AskDefine | Define cuneiform

Dictionary Definition

cuneiform adj
1 shaped like a wedge [syn: wedge-shaped, cuneal]
2 of or relating to the tarsal bones (or other wedge-shaped bones) n : an ancient wedge-shaped script used in Mesopotamia and Persia

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Alternative spellings


From etyl fr cunéiforme or cuneiformis, from cuneus.


  1. Having the form of a wedge; wedge-shaped.


  1. An ancient writing system originating in Mesopotamia in the 4th millennium BC.
  2. A wedge-shaped bone, especially a cuneiform bone.


ancient writing system
  • Japanese: (kusabigata-moji)
wedge-shaped bone

Derived terms

Extensive Definition

The cuneiform script (, /ˈkjuːnɨfɔrm/) is the earliest known form of written expression. Created by the Sumerians from ca. 3000 BC (with predecessors reaching into the late 4th millennium Uruk IV period), cuneiform writing began as a system of pictographs. Over time, the pictorial representations became simplified and more abstract.
Cuneiforms were written on clay tablets, on which symbols were drawn with a blunt reed for a stylus. The impressions left by the stylus were wedge shaped, thus giving rise to the name cuneiform ("wedge shaped").
The Sumerian script was adapted for the writing of the Akkadian, Elamite, Hittite (and Luwian), Hurrian (and Urartian) languages, and it inspired the Old Persian and Ugaritic national alphabets.


The cuneiform writing system originated perhaps around 3000 BC in Sumer; its latest surviving use is dated to 75 AD.
The cuneiform script underwent considerable changes over a period of more than two millennia. The image below shows the development of the sign SAG "head" (Borger nr. 184, U+12295 ).
Stage 1 shows the pictogram as it was drawn around 3000 BC. Stage 2 shows the rotated pictogram as written around 2800 BC. Stage 3 shows the abstracted glyph in archaic monumental inscriptions, from ca. 2600 BC, and stage 4 is the sign as written in clay, contemporary to stage 3. Stage 5 represents the late 3rd millennium, and stage 6 represents Old Assyrian ductus of the early 2nd millennium, as adopted into Hittite. Stage 7 is the simplified sign as written by Assyrian scribes in the early 1st millennium, and until the script's extinction.


Originally, pictograms were drawn on clay tablets in vertical columns with a pen made from a sharpened reed stylus, or incised in stone. This early style lacked the characteristic wedge-shape of the strokes.
Certain signs to indicate names of gods, countries, cities, vessels, birds, trees, etc., are known as "determinants", and were the Sumerian signs of the terms in question, added as a guide for the reader. Proper names continued to be usually written in purely "ideographic" fashion.
From about 2900 BC, many pictographs began to lose their original function, and a given sign could have various meanings depending on context. The sign inventory was reduced from some 1,500 signs to some 600 signs, and writing became increasingly phonological. Determinative signs were re-introduced to avoid ambiguity. This process is directly parallel to, and possibly not independent of, the development of Egyptian hieroglyphic orthography.

Archaic cuneiform

In the mid-3rd millennium, writing direction was changed to left to right in horizontal rows (rotating all of the pictograms 90° counter-clockwise in the process), and a new wedge-tipped stylus was used which was pushed into the clay, producing wedge-shaped ("cuneiform") signs; these two developments made writing quicker and easier. By adjusting the relative position of the tablet to the stylus, the writer could use a single tool to make a variety of impressions. The word "cuneiform" comes from the Latin word cuneus, meaning "wedge".
Cuneiform tablets could be fired in kilns to provide a permanent record, or they could be recycled if permanence was not needed. Many of the clay tablets found by archaeologists were preserved because they were fired when attacking armies burned the building in which they were kept.
The script was also widely used on commemorative stelae and carved reliefs to record the achievements of the ruler in whose honour the monument had been erected.

