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Cuneiform

Cuneiform (German: Keilschrift, French: écriture cunéiforme) writing is the first known form of written language. Created by the Sumerians around 3500 BC, it began as a system of pictographs. Through repeated use over time the pictorial representations began to look simpler and more abstract.

The first pictograms were drawn on clay tablets in vertical columns with a pen made from a sharpened reed[?] stylus. Then two developments made the process quicker and easier: People began to write in horizontal rows (rotating counter-clockwise all of the pictograms 90° in the process), and a new wedge-tipped stylus was used which was pushed into the clay, producing wedge-shaped ("cuneiform") signs. By adjusting the relative position of the tablet to the stylus, the writer could use a single tool to make a variety of impressions.

Cuneiform tablets could be fired in kilns to provide a permanent record, or they could be recycled if permanence was not called for. Many of the tablets found by archaeologists were preserved because they were baked when attacking armies burned the building in which they were kept.

Cuneiform was adapted by the Akkadians, Sumerians, Babylonians, Elamites, Hittites and Assyrians to write their own languages and was widely used in Mesopotamia for about 3000 years, though the syllabic nature of the script as it was refined by the Sumerians was unintuitive to the Semitic-language speakers. This fact, before Sumerian civilization was rediscovered, prompted many philologists to suspect a precursor civilization to the Babylonian.

The use of Aramaic became widespread under the Assyrian Empire and the Aramaean alphabet gradually replaced cuneiform. The last known cuneiform inscription, an astronomical text, was written in 75 AD. Old Persian[?] and Ugaritic[?] were written using two unrelated alphabets apparently inspired by cuneiform.

Knowledge of cuneiform was lost until AD 1835 when Henry Rawlinson, an English army officer, found some inscriptions on a cliff at Behistun in Persia. Carved in the reign of King Darius of Persia (522 BC-486 BC), they consisted of identical texts in the three official languages of the empire: Old Persian, Babylonian, and Elamite. After translating the Persian, Rawlinson began to decipher the others. By 1851 he could read 200 Babylonian signs. This process was similar to the way in which Egyptian hieroglyphs were desciphered through the use of the Rosetta Stone.

Cuneiform has a specific format for transliteration.



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