Sumerian writing (cuneiform)


A Sumerian relief

In the details of the early civilization that emerged in Mesopotamian lands, the Sumerian culture dominated for a period of time, then the Sumerian and Akkadian cultures mixed, and homogeneity appeared. In both cases, the cuneiform writing was the means of action and writing, and some vocabulary may have passed into the modern Latin language.

The Sumerian language was the vessel of culture and literature, religion and legislation, through which life is opened, and through which prayers are cited for the dead.

Ancient man preserved the sorting of sounds, especially for animals in the way of communicating with them through calling, in that early period, the vocal and visual language had a vocabulary that stems from verbs and contributes to the formation of speech sentences, but the development of the art and science of writing provided great wealth.

In the year 3200 BC, the Sumerian country was entering the stage of great civilization, when the people of Sumer, before others, invented the science and art of writing, and with that coincided with innovative methods for using copper.

Hence, Sumerian writing is commonly known as cuneiform, which means "wedge-shaped", it was written by making wedge-shaped impressions on clay tablets using a reed stylus, the script evolved over time and became more complex.

Pictogram and Discovery factors

 The earliest forms of Sumerian writing were pictographic, where symbols represented objects or concepts directly. Over time, these symbols became more abstract and stylized, losing their connection to the original pictorial representation.

Sumerian writing began from the point of pictogram and later developed through the invention of an artistic and scientific repertoire that was linked to expression by editing verbs and words from image to writing.

 The beginning, for example, to express the state of a sleeping man was to complete the image of a sleeping man, but this disappeared from the beginning using the alphabet.

Sumerian writing in cuneiform was the broadest and most powerful human communication at that distant time.

In the year 3100, the science of writing developed through cuneiform script accompanied by vocal expression, clay tablets were used for writing, and the decision was made to place these tablets in the oven so that they would remain for a long time, it must be noted that houses in the Sumerian cities began to be built after the writing stage using a solar dryer.

 Historical origin

The name Sumer goes back to the Akkadian language, and was used by the orientalist J. Aubert in 1869 to distinguish between the Akkadian Semites and the non-Semitic Sumerians, based on a name that is frequently repeated in the Sumerian tablets, which is (Sumer and Akkad). As for the Sumerians themselves, they called their country “Kiengi,” meaning the country of the original masters ( From "ki" country en master "gi" original).

It is the name that in the popular Sumerian dialect, emesal, was transformed into kanang, and it is read as kanan by deleting the last silent one, it is one of the Sumerian linguistic phenomena by inserting the Arabic letter “ayn” in the other Arabic one alif, according to the phenomenon of missing letters in the engraving of cuneiform signs, so this name directly indicates the name of Canaan.

Also among the names of Sumer is kalam, meaning diameter, in distinction from kurkur, which is a plural form meaning “countries,” and kalam is applied to the entire country of Mesopotamia related to Sumer (and the Arabic word  is “kalam,” meaning solid earth and dry clay).

And kurkur is the plural of kur, which corresponds to the Arabic word kur, meaning city or village.

Most archaeologists agree on calling the period preceding the historical eras in Mesopotamia the semi-historical era (protohistory) (in similarity to Pharaonic Egypt, where this era represented the era before the invention of writing).

This era extends over overlapping times that are not precisely defined until 2800 BC, this era consists of five parts, each of which is characterized by characteristics that distinguish it from the other parts.

Then after that the proto literate era, followed by the Sumerian era (2800-2371 BC), then the Akkadian era (2370-2230 BC), then the Sumerian-Akkadian era (2112-2004 BC), then the Old Babylonian era 2004- 1595 BC).)

Then after that the proto literate era, followed by the Sumerian era (2800-2371 BC), then the Akkadian era (2370-2230 BC), then the Sumerian-Akkadian era (2112-2004 BC), then the Old Babylonian era 2004- 1595 BC).)

The beginning of the emergence of writing

The early Sumerians were a mixture of groups that roamed the region in search of reasons for settlement, and it is impossible to investigate their ethnic origins, because the entire region was not yet prepared for the emergence of mobile communities dependent on pastoralism, and did not know stability until after the regularization of agriculture, in addition to the fact that the southern part of Mesopotamia at that time was nothing but a large, shallow swamp that could not be settled.

Early writing system

  Uruk witnessed the emergence of the first phase of the cuneiform script in the late fourth millennium BC, this script did not end after the decline of the Sumerian language as we know it now, so it continued to be used until the year 50 AD to record astronomical observations.