Akkadian cuneiform

The archaic cuneiform script was adopted by the Akkadians from ca. 2500 BC, and by 2000 BC, had evolved into Old Assyrian cuneiform, with many modifications to Sumerian orthography. The Semitic equivalents for many signs became distorted or abbreviated to form new "phonetic" values, because the syllabic nature of the script as refined by the Sumerians was unintuitive to Semitic speakers.
At this stage, the former pictograms were reduced to a high level of abstraction, and were composed of only five basic wedge shapes: horizontal, vertical, two diagonals and the Winkelhaken impressed vertically by the tip of the stylus. The signs exemplary of these basic wedges are
  • AŠ (B001, U+12038) : horizontal;
  • DIŠ (B748, U+12079) : vertical;
  • GE23, DIŠ tenû (B575, U+12039) : downward diagonal;
  • GE22 (B647, U+1203A) : upward diagonal;
  • U (B661, U+1230B) : the Winkelhaken.
Except for the Winkelhaken which is tail-less, the length of the wedges' tails could vary as required for sign composition. Signs tilted by (ca.) 45 degrees are called tenû in Akkadian, thus DIŠ is a vertical wedge and DIŠ tenû a diagonal one. Signs modified with additional wedges are called gunû, and signs crosshatched with additional Winkelhaken are called šešig.
"Typical" signs have usually in the range of about five to ten wedges, while complex ligatures can consist of twenty or more (although it is not always clear if a ligature should be considered a single sign or two collated but still distinct signs); the ligature KAxGUR7 consists of 31 strokes.
Most later adaptations of Sumerian cuneiform preserved at least some aspects of the Sumerian script. Written Akkadian included phonetic symbols from the Sumerian syllabary, together with logograms that were read as whole words. Many signs in the script were polyvalent, having both a syllabic and logographic meaning. The complexity of the system bears a resemblance to classical Japanese, written in a Chinese-derived script, where some of these Sinograms were used as logograms, and others as phonetic characters.

Assyrian cuneiform

This "mixed" method of writing continued through the end of the Babylonian and Assyrian empires, although there were periods when "purism" was in fashion and there was a more marked tendency to spell out the words laboriously, in preference to using signs with a phonetic complement. Yet even in those days, the Babylonian syllabary remained a mixture of ideographic and phonetic writing.
Hittite cuneiform is an adaptation of the Old Assyrian cuneiform of ca. 1800 BC to the Hittite language. When the cuneiform script was adapted to writing Hittite, a layer of Akkadian logographic spellings was added to the script, with the result that we no longer know the pronunciations of many Hittite words conventionally written by logograms.
In the Iron Age (ca. 10th to 6th c. BC), Assyrian cuneiform was further simplified. From the 6th century, the Assyrian language was marginalized by Aramaic, written in the Aramaean alphabet, but Neo-Assyrian cuneiform remained in use in literary tradition well into Parthian times. The last known cuneiform inscription, an astronomical text, was written in AD 75.

Derived scripts

The complexity of the system prompted the development of a number of simplified versions of the script. Old Persian was written in a subset of simplified cuneiform characters known today as Old Persian cuneiform. It formed a semi-alphabetic syllabary, using far fewer wedge strokes than Assyrian used, together with a handful of logograms for frequently occurring words like "god" and "king." The Ugaritic language was written using the Ugaritic alphabet, a standard Semitic style alphabet (an abjad) written using the cuneiform method.


Early European travellers to Persepolis (Iran) noticed carved cuneiform inscriptions and were intrigued. The Englishman Sir Thomas Herbert in the 1634 edition of his travel book “A relation of some yeares travaile” reported seeing at Persepolis carved on the wall “a dozen lines of strange characters…consisting of figures, obelisk, triangular, and pyramidal” and thought they resembled Greek. However by the 1664 edition he had guessed, correctly, that they represented not letters or hieroglyphics but words and syllables, and furthermore that they were to be read from left to right. He even reproduced some for his readers. He was also correct in guessing that they were not merely decorative, but were ‘legible and intelligible’ and therefore decipherable. However, his insights never received the credit they perhaps deserved and he is never mentioned in standard histories of the decipherment of cuneiform.
Understanding of cuneiform therefore had to wait until Carsten Niebuhr brought the first copies of the inscriptions of Behistun to Europe. In 1802 Georg Friedrich Grotefend was able to read the signs. In1835 Henry Rawlinson, a British East India Company army officer, visited the Behistun inscriptions in Persia. Carved in the reign of King Darius of Persia (522 BC486 BC), they consisted of identical texts in the three official languages of the empire: Old Persian, Babylonian, and Elamite. The Behistun inscription was to the decipherment of cuneiform what the Rosetta Stone was to the decipherment of Egyptian hieroglyphs.
Rawlinson correctly deduced that the Old Persian was a phonetic script and he successfully deciphered it. After translating the Persian, Rawlinson and, working independently of him, the Anglo-Irish Egyptologist Edward Hincks, began to decipher the others. (The actual techniques used to decipher the Akkadian language have never been fully published; Hincks described how he sought the proper names already legible in the deciphered Persian while Rawlinson never said anything at all, leading some to speculate that he was secretly copying Hincks.) They were greatly helped by Paul Émile Botta's discovery of the city of Nineveh in 1842. Among the treasures uncovered by Botta were the remains of the great library of Assurbanipal, a royal archive containing tens of thousands of baked clay tablets covered with cuneiform inscriptions.
By 1851, Hincks and Rawlinson could read 200 Babylonian signs. They were soon joined by two other decipherers: young German-born scholar Julius Oppert, and versatile British Orientalist William Henry Fox Talbot. In 1857 the four men met in London and took part in a famous experiment to test the accuracy of their decipherments. Edwin Norris, the secretary of the Royal Asiatic Society, gave each of them a copy of a recently discovered inscription from the reign of the Assyrian emperor Tiglath-Pileser I. A jury of experts was empanelled to examine the resulting translations and assess their accuracy. In all essential points the translations produced by the four scholars were found to be in close agreement with one another. There were of course some slight discrepancies. The inexperienced Talbot had made a number of mistakes, and Oppert's translation contained a few doubtful passages which the jury politely ascribed to his unfamiliarity with the English language. But Hincks' and Rawlinson's versions corresponded remarkably closely in many respects. The jury declared itself satisfied, and the decipherment of Akkadian cuneiform was adjudged a fait accompli.
In the early days of cuneiform decipherment, the reading of proper names presented the greatest difficulties. However, there is now a better understanding of the principles behind the formation and the pronunciation of the thousands of names found in historical records, business documents, votive inscriptions and literary productions. The primary challenge was posed by the characteristic use of old Sumerian non-phonetic ideograms in other languages that had different pronunciations for the same symbols. Until the exact phonetic reading of many names was determined through parallel passages or explanatory lists, scholars remained in doubt, or had recourse to conjectural or provisional readings. Fortunately, in many cases, there are variant readings, the same name being written phonetically (in whole or in part) in one instance, and ideographically in another.


