Dr. K.Y. Chen's Laboratory - The Five Original Writing Systems


samarian2The Sumerian language was not deciphered until the nineteenth century of our era, when it was found to be different from both the Indo-European and Semitic language groups. Fifteen hundred cuneiform symbols were reduced in the next thousand years to about seven hundred, but it did not become alphabetic until about 1300 BC. By 2500 BC libraries were established at Shuruppak and Eresh, and schools had been established to train scribes for the temple and state bureaucracies as well as to legally document contracts and business transactions.Schools were regularly attended by the sons of the aristocracy and successful; discipline was by caning.

Sumerian, the oldest known written language in human history, was spoken in Mesopotamia (modern Iraq and peripheral regions) throughout the third millennium. BC and survived as an esoteric written language until the death of the cuneiform tradition around the time of Christ. The Sumerian language, which is related to no other known tongue, was only properly deciphered this century. A considerable literature in Sumerian is currently being reconstructed from fragmentary clay tablets housed in the museums of the world. A logogram is a meaningful cuneiform sign.

The most important words in Sumerian had their own cuneiform signs, whose origins were pictographic, making an initial repertoire of about a thousand signs or logograms. Sumerian was an agglutinative language not just in its verb construction, but also in its noun or morpheme construction. The earliest known writing comes from Uruk and has been dated to about 3,300BC. It took the form of 'word-pictures' drawn with a stylus on tablets of damp clay. Each word-picture represented an object. Much later, the complete system had more than 700 signs. Tablets measured about 5cm wide and 2cm thick.

Writing developed as a convenient way to keep records of produce and accounts of trade. It much later became used to record literature and history. The word-pictures from Uruk developed into the script now called cuneiform. The pictures gradually became 'ideographs', an object also meaning an 'idea'. Then came 'phonograms' representing sounds as well as the meaning of a picture. Cuneiform was a syllabic script with hundreds of wedge-shaped signs that developed from these pictures. The Sumerians were the earliest to write in cuneiform, closely followed by the Assyrians, Babylonians, Elamites, Hittites, Hurrians and the Urartu from Anatolia.

Cuneiform was the language of politics until the fifth century BC. It died out and was replaced by the 22 letter Aramaic in about 900BC. The Sumerians of southern Mesopotamia, who assigned their own word-sounds to the symbols, wrote the earliest known documents in cuneiform. Tools included clay tablets and a wedged shaped stylus to produce writing.

Over 200,000, many from city of Mari, have been preserved. Sir Henry Rawlinson deciphered writing after finding the "Rock of Behistun" in present-day Iran.