Cuneiform script

Cuneiform script

Infobox Writing system
typedesc=and syllabic
languages=Akkadian, Eblaite, Elamite, Hattic, Hittite, Hurrian, Luwian, Sumerian, Urartian
time=ca. 30th century BCE to 1st century CE
children=Old Persian, Ugaritic
unicode= [ U+12000 to U+1236E] (Sumero-Akkadian Cuneiform)
[ U+12400 to U+12473] (Numbers)

The cuneiform script (pron-en|kjuːˈniːəfɔrm) is one of the earliest known forms of written expression. Created by the Sumerians about 3000 BCE (with predecessors reaching into the late 4th millennium or about the period [There have been attempts to find predecessors to the cuneiform characters in the petroglyphs of Çatalhöyük and Kamyana Mohyla, but they have been rejected in the academic mainstream.] of Uruk IV), cuneiform writing began as a system of pictographs. Over time, the pictorial representations became simplified and more abstract.

Cuneiforms were written on clay tablets, on which symbols were drawn with a blunt reed for a stylus. The impressions left by the stylus were wedge shaped, thus giving rise to the name cuneiform ("wedge shaped," from the Latin "cuneus", meaning "wedge").

The Sumerian script 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 national alphabets.


The cuneiform writing system originated perhaps around 2900 BCE [The Origin and Development of the Cuneiform System of Writing, Samuel Noah Kramer, "Thirty Nine Firsts In Recorded History", pp 381-383] in Sumer; its latest surviving use is dated to 75 CE. [cite book|author=Adkins, Lesley|title=Empires of the Plain|pages=p. 47|publisher=HarperCollins|year=2003|id=ISBN 0 00 712899 1]

The cuneiform script underwent considerable changes over a period of more than two millennia. The image below shows the development of the sign SAG "head" (Borger nr. 184, U+12295 cuneiform|).

Stage 1 shows the pictogram as it was drawn around 3000 BCE. Stage 2 shows the rotated pictogram as written around 2800 BCE. Stage 3 shows the abstracted glyph in archaic monumental inscriptions, from ca. 2600 BCE, and stage 4 is the sign as written in clay, contemporary to stage 3. Stage 5 represents the late 3rd millennium, and stage 6 represents Old Assyrian ductus of the early 2nd millennium, as adopted into Hittite. Stage 7 is the simplified sign as written by Assyrian scribes in the early 1st millennium, and until the script's extinction.


Originally, pictograms were drawn on clay tablets in vertical columns with a pen made from a sharpened reed stylus, or incised in stone. This early style lacked the characteristic wedge-shape of the strokes.

Certain signs to indicate names of gods, countries, cities, vessels, birds, trees, etc., are known as "determinants", and were the Sumerian signs of the terms in question, added as a guide for the reader. Proper names continued to be usually written in purely "ideographic" fashion.

The cuneiform script proper emerges out of pictographic proto-writing in the later 4th millennium. Mesopotamia's "proto-literate" period spans the 35th to 32nd centuries. The first documents unequivocally written in the Sumerian language date to the 31st century, found at Jemdet Nasr.

From about 2900 BCE, many pictographs began to lose their original function, and a given sign could have various meanings depending on context. The sign inventory was reduced from some 1,500 signs to some 600 signs, and writing became increasingly phonological. Determinative signs were re-introduced to avoid ambiguity. This process is directly parallel to, and possibly not independent ofFact|date=August 2008, the development of Egyptian hieroglyphic orthography.

Archaic cuneiform

In the mid-3rd millennium, writing direction was changed to left to right in horizontal rows (rotating all of the pictograms 90° counter-clockwise in the process), and a new wedge-tipped stylus was used which was pushed into the clay, producing wedge-shaped ("cuneiform") signs; these two developments made writing quicker and easier. By adjusting the relative position of the tablet to the stylus, the writer could use a single tool to make a variety of impressions.

Cuneiform tablets could be fired in kilns to provide a permanent record, or they could be recycled if permanence was not needed. Many of the clay tablets found by archaeologists were preserved because they were fired when attacking armies burned the building in which they were kept.

The script was also widely used on commemorative stelae and carved reliefs to record the achievements of the ruler in whose honour the monument had been erected.

Akkadian cuneiform

The archaic cuneiform script was adopted by the Akkadians from ca. 2500 BCE, and by 2000 BCE had evolved into Old Assyrian cuneiform, with many modifications to Sumerian orthography. The Semitic equivalents for many signs became distorted or abbreviated to form new "phonetic" values, because the syllabic nature of the script as refined by the Sumerians was unintuitive to Semitic speakers.

