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What is Cuneiform?

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  • Written By: Diane Goettel
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Images By: Sunchese, Luke Ma, Bogdanserban
  • Last Modified Date: 24 August 2016
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Most linguists, historians, and archaeologists confer that cuneiform, which appeared about 5,000 years ago is the first real written language. Cuneiform was developed by the Sumerians in southern Mesopotamia, the land that presently lies within the borders of Iraq. Most of the surviving evidence of cuneiform exists as inscriptions or impressions in stone and clay tablets. Cuneiform was created by impressing a wedge-shaped tool into uncured tables of clay. In fact, the Latin word cuneus means “wedge.” These writing tools, also known as “styluses,” were generally made out of reeds.

Other materials such as wax, metal, ivory, and glass were used less frequently for the inscription of cuneiform. Of course, we have no way of knowing what was inscribed in other, more perishable materials, such as tree bark or tanned animal skins. Some archaeologists believe, however, that papyrus was rarely used because the raw materials necessary to make it were not common in the area. Still, we can only rely on what has survived to teach us about the culture of the people who created the first form of written language.

There are, in fact, numerous versions of cuneiform that were developed in the Middle East. Scholars have identified Ugaritic, Assyrian, Akkadian, Babylonian, Hittite, Old Persian, and Elamite forms. Cuneiform is not a common form of writing today. Rather, there are few scholars who have the training to decipher it.

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Because cuneiform was the written language of ancient peoples, the artifacts in which it was inscribed are quite precious; not only are they very old, but they also inform our history. Cuneiform inscribed in statues and obelisks often report information regarding the politics and religion of the time. For this reason, artifacts that contain cuneiform inscriptions are often housed in museums. The Louvre in Paris, for example, has a large collection of clay tablets, statues, and obelisks that are inscribed with cuneiform.

Although cuneiform is the first known written language, human beings were making an attempt to create something akin to the written language long before cuneiform was actually developed. Linguists consider cave drawings, which archaeologists have found to be as much as 20,000 years old, to be a precursor to language. However, cave drawings are not a real representation of language.

Written language is actually a visual representation of the spoken words that we use to communicate. Cave drawings, on the other hand, are a representation of an event. The major difference is that a cave drawing can be understood by anyone, no matter what language(s) he or she speaks. A picture of the sun hovering over a human with a weapon and a fallen animal tells a story that can be universally understood. Written language is not the same, as it must be decoded for information by a person who understands the symbols and their meanings.

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