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The meaning of «cuneiform»

Cuneiform[a] was one of the earliest systems of writing, invented by Sumerians in ancient Mesopotamia.[b][4][5] It is distinguished by its wedge-shaped marks on clay tablets, made by means of a blunt reed for a stylus.[6][7][8][9] The term cuneiform comes from cuneus, Latin for "wedge".[10][11][12]

Emerging in Sumer in the late fourth millennium BC (the Uruk IV period) to convey the Sumerian language, which was a language isolate, cuneiform writing began as a system of pictograms, stemming from an earlier system of shaped tokens used for accounting. In the third millennium, the pictorial representations became simplified and more abstract as the number of characters in use grew smaller (Hittite cuneiform). The system consists of a combination of logophonetic, consonantal alphabetic, and syllabic signs.

The original Sumerian script was adapted for the writing of the Semitic Akkadian (Assyrian/Babylonian), Eblaite and Amorite languages, the language isolates Elamite, Hattic, Hurrian and Urartian, as well as Indo-European languages Hittite and Luwian; it inspired the later Semitic Ugaritic alphabet as well as Old Persian cuneiform. Cuneiform writing was gradually replaced by the Phoenician alphabet during the Neo-Assyrian Empire (911–612 BC). By the second century AD, the script had become extinct, its last traces being found in Assyria and Babylonia, and all knowledge of how to read it was lost until it began to be deciphered in the 19th century.

Geoffrey Sampson stated that Egyptian hieroglyphs "came into existence a little after Sumerian script, and, probably, [were] invented under the influence of the latter",[13] and that it is "probable that the general idea of expressing words of a language in writing was brought to Egypt from Sumerian Mesopotamia".[14][15] There are many instances of Egypt-Mesopotamia relations at the time of the invention of writing, and standard reconstructions of the development of writing generally place the development of the Sumerian proto-cuneiform script before the development of Egyptian hieroglyphs, with the suggestion the former influenced the latter.[16]

Between half a million[17] and two million cuneiform tablets are estimated to have been excavated in modern times, of which only approximately 30,000[18]–100,000 have been read or published. The British Museum holds the largest collection (c. 130,000), followed by the Vorderasiatisches Museum Berlin, the Louvre, the Istanbul Archaeology Museums, the National Museum of Iraq, the Yale Babylonian Collection (c. 40,000), and Penn Museum. Most of these have "lain in these collections for a century without being translated, studied or published",[17] as there are only a few hundred qualified cuneiformists in the world.[18]

The origins of writing appear during the start at of the pottery-phase of the Neolithic, when clay tokens were used to record specific amounts of livestock or commodities.[21] These tokens were initially impressed on the surface of round clay envelopes and then stored in them.[21] The tokens were then progressively replaced by flat tablets, on which signs were recorded with a stylus. Actual writing is first recorded in Uruk, at the end of the 4th millennium BC, and soon after in various parts of the Near-East.[21]

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