Ag and Ram: why cuneiform is fun. Also, dinosaurs.

First we need to talk about the way the cuneiform script works. It’s made up of logograms, syllabograms, and determinatives. In other words, some signs represent a whole word or concept; some signs represent a syllable (ta, bi, šum, kal), etc.; and some signs represent the category or class into which the preceding or following word falls. The fun part (and depending on how late you’re up translating, “fun” may or may not be a cruel joke) is that many signs can fall into more than one category. So, for instance, the sign KI (which stands for erṣetum, “land, earth,”) can also be used to represent the syllable ki as a part of a word, and can ALSO be a determinative that indicates that the word immediately before it is the name of a city or state. Also, most signs can be used to represent more than one syllable, and most syllables are represented by more than one sign. (So, for instance, the same sign can be used to denote mal and ga2).

For a while this is as confusing as it sounds. Then you start to get the structure in your head and it gets easier (I am still working on this part). Then you start reading texts that come from a different time period, and all of the signs have changed their shape, so you have to memorize them all over again. And so forth.

But the part that is actually fun is that the crazy script makes it possible to do wordplay beyond the dreams of Shakespeare. And the point of the above was to talk about something I noticed the other day.

So the word for “love” in Sumerian is KI.AG2. (The “AG2” is probably pronounced closer to something like “ang;” the “ng” sound is a phoneme that exists in Sumerian but not in Akkadian, so it’s a little hard to track down.) The AG2 sign, as expected, can stand for the syllable -ag in an Akkadian text. But it can also stand for the syllable -ram. And the word in Akkadian for “love” is…wait for it… râmum.

That made me happy.

Finally, another thing that made me happy: a Dinosaur Comics episode in which T-Rex ponders some difficult theological questions. I’m posting the comic as an image here, but you should really visit the site, because I am completely serious when I say that Ryan North’s intellectual curiosity puts us all to shame.


3 thoughts on “Ag and Ram: why cuneiform is fun. Also, dinosaurs.

  1. It’s good that you’re learning this, because it’s the kinds of people who know these things that get to go on secret missions to the bottom of the ocean or space or something after a clandestine organization finds a mysterious artifact with cuneiform writings. You’ll get to hang out with a math genius, a grizzled special forces operative, a clueless politician, and Jeff Goldbloom. Or something like that. I’m jealous of your future behind-the-scenes-saving-of-humanity or inevitable eaten-by-space-sharks demise.

  2. Ok, thank you. I have heard the term “cuneiform” for a while, but never got a clear description of what it is. My follow up questions would be…what languages appear “naturally” in cuneiform? Does Hebrew count as cuneiform? And more broadly, what happened to cause a transition from cuneiform to letters? (At least, I’m understanding that there was some transition there….is that the case?)

    And is it just me, or does the word for love look like a chemical equation to anyone else?

    • Ha! Well, it’s as close to a chemical equation as I’ll ever get, so I guess that’s good? As far as I know, the use of cuneiform vs. other types of scripts has a lot to do with the medium on which the writing is recorded. Southern Mesopotamia has more clay than basically anything else, so the signs are ones which are easy to make with a reed pen pushing on clay. As my professor demonstrated once with a “tablet” of modeling clay, it’s much much faster to write cuneiform in clay than on paper. Hebrew comes from the Phoenician script (as does the Roman alphabet and virtually every other one I’ve ever heard of), which was developed by sea traders, so they were writing on papyri and parchment. Issues of prestige and cultural communication play in, though. Darius I of the Persian empire (I think? Maybe it was Cyrus) commissioned an entirely new writing system, made up of cuneiform-type wedges, to write his language of Old Persian, which had never had a script before. But by that time, Aramaic (written on parchment/papyri) had largely replaced Akkadian as the language and writing system of Mesopotamian commerce. So Darius was clearly trying to buy into the prestige that cuneiform/Akkadian had as the language of the elite and the literati.

      Fun times.

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