It is almost impossible to memorise the entire repertoire of cuneiform signs. Fortunately it is not actually necessary, as there are several standard sign lists available in book form (but none in English). On this page we describe how to use the two most commonly used by Assyriologists: René Labat's Manuel d'epigraphie akkadienne (6th ed., 1995) and Rykle Borger's Mesopotamisches Zeichenlexikon (2004), as well as the online Pennsylvania Sign List. Other signs lists are listed on the Further reading page.
Whichever sign list book you use, they have the same basic structure: they list all the cuneiform signs in a standard order, giving the syllabic and logographic values for each one. There is usually an alphabetical index of sign-values at the back of the book. But because signs take many values, it would be nonsensical for the main listing to be in alphabetical order. So Assyriologists order them by the left-to-right configuration of their component wedges, like this:
Of course, because some signs changed their appearance quite dramatically over time, different sign lists take different forms as standard. Single-period lists naturally use just that period's sign forms. But multi-period lists like Labat's and Borger's take the Neo-Assyrian sign form as standard. This is partly for historical reasons, as Neo-Assyrian script was the first to be deciphered in the mid-19th century, and partly for pragmatic reasons, as Neo-Assyrian sign-forms do not vary very much.
As its name suggests, Labat's Manuel d'epigraphie akkadienne ("Manual of Akkadian Epigraphy") is designed for readers of Akkadian, rather than other languages written in cuneiform script. Its advantages over Borger's Zeichenlexikon are that it presents all of its information on a sign in a single place, and that it systematically shows the evolution of sign-forms from the late fourth millennium onwards. This is a particularly attractive feature for learners, as seeing the 'mature' forms of cuneiform signs together with their more pictographic precedessors helps to make them more meaningful. Equally useful are the little diagrams and symbols that show when and where particular values were used, and in which types of texts. On the other hand, Labat is not as exhaustive or as up-to-date as Borger.
The main features of Labat's Manuel are:
Borger's Mesopotamisches Zeichenlexikon ("Mesopotamian Sign Lexicon"), by contrast, aims for complete coverage of the cuneiform script, whatever the ancient language. However, it rather confusingly scatters (and duplicates) information about each sign across several chapters and treats sign-development rather skimpily. It is particularly good for readers of first-millennium scholarly texts that use rare sign-values in a standard paleography. Learners usually find it very difficult to manage but if you want to use it, Chapters 3-5 are most useful.
The main chapters of Borger's Zeichenlexikon are:
PSL, the only online sign list, occupies the right-hand side bar of the online Pennsylvania Sumerian Dictionary (PSD). As you might guess from its name, it is primarily designed for readers of Sumerian. However, it has some useful features for Akkadian-language users too.
When you type sign value into the bottom search box and choose "Sign" from the menu immediately to the right, the right-hand side bar presents:
The bottom-right menu also allows you to view all homophones of the sign value you are interested in, and various types of compound sign containing your sign. These are particularly helpful for exploring Akkadian syllabic signs and logograms.
On the other hand, because PSL does not (yet) contain any data on the validity of particular sign values - when and where and in which languages and genres they were used - it is a rather dangerous tool for beginners. For the moment, only Labat's Manuel gives this vital information, concisely and consistently.
Most commonly we reach for sign lists to help us identify unknown signs in a text we are reading. Unfortunately this is rather hard to do, unless you are working with Neo-Assyrian script and the left-hand side of your unknown sign is fully preserved. In that case you can simply look up the sign in Labat's main table or Borger's chapter 3, following the standard sign-listing principles. What are the options otherwise?
The moral of the story is: the more signs you know, the less dependent you will be on sign lists, and the more efficient you will be at reading cuneiform. Make a point of learning new signs as you come across them, even when you are no longer a beginner. But sign lists are invaluable tools, even for the most experienced cuneiformist. And the more you use them, the more comfortable you will be with extracting useful information from them.
Content last modified on 05 Dec 2016.
Eleanor Robson, 'Using sign lists: Labat, Borger, and PSL', Knowledge and Power, Higher Education Academy, 2016 [http://oracc.museum.upenn.edu/saao/knpp/cuneiformrevealed/learningsigns/usingsignlists/]