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Writing

Systems LING2059

Cuneiform
JohnGuest
DepartmentofLinguistics
HKU
The birth of writing
Thefirstofourancientwritingsystemstoinvestigate
Symbolsmadeupofwedgeshapedimpressions inclay
Generallyconsideredtheveryfirstproperwritingsystem
Canbetracedbacktosignificantprecursors ofthisWS
Developed/modifiedoverthreethousandyears;usedby
severallanguages(inthesamewayasanalphabet)
Themechanismprobablyinfluenced EgyptianWS;evensome
believethatsincetherewastradebetweentheMiddleEast
andtheFarEast,Chinaalsomayhaveheardofthis
invention.
Mesopotamia
link
Precursors of Cuneiform
Tokens 1.0 and 1.5
SimpleClaytokens
Unsureoffunctionbutlikelytosimpleaccountingrecords
Datebackto~89000BC
Initialexcavatorsdidntseethehistoricalvalueintheobjectsand
sometimescastthemasideasmererandomlymadeobjects
Stillmuchisunknownabouttheusesoftheseobjects

ComplexClayTokens
Overtimethetokenstookondifferent
appearances
Containedmarks,impressionsand
scratches
Expertstheorizethatmayhavedenoted
differentelementsfortradeand
commerce
Own Photos from British Museum
More examples of tokens
Tokens 2.0
ClayEnvelopes(Bulla)
Apalmsizedhollowbutsealedballwith
tokensinside
Ajumpforwardintermsofuses more
likelytohavebeenusedasabillofsale
intrading
Containsanumberoftokenssealedwithin
theouterclay
Normallyhasnumericmarksontheouter
surface(significanceindispute)
Iftherewasanydisagreement,theclay
envelopewouldbebrokenandcontents
checked.

Globularenvelopewithaclusterofaccounting
tokens.Clay,Urukperiod.FromtheTellofthe
AcropolisinSusa.
Development filling a need
HistoricalandsocietalchangesinMesopotamialedtoaneedto
improvethetokensystem
Greateragriculturespreadthroughouttheregion
Citydevelopmentandbuilding(ratherthansmallervillages)
Increaseincitydwellersnotmakingtheirownfood
Withaincreaseinthecomplexityofsocietyandachangein
civilization,abetterandmoreefficientrecordsystemwasinitially
needed duetoeconomicandadministrativenecessity
Initialmovetoscratchingclaytabletswithdrawnsigns,and
indentingthemwithapreviouslydevelopednumberingsystem
First Clay Tablets ProtoCuneiform
About5,000claytabletswerefoundinthecityofUruk,
Mesopotamia,datedtoaround3300BC
Morecomplexaccounting,names,commodities,larger
numbers
Symbolsquasipictographicinnature
Recordinginformationnotlanguage
Thistabletisanadministrative
accountofbarleydistribution

Clayisacrucialmaterial
Readilyavailable
Easilymalleable
Abletodryoutandbefired
Leavearecordforusthousandsofyears
later
Administrativetabletwithcylindersealimpressionofamalefigure,
Canactuallystrengthenifburned/fired huntingdogs,andboars,31002900B.C.;Jemdet Nasrperiod(Uruk
IIIscript)Mesopotamia.Clay;H.2in.(5.3cm)
Uruk Tablets
AnotherexampleofrecordkeepingtabletfromUruk

Earlywritingtabletrecordingtheallocationof
beer.ProbablyfromsouthernIraq,Late
Prehistoricperiod,31003000BC
Material and Tools
Useofreadilyavailableclaythatcouldbebakedhard
Useofareedstylustomakeanimpressioninclay
Stoneequivalentsfollowtheclayversions
Link1 Link2
Symbol Development
Fromdifferenttokenscamescratchedversionsoftokensontablets
Useofstylustomakescoringintheclay(pictorial)
Overaperiodoftime(tensorhundreds
ofyears),scratchingbecamestylized
wedgeshapedindentationcombinations
Otherchangesweremade:
Curvesbecamestraightened
90 rotation
Reductionofstrokes
Complexityofcharacterandlevelof
abstractness
Pictorialnaturelost(ornotobvious)
Development

