A First Attempt at Cuneiform

Learning how to write using cuneiform has been on my TODO list for a long time now. Ever since I watched Tom Scott’s interview with Irving Finkel outside the British Museum it has struck me as a rather fun and interesting subject to learn about. After watching this video I immediately bought Finkel’s book and it has been a fixture on my bookshelf for two years now as I routinely told myself I would learn the writing system.

For one thing, I think it’s incredibly interesting to try and learn a new writing system. Back in 2014 I tried to learn some basic Japanese, starting with the phonic alphabets – Hiragana and Katakana. While I was successful in learning the small number of symbols which comprise the two alphabets, fluency in written Japanese never emerged due to the much greater challenge of learning Kanji.

Cuneiform presents a similar problem in that it is a phonic alphabet, but it also contains logograms. According to Finkel and Taylor’s “Cuneiform” (Page 35), approximately 200 symbols were necessary for writing legal documentation. This doesn’t really indicate what standard of written cuneiform is required for basic literacy, but it does suggest the scale of the cuneiform alphabet.

Writing is performed with the help of a stylus which the scribe uses to impress symbols onto wet clay. As Finkel teaches in the video above, there are essentially three orientations of the stylus. Given as points on the unit circle, these are 0°, 45°, and 90°. For a stylus, a simple lollipop stick, broken in half with one end square may be employed. Modelling clay which can be purchased at any hobby shop can be used as a canvas.

Finkel and Taylor helpfully include a table in the final chapter of their book which shows 116 cuneiform characters. Each character represents a phonetic sound. Combining these symbols it is possible to phonetically spell out words in English. Of course, it is difficult to reconcile English pronunciation with an alphabet that was originally used for writing Sumerian and Akkadian. But it is possible to make do. For example, I believe that the correct way to express my name, Gary, is as a combination of the symbols ga-re. My mother’s name, Mary would similarly be ma-re. My father, Nigel, ni-ge-el.

My attempts at writing these three names can be seen in the images below. On one side I have written “Mary, Gary, Mary” in, what I think, is reasonably legible cuneiform. “Nigel” was a little more challenging both due to the more complex structure of the symbols, and the fact that it required three characters rather than just two, meaning I frequently wrote over the edge of my little clay disc.

Side 1 showing Mary, Gary, Mary on three separate lines
Side 2 showing, roughly, Nigel, Nigel

Much like English, the actual phonic produced by a cuneiform symbol can depend on the context in which it is used, e.g. as seen with the TH in The and Shorthand. Hence in real-world applications, cuneiform is not simply a cypher for other alphabets. But, if you are more interested in fun than the actual history of the writing system, then a simplified view is probably fine.

I am always horribly conscious of the Dunning-Kruger effect when discussing subjects like this, i.e. where I have only read one short book, and have practice writing on a single clay slab for a grand total of about 30 minutes. So rather than waffle on about cuneiform, I’m going to recommend Finkel and Taylor’s book as an interesting starting point which should give you a good overview of the history of cuneiform as well as the basic tools to write some yourself, should the interest take you.

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