Beginnings of Writing: Cuneiform


Alphabets and hence writing is magic incarnate. This is why there are Gods of Writing and Scribes to ensure that the words are right. The following is an essay on cuneiform which became the basis for the Roman alphabet used today.

In Mesopotamia, during the Uruk Period (3500 – 3100 BCE), many villages became cities. As they expanded, each new city had to reorganize to better govern and support their burgeoning populations. Out of this development came agriculture, trade, and writing.

In Sumer (3100- 2800 BCE), cities were organized around temples. The “en” (the economic official of the temple) kept track of the offerings and wealth. To keep inventory, an en had his “sangu” (accountants) survey everything. Since Sumer is located in an area of “clay muck”, the Sumerian accountants made clay figures for tallying. But, when the volume of goods became great, these figures became cumbersome to use. Then, the accountants started marking items on clay tablets. Because they were using wet clay, various scribes used a stylus which made wedge-shaped markings (cuneiform) in the clay.

Because Sumer had little in natural resources, many citizens focused on manufacturing finished goods. Their merchants developed trading organizations (“Karums”) to govern trade in raw and finished materials. Because of the Karums, Sumerian trade expanded from Mesopotamia to Egypt and Syria.

Adopting the inventory methods of the temples, merchants started using various tally symbols for items. Since, they needed to convey the concepts of orders, sales, and general merchandising issues, many scribes started using pictograms. These pictograms could then be combined to convey meaning. Merchants were able to convey crude messages over time and distance.

The first known writer by name was the priestess Enheduanna (daughter of Sargon of Akkad). After she wrote her hymns to Inanna, The Morning Star, she signed the tablet with her name and seal. The use of writing was both religious in nature as well as practical. Nisaba the Goddess of Writing was also the Goddess of Accountants.

Because Sumerian was a monosyllabic language, their scribes could convey any meaning by using pictograms as ideograms. Since Sumerian was rich in homonyms and homophones, they could have a pictogram represent a sound (phonogram), an object, or an idea. By using sounds as puns, Sumerian scribes expanded their writing vocabulary. They grouped symbols together to convey various concepts.

Later, Sumerian writing was adopted by the Akkadians and Elamites. Since their languages were radically different from Sumerian, these peoples needed to differentiate the meanings of each of the Sumerian symbols. Determinations (additions and modifications) were added to indicate parts of speech. Cuneiform was developed into a working alphabet.

The Phoenicians owe their phonetic writing system to the Sumerians. The Phoenicians did not invent their alphabet as much as exported their adapted version of the Sumerian one throughout the Mediterranean. The Greeks adopted their alphabet from the Phoenicians, calling it “Alpha, Beta” from the Semitic “Aleph, Beth.”


1. Homophones: Words with the same sounds but different meanings and spellings.
Example: Pear and pair. A pair of pears is two pieces of fruit.

2. Homonym: Words with the same sound and spellings but different meanings.
Example: Fair and fair. Because the weather is fair, we are going to the county fair.

3. Please note that regional accents will change what are homonyms and homophones. In New England, aunt and ant are pronounced differently, while route and root are said in the same way.


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