Cuneiform has a specific format for transliteration. Because of the script's polyvalence, transliteration is not only lossless, but may actually contain more information than the original document. For example, the sign DINGIR in a Hittite text may represent either the Hittite syllable an or may be part of an Akkadian phrase, representing the syllable il, or it may be a Sumerogram, representing the original Sumerian meaning, 'the creator'. In transliteration, a different rendition of the same glyph is chosen depending on its role in the present context.
Therefore, a text containing DINGIR and MU in succession could be construed to represent the words "ana", "ila", god + "a" (the accusative ending), god + water, or a divine name "A" or Water. Someone transcribing the signs would make the decision how the signs should be read and assemble the signs as "ana", "ila", "Ila" ('god"+accusative case), etc. A transliteration of these signs, however, would separate the signs with dashes "il-a", "an-a", "DINGIR-a". This is still easier to read than the original cuneiform, but now the reader is able to trace the sounds back to the original signs and determine if the correct decision was made on how to read them.
There are differing conventions for transliterating Sumerian, Akkadian (Babylonian) and Hittite (and Luwian) cuneiform texts. One convention that sees wide use across the different fields is the use of acute and grave accents as an abbreviation for homophone disambiguation. Thus, u is equivalent to u1, the first glyph expressing phonetic u. An acute accent, ú, is equivalent to the second, u2, and a grave accent ù to the third, u3 glyph in the series (while the sequence of numbering is conventional but essentially arbitrary and subject to the history of decipherment). In Sumerian transliteration, a multiplication sign 'x' is used to indicate ligatures.
Since the Sumerian language has only been widely known and studied by scholars for approximately a century, changes in the accepted reading of Sumerian names have occurred from time to time. Thus the name of a king of Ur, read Ur-Bau at one time, was later read as Ur-Engur, and is now read as Ur-Nammu or Ur-Namma; for Lugal-zaggisi, a king of Uruk, some scholars continued to read Ungal-zaggisi; and so forth. Also, with some names of the older period, there was often uncertainty whether their bearers were Sumerians or Semites. If the former, then their names could be assumed to be read as Sumerian, while, if they were Semites, the signs for writing their names were probably to be read according to their Semitic equivalents, though occasionally Semites might be encountered bearing genuine Sumerian names. There was also doubt whether the signs composing a Semite's name represented a phonetic reading or an ideographic compound. Thus, e.g. when inscriptions of a Semitic ruler of Kish, whose name was written Uru-mu-ush, were first deciphered, there was a disposition to regard this as an ideographic form, and to read phonetically Alu-usharshid ("he founded a city," with the omission of the name of the deity), but scholarly opinion finally accepted Urumu-ush (Urumush) as the correct designation.


The tables below show signs used for simple syllables of the form CV or VC. As used for the Sumerian language, the cuneiform script was in principle capable of distinguishing 14 consonants, transliterated as
b, d, g, ḫ, k, l, m, n, p, r, s, š, t, z
as well as four vowel qualities, a, e, i, u. The Akkadian language needed to distinguish its emphatic series, q, ṣ, ṭ, adopting various "superfluous" Sumerian signs for the purpose (e.g. qe=KIN, qu=KUM, qi=KIN, ṣa=ZA, ṣe=ZÍ, ṭur=DUR etc.) Hittite as it adopted the Akkadian cuneiform further introduced signs for the glide w, e.g. wa=we=PIN, wi5=GEŠTIN) as well as a ligature I.A for ya.

Synonyms, Antonyms and Related Words

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