Cuneiform Writing

Writing was evidently invented by the Sumerians. The oldest writing that has survived, at any rate, is Sumerian Cuneiform. The Sumerians used a material they had in abundance-clay-for writing. They invented a form of picture writing called cuneiform (from Laitin cuneus=wedge + forma=form or shape).

Most cuneiform tablets are small; they would fit in the palm of your hand.

red cuneiform tablet

Cuneiform tablets

(Photos from the British Museum)

Over time cuneiform writing looked less and less like picture writing. The signs had to be memorized. The Old Babylonians adopted the Sumerian cuneiform writing system for their Akkadian language. Akkadian is a Semitic language, related to Hebrew and Arabic.

Check out these links for more on Cuneiform writing:

Read about cuneiform writing and see some examples of the Tablets at

See also the Lesson on Gilgamesh at Epos.

Filed under: historical background, language | Tagged: , , , | No Comments »

5 Responses

  1. I love this website! It taught me so much about the art of ancient Sumerian cuneiform!

    • The Sumerians were fascinating, and so is the writing system they invented. The book The Sumerians by Samuel Noah Kramer is a classic that is still in print–if you are a beginner. Kramer spent his life studying the Sumerians and developed a real affection for them.

      Thanks for the comment, Alysson.

  2. As I understand it, most scripts developed in such ways. Phonecian writing, at first, represented things seen in their culture and came to represent individual consonant sounds. Eventually developing into Hebrew, Greek, and Latin alphabets, the connection between the inspiration for the letter’s form and any word that could be spelled with that letter were lost. Even in English, we can still see some vague similarities, especially likening K to a hand, M to water, and Q to a monkey.

    • I think it’s pretty interesting to see how the different writing systems developed. I used to like to look at the articles on individual letters in the World Book: it would show a basic development through the stages you talked about. I’ve never heard about “Q” looking like a monkey! Is that the lower case, where the tail of the letter would look like the tail of the monkey? Otherwise, I’m not really seeing it.
      It really gives me a greater appreciation for the ancient cultures, especially Sumerian, since writing was their idea in the first place. It takes us years to learn to write our fairly simple English system; imagine what kind of genius it must have taken to INVENT writing!

  3. Cuneiform is one of those languages that just looks confusing let alone having to memorize all those different symbols. The scribes that had to write this could not have had an easy time with it. I guess something has always interested me in terms of language, especially because the Sumerian language is the oldest on record (if I am not mistaken), is in connection with the Tower of Babel. Is Sumerian the first recorded language after that happened or are we missing something? Is the Sumerian language based off of the very first language in any way, especially because so many languages today have similar roots the further you go back?

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