Cuneiform Script

Author: Aatmesh, Learner at The Integral School, Hyderabad. This is a self directed independent project exploring the Cuneiform Script within the context of language and its development.

Cuneiform writing is thought to have been the first script in human history. It originated in the area of Mesopotamia and was used by many civilizations. The word cuneiform is derived from the Latin word cuneus, meaning wedge. The definition of cuneiform is, “denoting or relating to the wedge-shaped characters used in the ancient writing systems of Mesopotamia, Persia, and Ugarit, surviving mainly impressed on clay tablets.” Cuneiform writing, is a script that utilizes wedge shaped letters or characters that are carved onto clay tablets. The tablets themselves cannot be referred to as cuneiforms, but are called cuneiform tablets. This essay will explore the

  • Purpose of language and script
  • Scripts in different languages
  • Evolution of cuneiform writing and its relationships with languages
  • Influence of cuneiform script on global history and language

Purpose of language and script 

The purpose of language is to create a standard method of communication. Language is one way with which communication takes place, but it is not communication itself, nor is it the only form of communication. Expressions are not considered a language as they do not follow a set of rules, but they communicate feelings. Hence expressions are a mode of communication, but not a language. To elaborate, the difference between language and communication is that language is, “a set of written or spoken principles, governed by grammar” and, “a method of communication” while communication is, “the exchange of information between two or more people”.

Language can be categorized into written and oral language. Oral language is spoken language, or language that is communicated by sounds and voice. It can be observed in poems, songs and our speech and is ephemeral (lasting for a short time) unless recorded. Written language is a set of symbols that convey information through being written down. It is seen in books, documents, websites etc. and is considered permanent (as it is written down and can be preserved for long) as opposed to oral language being ephemeral. Written language contains writing systems. Writing systems are physical representations of one or more languages, associated with certain time periods (places or civilizations). Writing systems are also called scripts and orthography. Cuneiform is a script (more on that later).

Scripts are systems of writing that use phonograms and logograms. Phonograms are alphabets : consonants and vowels and syllabaries : sets of written characters representing syllables and sometimes (rarely) serving the purpose of an alphabet. Phonograms represent sounds rather than concepts and are used together to create words that have meaning. Most ancient scripts (cuneiform included) used logograms. Logograms were either pictograms : pictorial symbols for a word or phrase like hieroglyphs, or ideograms : characters used to express ideas such as honesty, honour etc.

The purpose of writing and of script are basically the same, both of them are used to convey linguistic information through a physical medium. Their purpose is also to note down information, or instances for future reference and they are also the source of entertainment (stories etc.). Written language and oral language serve the purpose of language as a whole.

Scripts in different languages 

Cuneiform writing was the script for numerous Mesopotamian languages such as Akkadian and Sumerian. This happened when different civilizations occupied the area of Mesopotamia.

An example of a script being used in multiple languages would be the Devanagari script which is used as the script for Hindi, Marathi, Sanskrit, Nepali and many more languages. All these languages use the same writing system (alphabets, syllabaries etc.) but each word has a different arrangement and meaning. A more stark example would be to write Hindi (language) words in English (Latin script). Writing, “my name is Antu” utilizes the English language and the Latin script (apart from the name Antu which doesn’t exist is any particular language). Writing “mera naam Antu hai” utilizes the Latin script and the Hindi language. This can be done with almost any languages and scripts and happens quite often. In this way, numerous languages utilized cuneiform script.

Evolution of cuneiform writing and its relationship with languages 

Cuneiform writing was the script for numerous Mesopotamian languages such as Akkadian and Sumerian. This happened when different civilizations occupied the area of Mesopotamia.

The earliest scripts in human history, are the ones found in ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia (the region that gave birth to multiple civilizations and empires). Although their scripts were created in around the same time period, cuneiform script is credited with being the first writing system of all time. It is thought to have originated sometime around 3500 BCE, when the Sumerians occupied Mesopotamia. The cuneiform script did not come out of nowhere (so to speak), but originated due to the creation of an accounting or number system.

In 8000 BCE the people of Mesopotamia had created tokens with which they traded livestock and counted (a predecessor to money). Possibly the earliest instance of numbers or a number system (a conical token represented a different amount than a spherical one). At first these tokens were handled by the people and kept on getting misplaced. Then they created an envelope for them. The difficulty with the envelope was remembering the amount of tokens that lay within. Later, the people realized that one could make marks on clay without the use of tokens. These marks only needed to be looked at (in order to remember their value). This is how the cuneiform script came about.

Once Sumerians started inscribing numbers or numerical values on clay itself, they developed clay tablets (portable and convenient). All they did was note things down. In circa 3500 BCE, they figured out how to draw pictures (pictographs or pictograms) on clay tablets with the use of a reed stalk. The reed stalk (or stylus) was triangular in shape (a long prism in essence), so inscriptions had the appearance of wedges, as the stylus impressed itself into the clay. Prior to inscribing (on the tablets), the clay tablets were dipped in water to make them easier to make marks on. Once the marks had been made, the tablet was dried out in the sun. The dried out tablets were still quite fragile, but this allowed the Sumerians to reuse tablets simply by immersing them in water. Later, they began baking their tablets with fire, making them extremely durable and strong (for that reason some of them can be seen in museums today). These early pictograms were also called proto-cuneiform. The term “proto” means primitive. Proto-cuneiform was the first instance of the cuneiform script.

