Cuneiform is probably the earliest known system of writing. The name cuneiform, from Lat cuneus, wedge, was suggested about 250 years ago by Thomas Hyde, regius professor of Heb at the university of Oxford, and is given to scripts once in use among the peoples of Mesopotamia and neighboring countries. The characters of these scripts were formed of combinations of strokes having the shape of a wedge, cone or nail, and called, by the ancient users, fingers.
Cuneiform writing was practiced on wet clay tablets with a wedge-shaped vegetable stalk. Over time, other materials were used to engrave the characters, such as stone or metal.In some tablets, the experts were able to count 2000 different cuneiform signs. However, this quantity does not seem to be usual, since the characters used with frequencies were about 600.
Naturally the strokes impressed were thick on the top and on the left, thus giving birth to a series of wedge-shaped characters. These were impressed, line by line, with a s ial instrument, now known as a stylus, and calläby the users tablet-reed. Indeed normally it was made of reed. although sometimes the wooden stylus was employed. During the long period of Over years for which C. W. remained in use the characters naturally underwent considerable transformation. Indeed at the beginning the writing was not cuneiform at all.
Features of Cuneiform Writing Signs
The characters may have been purely pictorial, the picture symbols representing various objects, animate and inanimate. However, even the earliest extant written tablets do not represent the primitive stage in which all the signs in use were fully pictorial.
Finally the strokes were converted into wedges, and the objects originally depicted, except in the rarest cases, nothing but unrecognisable symbols.
When the tablet increased in size it could not be so held; it was then laid on a table at right angles to the body. The signs were written as before, but when read in the turned position of the tablet the symbols appeared to be lying on their back, i.e. turned at an angle of 90 degrees. Afterwards the symbols were always drawn in this position. In inscriptions on stone or metal the old position of the signs persisted for a few centuries more, but in the course of time the practice came into line with that followed on clay tablets.
The employment of the cuneiform characters, with both their ideographic and phonetic values, on the one hand, and their adaptation to the needs of languages belonging to different linguistic groups, had the result that many signs become polyphones, i.e. representing many sounds; others were homophones, having similar phonetic values, but representing entirely dif- ferent objects.
In order to remove ambiguities and confusion in the interpretation of the texts, two devices were introduced:
( I ) determinatives, that is signs which were not pronounced and were placed before or after the ideograms to be determined; these determinative signs defined the meaning of the ideograms by denoting the class to which the ideogram concerned belonged, such as deities, men and women, animals, plants, countries, plural and so forth;
(2) the use of syllabic signs as phonetic complements, consisting of a consonant and a vowel, which were placed after a polyphone sign ending with the same consonant.