- A system of writing in which a cut reed stylus is pressed into soft clay to leave a wedgelike imprint (Latin cuneus). It was invented in Mesopotamia in the late fourth millennium B.C. Different versions of cuneiform writing were used to write various Near Eastern languages: Sumerian, Akkadian, Eblaite, Elamite, Ugaritic, Hittite, and Hurrian. It was superseded by alphabetic scripts after the mid-first century B.C.Archaic cuneiform script had a predominantly pictorial character since most of the signs originally referred to visible entities. Since the soft clay made accurate visual representation difficult, signs became simplified and individual “strokes” of the stylus replaced curvilinear forms in the early third millennium. In addition, the large number of signs was reduced to some 600.Different cursive writing styles are associated with different historical periods. The Neo-Assyrian style is commonly used in Assyriological textbooks because of its comparative clarity. The original repertoire of logograms (word signs) became extended through the principle of the “rebus,” which could isolate the phonetic value of a sign to express syntactic and grammatical relationships that determine the meaning of a sentence. Special signs known as determinatives signaled the context of signs, especially to indicate when they were to be understood as a name (personal, topographical, theophoric, etc.). With the adaptation of cuneiform for several languages within the same culture (Sumerian and the Semitic Akkadian), the system became even more complex as the logographic value of a sign could be “translated” into the Semitic idiom and thereby created further phonetic readings.Due to this inherent difficulty of the writing system, scribal training was long and arduous, restricting literacy to a relatively small group of people. The repercussions of cuneiform writing, however, affected the whole population because of the widespread use of writing in the administration and the judiciary.See also RAWLINSON, Henry Creswick.
Historical Dictionary of Mesopotamia. EdwART. 2012.