Evolution of Cuneiform

© 1995-2001 Untangle Incorporated
Last Updated: Wednesday,December 1, 1999

From The Origin and Development of the Cuneiform System of Writing…Samuel Noah Kramer, "Thirty Nine Firsts In Recorded History" pp 381-383 (précis)


The Sumerians may have created cuneiform writing. They certainly molded it into a recording method widely used throughout the Near East by the 2nd millennium B.C. The oldest inscriptions to date are over 1000 tablets and fragments from about 3000 B.C.

The cuneiform script began as pictographic writing. Each sign was a picture of one or more concrete objects and represented a word whose meaning was identical or related closely to the object depicted. The problems with this method of writing are two-fold. Firstly the time needed to draw objects, and the large number of such objects needed. [The advantage is the ease of remembering what each object represents.].


The Sumerian scribes simplified the pictures to something simpler, something more abstract.
(See below for a table of some of the signs). The scribes solved the second problem by substituting a phonetic value for the ideographic values.

Here is a description of the development shown in each row of the table above.
The meaning of the columns is this:

  1. The first picture in each row represents the earliest known representation of a particular word.
  2. The scribes early on turned the tablet ninety degrees for convenience of writing so the tablet was often read with the sign in this position. This led to the sign being written that way.
  3. This is the `archaic' versions of a sign usually seen in tablets from 2500-2350 B.C. when written on clay tablets.
  4. This is the same sign as in III but when written on stone or metal.
  5. This is the sign as it developed by 2350-2000
  6. This is the later version of the sign in the same time period as V.
  7. This column represents a sign in the first half of the second millennium (2000-1000 B.C.) where many literary tablets were written.
  8. Simplified version of the signs used by the royal scribes of Assyria in the first millennium B.C.


  1. The star represents heaven, `an' in Sumerian. The same sign is used to represent the word 'dinger' for `god'.
  2. It is thought this represents the `earth', `ki' but that is uncertain.
  3. This likely represents a man, and is the world for man `lu'
  4. This represents a woman, the word `munus'
  5. This is a picture of a mountain, `kur' one meaning of which is mountain.
  6. This represents the compound word `mountain-woman' which means slave girl `geme' as it is from the mountainous region about them that the Sumerians obtained their slaves.
  7. This is a picture of a head. The Sumerian word for head is `sag'. To make the picture represent just a part on the head then it would be underlined.
  8. The mouth is underlined here and represents `ka' mouth, and also to speak `dug', the context is used to decide which word to use.
  9. This is a picture of a bowl for holding food, the word for food is `ninda'
  10. This is a compound word of mouth and food and means `to eat'.
  11. This is a picture of a water stream. representing water, `a' generally. The same sound was used for `in', and slowly the sign changed to represent not the thing, but the sound itself, so that the final cuneiform can represent both `water' and `in'.
  12. This is a compound word of water and mouth to represent drinking.
  13. This is a picture of the lower leg and foot so it means `du' to go and also `gub' to stand.
  14. It is a picture of a bird `mushen'
  15. This is a fish with the sound `ha' which is the sound for both `fish' and for `may'. The scribes therefore used the sign for both meanings.
  16. The picture of the head and horns of an ox. It represents `gud' the ox.
  17. The picture of the head of a cow for `ah' the sound of the word for cow.
  18. This is an ear of barley. It represents the word `she' barley.