Mesopotamian Writing System & Development

Instructor: Artem Cheprasov
Did ancient Mesopotamians communicate with one another in writing? If so, how did their writing system come into existence and what do we call this system today?

Writing

Nowadays, the fact that you can read and write is taken for granted. In fact, it's not even seen as a major accomplishment. It's something that is part and parcel of life. But a long time ago, this wasn't the case. In fact, it was so rare that if you could read and write you could be set for life. Wouldn't it be nice if life were that easy today? Just learn to read and write and you'll be golden!

Let's go over the ancient Mesopotamian writing system and how it even came into existence in the first place.

Writing System

So what was the ancient Mesopotamian writing system? You may have already heard of it. Today, we call it cuneiform. This word comes to us from the Latin for cuneus, which means 'wedge' and signifies the wedge-like shape of the writing you can see in the picture in this lesson.

Hundreds of cuneiform symbols were used to represent words and syllables. The system also had an alphabet so you could, like we do in English today, spell a word out. However, the writing system was complex and some parts of it are ambiguous to this day. In fact, one symbol could represent everything from a sound or syllable to a concept or object.

And cuneiform was not a distinct writing system, per se. There were probably numerous languages that used this writing system. As a result, many cuneiform inscriptions remain undeciphered to this day.

Cuneiform
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Development

Ancient Mesopotamians invented writing around the fourth millennium BCE. This was made possible perhaps as a result of numerous factors:

  • A change in the environment that allowed people to settle
  • The creation of cities, which brought about more complex societies
  • The economic need to keep track and records of the exchange of goods

But the ancient Mesopotamians didn't create writing out of nowhere. People kept records before the invention of writing. Some would place sticks into the ground to count things like the number of sheep someone owned. Others would rely on clay tokens or small clay marbles for bookkeeping. Over time, in order to keep more specific track of things, markings developed on these tokens as the variety of goods increased.

Then, people began keeping track of things on clay tablets. At first, the symbols and signs were pictographs, or drawings of objects. For example, a donkey would look like a crude image of a donkey. Some of the symbols ancient Mesopotamians used were ideograms. These were symbols that represented associated meanings. For example, a drawing of a foot could mean 'to stand' or 'to walk'.

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