dcclt Digital Corpus of Cuneiform Lexical Texts
University of California, Berkeley
Home Introduction Browse Texts Staff

Introduction: What is a Lexical List?

By the end of the fourth millennium B.C. the administrators of Uruk , a city located in the very south of Mesopotamia (present-day Iraq), invented a new device to keep track of their increasingly complex transactions. They created a system of symbols for numbers, commodities, and professions to be drawn with a stylus on tablets of clay. This system of symbols is called archaic cuneiform and was the earliest form of writing. The Urukeans not only created this writing system, but also devised the tools to transmit the technique to a future generation. These tools are thematic lists of professions, vessels, trees, domestic animals, fish, birds, and so on, providing the correct symbols for each of these words. The archaic thematic lists are the earliest examples of lexical lists in Mesopotamia and the earliest written evidence of intellectual activity in the history of humanity.

People who spoke Sumerian, an agglutinative language for which no cognate has been identified, probably invented the writing system. Over the course of time, cuneiform was adapted to record a variety of other languages, the most important of which was Akkadian, a Semitic language. Akkadian and Sumerian were probably spoken side by side throughout most of the third millennium B.C. in Southern Mesopotamia. By the end of the third millennium, Sumerian ceased to exist as a spoken language but was retained for scribal and cultic purposes up to the end of the first millennium B.C.

Lexical lists and bilingualism were to become two characteristic features of Mesopotamian written culture in the second and first millennia. Sumerian lexical lists were provided with Akkadian translations in order to teach and preserve the knowledge of the dead language. In the second half of the second millennium B.C., the cuneiform writing system spread over much of the Ancient Near East. Inscribed clay tablets from this period have been found in Syria, Anatolia, Israel, and Egypt . The spread of the writing system was accompanied by the spread of Sumerian-Akkadian lexical lists. In Mesopotamia proper in the first millennium B.C., the gradual rise of Aramaic, and later Greek, for both written and oral communication, did not put an end to the transmission of Sumerian-Akkadian lists. Quite to the contrary, lexical lists became prestigious repositories of traditional knowledge. They were used both in scribal education and in the scholarly business of the interpretation of ancient texts. At the very end of this history, in the Hellenistic Period, Greek transcriptions were sometimes added to indicate the pronunciation of the ancient Sumerian words.

From this period of more than three millennia, an estimated fifteen thousand clay tablets with lexical texts are known. For modern scholarship, they fulfill the same function they did way back then: they teach us how to read the Sumerian language. At the same time, this corpus gives a unique insight into the methods and contents of ancient Mesopotamian education and its development over time.

1. Sign Lists and Word List

The earliest examples of lexical texts from archaic Uruk were thematically arranged word lists. Over the millennia, however, a wide variety of list types were created. The most important distinction that may be made in the cuneiform lexical corpus is that between sign lists and word lists. Sign lists teach the proper execution and use of cuneiform signs. Word lists teach the proper spelling and meaning of words.

1.1 Sign List

The cuneiform system has approximately 700 individual signs, and almost every sign has a variety of uses. The following list (UM 29-16-31 obverse) is an example of an Old Babylonian exercise from a scribal school in Nippur (about 1725 B.C.). The left hand side contains the teacher's example, which was to be copied by a pupil on the right side of the tablet. The pupil's copy is erased, so that he could do the same exercise again—but apparently he did not. Each line in the teacher's model text begins with a bullet (a single vertical, here represented by ¶). The sign to be explained is preceded by a gloss in slightly smaller characters. The lines 4-8 read as follows:




In modern transliteration capitals are used to identify a sign, without regard for the correct reading in context. Subscript numbers are used to distinguish between signs that have the same value. Thus, there are two different signs that may be read /ib/, which are distinguished in transliteration as ib (which is ib1 by default) and ib2; in our text the second is used to explain the reading of the first.











The text above explains that in Sumerian cuneiform the sign IB may be used in three different ways. In its value ib it means "chapel," and is also used for a verbal prefix indicating an impersonal agent as in bi2-ib-dab5 = "it seized." In some contexts, however, the same sign is to be read dara2, which means "belt." The Sumerian phonemes /l/ and /r/ appear to be rather close to each other (as they are in many languages) which explains why our present text has the gloss da-la, rather than da-ra as in other copies of this same sign list. A third use of the sign is for the divine name Uraš, the goddess of earth. Similarly, the sign UN (lines 7 and 8) may be used for the words un (more properly 3) which means "people" and kalam (land). In the value un it may also be used as a syllable representing a verbal prefix that indicates a personal actor as in mu-un-dab5 = "he seized."

These various uses of the signs IB and UN may seem to make the writing system overly ambiguous. In actual practice, however, that is rarely the case. The sign IB is usually disambiguated by so-called determinatives&mash;cuneiform signs that indicate that the word following (or, occasionally, preceding) belongs to a certain semantic class. The word for "belt" is nearly always preceded by the determinative for "leather object," and the divine name Uraš is always preceded by the determinative for gods. All this was probably explained by the teacher but was never written down. In the case of the sign UN there is some occasional ambiguity where we (and they?) are not sure whether to read 3 or kalam.

