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Cuneiform Writing

representation, history, ideograph, expression, sign, asia and syllable

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CUNEIFORM WRITING is so called be cause its characters consist of strokes of the shape of a wedge (Latin, cuneus) ; and for a like reason it is also known as arrow-headed but less widely; it is a mode of writing used • in early times, and till the downfall of the Babylonian and Assyrian empires, in the region of the Euphrates and Tigris and in contiguous coun tries northward and eastward of those empires, as Armenia, Persia, Media, Susiana. It was an outgrowth of a primitive hieroglyphy most originating among the peoples of that of western Asia and not derived from Egypt. For an account of the archzological researches in Babylonia and Assyria see the arti cle BABYLONIA, where the invention of cunei form writing is credited to the AcCadian popu lation of Chaldtea, from whom it passed to a Semitic people, their conquerors, later known as Babylonians and Assyrians. Before the con quest the cuneiform writing of the Accadians had been adapted by them not only to ideo graphic representation— representation of ob jects or notions, as the sign $ denotes dollar or as in astronomy the trident 4) stands for the planet Neptune — but also to representation of sounds. This was a step in the direction of alphabetic writing, but the cuneiform system never reached that development, and its highest achievement was the production of a syllabary —a catalogue of the syllables of the language. The transition from the ideographic to the pho netic use was a long step toward perfection as it immensely simplified the problem of writing by reducing to a comparatively small number of different characters the infinity of emblems required for ideographic representation. It was as though a sign, as IP, originally, let us suppose, the ideograph for tree, were made to stand for the syllable ta, to, etc.: in that case all words beginning with the syllable ta or to would be represented by a form of expression having thht sign for its first element, and not by an independent arbitrary form.

The cuneiform writings found among the ruins of the Assyrian, Babylonian and other ancient cities of western Asia were either pressed with a stylus on tablets of moist clay then kiln-baked or were incised with a chisel on monuments of stone. The wedge either stands

upright, or inclined at an angle, or lies hori zontal, or two wedges form an angle coming together at their points, or at their bases. A few examples will give an idea of the manner of combining them for the expression of ideas: In its stage of highest development the cunei form writing was exceedingly complex and clumsy, and the fact that it was made to serve so well as it did the needs of the Babylonians and Assyrians as a means of literary expression, as the vehicle of laws and as a means of his torical record, gives striking demonstration of man's invincible effort to develop his intellec tual and moral powers. It was a very simple thing to make the ideograph speak to the ear as well as to the eye — to represent, for example, the sun (utu) by an ideograph and then to make that symbol stand for the syllable ut in all situations; but it was a beginning, and out of it was constructed as efficient a mechanism as was allowed by the refractoriness of the material of construction. But the cuneiform writing never gave any indications of a tend ency toward an alphabetic system.

The results of archaeological exploration in those countries of western Asia are justly re garded as among the most valuable of modern historical research. They put us in possession of much of the literature and early history of peoples whose record seemed already lost past recovery as far back as the time of Herod otus (5th century ri.c.) or at least of Berosus (3d century ac.) of whose writings only some fragments have come down to us : our knowl edge of the history of those great empires, beyond a few incidental notices in the Bible, was drawn mainly or wholly from those two his• torians; but now, thanks to the researches of our contemporaries, we have with regard to many points of Assyrian and Babylonian his tory fuller and more authentic information than we possess regarding the history of ancient Greece and Rome.

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