th century bce (see Old Persian language). Old Persian cuneiform has a special place in the history of science because it was the first cuneiform script to be deciphered, starting with the work of Georg Grotefend in 1802 and continuing into the early 1850s. This importantly provided the key to deciphering Sumero-Akkadian cuneiform thanks to the existence of Persian–Elamite–Babylonian trilinguals. Along with the decipherment of Egyptian hieroglyphics, the decipherment of cuneiform and the concomitant (and continuing) editing and translation of countless previously unknown texts from antiquity (many of relevance to major texts like the Bible, such as the story of Gilgamesh, the Mesopotamian flood myth, and the law-code of Hammurabi, just to name three), have had an immeasurable impact on historians’ knowledge and understanding of the ancient world and stand as one of the greatest intellectual feats of the 19th century.
A third cuneiform script, used from the 15th or 14th century bce to c. 1190 bce to write the Northwest Semitic language spoken at Ugarit (modern Ras Shamra, Syria), was a pure alphabet. The relationship of the shapes of its signs to those of the more familiar non-cuneiform letters of the early Semitic alphabets is debated; Sumero-Akkadian cuneiform, also used at Ugarit, provided the aesthetic model. Interestingly, both of the alphabetic orderings found in Semitic are attested to side by side at Ugarit, one the familiar sequence beginning alef-bet-gimel (the Levantine order), the other the South Semitic ordering that begins ha-lamed-ḥet (as in the Ethiopic script).
- Daniels, Peter T., and William Bright, eds. The World’s Writing Systems. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996, 33–72.
- Radner, Karen, and Eleanor Robson, eds. The Oxford Handbook of Cuneiform Culture. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.