Between these two dates, the use of the Sumerian language spread for approximately three thousand years. The Assyrians spread the cuneiform script, and it became used in the correspondence of the Egyptian kings with the kings of the ancient East, Elamite cuneiform spread before and during the Achaemenid era, influenced by Sumerian cuneiform.

The Ucarinian cuneiform alphabet appeared between 1400 and 1200 BC, and in general no one can know at all about the transformation and spread of this language and the extent of its influence on the languages and dialects that existed with it until 1900 BC or 1700 BC.

However, the fact that its use was then limited to religious rituals and astronomical observations makes it common to assert its decline and disappearance from the ancient world, even though it is possible to trace its effects and estimate its transformations through new media represented in the languages and dialects of the Near East without exception.

Stages of cuneiform writing

The stages of the emergence and spread of cuneiform writing can be divided into four eras, according to the changes that occurred.

Archaic Sumerian era

It extends from 3100 to 2600 BC, and most of the evidence for this stage is represented in commercial transactions and educational school texts, such as simple exercises on writing signs.

At this stage, the Sumerian language written in cuneiform script is still difficult to understand and interpret due to the distortion of the sources (tablets) and the small number of them, most of which came to us from the city of Warka.

Middle Sumerian era

It extends from 2350 to 2140 BC, The Akkadians dominated during this stage (the Sarconian stage implicitly falls into this era), it can be imagined that the Sumerian language here is more vulnerable to changes than ever before due to its dialogue with the Akkadian language, and being influenced by it, despite the common opinion until now that it is the use of Sumerian declined during this stage in a limited area.

Modern Sumerian era

It extends from 2140 to 2020 BC.. It witnessed the emergence and control of the Third Dynasty of Ur, in which the region witnessed a new era of stability that was reflected in the aspects of life, especially caves and construction, and to its founder Umammu dates back the oldest attempt to publish a written law regulating transactions, and from this era in which it flourished writing.

This stage ended when the nomadic tribes coming from the desert were able to end the rule of this dynasty, and the dynasty of Isin, Larsa, and Babylon arose.

Post-Sumerian era

It extends from 2020 to 1850 BC, and is also known as the ancient Babylonian era, at this stage, Babylon became the most important and famous city in the region, and it was no longer possible to talk about a political entity for the Sumerians, except that the matter was different with the Sumerian language.

The use of cuneiform signs was widespread in administrative and legal texts and royal inscriptions, most of which were bilingual (Sumerian and Babylonian), and many of the Sumerian literary texts that descended from earlier stages through chanting and narration traditions were recorded in writing for the first time in the period, Ancient Babylonian, and includes texts on a variety of topics, such as myths, epics, hymns, mirrors, ritual and votive rituals, proverbs, stories, sermons, and intellectual notes.

Cuneiform writing and representation of the characteristics of the Sumerian language

Sumerian writing arose to represent the Sumerian language in a slow, gradual manner, and following up on the pottery produced through ancient roles makes us reject the idea that was widespread at that time in scientific circles about the sudden emergence of this writing, an idea that was reflected in linguistic research and distorted its course for a while.

It is likely that the first words in the emergence of language were single letters to express things and emotions, and this is the beginning that we can assume in the journey of codifying the language and the emergence of writing, as in the formal stage the surfaces of things were depicted with lines that summarize their general shapes, to refer to them from a distance, which is the stage in which Egyptian hieroglyphic writing also began.

The syllabic signs were written down gradually, as they began as single syllables, then multiplied little by little, until they reached a thousand signs, each of which represented a syllable indicating something, and by meeting one group with another, words were generated, and whenever a single word became established in the circulation of the Sumerians, it would be written down, two syllables, three, then four.

Thus, the earliest forms of Sumerian writing were pictographic, where symbols represented objects or concepts directly. 

Over time, these symbols became more abstract and stylized, losing their connection to the original pictorial representation.

Whenever a word became established in the circulation of the Sumerians, it was written down, in two syllables, then three, then four, and so on, passing through the stages of development of writing in the cuneiform script, leading to its decline. That is, the Sumerian lexicon, in its transition from the formal number (writing on tablets) to syllabic writing, followed stages in expression, the middle of which was the richest.


After several centuries of the ancient Babylonian period, Sumerian continued to be taught in Babylonian schools until the late seventh century BC. Indeed, we find Sumerian words long after that that appear written down in the Hellenistic era in Greek letters.

With the beginning of the Christian era, the use of the Sumerian language seems to have disappeared, just as the Sumerian writing disappeared.

 Indeed, the name Sumer seems to have faded from memory, after spreading for three thousand years, until it was discovered in the nineteenth century AD.









Post a Comment