In order to utilize a sign list like this effectively, it is necessary to have already a basic understanding of at least the most common cuneiform signs that are used for writing the glosses. A sign list like the one above, therefore, does not belong to the most elementary stage of education.

Sign lists enter the scribal curriculum in the early Old Babylonian Period, around 1900 B.C. In the second and first millennia, a variety of sign lists were developed, some of them very introductory, others for specialized or advanced use. Sign lists occasionally appear among third millennium lexical lists, most famously the Ebla Sign List, but these early examples appear to be accidental; they do not belong to the traditional lexicographic corpus of the time.

1.2 Word Lists

The second main category of lexical lists is the word list, which was known from the inception of writing and continued as an important genre to the very end of cuneiform writing in the first century A.D. Cuneiform word lists, therefore, belong to one of the most persistent textual categories in the history of writing with a documented history of more than three millennia.

The present example [picture of UM 29-16-31 reverse] is found on the reverse of the tablet from Old Babylonian Nippur discussed above. It contains a list of animals that is an extract from the large thematic list that is commonly known as ur5-ra. Ur5-ra is a long compilation of about 3,000 Sumerian nouns and nominal expressions that was used to introduce the students to Sumerian vocabulary. The series is thematically organized and was known in different versions in different scribal centers; in Nippur it had the following structure:




trees and wooden objects


reed and reed objects; vessels and clay; hides and leather objects; metals and metal objects


domestic animals; wild animals; cuts of meat


stones and plants; fish and birds; clothing


geographical names and terms; stars



Our tablet contains a little over a hundred lines from the middle of Division 3. Since this is the reverse of the tablet, it begins in the right hand column which is to be read from top to bottom, to be followed by the second column from the right, and so on. The first 19 lines of column 1 read as follows (square brackets indicate text that is broken but that may be restored by comparison with other exemplars):





amar [ga]

milk calf


amar ga [nağ-a]

calf that drinks milk


amar ga gu7-[a]

calf that "eats" milk


amar ga sub-a

calf that suckles milk


amar sah4

playful calf


amar lirum

strong calf


amar ban3-da

wild calf


amar mu-3

three years old calf


amar mu-2

two years old calf


amar mu-1

one year old calf


amar babbar

white calf


amar kukku5

black calf


amar su4-a

red calf


amar sig7-sig7

yellow calf


amar gun3-a

speckled calf






dusu donkey


anše kungax(ŠU2.AŠ2)


This corresponds to the lines 222-240 of the composite text of Division 3, where it is preceded by the section "cow" (ab2). The example demonstrates that the list does not only contain single words (as in a modern dictionary) but also brief expressions in which the word is used. The section on donkeys continues for a couple more lines and then the list changes subject to wild animals, starting in column 2 line 9:





muš huš

furious snake


muš dnirah

snake of Nirah (snake god)


muš ušumgal



muš na4

stone snake


muš a

water snake


muš sahar

dust snake


muš gud3

nest snake


muš u2KI.KAL

grass snake

The translations of the snake names take the Sumerian words literally; we do not know exactly what kind of snake a "stone snake" or a "water snake" are. All in all the tablet contains 22 snake names. The end of column 3 has:



wild cat


su-a RI

RI wild cat











munus uguugu4-bi

female donkey




The list continues with various deer-like animals and wild bulls and ends in column 4 with a variety of bugs. The standard text of Division 3 continues for about 170 lines, including flies, locusts, small rodents, pigs, ants, scorpions, frogs, and parasites then changing subject again to meat cuts (uzu).

Although there are small differences between the exemplars, the Nippur school texts basically represent a single standardized version of this list. In other Old Babylonian centers, however, the same list, covering more or less the same subjects, was very different in detail, including more items &mash; or fewer — and listing them in a different order.

The Old Babylonian word lists are nearly all written in unilingual Sumerian. We know for certain, however, that in class the Sumerian words were translated into Akkadian — the translations were just not written down. Over the centuries the word lists grew and became more and more extensive, including more and more regular, abstruse, as well as utterly fantastic Sumerian words. At the same time, it became more and more common to write the Akkadian translation in a second column next to the Sumerian word. In the first millennium, eventually a more or less standardized bilingual (Sumerian-Akkadian) version emerged that was used all over Mesopotamia.

2. School Tablets and Library Tablets

The tablet that was used as an example in 1.1 and 1.2 is a typical Old Babylonian school tablet. It contains a new exercise on the obverse (in this case an extract from a sign list) and, on the reverse, a repetition of an exercise that was previously memorized. The obverse has a model text written by the teacher, but for the reverse, the student is on his own. This type of tablet is usually referred to as a "Type II" or teacher-student exercise. The city of Nippur has yielded more than 2,000 Type II tablets.

