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Cuneiform Writing: Definition, Symbols & History

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Taught by

Christopher Sailus

Chris has an M.A. in history and taught university and high school history.

In this lesson we explore humankind's earliest language notation, cuneiform writing, created in the 4th century BC. We explore its characteristics and its evolution throughout history.

We also recommend watching History of the Alphabet: From Cuneiform to Greek Writing and Early Christian Art: History, Characteristics & Symbolism

Introduction

Symbols and language are so present in our modern society we don't even stop to think about them. The red octagons posted at our street corners might just be painted aluminum, but without them chaos would ensue on the roadways. Similarly, what are those $10 bills in your wallet, really, other than green strips of slightly smelly paper? We hand them over to buy some apples or tip our waiter without even thinking. That we give these otherwise mundane objects meaning is the entire reason our society continues to run smoothly. Signs and written language might be ubiquitous today, but there was a time when written symbols were a novelty.

Cuneiform writing was humankind's earliest form of writing. Created in Mesopotamia (an ancient civilization between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, in modern-day Iraq) sometime in the 4th century BC, cuneiform was based on earlier pictographs. What made cuneiform different was that the symbols were often phonograms, or characters meant to represent certain syllables in the Sumerian language. The characters were often written on clay tablets with the hardened end of a reed.

Cuneiform 'Letters'

In its earliest forms, the cuneiform alphabet consisted of over 1,000 characters, although that number was reduced in its later forms to around 400. Characters in the alphabet were differing arrays of lines and triangle-shaped wedges (cuneiform is Latin for 'wedge-shaped'). The characters ranged from the very simple to the very complex, and simple characters could often be combined to create compound words and related phrases. Some examples of cuneiform, and how the symbols changed through time are seen below. Note how words such as sag (head) began as pictographic representations, but evolved into a complex arrangement of wedges and lines.

Examples of cuneiform writing and their evolution through time

Cuneiform Evolution

Cuneiform grew out of a need for basic accounting measures in ancient Mesopotamia to measure the exchange of livestock and crops. Prior to cuneiform writing, traders would press clay tokens into tablets to create a specific mark for a certain good or service. This evolved into cuneiform when the Mesopotamians discarded the tokens and began drawing the impressions in the clay with a hardened reed.

The symbols of which cuneiform consisted were originally created to represent syllables in the ancient Sumerian language. Although Sumerian was later displaced by Akkadian, the cuneiform system of writing persisted. Cuneiform writing was first written in columns, from the top down, although early in its existence (around 3,000 BC) it evolved into the left-to-right style of notation modern English uses today.

The writing system continued to be used in some areas of the Middle East through the 1st century AD.

In Conclusion

Cuneiform's introduction thousands of years ago introduced writing and syllabic notation, and served as the world's first accounting measure. Although the world's modern languages look far different than the lines and wedges which make up cuneiform, the creation of symbols and other representations with which humans can confer value and meaning was a revolutionary step in the development of human civilization. Moreover, without the introduction of meaningful symbols by cuneiform, you might have been reduced to haggling with a vendor the next time you wanted an apple!

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