At this stage, the former pictograms were reduced to a high level of abstraction, and were composed of only five basic wedge shapes: horizontal, vertical, two diagonals and the "Winkelhaken" impressed vertically by the tip of the stylus. The signs exemplary of these basic wedges are
*AŠ (B001, U+12038) cuneiform|: horizontal;
*DIŠ (B748, U+12079) cuneiform|: vertical;
*GE23, DIŠ "tenû" (B575, U+12039) cuneiform|: downward diagonal;
*GE22 (B647, U+1203A) cuneiform|: upward diagonal;
*U (B661, U+1230B) cuneiform|: the "Winkelhaken".Except for the "Winkelhaken" which is tail-less, the length of the wedges' tails could vary as required for sign composition. Signs tilted by (ca.) 45 degrees are called "tenû" in Akkadian, thus DIŠ is a vertical wedge and DIŠ "tenû" a diagonal one. Signs modified with additional wedges are called "gunû", and signs crosshatched with additional "Winkelhaken" are called "šešig".

"Typical" signs have usually in the range of about five to ten wedges, while complex ligatures can consist of twenty or more (although it is not always clear if a ligature should be considered a single sign or two collated but still distinct signs); the ligature KAxGUR7 consists of 31 strokes.

Most later adaptations of Sumerian cuneiform preserved at least some aspects of the Sumerian script. Written Akkadian included phonetic symbols from the Sumerian syllabary, together with logograms that were read as whole words. Many signs in the script were polyvalent, having both a syllabic and logographic meaning. The complexity of the system bears a resemblance to classical Japanese, written in a Chinese-derived script, where some of these Sinograms were used as logograms, and others as phonetic characters.

Assyrian cuneiform

This "mixed" method of writing continued through the end of the Babylonian and Assyrian empires, although there were periods when "purism" was in fashion and there was a more marked tendency to spell out the words laboriously, in preference to using signs with a phonetic complement. Yet even in those days, the Babylonian syllabary remained a mixture of ideographic and phonetic writing.

Hittite cuneiform is an adaptation of the Old Assyrian cuneiform of ca. 1800 BCE to the Hittite language. When the cuneiform script was adapted to writing Hittite, a layer of Akkadian logographic spellings was added to the script, with the result that we no longer know the pronunciations of many Hittite words conventionally written by logograms.

In the Iron Age (ca. 10th to 6th c. BCE), Assyrian cuneiform was further simplified. From the 6th century, the Assyrian language was marginalized by Aramaic, written in the Aramaean alphabet, but Neo-Assyrian cuneiform remained in use in literary tradition well into Parthian times. The last known cuneiform inscription, an astronomical text, was written in 75 CE.Fact|date=August 2007

Derived scripts

The complexity of the system prompted the development of a number of simplified versions of the script. Old Persian was written in a subset of simplified cuneiform characters known today as Old Persian cuneiform. It formed a semi-alphabetic syllabary, using far fewer wedge strokes than Assyrian used, together with a handful of logograms for frequently occurring words like "god" and "king." The Ugaritic language was written using the Ugaritic alphabet, a standard Semitic style alphabet (an "abjad") written using the cuneiform method.


Early European travellers to Persepolis (Iran) noticed carved cuneiform inscriptions and were intrigued. The Englishman Sir Thomas Herbert in the 1634 edition of his travel book “A relation of some yeares travaile” reported seeing at Persepolis carved on the wall “a dozen lines of strange characters…consisting of figures, obelisk, triangular, and pyramidal” and thought they resembled Greek. However by the 1664 edition he had guessed, correctly, that they represented not letters or hieroglyphics but words and syllables, and furthermore that they were to be read from left to right. He even reproduced some for his readers. He was also correct in guessing that they were not merely decorative, but were ‘legible and intelligible’ and therefore decipherable. However, his insights never received the credit they perhaps deserved and he is never mentioned in standard histories of the decipherment of cuneiform.

Understanding of cuneiform therefore had to wait until Carsten Niebuhr brought the first copies of the inscriptions of Behistun to Europe. In 1802 Georg Friedrich Grotefend was able to read the signs. In1835 Henry Rawlinson, a British East India Company army officer, visited the Behistun inscriptions in Persia. Carved in the reign of King Darius of Persia (522 BCE–486 BCE), they consisted of identical texts in the three official languages of the empire: Old Persian, Babylonian, and Elamite. The Behistun inscription was to the decipherment of cuneiform what the Rosetta Stone was to the decipherment of Egyptian hieroglyphs.

