Language and Linguistics

Cuneiform writing and its History and Evolution

Cuneiform writing and its features

Cuneiform writing

Cuneiform writing is an ancient writing phenomeon.It is necessary to grasp the true concept of Cuneiform writing and its History and Evolution. it is the oldest form of writing known to mankind. Developed by the Sumerian peoples (now Iraq and Iran ) around the fourth millennium BC, that is more than six thousand years ago. These are clay tables divided into columns in which, with a sharp hemp punch, symbols that are known as pictograms were drawn .

The first thing to do to understand the meaning of the cuneiform term is to determine its origin. Thus we would have to state that this word was coined by an English professor named Thomas Hude (1636 – 1703) with the clear objective of referring to the type of writing that was carried out in Mesopotamia about three thousand years before Christ.

Thus he created the term based on two Latin words: “cuneus,” which can be translated as “wedge,” and “form,” which is equivalent to “form.” And in this way it came to make clear the wedge appearance that had the characters of that writing because they were made with a stem with that cited shape.

Cuneiform is something that has a wedge shape . A wedge, on the other hand, is a piece that ends at a very sharp dihedral angle . The cuneiform adjective is often used to refer to certain characters with this form used by some Asian peoples in ancient times.

The cuneiform writing is considered one of the forms of writing older. Clay tablets with these characters found in Umm el-Qaab are the oldest written documents found: the evidence indicates that they were created between 3,400 and 3,200 BC .

The Sumerians are designated as the inventors of cuneiform writing, by completing an evolution that began with pictograms that represented objects and words. The cuneiform characters were adopted by other languages and inspired the ancient Persian alphabets.

The cuneiform writing was developed on wet clay tablets with a wedge-shaped plant stem. Over time, other materials began to be used to engrave characters, such as stone or metal.

History and Evolution of Scripture

Cuneiform writing

It was an invention of the fourth millennium , although records had been kept for a long time by means of clay or thread counters, and tokens in a closed clay envelope marked with symbols that indicated what its content was. The first texts were representations formed by numbers, the next advance was that of the combination of numbers and drawings of animals.

The most important developments took place in Mesopotamia . The writing was done engraving in wet molds of clay , in the form of plates, with the tip of a hollow cane, or style, which produced wedge-shaped marks. Once dry, the plates were very hard and that is why they still subsist, as did not happen, to a large extent, with the subsequent use of the papyrus .

The pictographic writing , in which each graphic correspond to a syllable, was evolving and estilizándose. The existence of literary compositions has been known since 2400 BC . After the rise to power of Sargon I of Acadia ( 2300 BC ), the Acadia language also began to be written using cuneiform writing. The Sumerian is not related to any other language, but the Akkadian is Semitic, like Aramaic , Hebrew and Arabic .


The Assyrian and the Babylonian are dialects of the Akkadian, and for two thousand years they were used to record all kinds of things in cuneiform writing, from royal chronicles to private letters, litigation, poetry and magic spells, of which many copies were made . Other alphabets were also used, such as the Hittite hieroglyph, and the linear elamite. But the predominant was the cuneiform with which the Persians recorded all their monuments.

The phonetic alphabet , with about thirty signs, was invented by the Chaldeans, around 1500 BC, and had a great development in Phenicia ( Lebanon next to Palestine ), where it was reduced to about twenty-two consonants; later it would be the Greeks, after importing the Phoenician alphabet, those who would add the vowels, around 800 BC, the precursor alphabet that has reached our days being configured.

After the conquests of Alexander the Great in Asia, between 333 and 323 BC, cuneiform writing lost vigor with the introduction of the Aramaic or Chaldean alphabetic writing, which was much more comfortable.

The last cuneiform text dates from the year 75 AD On the other hand, the Egyptians imported the writing of Mesopotamia, but the hieroglyphic writing is unique and of autochthonous development, the first samples date back to the middle of the third millennium BC

The discovery of cuneiform writing

During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries , European travelers discovered among the ruins of Persepolis, a Persian city built in the days of Darius I ( 521 – 486 BC ), a series of inscriptions that they copied and took to Europe . Of these indecipherable inscriptions numerous copies were made for study by scholars , but the first accurate interpretations are due to a twenty-seven-year-old German, a philology student dedicated to teaching, for a bet with friends on a free-standing night.

Georg Friedrich Grotefend ( 1775 – 1853 ), promised to find the key to decipher the cuneiform writing, based on bad copies of the inscriptions. He faced the problem with a youthful and carefree spirit and achieved what the best specialists of the time had not achieved. In 1802 he presented his first results to the Academy of Sciences of Göttingen, which he titled “Articles for the interpretation of persopolitan cuneiform writing”.

Georg did not have a Rosette Stone , written in three languages, such as that used by Champollion , found in Egypt during the Napoleonic campaigns. Nor did he know the language to which those signs corresponded, but he applied himself to the task with method, simplicity and logic by making a thorough study of the text. First he found that those signs were not an ornament, as many experts believed. Then he discovered that the writing was done from top to bottom and from left to right.

Then he identified the repetition of the supposed words, which when coming from tombs of supposed kings, should contain the word “king” “great king” “king of kings” “son of …” and some group of repetitive signs that could be the name of some of the kings that historians, since Herodotus , had reviewed in their chronicles. Thus, after various tests and scores, he managed to decipher some twelve letters of writings that included the name of King Darius and his father, Histaspes , that the Greeks wrote, in various ways, according to the Persian phonetics of their time.