FromDanielsandBright(1996)
FromRogers
(2006)
Internal Structure
Eachcuneiformsymbolisagraphemicunit thisunitrepresentsaboth
morphological andphonological unitsinthelanguage
InitiallySumeriancuneiformsystemcontainedalargenumberof
symbols~1,200 (assumedmorewereused)
Reducedovertime c.27002350BCtherewere~800 symbols
c.2000BCfurtherreducedto~500 symbolsincommonuse
Pictogram Types
Pictograms thesefirstappearedintheUruktabletsand
depictedsomebasicandcommonitems
Head,fish,sheep,pot,etc.
Strongiconicnatureinearlysigns
With90 shiftandabstraction,theylooseiconicity

AbstractPictograms thesewererepresentationsofthings
closelyrelatedtotheobjecttodenote,butnottheobject
itself
Astreamfortheword<water>
Ajarfortheword<beer>
Semantic Extension
Commoninadevelopingwritingsystem wherethemeaning
oftheoriginalword(simple)wasalsousedforamoreabstract
meaningthatwasdifficulttorepresent(extension).
Wordsinitiallystartingasapictogramoffootchangedtothe
word<go>and<stand>
Originalword<star>wasalsoextendedtotheword<heaven>
and<god>
<plow>,thefarmingimplement,cametobeusedfortheverb<to
plow>andeventhe<plowman>
Phonetic Extension
Anotherveryimportantdevelopment(crucialtomostifnotallWS)
istheideaofphoneticextension,wherebythesymbolforanitem
wasusedonlytorepresentthesoundoftheword,notthe
meaning.
Abreakthroughintheexploitationofthephoneticsimilaritiesof
words
Knownasrebuswriting
Occurredaroundc.2800BC
Thesymbolforwater/a/wasalsousedfor/a/meaningin
Thesymbolforreed/gi/wasalsousedfor/gi/meaningrender
Thesymbolforarrow/ti/couldalsobeusedforthewordlife/ti(l)/
Soundvaluesbecameincreasinglyimportantafterthisdiscovery,
withmeaningsbecominglessimportant
Phonetic Extension
Coulmas(1989)explainsthatextensionwasinitiallyfromone
contentwordtoanother,andthentofunctionwords.
e.g./mu/meaningplantwastransferredto/mu/yearand
/mu/name
Thentransferredto/mu/meaningmyand/mu/thirdperson
masculineprefix
Thusasyllabarywascreatedrelatedtothesoundsand
removedfromtheoriginalmeaningofthelogograms

Thisextensiongreatlyincreasedtherangeofwordsthatcould
beexpressedinwriting,buttherewasinbuiltambiguityin
thissystem
Thesolutiontothisambiguitywastheintroductionof
determinatives (seelaterslide)
Differentiation and Semantic Compound
Differentiation involvedaddingadiacriticmarktochangeand
extendthemeaningofasymbol
Ahashmarkwasaddedtothewordforheadtogivemouthand
speak

Likewise,combiningtwosymbolstomakeanewmeaningrelatedto
thecombination semanticcompounding
Thesymbolfordrinkcombinesthesymbolsofheadandwaterto
give/na/
Thesymbolforoxandmountaingivesthesymbolforwildox
Thesymbolformouthandbreadgivesthesymbolforeat

Allthesemethodsofextendinganddevelopingthewritingsystem
wasintheSumerianperiod(periodofsigngeneration).Cuneiform
underwentvariousdevelopmentsandadvancesinlatterperiods
whenotherlanguageswereinvolved,e.g.Akkadianinfluences.
Similarmethodsofsigngenerationcontinuedtobeused
Different Readings of the same symbol
DuringtheAkkadianperiod,therewasafurthercomplication
SinceAkkadianalsousedcuneiform,theyborrowedheavily
fromtheSumerianvocabulary
Thisledtoapossibilitythatthesamesymbolmayhavea
SumerianreadingoranAkkadianreading.
Forexample,<>thesymbolforheadcouldbegivena
Sumerianreading/sag/oranAkkadianreading/re:um/

