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.