A collage of cuneiform glyphs composed from the syllable tables at

Cuneiform is the earliest known writing system, originating in Sumer in Mesopotamia around 2500BC, having evolved during the preceding 3000 years or so from earlier pictograms. The name cuneiform comes from the wedge shaped tools used to impress or scribe the symbols onto clay tablets.

This shows the evolution from a pictogram (here portraying the concept adult male person), to cuneiform (representing the syllable sag, also the Sumerian word for man). On the way, the pictogram (already simplified) is rotated when the sequence was changed from vertical to horizontal. The early cuneiform still vaguely resembles the shape of the pictogram, later cuneiform grew more and more abstract in shape.

This evolution from pictogram to cuneiform is more than a straight iconic transformation. There is also a change of function, from pictorial representations of concepts to stylized and conventionalized groups of straight lines that are pronounced as syllables, and combined to represent pronunciations of words and grammatical inflections that can be built up into sentences. Strings of pictograms are like groups of traffic signs; they convey meaning but not strict sequences of spoken words.

The Sumerian writing system was originally invented for making inventories, tax lists, business transactions and so on.

 A tablet recording delivery of wooden parts for boats (Umma, 2040BC, Schoyen Collection).
 An administrative tablet (Jamdat Nasr, 3100-2900BC, Metropolitan Museum)


©Sidney Wood and SWPhonetics, 1994-2012
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