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The earliest writing in Mesopotamia was a picture writing invented by the Sumerians who wrote on clay tablets using long reeds. The script the Sumerians invented and handed down to the Semitic peoples who conquered Mesopotamia in later centuries, is called cuneiform, which is derived from two Latin words: cuneus , which means "wedge," and forma , which means "shape." This picture language, similar to but more abstract than Egyptian hieroglyphics, eventually developed into a syllabic alphabet under the Semites (Assyrians and Babylonians) who eventually came to dominate the area.

In Sumer, the original writing was pictographic ("picture writing"); individual words were represented by crude pictorial symbols that resembled in some way the object being represented, as in the Sumerian word for king, lu-gal :


The first symbol pictures "gal," or "great," and the second pictures "lu," or "man." Eventually, this pictorial writing developed into a more abstract series of wedges and hooks. These wedges and hooks are the original cuneiform and represented in Sumerian entire words (this is called ideographic and the word symbols are called ideograms, which means "concept writing"); the Semites who adopted this writing, however, spoke an entirely different language, in fact, a language as different from Sumerian as English is different from Japanese. In order to adapt this foreign writing to a Semitic language, the Akkadians converted it in part to a syllabic writing system; individual signs represent entire syllables. However, in addition to syllable symbols, some cuneiform symbols are ideograms ("picture words") representing an entire word; these ideograms might also, in other contexts, be simply syllables. For instance, in Assyrian, the cuneiform for the syllable "ki" is written as follows:


However, as an ideogram, this cuneiform also stands for the Assyrian word irsitu , or "earth." So reading cuneiform involves mastering a large syllabic alphabet as well as a large number of ideograms, many of them identical to syllable symbols. This complicated writing system dominated Mesopotamia until the century before the birth of Christ; the Persians greatly simplified cuneiform until it represented something closer to an alphabet.


The Mesopotamians wrote on clay tablets with long reeds while the clay was still wet. The fresh clay then hardened and a permanent record was created. The original Mesopotamian writings were crude pictures of the objects being named, but the difficulty of drawing on fresh clay eventually produced the wedges and hooks unique to cuneiform. This writing would be formed by laying the length of the reed along the wet clay and moving the end nearest the hand from one side to another to form the hooks.

As with all cultures, writing greatly changed Mesopotamian social structure and the civilization's relationship to its own history. Writing allowed laws to be written and so to assume a static and independent character; history became more detailed and incorporated much more of local cultures' histories.

Richard Hooker

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