OvertimeAkkadianreadingsofthescriptbecamemore
common,butSumerianreadingsstillexistedthroughoutthe
Akkadianperiod.
Relationship to Language
Indevelopedcuneiform,theyaregroupedasfollows:
Morphograms asymbolrepresentingamorpheme(wordsigns)
<> means/sag/head
<> represents/diir/heaven,god
Phonograms asymbolrepresentingasounds,inparticularsyllablesand
mor (notphonemes)(syllablesigns)
<>forthesound/um/
Mayhaveinitialconsonantornot,maybeopensyllableorclosed;i.e.(C)V(C)
Sothereweresymbolsfor/u/<>,/u/<>,/um/<>
AccordingtoRogers(2005),thesymbolinventorycontainedsymbolsfor:
Mostsinglevowels
MostCVsequences
MostVCsequences
(butnotall)
SomeCVCsequences
Akkadiancuneiformcouldalsorepresentsyllablesbutnotall
couldberepresented
Sometimestwomoraic symbolswerecombinedtoforone
syllable
Combining<+ >/ba +am/gives/ba:m/or/baam/or
/bam/inAkkadian

SemanticComplements/Determinatives symbolsgiving
additionalsemanticinformation nottobeuttered.
(determinatives)
Symbolforgodis<>asamorphogram (andpronounced/ diir/)
Butifusedtoaccompanyanameofagod,toindicatethatitisthe
nameofagod,itwouldnotbeuttered.
Othercomplementswereused,like< >/gi/forwood
Caneitherbepronouncedas/is/,/iz/or/is/ orsilent.
Sample Akkadian text: A law from the code of Hammurapi

Ifonecitizenaccusesanotherandbringsachargeofmurderagainsthim,
buthasnotconvictedhim,hisaccusershallbeexecuted.FromRogers(2005)
The Different Peoples/Languages using Cuneiform