Rawlinson correctly deduced that the Old Persian was a phonetic script and he successfully deciphered it. After translating the Persian, Rawlinson and, working independently of him, the Anglo-Irish Egyptologist Edward Hincks, began to decipher the others. (The actual techniques used to decipher the Akkadian language have never been fully published; Hincks described how he sought the proper names already legible in the deciphered Persian while Rawlinson never said anything at all, leading some to speculate that he was secretly copying Hincks. [cite book|author=Daniels, Peter|coauthors=Bright, William|title=The World's Writing Systems|pages=p. 146|publisher=Oxford University Press|year=1996|id=ISBN 0-19-507993-0] ) They were greatly helped by Paul Émile Botta's discovery of the city of Nineveh in 1842. Among the treasures uncovered by Botta were the remains of the great library of Assurbanipal, a royal archive containing tens of thousands of baked clay tablets covered with cuneiform inscriptions.

By 1851, Hincks and Rawlinson could read 200 Babylonian signs. They were soon joined by two other decipherers: young German-born scholar Julius Oppert, and versatile British Orientalist William Henry Fox Talbot. In 1857 the four men met in London and took part in a famous experiment to test the accuracy of their decipherments. Edwin Norris, the secretary of the Royal Asiatic Society, gave each of them a copy of a recently discovered inscription from the reign of the Assyrian emperor Tiglath-Pileser I. A jury of experts was empanelled to examine the resulting translations and assess their accuracy. In all essential points the translations produced by the four scholars were found to be in close agreement with one another. There were of course some slight discrepancies. The inexperienced Talbot had made a number of mistakes, and Oppert's translation contained a few doubtful passages which the jury politely ascribed to his unfamiliarity with the English language. But Hincks' and Rawlinson's versions corresponded remarkably closely in many respects. The jury declared itself satisfied, and the decipherment of Akkadian cuneiform was adjudged a "fait accompli".

In the early days of cuneiform decipherment, the reading of proper names presented the greatest difficulties. However, there is now a better understanding of the principles behind the formation and the pronunciation of the thousands of names found in historical records, business documents, votive inscriptions and literary productions. The primary challenge was posed by the characteristic use of old Sumerian non-phonetic ideograms in other languages that had different pronunciations for the same symbols. Until the exact phonetic reading of many names was determined through parallel passages or explanatory lists, scholars remained in doubt, or had recourse to conjectural or provisional readings. Fortunately, in many cases, there are variant readings, the same name being written phonetically (in whole or in part) in one instance, and ideographically in another.


Cuneiform has a specific format for transliteration. Because of the script's polyvalence, transliteration is not only lossless, but may actually contain more information than the original document. For example, the sign DINGIR in a Hittite text may represent either the Hittite syllable "an" or may be part of an Akkadian phrase, representing the syllable "il", or it may be a Sumerogram, representing the original Sumerian meaning, 'god'. In transliteration, a different rendition of the same glyph is chosen depending on its role in the present context.

Therefore, a text containing DINGIR and MU in succession could be construed to represent the words "ana", "ila", god + "a" (the accusative ending), god + water, or a divine name "A" or Water. Someone transcribing the signs would make the decision how the signs should be read and assemble the signs as "ana", "ila", "Ila" ('god"+accusative case), etc. A transliteration of these signs, however, would separate the signs with dashes "il-a", "an-a", "DINGIR-a". This is still easier to read than the original cuneiform, but now the reader is able to trace the sounds back to the original signs and determine if the correct decision was made on how to read them.

There are differing conventions for transliterating Sumerian, Akkadian (Babylonian) and Hittite (and Luwian) cuneiform texts. One convention that sees wide use across the different fields is the use of acute and grave accents as an abbreviation for homophone disambiguation. Thus, "u" is equivalent to "u1", the first glyph expressing phonetic "u". An acute accent, "ú", is equivalent to the second, "u2", and a grave accent "ù" to the third, "u3" glyph in the series (while the sequence of numbering is conventional but essentially arbitrary and subject to the history of decipherment). In Sumerian transliteration, a multiplication sign 'x' is used to indicate ligatures. As shown above, signs "as such" are represented in capital letters, while the specific reading selected in the transliteration is represented in small letters. Thus, capital letters can be used to indicate a so-called Diri compound - a sign sequence that has, in combination, a reading different from the sum of the individual constituent signs (for example, the compound IGI.A - "water" + "eye" - has the reading "imhur", meaning "foam"). In a Diri compound, the individual signs are separated with dots in transliteration. Capital letters may also be used to indicate a Sumerogram (for example, KUG.BABBAR - Sumerian for "silver" - being used with the intended Akkadian reading "kaspum", "silver"), an Akkadogram, or simply a sign sequence of whose reading the editor is uncertain. Naturally, the "real" reading, if it is clear, will be presented in small letters in the transliteration: IGI.A will be rendered as imhur4.

