Language > Cuneiform

Cuneiform

Background

The ancient written language of cuneiform was known to have been developed by the ancient Sumer civilization and formed the basis for many ancient written languages. It was also important as becoming the language of scholars and literacy in the Cultures of Sumer and the Akkadian Empire.

The name cuneiform comes from the Latin words cuneus for wedge and forma for shape which literally translates into wedge shaped. The phrase cuneus forma was later shortened into the word cunéiforme in Old French and later became cuneiform in English.

Cuneiform was written on clay tablets using a blunt reed for an ancient stylus tool. Cuneiform was commonly used to record transactions and write history along with government documents. The language itself was not alphabetic like the early Phoenician but was pictograms like the Egyptian written language called hieroglyphs.

The cuneiform script is believed to have been responsible for the later development of the written languages of Akkadian, Akkadian, Eblaite, Elamite, Hittite, Luwian, Hattic, Hurrian, and Urartian languages. It also was responsible for influencing the Ugaritic and Old Persian alphabets, the former which became the Phoenician. It was actually later replaced by the Phoenician alphabet during the Neo-Assyria around 1000 BC.

Origins

The written cuneiform language emerged during the Uruk Period of Sumerian history around 3350 BC and was a system of pictographs that formed a written language. Overtime the language became more simplified as the number of characters in the language reduced from around one thousand in the Early Bronze Age to about 400 in the late Bronze Age.

Decline & Extinction

By 200 CE the ancient cuneiform script had become extinct throughout the world and was believed lost to history. However, during the 1800s with the surge of academia and the birth of the field of anthropology the language was deciphered which lead to great achievements that reverberated all throughout the field. The actual date of cuneiform decipherment was 1857 by the academics known as Assyriologists at the time which aimed to study all of ancient Mesopotamia.

Written on clay tablets, this medium was very durable and even despite fires such as at the Library of Ashurbanipal during the Battle of Nineveh they would often survive until the present day. There are believed to exist about 500,000 to two million cuneiform tablets that have been excavated in modern times with around 30-100,000 of them studied and analyzed.

This leaves nearly 4/5 of the history of Mesopotamia unstudied and left waiting for archaeologists and anthropologists for the next hundred years to solve. The British Museum currently holds a massive collection of 130,000 cuneiform tablets along with the Vorderasiatisches Museum in Berlin, the Louvre, Istanbul Archaeology Museum, National Museum of Iraq (R.I.P), Penn Museum and the 40,000 Yale Babylonian collection.

However, the biggest problem to translating this massive volume of clay tablets is the lack of qualified cuneiformists who can translate the language. There only exist a few hundred people who can actually read and interpret the ancient cuneiform language. Stand by for crowd-sourcing cuneiform tablet translation.

1911 Encyclopædia Britannica, Volume 7

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