The Type II school tablet fits into a typology of exercise tablets that were in use in Nippur and in the Old Babylonian Period in general. The types are:


Large multi-column tablets (Type I)

Teacher-student exercise (Type II)

One-column extracts (Type III)

Lentils (Type IV)

Type II tablets are very instructive because they allow us to reconstruct the order in which lexical and other exercises were introduced in the Old Babylonian school. It appears that the lexical texts in this period formed a well-designed curriculum that taught the writing system step by step, with each exercise focussing on a different aspect of cuneiform writing and the Sumerian language.

In later periods, other types of tablets were used for instruction. In Neo-Babylonian schools, advanced students used single-column tablets on which they copied on a single tablet brief extracts (5 or 6 lines each lines each) from different literary and lexical compositions. Many first millennium lexical tablets, however, are library texts. They contain colophons that indicate to which tablet collection they once belonged. They are not related to the elementary education but were at home in royal or professional libraries. More than fifteen hundred years after the demise of spoken Sumerian, the language was still used in a couple of mythological texts and in songs, prayers, and liturgical lamentations. Scholars used the lexical texts to find the meanings of Sumerian words and to reinterpret the texts they were working with.

3. The Uses of Lexical Texts

The earliest lexical texts from fourth millennium B.C. Uruk represent an inventory of words, documenting the newly invented administrative technique of writing. It has often been observed that these archaic lists contain much that seems utterly irrelevant and that may not be explained by the purely utilitarian reason of teaching a new generation of scribes how to compose an administrative record. Of the 125 occupations or titles that appear in the standard version of the list of Professions (conventionally called Lu A) only a handful actually appears in administrative tablets of the period, and the same is true for all the other archaic word lists.

Some scholars have tried to explain the discrepancy by attributing to the lists a basically theological function: they describe the order of the world. An analysis of the actual contents of the lists, however, makes this explanation very dubious. A prominent place among the early lexical texts is held by a list of vessels and clothing. The list of vessels includes many combination signs: the sign for vessel inscribed with the sign for some commodity: fat, beer, grain, etc. These entries, which represent "vessel filled with fat/beer/grain," are difficult to understand within a theological or cosmographical framework, and indeed, the entire of list of vessels and clothing seems to make little sense from this point of view. Moreover, many subjects that one would expect in such an endeavor are missing, such as wild animals, gods, and stars. In fact, the subjects treated in the Uruk lists coincide rather nicely with the kinds of things that we encounter in administrative texts: food, fish, fowl, wood, clothing, containers, metal objects, and professional titles. The main difference is that the lists extend the vocabulary of these subjects, treating fish, fowl, and professional titles that had no business to appear in the kinds of transactions that were regularly documented.

The list of vessels may hold the key to this riddle. Many of the signs that appear in this list, in particular the combination signs, never appear anywhere else and seem to be an exercise in combinatorial technique more than anything else. They explain and drill one of the basic elements of the system behind archaic cuneiform: the possibility of creating a new sign by combining two well-known ones. The direct relevance of the lists for the practice of writing is, indeed, low because these are manuals that cover every possibility, including the unlikely and the very unlikely ones. The archaic lists betray the problem of creating a new bureaucratic system that is capable of recording every transaction that is possible or even imaginable within the bureaucratic context. Therefore, the scribes who created these lists went out of their way to invent signs for birds and fish and professional titles that some future scribe once upon a time might need to write down.

Most of the archaic lists continued to be transmitted almost unchanged throughout the third millennium, all the way down to the Old Babylonian Period (around 1900 B.C). By the Old Babylonian Period, they were no longer considered an over-complete documentation of the writing system but rather records of ancient, venerable knowledge with no relevance for contemporary scribal practice whatsoever. The new lexical tradition that was created in the Old Babylonian Period was quite different in character. The sign lists and word lists of various kinds that were introduced around 1900 B.C. were no simple inventories; they formed a veritable well-structured curriculum in which the subjects of cuneiform writing and Sumerian language were taught step by step. Each of the sign lists and word lists has a clearly identifiable teaching goal, from learning the correct execution of frequent signs (Syllable Alphabet B), to Sumerian vocabulary (Ur5-ra), to more theoretical treatises about the nature of the cuneiform writing system (Proto-Ea and Proto-Diri).

The sign lists and word lists of the Old Babylonian period were nearly all still being used in scribal education into the first millennium B.C., at which time the lists were much expanded. Bilingual (Sumerian-Akkadian) and several new types of lists were added to the corpus. In addition to training purposes, the lexical corpus was also used in the practice of scholarly interpretation and hermeneutics. The so-called Epic of Creation (or Enūma Eliš), which is an account that explains how and why the local city god Marduk of Babylon became the master of the universe, contains in its fifth and last tablet a scholarly and very speculative explication of the fifty names of Marduk. The fifty Sumerian names are taken apart into syllables and then each syllable is treated as a Sumerian word by itself which may then be translated into Akkadian. Hermeneutic techniques like this are attested in a number of first millennium speculative texts, taking advantage of the many possibilities that the hundreds of lexical tablets offered.

Thus, over a period of several millennia the lexical tradition changed from technical manuals, documenting the new administrative tool, into a structured curriculum for the Old Babylonian elementary school, and then into scholarly reference works for hermeneutic purposes.

Home Introduction Browse Texts Staff