Since the Sumerian language has only been widely known and studied by scholars for approximately a century, changes in the accepted reading of Sumerian names have occurred from time to time. Thus the name of a king of Ur, read "Ur-Bau" at one time, was later read as "Ur-Engur", and is now read as Ur-Nammu or Ur-Namma; for "Lugal-zaggisi", a king of Uruk, some scholars continued to read "Ungal-zaggisi"; and so forth. Also, with some names of the older period, there was often uncertainty whether their bearers were Sumerians or Semites. If the former, then their names could be assumed to be read as Sumerian, while, if they were Semites, the signs for writing their names were probably to be read according to their Semitic equivalents, though occasionally Semites might be encountered bearing genuine Sumerian names. There was also doubt whether the signs composing a Semite's name represented a phonetic reading or an ideographic compound. Thus, e.g. when inscriptions of a Semitic ruler of Kish, whose name was written "Uru-mu-ush", were first deciphered, that name was first taken to be ideographic because "uru mu-ush" could be read as "he founded a city" in Sumerian, and scholars accordingly "retranslated" it back to the "original" Semitic as "Alu-usharshid". It was later recognized that the URU sign can also be read as "rí" and that the name is that of the Akkadian king Rimush.


The tables below show signs used for simple syllables of the form CV or VC. As used for the Sumerian language, the cuneiform script was in principle capable of distinguishing 14 consonants, transliterated as:"b, d, g, ḫ, k, l, m, n, p, r, s, š, t, z"as well as four vowel qualities, "a, e, i, u".The Akkadian language needed to distinguish its emphatic series, "q, ṣ, ṭ", adopting various "superfluous" Sumerian signs for the purpose (e.g. "qe"=KIN, "qu"=KUM, "qi"=KIN, "ṣa"=ZA, "ṣe"=ZÍ, "ṭur"=DUR etc.)Hittite as it adopted the Akkadian cuneiform further introduced signs for the glide "w", e.g. "wa"="we"=PIN, "wi5"=GEŠTIN) as well as a ligature I.A for "ya".



ign inventories

The Sumerian cuneiform script had of the order of 1,000 unique signs (or about 1,500 if variants are included). This number was reduced to about 600 by the 24th century BCE and the beginning of Akkadian records. Not all Sumerian signs are used in Akkadian, and not all Akkadian signs are used in Hittite.
*Falkenstein (1936) lists 939 signs used in the earliest period (late Uruk, 34th to 31st centuries)
*Borger (2003) lists 907 signs.
*Deimel (1922) lists 870 signs used in the Early Dynastic IIIa period (26th century).
*Borger in 1981 lists 598 signs used in Assyrian/Babylonian writing, and 907 in 2003. His numbering is based on Deimel's "Sumerisches Lexikon".
*Rosengarten (1967) lists 468 signs used in Sumerian (pre-Sargonian) Lagash.
*Signs used in Hittite cuneiform are listed by Forrer (1922), Friedrich (1960) and the "HZL" (Rüster and Neu 1989). The HZL lists a total of 375 signs, many with variants (for example, 12 variants are given for number 123 "EGIR")


Unicode (as of version 5.0) assigns to the Cuneiform script the following ranges::U+12000–U+1236E (879 characters) "Sumero-Akkadian Cuneiform":U+12400–U+12473 (103 characters) "Cuneiform Numbers"

The proposal for Unicode encoding of the script had been submitted by the Initiative for Cuneiform Encoding ( [ ICE] ) in June 2004. [] The base character inventory is derived from the list of Ur III signs compiled by the Cuneiform Digital Library Initiative of UCLA based on the inventories of Miguel Civil, Rykle Borger (2003), and Robert England. Rather than opting for an ordering by glyph shape and complexity, according to the numbering of an existing catalogue, the Unicode order of glyphs is the Latin alphabet order of their 'main' Sumerian transliteration.

ee also

*Journal of Cuneiform Studies
*List of cuneiform signs
*Old Persian cuneiform script
*Ugaritic alphabet