It is strange that it took more than thirty years, after the advances of the young German, to reach subsequent discoveries, decisive for the interpretation of the cuneiform writing, of the French Emile Burnouf and the Norwegian Christian , whose research was published in 1836 .

However, the name of the German is barely remembered despite his pioneering findings that were decisive to know the history of the first enlightened civilization that existed on the planet. Later, it was Robinson who finished off all of the above by spreading, among scholars of the languages ​​of the past, all existing knowledge about cuneiform writing. An idea of ​​the richness of the material that hid the country of the two rivers, is given to us by the fact that, still, the clay tables found in the excavations carried out, between 1888 and 1900 , in Nippur , are still being deciphered by the expedition of the American of German origin V. Hilprech .


Sumerian pictogram

Although the Sumerian pictograms were born around 3200 a. C. (in Uruk ), the classic system of cuneiform writing was not fixed until about 2800.


In its principles it consisted of about 900 signs and never dropped below 400. The ideograms – very few – represented the meaning of the attached word, without there being any other rule than that of traditional use. The tendency was to reserve the ideographic signs for frequent words and represent the remaining ones divided into syllables whose phonetic values ​​were written. Each syllable was represented by a grafem, but each grapheme could be worth different sounds.


The oldest known alphabet (Ugarit, h. 1500) is of a simpler type, although based on the same idea: there is one sign for each consonant and one consonant for each sign. As in the Semitic languages, it is not essential to write the vowels to capture the meaning of the writing. Biblos’ later alphabet (Phenicia) is, above all, an adaptation of the Ugaritic to the Egyptian writing procedure (ink on flexible support, such as papyrus or skin).

This foundation of the signatory in the representation of the consonants made possible the democratization of the writing, by reducing to thirty the number of precise signs to be able to write anything. The addition of vowels by the Greeks completed such a long process, to which the human eye is no stranger: it does not read in a perfect “continuum”, but in small jumps, encompassing complete and discontinuous portions of text.

The so-called Phoenician alphabet – which has its origin in Ugarit’s – reversed the usual sense of writing, proceeding from right to left. This way of writing passed to the Arabic and Hebrew scriptures, which still maintain it.


Cuneiform writing has a specific transliteration format . Due to the versatility of the writing system, transliteration is not only lossless, it can also contain more information than the original document. For example, the DINGIR sign in a Hittite text can represent both the Hittite syllable “an”, or it can be part of an acadia phrase, representing the syllable “il”, or it can be a sumerogram , representing the original Sumerian meaning, god.

Diffusion And Extinction

It was adopted by the Akkadians, established in the area in the middle of the III millennium. They preserved the ideograms and their combinations to express complex concepts, pronounced in Akkadian, but kept the Sumerian phonetic value of the other signs, although they expanded the repertoire to adapt them to the Akkadian and overcome the almost total Sumerian monosilabism.

Many Sumerian ideograms became trilinetic phonetic signs of the Akkadian. With this, the problem of polyphony grew : the ideogram “sun” was read in Akkadian, phonetically, in six ways (ud, tam, tu, par, lah, his).

Reading Sumerian signs in Akkadian brought other complications, as many signs kept their Sumerian phonetic value, but others were introduced from the Akkadian or read to the Acadia: the ideogram “earth” or “mountain range” was read “kur” (Sumerian), but also “mat” and “sad” (land and mountain, in Akkadian). This difficulty persisted for a long time. The oldest semi-cuneiform is the ancient Akkadian (texts by Sargon, mh 2279). Sumer remained a sheaf of city-states until it was unified by Gudea de Lagash (mh 2124), in the last Sumerian glow.

The next phase is that of Hammurabi (d. 1750). His Code is in ancient Babylonian cuneiform, from which the cuneiform writings of Middle and recent Babylonian will emerge. The ancient Assyrian cuneiform appears with the Assyrian settlers who traded in Anatolia (h. 1950, Cappadocia tablets). The neo-Assyrian apogee uses a writing developed and preserved in thousands of pieces of the great palaces (ex .: Asurbanipal library in Nineveh, h. 650 BC).

Outside Mesopotamia it appears already in the III millennium, via Elam (SO Iran), where it evolved until the first millennium , when the Iranian cuneiform (Indo-European), very simplified and pre-alphabetic (ancient Persian), probably originated. In the N, the Hurrites departed from the ancient Akkadian (h. 2000) and transmitted it to the Hittite Indo-Europeans of Anatolia, arrived by that date. In the II millennium , the Akkad of Babylon (Babylonian), not without influences and changes, became a general “lingua franca” for written communication.

The political correspondence of the period was hardly written in any other way. Sometimes, the cuneiform took a peculiar form, as in the Ugarit Canaanite (h. 1400) or was implanted as it was, as in Urartu (Armenian Mountains, ss. IX-VI), which spoke a relative language of the hurrita and wrote it in cuneiform neoasirio.

After the fall of Assyria ( 612 ) and Babylon ( 539 ), when the Aramaic was already “lingua franca”, variants of Babylonian and Assyrian survived in cuneiform writings almost until the change of Era. The death of the cuneiform was quick and almost total. Some cuneiform cultures (hurrita, hitita, urartia) were forgotten completely when losing their archives and their writing system.

The Phoenician writing advanced rapidly in the O and in Mediterranean Europe: the cuneiform could not compete with such an efficient and economic system. Towards 500 a. C. was in clear retreat and his memory disappeared to the point that the Greeks had no news of even their previous existence.

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