AninterestingcharacteristicofCuneiformwasitsuse,
adoptionandmodificationbydifferentpeopleandlanguages
Thesamescriptwassharedbydifferentlanguages
Sumerian(theoriginatorsofthescript),thenAkkadians,then
Emalites,andrightuptoOldPersian
Reflectsthevariedhistoryoftheregionduringthisperiod
ReflectedCuneiformsimportanceintheancientworld
Sumerian Cuneiform
TheSumerianpeoplesettledinthisregionofMesopotamia(Iraq),
replacingoldersettlersintheregion.Theybroughttheirlanguage,
culture,agriculturalmethodsandtechnology.
Around3300BC,whenthefirstclaytabletswereemerging,they
languagethatwasusedwasSumerian.
Thiswasthelanguagethatwasforminglinksbetweensymbolsand
thespokenelement.
Wordslikehead,fish,sheep,etc.
Increasedthenumberofitemsofcommonthingsusedinaccounting
Coulmas(1989)mentionsoutofthe150,000cuneiformitemsfound
inMesopotamia,+75%wereadministrativeinnature(legal
documents,deedsofsaleandpurchase,contractsconcerningloans,
wills,marriages,adoptions,censusandtaxreturns.
Alsolistsofwords forscribestopracticeandcopy
Eventuallytherewasamovementawayfromlistsandnumbersto
textsinlinesandaformalizationofthescripts awrittenformof
Sumerian
Akkadian Era
TheSumerianswereconqueredin2,350BCandthisledtothe
useoftheAkkadianlanguageintheregion
However,theAkkadiansadoptedmuchofSumerianculture,
includingitswritingsystem
InitiallyusedtheSumerianlanguagetowritewithincuneiform
LatertheyadaptedthewritingsystemtowriteAkkadian,but
neverfullygaveuponSumerian(itwasthelanguageoflearning
andknowledge)
Other Languages using Cuneiform
Withsuccessiveempiresandinvasionsaswellasregionalinfluences,
differentpeoplesusedthecuneiformscript,adaptingittotheirown
languageneeds.
Mostborrowingsweredonesotoleavethegeneralstructureof
SumerianandAkkadianintact.
Elamite
ThestateofElamwaslocatedinwesternIran,wheretheyspoke
Elamite,anunrelatedlanguagetoothersregionally.
Textsfoundweredatedoveralongperiod(3,100BCto331BC) early
textswereindecipherable,butfrom1300BCtheyusedalimited
numberofphonographicsymbolsfromAkkadian
Hittite
Around10,000cuneiformtextswerefoundinnortheasternTurkey
HittitescribesusedagreatnumberofSumerianandAkkadian
symbolsintheirtexts
OthersincludeHurrian,Urartian andEbalite languagesintheregion
Further languages using Cuneiform
Ugaritic
About1,000tabletswereunearthedonthecoast
ofSyria,dated~1400BC
ItsaSemiticlanguagebutused:didnotrepresent
morphemesorsyllablesbutmovingtowardsound
segments,consonants(novowels) LAWSUITAGAINSTSHAMUMANU,OWNERAND
TREASUREROFAMARZIH,ASOCIALBANQUETINGCLUB,
FROMITSMEMBERS,THATHESHALLREPAY50SHEKELS
Thisscriptisasabjad,typicalfornonAkkadian OFSILVERTHATHEHASSTOLEN.SHAMUMANU,ANGERED
BYTHEACCUSATION,THREATENSTOTHROWTHECLUB
Semiticlanguages. MEMBERSOUTOFHISHOUSEANDRELEGATETHEMTOA
STALL,TOTREATTHEMLIKEANIMALS.WITNESSES:
IHIRASHPUSONOFUDRNNANDABDINUSONOFSIGILDA
Further languages using Cuneiform
OldPersian
ThePersiansconqueredtheAkkadiansaround600BC,the
administrativelanguageoftheAkkadianempirewasAramaic,
whichthePersianscontinuedtouse
ThePersiansspokeOldPersianlanguage.
Thekingatthetime,KingDariusI,orderedthataPersian
cuneiformbemadewith36phonographicsymbols.
Decipherment of Cuneiform
Withonlydifferingknowledgeofcuneiformrepresentedlanguages,a
puzzleneededtobeputtogether
Tracingbackthesoundsandmakingcertainassumptions
NoSumerianlanguagewasspokeninthemodernera,buttherewas
knowledgeofAkkadian
AbletopiecetogetherthesoundsofSumerianfromthePOVof
Akkadian(SumerianthroughAkkadianlenses)

Alsoneededadiscoveryofgreatimportance aRosettaStonetype
inscriptionwithseverallanguages

Wemaylookatdetailsofdeciphermentingeneralinafuturelecture.
Summary
Fromcurrentknowledgethisistheearliestknownwriting
system
Withmoredurablemediaused(firedclay,stone,metal,etc.)
wecantracebacktoapointandfollowthechanges
Cuneiformunderwentchangesduringitsexistenceand
development,butwasclearlyseenasabletohelpinnew
formingcivilizations
Cuneiformwasusedbyseverallanguages,withadaptations
Stillbeinguncoveredanddebatedaboutuntilnow
and my favourite cuneiform tablet of them all

TheRoyalGameofUr
(2,6002,300BC)
Readings and Question
Pleasereadchapter2Cuneiform:ForgottenLegacyofaForgotten
PeopleofGnanadesikan(2009)

Question:
WhydoyouthinkCuneiformdiedoutandtheChinesewritingsystemhas
not?Whatfactors,linguisticorotherwise,wouldinfluencethis?