*R. Borger, "Assyrisch-Babylonische Zeichenliste", 2nd ed., Neukirchen-Vluyn (1981)
*R. Borger, "Mesopotamisches Zeichenlexikon", Münster (2003). []
*A. Deimel, "Liste der archaischen Keilschriftzeichen" (WVDOG 40; Berlin 1922) []
*F. Ellermeier, M. Studt, [ Sumerisches Glossar]
**vol. 1: 1979-1980, ISBN 3-921747-08-2, ISBN 3-921747-10-4
**vol. 3.2: 1998-2005, A-B ISBN 3-921747-24-4, D-E ISBN 3-921747-25-2, G ISBN 3-921747-29-5
**vol. 3.3: ISBN 3-921747-22-8 (font CD ISBN 3-921747-23-6)
**vol. 3.5: ISBN 3-921747-26-0
**vol 3.6: 2003, Handbuch Assur ISBN 3-921747-28-7
*A. Falkenstein, "Archaische Texte aus Uruk", Berlin-Leipzig (1936) []
*E. Forrer, "Die Keilschrift von Boghazköi", Leipzig (1922)
*J. Friedrich, "Hethitisches Keilschrift-Lesebuch", Heidelberg (1960)
*Jean-Jacques Glassner, "The Invention of Cuneiform", English translation, Johns Hopkins University Press (2003), ISBN 0-8018-7389-4.
*René Labat, "Manuel d'epigraphie Akkadienne", Geuthner, Paris (1959); 6th ed., extended by Florence Malbran-Labat (1999), ISBN 2-7053-3583-8.
*O. Neugebauer, A. Sachs (eds.), "Mathematical Cuneiform Texts", New Haven (1945).
*Y. Rosengarten, "Répertoire commenté des signes présargoniques sumériens de Lagash", Paris (1967) []
*Chr. Rüster, E. Neu, "Hethitisches Zeichenlexikon" ("HZL"), Wiesbaden (1989)
*Nikolaus Schneider, "Die Keilschriftzeichen der Wirtschaftsurkunden von Ur III nebst ihren charakteristischsten Schreibvarianten", Keilschrift-Paläographie; Heft 2, Rom: Päpstliches Bibelinstitut (1935). []
*Wolfgang Schramm, "Akkadische Logogramme", Goettinger Arbeitshefte zur Altorientalischen Literatur (GAAL) Heft 4, Goettingen (2003), ISBN 3-936297-01-0.
*F. Thureau-Dangin, "Recherches sur l'origine de l'écriture cunéiforme", Paris (1898).
*Ronald Herbert Sack, "Cuneiform Documents from the Chaldean and Persian Periods", (1994) ISBN 0945636679


External links

* [ Online Translator"] - Translates English words, sentences, and phrases into ancient Assyrian, Babylonian, Sumerian cuneiform
*Budge, E.A. [ "Cuneiform Texts from Babylonian Tablets, &c. in the British Museum"] London, Harrison and Sons, 1896.
* [ Cuneiform Digital Library Initiative] . A Joint Project of the University of California at Los Angeles and the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science.
* [ Online interactive cuneiform tablet] from the State Library of Victoria collection.
* [ CDLI wiki]
* [ Evolution of Cuneiform]
* [ ETCSL (Sumerian) sign list]
* [ Akkadian (specifically, Neo-Assyrian) sign list] (
* [ Another Neo-Assyrian sign list] ;Digital encoding and rendering
* [] Analysis and reports to support an international standard for computer encoding of the Cuneiform writing system
* [ iClay] Java applet for the "interactive viewing of 2D+ images of cuneiform tablets over the Internet";Fonts
** [ Akkadian] (reproduces the archaic (Ur III) glyphs given in the Unicode [ reference chart] , themselves based on a font by Steve Tinney)
**A free Cuneiform font, [ Cuneiform Composite] , also Ur III. Designed by Steve Tinney with input from Michael Everson.
** [ FreeIdgSerif] (branched off FreeSerif), encodes some 390 Old Assyrian glyphs used in Hittite cuneiform.
** [ Cuneiform fonts for TeX/LaTeX/PDFLaTeX] by Karel Piska (Type 1, GPL)
** [ Ullikummi (Hittite package)] by Sylvie Vanséveren (TrueType, freeware)
** [ UR III font] by Guillaume Malingue (TrueType, freeware)
** [ Sumerian font] by Carsten Peust (TrueType, freeware)

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