Cuneiform: The Invention of Writing

From the lecture series: Origins of Great Ancient Civilizations

By Kenneth W. Harl, Ph.D., Tulane University

There’s a great deal of debate over the origins of writing but, with Cuneiform in Sumer, we have before us the evidence that shows us almost every stage of moving from what are essentially pictures—or as scholars like to call them, pictograms—into full-fledged writings.

Picture of a cuneiform tablet from 3100-2900BC
A Cuneiform tablet about administrative account with entries concerning malt and barley groats; 3100-2900 BC (Image: By Metropolitan Museum of Art/Public Domain)

Full-fledged writing, by my definition, means that you’re able to reproduce on a two-dimensional form, whether it be on mudbrick, which is the principle building material of Mesopotamia, or on papyrus, or on vellum—full-fledged writing means that writing system will be able to express every nuance of the spoken language, including verbs, tense, and mood; by reading the text, one knows exactly what was said by the author of that text.

All subsequent writing systems in Eurasia, in my opinion, ultimately go back to this writing system created in the cities of Sumer.

That level of writing is probably only attained in Sumer about 2800 B.C. at the end of what scholars like to dub the Proto-Literate period, That achievement is remarkable because all subsequent writing systems in Eurasia, in my opinion, ultimately go back to this writing system created in the cities of Sumer.

This is a transcript from the video series Origins of Great Ancient Civilizations. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

Why Sumer?

Map of the cities of Sumer civilization,(Image; By Ciudades_de_Sumeria.svg: Cratesderivative work: Phirosiberia (talk)/Public Domain)

There are several reasons driving the development of writing. One was the economic development; you had to have some kind of record of your inventory. You’ve got to keep control over these records. Second, the Sumerian language was well suited for this jump from speaking to a written language and that is because Sumerian is an agglutinative language. What do we mean by that? That means a stick-together language; it comes from the Latin “to glue” or “to stick” and Sumerian operates on the same principles—it’s not the same language—but the same principles of Turkic languages or Finno-Ugarian languages, represented in Europe by the Finnish and Hungarian. The grammar and syntax of a language is indicated by the adding of prefixes and suffixes to the root word so that the word is changed by these endings and the internal basic word does not change. This is different from inflected languages represented by the two great language families in western Eurasia—Indo-European languages, represented by most of the languages of Europe, Iran, and India today, or what used to be called the Hamito-Semitic, and are now called Afro-Asiatic languages: Semitic languages such as Arabic and Hebrew or Hamitic languages such as Berber or ancient Egyptian. Sumerian belongs to neither language group.

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Sumerian doesn’t belong to any language group we know. This raises the obvious question—how do we read it in the first place?

In fact, Sumerian doesn’t belong to any language group we know. This raises the obvious question—how do we read it in the first place? Here, again, we were lucky in that Sumerian, being the first language to be committed to writing, became the religious language of the urban-based civilization of Mesopotamia, so later peoples who came to rule over this area or came under the influence of the Sumerians, adopted Sumerian as a literary and religious language and, therefore, they had to learn it. And therefore, they had to create dictionaries and bilingual inscriptions and texts and vocabularies in order to learn this unfamiliar language, and it is through those types of documents that the structure of Sumerian was finally determined. The language is still being studied and is not completely understood; there are breakthroughs and improvements on Sumerian grammar that are still occurring, but we can read it now with a great deal of confidence.

Limestone Kish tablet from Sumer with pictographic writing, 3500 BC.
(Image: By José-Manuel Benito/Public Domain)

Learn more about the economic, social, and religious life of the Sumerians

How is Cuneiform Written?

drawing of an ancient Sumerian man writing cuneiform using a stylus and wet clay
Cuneiform is written by pressing a wedge-shaped stylus into wet clay (Image: By Bastian Groscurth/Shutterstock)

The writing material was wet clay and, as a result of writing in wet clay with a stylus, you tend to shape your characters in the form of a wedge. So the writing, when it was first discovered in the 19th century, was called cuneiform from the Latin word cuneus, wedge—wedge-shaped writing. Cuneiform refers to the writing system, not the language that’s being expressed. Cuneiform, as a writing system, will be used by many different peoples, including non-Sumerian speakers. It will be used in Semitic languages, such as Akkadian, the language of Ebla—that town in northern Syria—Indo-European languages, such as Hittite, and otherwise unrelated languages, such as Hurrian or Urartian, languages that occur later in this course. You have basic writing materials, you have the impetus for creating writing, and it seems that the way the development occurred was that scribes who were assigned to keeping records in the temple accounts did that by using, essentially, little tokens. These would take the form of little animals, very often reproduced in art history textbooks; they could be cattle, or they could be sheep, as well as tally marks that were base-ten system, so that four of those with one cattle represented four cattle.

Here’s where the nature of the Sumerian language kicks in. Sumerian was a language with large numbers of monosyllabic words, and since it was based on an agglutinative principle, very often monosyllabic words were strung together to create more complex words, or prefixes and suffixes were put on those basic words to express mood or tense for a verb, or number or gender for a noun or adjective. As a result of that, very quickly, the Sumerians could take what was a pictogram and apply it to a sound because in the Sumerian language, which by definition was language rich in what we would call homonyms and homophones—that is, words that sound the same and are written the same, but have different meanings, or words that sound the same, but are written slightly differently.

An example of a homonym in English would be the word “well”—which could be a noun or an adverb. A homophone would be a word that sounds alike and is spelled differently, such as the word sun for the sun in the sky, or son, the male human.

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Sumerian had large numbers of these possible combinations and, therefore, very early on, it was easy for Sumerian scribes, writing around 3400 B.C., to make the conclusion that they have word called ti, which represents a “bow,” as in a bow and arrow—that word could be extended to cover the homophone, that is the same word ti when used as a verb, which means “to live” and, therefore, what was originally a picture could then be applied to use as sound because it’s a monosyllabic word in both cases. Once again, the English example would be sun and son; what you do is you take a picture of the sun and you use it to represent the human. They could also then take that concept and extend it a bit further. We can take the concept as a picture sun and extend it to denote an idea, or an ideogram as philologists would say, and that would be, say, day or even sunlight. So, you see where the original power of those pictograms—those, in effect, pictures—could be applied to express more complicated concepts.

Common Questions About Cuneiform

Q: In what way was cuneiform deciphered?

Much like the Rosetta stone, a separate tablet called the Behistun inscription was used to decipher cuneiform.

Q: What date is considered the origin of the creation of cuneiform?

Initial drawings, called pictographs, have been dated to show cuneiform as early as 3500 BCE.

Q: What were most cuneiform texts written on?

By far, most cuneiform text were written on fragile clay tablets; however, wax, metal and stone have all been found with cuneiform.

Q: How long did cuneiform last as a written language?

Cuneiform is believed to have been in use by the Sumerians from 3500-3000 BCE.

This article was updated on 12/20/2019

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