Categories of signs

Individual signs can be used in many different ways in cuneiform script: to represent syllables; to represent whole words; or as reading aids for other signs. One sign can take different meanings depending on its context, while there is often more than one way to represent a particular syllable or word in cuneiform.


Most scribes, most of the time, wrote the Akkadian language in syllables. That is, they broke up each word into groups of sounds, and wrote each of them with a separate cuneiform sign. For instance, a letter to an Old Babylonian king might start with the phrase ana bēlia qibima "speak to my lord", addressed to the scribe whose job it was to read the letter out. The letter-writer might divide those three words into syllables like this:

(See the Transliteration page for an explanation of the subscript numerals after some signs.)

As you can see, all of these syllables contains at least one vowel, and almost of them begin with a vowel. We call these V (vowel-only) signs and CV (consonant-vowel) signs. Cuneiform also has many VC (vowel-consonant) signs and CVC (consonant-vowel-consonant) signs. For instance, the Akkadian sentence ṭuppam ašṭur, "I wrote a tablet", could be written like this:

You can find lists of the most common syllable signs in the Learning Signs section. As you will see, many of the V, CV, and VC signs are visually quite simple. Most of them are made of just a few wedges, so they are relatively easy to memorise and use.

Because cuneiform syllable signs come in only four main varieties V, CV, VC, and CVC, it is impossible to write three consonants together in cuneiform (like str in the modern alphabet) or to begin or end a word with two consonants (like alphabetic stops). There are a few VCV and CVCV signs, which are used in very restricted circumstances. We will not say much more about them here.

Syllableṣ always start with a consonant, whenever possible. So it is OK to write ana "to" as a na but never as an a. (In the first millennium BC, a special sign ana 𒁹 was also used.)


Sometimes, especially in more technical contexts, such as administration or scholarly work, scribes wrote whole words with single signs instead of splitting them up into syllables. We now call these whole-word signs logograms. Using logograms could save valuable writing time but it also made the the text harder to read for those who did not know the conventions of the that particular text type. For instance, the Akkadian sentence ṭuppam ašpur "I sent a tablet" can be written logographically with just two signs: DUB 𒁾 for ṭuppam "tablet" and SAR 𒊬 for ašṭur "I wrote". Notice that 𒁾; can mean the syllable ṭup or the logogram DUB for the whole word ṭuppam. As we can also see, cuneiform uses logograms for both nouns (object words) and verbs (action words) but rarely for other types of words.

Most logograms were originally cuneiform signs used for writing nouns and verbs in the Sumerian language. Because Sumerian nouns and verbs were often written with just one sign, they provided useful shortcuts for writing multi-syllable Akkadian words. There is a list of common logograms in the Learning Cuneiform section of this website

Phonetic complements

Reading logograms could sometimes be difficult, even for experienced scribes. So they were often written in combination with signs used as phonetic complements, syllable signs which give clues about the exact meaning of the logogram. That is to say, it was often useful to write ašṭur "I wrote" as SAR ur 𒊬 𒌨, to differentiate it from, for instance ašaṭṭar "I write" (which might be written SAR ar2 𒊬 𒌒).

Logograms for nouns are common in the Old Babylonian period, with phonetic complements to mark their cases, but logograms and phonetic complements for verbs are not a common feature of Akkadian in cuneiform until the first millennium BC. Even then, their use was mostly restricted to royal inscriptions, literary texts, and other scholarly works.


The final main use for cuneiform signs is as determinatives. Determinatives mark common classes of nouns. They were not part of the spoken language but signalled the type of word that followed or proceeded them. A word for a clay object (such as a tablet), could be preceded by the determinative IM 𒅎, which is also the logogram for ṭīdum "clay". Different types of names are also preceded or followed by determinatives: DINGIR 𒀭 before a deity's name or KI 𒆠 after a place name. There is a list of determinatives in the Learning Cuneiform section.


As perhaps you have already noticed, some cuneifom signs have a lot of different meanings, or values. You may have already noticed that the sign 𒁾 can mean the logogram DUB or the syllable ṭup depending on the context in which it is used. DUB and ṭup are obviously related by sound (this is discussed in more detail on the Phonology page). Other signs have values which are related through their actual meanings. We have seen that 𒀭 can be used as the determinative before a deity's name. It is also a logogram DINGIR for Akkadian īlum "god" and a logogram AN for Akkadian šamûm "heaven". Three of these signs combined make up the logogram MUL 𒀯 for Akkadian kakkabum, "star, constellation", and the determinative before names of celestial bodies. The sign 𒀭 also has several syllabic values, including an and il.

As with the example of 𒀭 there are usually good reasons why signs take particular combinations of values. Luckily, not every cuneiform sign is as polyphonous as this. Some, like 𒈠 ma, have only one, syllabic, value while others are one-meaning logograms, such as 𒈗 LUGAL for Akkadian šarrum. And even the values of the most prolific of cuneiform signs are context-dependent: some values were only used in particular types of technical text or in particular places or periods, and some were used only to write particular sorts of words.


Finally, it is an important feature of the cuneiform script that there are often many ways to write the same word. With ašṭur "I wrote", we have already seen that nouns and verbs may be written with logograms, syllables, or a mixture of the two. But different signs can also take the same syllabic values. We have met the spelling 𒀸 𒂅 𒌨 for aš ṭu ur but the spelling 𒀾 𒌅 𒌫 aš ṭu2 ur2 is equally valid. (For more on this, see the Transliteration page.)

Together with the sheer volume of cuneiform signs, the phenomena of polyphony (multiple meanings for single signs) and heterography (multiple possible spellings for single words and even syllables) make cuneiform seem frighteningly complicated. It is important to remember that no scribe ever knew and worked with the cuneiform writing system (as we now know it) in all its complexity. Most scribes, most of the time, worked with about 100 syllable signs and a few logograms and determinatives. What those signs were depended on when and where the scribe lived - cuneiform changed a lot over time, and there were many local spelling conventions - as well as the sorts of texts they were writing. It takes a lifetime to master and memorise the entire system (if anyone ever really manages it) but it doesn't take very long to acquire enough knowledge to start reading real cuneiform texts as well as most ancient scribes could.

Content last modified on 07 Jul 2012.

Eleanor Robson

Eleanor Robson, 'Categories of signs', Knowledge and Power, Higher Education Academy, 2012 []

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