Cuneiform and clay tablets in the ancient Near East (Isaiah 30)

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Illustration: Sample of Sumerian cuneiform writing

In ancient Mesopotamia the most common used writing material was the clay tablet (cf. Isaiah 30:8). The earliest ones were produced at the Sumerian city of Uruk during the fourth millennium B.C. Clay was available in such abundance and was so easy to mold into writing tablets that there was no obstacle to producing a great quantity of such tablets. Thus, over half a million tablet-documents have been discovered to date from the ancient Near East. Writing first involved carving into the clay with a sharp stick or nail – thus described as “nail-writing”.

No one knows exactly how writing emerged, but it probably began with clay tokens that were used as record-keeping devices. Marks placed upon these tokens eventually evolved into writing. At first “nail-writing” was practiced by drawing pictures and pictographic symbols (e.g. a depiction of a man to represent a man). Today we use pictograms to communicate simple ideas. A stylized likeness of a man or a woman can represent the men’s or women’s bathrooms; a cigarette with a circle around it and slash mark over it has come to be understood as “no smoking”. But it is impossible to communicate complex speech with such symbols.

As the need for record keeping increased, pictograms became more abstract and began to be formed with quick, straight strokes instead of curving lines (the picture of the man became more stylized and abstract – a symbol rather than a recognizable picture). By the third millennium B.C. cuneiform had been invented. Cuneiform *(Latin for “wedge-shaped”) is so named for the shape of the mark made by a reed stylus, triangular at one end, that was pressed into wet clay to make wedge-shaped lines.

With the advent of cuneiform, writing became even more abstract. Signs could now represent mot only words but also syllables, several of which could be combined to represent the syllables of a word. For example, the Sumerian word for “barley” is she. In cuneiform, the sign for barley might literally mean “barley”, but it might also denote some other word with the syllable she in it. Using English for our analogy, in this system the symbol for “man” might represent a man, but it might also represent the syllable “man-” in “manner” or “manufacture”. As the system became more sophisticated and uniform, the number of signs needed for writing Wasa reduced. Whereas as many as 2,000 signs are known from the earliest tablets, there were only about 200 still in use by the second millennium B.C. This allowed writing to truly represent speech, with all of its complexities of vocabulary and grammar. Thus myths, legends, history and songs began to be recorded.

Another development was the linear arrangement of signs. Originally, tablets were divided into rectangular boxes into which related signs were drawn in no particular order. These boxes were arranged in vertical columns. As writing became more abstract and rapid (ca. 2000 B.C), the signs within the boxes come to be written from left to right. Later the boxes were no longer drawn, and the signs were written left to right across the face of the tablet. This also led to a standardization of sign height, much as one finds today in ruled paper.

Cuneiform was first developed for use with the Sumerian language but was adapted for other Mesopotamian languages. The Akkadian adopted this form of writing, and as their realm of influence grew, cuneiform writing spread. By the second millennium B.C. the Elamites, Hurrians and Hittites were employing cuneiform to write their own languages. Eventually Akkadian became the international language of diplomacy, and Akkadian cuneiform spread throughout the Near East. The Amarna Letters demonstrate that cuneiform was utilized in fourteenth century Canaan and was readable in the Egyptian royal court.

Around 1600 B.C. the Phoenicians invented the precursor to the modern alphabet. In a true alphabet signs represent not words or syllables but individual consonants and vowels. This allows for writing to use a very small number of signs. With an alphabet there are fewer sign to learn, allowing almost anyone become literate. Also, spelling becomes more accurate and uniform, resulting in less ambiguity and confusion. The efficiency of the alphabet, eventually led to the decline of cuneiform in Syria-Palestine. The Arameic language, which was written alphabetically,  replaced Akkadian as the lingua franca (language of common, commercial use) of the ancient Near Eastern world.


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