Cuneiform

By Levi Clancy for Student Reader on
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Cuneiform writing uses wedge shapes impressed on (usually small) clay tablets, inscribed on stone monuments, or rarely even engraved on metal.

Cuneiform is a unique way of writing that developed in Ancient Mesopotamia. Ancient West Asian scripts were logographic, syllabic, or alphabetic. Logographic writing uses one sign for one word, like in Chinese. Syllabic writing uses one sign for one syllable, like in Japanese Hiragana. Alphabetic writing uses one sign for a letter, such as in Latin script. The earliest Mesopotamian scripts used pictograms, which are logographic pictures. However, they had become thoroughly abstract cuneiform (“wedge-shaped”) signs by the middle of the 3rd millennium BC. The Egyptian language was also written logographically, using pictograms called hierogryphs (“sacred carved letters”), although it was recorded also in other scripts.

Cuneiform was used logographically, syllabically, and alphabetically over thousands of years for many languages.

As cuneiform was adapted to other languages beginning in the alter 3rd millennium BC, it was also syllabically (notably for Akkadian, a Semitic language). Alphabetic scripts were first developed in the early 2nd millennium BC in the Levant for Phoenician, Aramaic, and Hebrew. Cuneiform was also used as an alphabetic script at Ugarit.

cuneiform writing tablet from lacma

cuneiform writing tablet from lacma

cuneiform writing tablet from lacma

These small cuneiform tablets from LACMA are each no more than a few inches from one tip to another.

A highly-educated and elite scribal section of society would have viewed cuneiform as a positive tool, compared to alphabetic scripts.

The advantage of cuneiform, especially in contradistinction to alphabetic scripts, is how impressively scribes could demonstrate their command over literacy: it allows the writer to showcase how educated they are. It is possible to use a small repertoire of signs – less than one hundred – to communicate. However, using a small repertoire of signs meant writing in a much less complex way compared to what could be achieved with an alphabetic script using just thirty signs. For this reason, alphabetic scripts had a major advantage for a general population with perhaps limited access to formal education. Yet there was a Mesopotamian tradition where cuneiform was the choice of educated urban elites and was required for governmental needs, official letter writing, and other formal needs. The best scribes would have a deep knowledge of hundreds or more cuneiform signs, and the social status and context to demonstrate their abilities to write in an immensely complex and visual way where each piece of writing and every single character carries information about the education and status of the author.