System of writing employed in ancient times to write a number of languages of the Middle East. The original and primary writing material for cuneiform texts was a damp clay tablet, into which the scribe would press a wedge-shaped stroke with a reed stylus. A configuration of such impressions constituted a character, or sign. Proto-cuneiform signs dating from c. 3200–3000 BC were drawn rather than impressed and were largely pictographic (see pictography), though these features were lost as the script evolved. A single cuneiform sign could be a logogram (an arbitrary representation of a word) or a syllabogram (a representation of the sound of a syllable). The first language to be written in cuneiform was Sumerian (see Sumer). Akkadian began to be written in cuneiform c. 2350 BC. Later the script was adapted to other South Asian languages. Cuneiform was slowly displaced in the first millennium BC by the rise of Aramaic, written in an alphabet script of Phoenician origin. Knowledge of the value of cuneiform signs was lost until the mid-19th century, when European scholars deciphered the script.
Examples illustrating the evolution of cuneiform writing.—© Merriam-Webster Inc.
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