CUNEIFORM. The term “cuneiform” (meaning “wedge-shaped”) refers to a type of script used by the Sumerians (after the earlier pictographic period) to represent the syllables and non-phonetic determinatives of their agglutinative language. From them it was borrowed by the Babylonians and Assyrians to put into writing their own (Akkad.) language, employing the same syllabic values and determinatives, but often employing Sumer. words for the sake of brevity (rather than spelling them out as they were actually pronounced in their own language—much as one uses the Lat. abbreviations, “etc.,” “e.g.,” “viz.,” and “i.e.”). The same general technique also was used by the Elamites, who adapted the Sumer. characters to their own totally different language; and some centuries later the Hittites followed suit, incorporating both Sumer. and Akkad. words for convenience’ sake, even though they doubtless pronounced them with the equivalent words in Hitt.
The cuneiform style of writing was well adapted to the inscribing of clay tablets, which received the wedge-marks while soft and moist, but afterward became as hard as stone after being fired in the kiln. About the middle of the 2nd millennium the Canaanites of Ugarit adopted the cuneiform technique, but evolved a genuine alphabet of thirty letters, largely expressing the consonants only and omitting the vowels. It should be observed that during this period Babylonian cuneiform enjoyed the status of an international mode of communication, and much diplomatic correspondence was carried on between nations to whom Babylonian was a foreign tongue (e.g. the Tell el-Amarna letters between Canaanite kings and the court of Egypt). Lastly, in the 7th cent. the Persians developed a cuneiform system of their own, consisting of forty-two signs, thirty-six of which were phonetic, all consisting of open syllables (i.e. syllables ending in a vowel), even though in actual practice some of these vowels were dropped. For example, what was spelled da-ha-ya-a-u-sa was pronounced dah-yaus. The shapes of these syllabic signs bear no demonstrable resemblance to the equivalent syllables in Akkad., and so it looks as if they were largely invented by the Persians and Medes themselves. Examples of these various types of cuneiform will be found in the article on Writing.