Copyright

Cuneiform Writing: Definition, Symbols & History

An error occurred trying to load this video.

Try refreshing the page, or contact customer support.

Coming up next: World War II: Summary, Effects & Participants

You're on a roll. Keep up the good work!

Take Quiz Watch Next Lesson
 Replay
Your next lesson will play in 10 seconds
  • 0:02 Cuneiform Writing
  • 1:15 Cuneiform 'Letters'
  • 1:56 Cuneiform Evolution
  • 2:52 Lesson Summary
Add to Add to Add to

Want to watch this again later?

Log in or sign up to add this lesson to a Custom Course.

Log in or Sign up

Timeline
Autoplay
Autoplay
Speed

Recommended Lessons and Courses for You

Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Sailus

Chris has an M.A. in history and taught university and high school history.

In this lesson, we explore humankind's earliest language notation, cuneiform writing, created in the 4th millennium BC. We explore its characteristics and its evolution throughout history.

Cuneiform Writing

Symbols and language are so present in our modern society, we don't even stop to think about them. The red octagons posted at our street corners might just be painted aluminum but without them, chaos would ensue on the roadways. Similarly, what are those $10 bills in your wallet, really, other than green strips of slightly smelly paper? We hand them over to buy some apples or tip our waiter without even thinking. That we give these otherwise mundane objects meaning is the entire reason our society continues to run smoothly. Signs and written language might be ubiquitous today, but there was a time when written symbols were a novelty.

Cuneiform writing was humankind's earliest form of writing. Created in Mesopotamia, an ancient civilization between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in modern-day Iraq, sometime around 3000 BC, cuneiform was based on earlier pictographs. What made cuneiform different was that the symbols were often phonograms, or characters meant to represent certain syllables in the Sumerian language. The characters were often written on clay tablets with the hardened end of a reed.

Cuneiform 'Letters'

In its earliest forms, the cuneiform alphabet consisted of over 1,000 characters, although that number was reduced in its later forms to around 400. Characters in the alphabet were differing arrays of lines and triangle-shaped wedges; cuneiform is Latin for 'wedge-shaped.' The characters ranged from the very simple to the very complex, and simple characters could often be combined to create compound words and related phrases. Some examples of cuneiform and how the symbols changed through time are seen below. Note how words such as sag (head) began as pictographic representations, but evolved into a complex arrangement of wedges and lines.

Examples of cuneiform writing and their evolution through time

Cuneiform Evolution

Cuneiform grew out of a need for basic accounting measures in ancient Mesopotamia to measure the exchange of livestock and crops. Prior to cuneiform writing, traders would press clay tokens into tablets to create a specific mark for a certain good or service. This evolved into cuneiform when the Mesopotamians discarded the tokens and began drawing the impressions in the clay with a hardened reed.

To unlock this lesson you must be a Study.com Member.
Create your account

Register to view this lesson

Are you a student or a teacher?

Unlock Your Education

See for yourself why 30 million people use Study.com

Become a Study.com member and start learning now.
Become a Member  Back
What teachers are saying about Study.com
Try it risk-free for 30 days

Earning College Credit

Did you know… We have over 160 college courses that prepare you to earn credit by exam that is accepted by over 1,500 colleges and universities. You can test out of the first two years of college and save thousands off your degree. Anyone can earn credit-by-exam regardless of age or education level.

To learn more, visit our Earning Credit Page

Transferring credit to the school of your choice

Not sure what college you want to attend yet? Study.com has thousands of articles about every imaginable degree, area of study and career path that can help you find the school that's right for you.

Create an account to start this course today
Try it risk-free for 30 days!
Create An Account
Support