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cuneiform (kyo͞onēˈĭfôrm) [Lat.,=wedge-shaped], system of writing developed before the last centuries of the 4th millennium B.C. in the lower Tigris and Euphrates valley, probably by the Sumerians (see Sumer). The characters consist of arrangements of wedgelike strokes generally impressed with a stylus on wet clay tablets, which were then dried or baked. The history of the script is strikingly parallel to that of the Egyptian hieroglyphic (see also alphabet and inscription). The normal Babylonian and Assyrian writing used a large number (300–600) of arbitrary cuneiform symbols for words and syllables; some had been originally pictographic. There was an alphabetic system, too, making it possible to spell a word out, but because of the adaptation from Sumerian, a different language, there were many ambiguities. A single symbol could be used to represent a concept, an object, a simple sound or syllable, or to indicate the category of words requiring additional definition. Cuneiform writing was used outside Mesopotamia also, notably in Elam and by the Hittites (see Anatolian languages). There are many undeciphered cuneiform inscriptions, apparently representing several different languages. Cuneiform writing declined in use after the Persian conquest of Babylonia (539 B.C.), and after a brief renaissance (3d–1st cent. B.C.) ceased to be used in Mesopotamia. A very late use of cuneiform writing was that of the Persians, who established a syllabary for Old Persian. This is the writing of the Achaemenids (mid-6th cent. B.C.–4th cent. B.C.), whose greatest monument is that of Darius I at Behistun. Key discoveries of cuneiform inscriptions have been made at Nineveh, Lagash, Uruk, Tell el Amarna, Susa, and Boğazköy. Two great names in the interpretation of cuneiforms are those of Sir Henry C. Rawlinson and G. F. Grotefend.


See E. Chiera, They Wrote on Clay (1956); J. D. Prince, Assyrian Primer (1909, repr. 1966); A. Gaur, A History of Writing (1984).

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Designs having a wedge-shaped form; especially applied to characters, or to the inscriptions in such characters, of the ancient Mesopotamians and Persians.
Illustrated Dictionary of Architecture Copyright © 2012, 2002, 1998 by The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc. All rights reserved
The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.



writing formed by pressing into clay wedge-shaped lines; used in Asia Minor.

Cuneiform first appeared in Sumer in about 3,000 B.C. The Sumerians began to convey in images the names of certain specific objects and general concepts. Thus, a picture of a leg conveyed the concepts “to walk” (Sumerian du- and rá-) “to stand” (gub-) “to bring” (turn-), and so on. There were about 1,000 symbols. The symbols were only guidelines for the memory, fixing the most important aspects of the thought conveyed, rather than connected speech, but since the readers spoke Sumerian the symbols were linked to specific words. This made possible the use of symbols to designate combinations of sounds independent of their meaning; thus, the symbol for “leg” could be used not only for the verbs mentioned but also for the syllables du-, ra-, and so on; the symbol for “star” could designate such nouns as dingir (“god”) and an (“sky”), the syllable an, and so on.

Verbal-syllabic writing became a system by the middle of the third millennium B.C. The stem of a noun or verb was expressed by an ideograph (a symbol for a concept), and grammatical markers and connecting words were expressed by symbols conveying their syllabic value. Homonymous stems of different meaning were expressed by different symbols (homophony). Each symbol could have several meanings, both syllabic and concept-related (polyphony). A small number of radicals—un-pronounced markers—were used to single out words that expressed concepts of certain specific categories, such as birds, fish, and occupations. The number of symbols was reduced to 600, not counting combined symbols. As writing became faster, the figures were simplified. The lines of the symbols were pressed with a rectangular stick that entered the clay at an angle and therefore created a wedge-shaped depression. At first the writing was in vertical columns, from right to left; later it was line by line from left to right. (See Table 1 for the development of cuneiform symbols.)

The Akkadians (Babylonians and Assyrians) adapted cuneiform writing to their own Semitic inflected language in the middle of the third millennium B.C., reducing the number of symbols to 300 and devising new syllabic values corresponding to the Akkadian phonetic system; purely phonetic (syllabic) notations of words began to be used. However, the use of Sumerian ideographs and the writing of certain words and expressions (in the Akkadian reading) also continued. The Akkadian cuneiform system spread beyond Mesopotamia and was adapted to Elamite, Hurrian, Hittite, Luwian, and Urartian. Beginning in the second half of the first millennium B.C., cuneiform was used for religious and legal purposes only in certain cities of southern Mesopotamia (for the already dead Sumerian and Akkadian languages).

There are cuneiform remains in various forms—prisms, cylinders, cones, and stone slabs; clay tablets were most widely used. A great number of cuneiform texts have survived: business documents, historical inscriptions, epics, dictionaries, mathematical and other scientific works, and religious and magical texts.

The most important examples of cuneiform are (1) the Ugaritic cuneiform alphabet from the city of Ugarit (Ras Shamra), second millennium B.C., which was an adaptation of the ancient Semitic alphabet to clay writing and is similar to Akkadian cuneiform only in the method of making the symbols, and (2) the Iranian (ancient Persian) syllabic cuneiform of the sixth to fourth centuries B.C., whose deciphering was started by the German scholar G. F. Grotefend in 1802; the trilingual Persian-Elamite-Akkadian inscriptions made possible the deciphering of Akkadian cuneiform, done in the 1850’s by the scholars H. C. Rawlinson of Britain, E. Hincks of Ireland, and J. Oppert of France.

The Sumerian cuneiform system was deciphered by a number of scholars at the turn of the 20th century, and the Ugaritic system was deciphered in 1930–32 by the French scholar C. Virolleaud and the German scholar H. Bauer and others. The decipherment of the archaic Sumerian picture writing was started by the Soviet scholar A. A. Vaiman. The Hittite and

Urartian cuneiform systems, which fall within the Akkadian system, did not require deciphering as such.


Friedrich, I. Deshifrovka zabytykh pis’mennostei i iazykov. Moscow, 1961. (Translated from German.)
Vaiman, A. A. “K rasshifrovke protoshumerskoi pis’mennosti.” In Peredneaziatskii sbornik, fase. 2. Moscow, 1966.
D’iakonov, I. M. lazyki drevnei Perednei Azii Moscow, 1967.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.


Any of three wedge-shaped tarsal bones.
Either of a pair of cartilages lying dorsal to the thyroid cartilage of the larynx.
Wedge-shaped, chiefly referring to skeletal elements.
McGraw-Hill Dictionary of Scientific & Technical Terms, 6E, Copyright © 2003 by The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.


Having a wedge-shaped form; esp. applied to characters, or to the inscriptions in such characters, of the ancient Mesopotamians and Persians.
McGraw-Hill Dictionary of Architecture and Construction. Copyright © 2003 by McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.


1. of, relating to, or denoting the wedge-shaped characters employed in the writing of several ancient languages of Mesopotamia and Persia, esp Sumerian, Babylonian, etc.
2. of or relating to a tablet in which this script is employed
3. any one of the three tarsal bones
Collins Discovery Encyclopedia, 1st edition © HarperCollins Publishers 2005
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"The unearthed cuneiforms in Ugarit (modern Ras Shamra) are still gaining admiration till the current time as they include legends, rituals, alphabets, school exercises, dictionaries and stamps, and they constituted the most ancient alphabetic literature in old world," al-Qayyem said.
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However, recent excavations at Ziyaret Tepe - the site of the ancient city Tushan, a provincial capital of the Neo-Assyrian Empire - have unearthed a large quantity of tokens dating to the first millennium BC: two thousand years after 'cuneiform' - the earliest form of writing - emerged on clay tablets.