These pictographs often depicted images like a king, animal or farming tool. They were an effective form of communication at that time, but could not convey anything beyond simple nouns. To convey “six bulls”, one had to draw six bulls. That was easy, but to convey the “arrival of a king” using solely pictures was difficult, as there were no pictures that corresponded with movement or (in this case) “arrival”. As the use of the script spread, the topics of writing became more complex as well. In 3000 BCE, the Sumerians realized that pictographs were insufficient for their (expanding) communication, so they created symbols to represent syllables and alphabets. At the same time, there were still ideograms and pictograms (logograms), but they were used along with a few phonograms. This carried on through the Sumerian dynasty (2800-2350 BCE) while cuneiform script had fewer and more specific characters and was developing all the while.

In 2350 BCE, a huge change occurred in Mesopotamia. The Akkadians had established their dynasty, by overthrowing (their neighbours) the Sumerians. Since 2500 BCE, the Akkadians had been using cuneiform script to write in their language, Akkadian. Once they established their dynasty, Akkadian was spoken throughout most of Mesopotamia, with Sumerian only used for literature (like old and new English). Akkadian had its own rules and increased the amount of syllabary symbols in cuneiform. Akkadian also used root words or root consonants, with which a myriad of related words could be created e.g the Akkadian word kitab means book, kutub means books, ketib means writer and ketiba means he writes. These words were created from the base consonants : “ktb”.

Following the change in cuneiform (Akkadian, root consonants etc. above mentioned), the first known author (by name) Enheduanna wrote from 2285-2250 BC. In 2150 BCE, along with the arrival of Gutians and Amorites (who overthrew the Akkadians for a period of 150 years) came the epic of Gilgamesh which was said to have been written from 2150 – 1400 BCE. Following the arrival of the Gutians and Amorites and their 150 year rule, in 2000 BCE Akkadian rule was re-established. In the time following the decline of the Sumerians, Akkadian was the primary spoken and written language and in 1000 BCE, Sumerian (language) was completely forgotten. By circa 600 BCE, both the Babylonian and Assyrian empires were gone and the predominant language was Aramaic which used the Phoenician script. By 100 BCE, cuneiform was only used by a few priests and slowly died out.

Timeline:

Settlements in future site of Babylon – 4000 BCE

Sumerian in written form (cuneiform) – 3500 BCE

Sumerian dynasty – 2800 BCE

Akkadian dynasty – 2350-2200 BCE

Akkadians overthrown by Gutians and Amorites – 2150 BCE

Akkadian rule restored – 2000 BCE

Babylonian ascendancy over Sumer – 1600 BCE

Fall of Babylonian and Assyrian empires – 700-600 BCE

End of Cuneiform script – 100 BCE-1 AD

Influence of cuneiform script on global history and language 

Known as the cradle of civilization, Mesopotamia was the origin for script or writing systems. The cuneiform script is categorized as a logophonetic system of writing, or a system that mainly utilized logograms, but also uses phonograms. The use of logograms and phonograms in cuneiform script can be observed as the script evolves. Being the first script, cuneiform has had an enormous impact on language and history. Cuneiform is one of the reasons history, writing, education, law and even taxes exist today (among other things).

Since cuneiform is the first script, it is responsible for almost all the other scripts of all time (not hieroglyphs though, they were thought to have been created with no knowledge of cuneiform). The components of writing systems and categories like phonograms, logograms etc. are all present because of cuneiform.

According to historians, cuneiform script  was created to keep a count of trade and to record events. In its early days, cuneiform script was used as a method for farmers to keep track of crops, livestock and other agricultural things. Later, it was used to keep track of money, building material and other objects as well. Another advantage of cuneiform was that it could also be passed on to other people (sons, daughters, friends etc.) and allow them to use existing knowledge in their endeavours. Some early philosophers (namely Plato) say that the creation of script led to the decrease of memory power amongst humans, as they relied on the written records as opposed to their minds. A counter-argument to that could be that the creation of script allowed humans to free their minds up in order to accomplish more. So cuneiform created the idea of noting down materials and methods which we use even today. Also, throughout its use, cuneiform tablets have records of life in the ancient world. Many of these records (the ones that survived) have given us great insights into the environment, atmosphere of Mesopotamia. These records are considered solid information as opposed to archaeological guess work about what it was like.

Due to cuneiform script being permanent (more so than speech..), it was easy to charge and keep track of taxes. Before taxes, the temple priests could take as much of any resource as they needed for the welfare of the city (and for themselves). Later, a citizen was allowed to keep as much of their resource as long as a certain amount was given to the city. This was the origin for taxes.

Law was also popularized during Hammurabi’s reign. These laws were written down (using cuneiform of course) and became a sort of constitution. These laws were present – in physical form – in most households. With Hammurabi’s laws came the concept of a judge (who was Hammurabi), innocence and reparations (an eye for an eye) came about.

The origin of education and literacy also can be attributed to cuneiform. Once the system of writing was present, teaching the script to children and those who didn’t know it was expected. Teaching the script saw the beginnings of education, with regard to written language and also created the concept of literacy. Unfortunately, the people who were literate often considered themselves of a higher class and only shared the knowledge with their relatives. This lead to literacy being reserved for the socio-economically higher classes. All priests were literate. Along with literacy the further study of sciences, math, music and many more subjects was made easier as the knowledge could be passed on (as mentioned in the above paragraph). This advanced the technology of more than a few empires and civilizations throughout Mesopotamia.

Afterword

Cuneiform script’s influence upon our world and the ancient world is undeniable. Although any writing system that came about the first (in the world) would have similar importance, cuneiform script was that system. It was created out of need just like the creation of tools, which occurred due to mankind’s requirements during that age. In an age of farming, armies and governments, script was born to make things more efficient and easy. The creation of script ushered in a new world, while trying to improve the old world.

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