Category: Ancient Learning > Writing Systems
1 Introduction to cuneiform writing
Cuneiform is a modern word, meaning ‘wedge-shaped’, coined to describe the appearance of certain ancient writing systems, whose signs are composed of wedge-like elements (𒀸, 𒁹, 𒀹, 𒀺, 𒌋) created by pressing a stylus into clay. ‘Cuneiform’ can be used to refer to any script that uses this method of writing, including the Old Persian syllabary (off-site link) and the Ugaritic alphabet.
It also refers, more narrowly, to one specific system of writing, originally developed to write the Sumerian language of ancient Mesopotamia (modern Iraq). Sumerian cuneiform was adopted to write Akkadian (the language of the Babylonians and Assyrians) and subsequently a number of other languages.
Sumero-Akkadian cuneiform is basically syllabic (with a sign most commonly representing a vowel V, a consonant and vowel CV or vowel and consonant VC, or a syllable composed of consonant, vowel and consonant CVC). But a given sign can have multiple different phonetic readings depending on context, not all of them representing only a single syllable, and a sequence of signs does not always directly represent pronunciation.
Instead, a word in Hittite, for instance, may be represented by a ‘heterogram’ (a ‘spelling-different’ from pronunciation), being spelled as if it were the equivalent Sumerian or Akkadian word, and accordingly called a ‘Sumerogram’ or ‘Akkadogram’. (Cf. Maksim Kudrinski & Ilya Yakubovich, “Sumerograms and Akkadograms in Hittite: Ideograms, Logograms, Allograms, or Heterograms?” [off-site link].)
In addition, there are so-called determinatives, which are not pronounced at all, but indicate what kind of word follows. E.g., the symbol 𒀭 (transcribed ᵈ) indicates a divine name. Thus, for instance:
- 𒌓 (transcribed UTU) stands for the Sumerian word ud, ‘sun’; it even depicts the disk of the sun ◯ insofar as possible in cuneiform.
- In Akkadian, 𒌓 can stand for the meaning ‘sun’ (šamšum) or for the sound value ud, among other readings.
- When preceded by the determinative for divine names, 𒀭𒌓 stands for the god ‘Sun’, called not šamšum but Šamaš in Akkadian.
- In Sumerian, the word en, ‘lord’, is written 𒂗.
- In Akkadian, the word for ‘lord’, bēlu(m), can be written by Sumerogram, 𒂗 (EN) or phonetically, as 𒁁𒇻 (be.lu)
- The Hittite išḫāš, again meaning ‘lord’, can be written by the Sumerogram 𒂗 (EN), by the Akkadogram 𒁁𒇻 (BE.LU), or phonetically as 𒅖𒄩𒀀𒀸 (iš.ḫa.a.aš).
2 The aim of this page
In light of this complexity, ancient scribes needed to be able to refer to signs independently of their value in a given context. Although such sign names are amply attested, they are generally ignored by contemporary students of the cuneiform languages in favor of the modern conventional names and transcriptions.
The aim of this page is to make a set of ancient sign names easily accessible, in analogy to my work on the ancient grammatical writings about Greek and Latin. It will be based on the invaluable work of Yushu Gong, Die Namen der Keilschriftzeichen, 2000 (and, indirectly, his predecessor Viktor Christian, Die Namen der assyrisch-babylonischen Keilschriftzeichen, 1913).
Because the sign names are most fully attested in the 1st millennium BCE, the so-called Neo-Assyrian or Neo-Babylonian times, I will confine myself to this period.
3 A list of cuneiform signs, their 1st-millennium names, and their values
[Work in Progress]