Cuneiform to Hieroglyphics: The Evolution of Western Alphabets

Writing was invented independently in the Near East, China and Mesoamerica. The Near East scripts, cuneiform and hieroglyphics are predecessors of the western alphabets of Greek and Latin.

Jan 1, 2021By Maria Dragatakis
flood tablet palette of narmer rosetta stone
The Flood Tablet, Tablet 11 of the Gilgamesh epic, Neo-Assyrian, ca. 7th century BC; with The Palette of Narmer,  1st Dynasty; and The Rosetta Stone, 196 BC

 

The alphabet we use to write today in the modern western world has evolved over the millennia from the Near Eastern line of symbols and pictographs, known as the Mesopotamian cuneiform writing system. It evolved into ancient Egyptian hieroglyphic text and was later adapted by the Phoenicians into letters, emerging as the first alphabet system.

 

A Brief Timeline From Cuneiform, Hieroglyphics To Alphabet

timeline cuneiform hieroglyphics
Fig.1. – A timeline of the evolution of the western Greek and Latin alphabet traced back in its ancestral line to the Sumerian cuneiform symbols.

 

Writing is the principal technology humankind invented to collect, manipulate, store, retrieve, communicate, and disseminate information. The need to record information was initially purported for accounting purposes and to facilitate trade. It was indeed the accountants who invented writing back in the 8th millennium BC. Only much later and around the 3rd millennium BC, when the Sumerians developed a spiritual concern for the afterlife funerary inscriptions appear, which later paved the way to literary texts.

 

The evolution of writing from tokens to graphic symbols, syllable symbols and later alphabet demonstrates the development of information processing, the constant increase of the need to deal with larger amounts of data in ever greater abstraction.

 

Mesopotamia: The Cuneiform Writing System

 

The earliest known script, the Mesopotamian cuneiform was invented in Sumer, present-day Iraq, circa 3200 BC. It is the origin of our present-day alphabet and it was uninterruptedly used for over a period of 10,000 years as its prehistoric antecedent.

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tablet cuneiform script
Tablet in cuneiform script depicting map pf the world, ca. 6th century BC, via the British Museum, London

 

The above is an early sample of cuneiform script, a clay tablet, circa 6th century BC, excavated from Southern Iraq, depicting a map of the world. It shows the world as a disc, surrounded by a ring of water called the “Bitter River,” the great city of Babylon is marked as a rectangle at the right end of the Euphrates river.

 

The evolution of the cuneiform script is divided into four phases:

 

  1. Clay tokens representing units of goods were used for accounting purposes (8000–3500 BC).
  2. The three-dimensional tokens were transformed into two-dimensional pictographic signs, similarly to the tokens, the pictographic script served exclusively for accounting (3500–3000 BC).
  3. Phonetic syllabic signs initially introduced to write down the names of individuals marked the turning point when writing started imitating spoken language and, as a result, became applicable to all fields of human knowledge (3000–1500 BC).
  4. With two dozen letters, each standing for a single sound of voice, the alphabet perfected the interpretation of speech.

 

tablet economic text aakala umma
Tablet with economic text of Aakala of Umma with cuneiform inscription and impression of presentation scene from Umma, Mesopotamia (Iraq), c. 2035 BC, via the Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto

 

Cuneiform script was invented to facilitate trade and accounting records for the Sumerians. All the findings from that era are related to trade and keeping records of goods and their values. The advancement from writing inscriptions for accounting and trade purposes to writing texts with literary value took over 5 millennia to occur.

 

When it did occur though, it produced two major milestones for humankind, its culture and civilization.

 

The first is the Law Code of Hammurabi, the symbol of Mesopotamian civilization and a work of art, history and literature. It stands at 2.25 meters in height and was erected by the king of Babylon in the 18th century BC. It represents the most comprehensive legal collection of antiquity, dating back to earlier than the Biblical laws.

 

code of hammurabi
Code de Hammurabi, King of Babylon, 1792 – 50 BC, via The Louvre, Paris

 

The text is in Akkadian language and written in cuneiform script, and is divided into three parts:

 

  1. A prologue on the enthronement of King Hammurabi in his role as “protector of the weak and oppressed,” and the formation of his empire and achievements.
  2. A lyrical epilogue summing up his legal work and how it will remain sustainable and perpetuate in the future.
  3. The main text that outlines and describes almost three hundred laws and legal precedents governing daily life in the kingdom of Babylon.

 

Laws are grouped in chapters, the issues addressed cover criminal and civil laws. The principal subjects are family law, professional, commercial, agricultural, and administrative law. It also includes financial and economic measures such as set prices and salaries. The longest chapter concerns the family as the basis of Babylonian society. It pertains to all family matters such as engagement, marriage and divorce, adultery and incest, children, adoption and inheritance, and the duties of children’s nurses.

 

The Law Code of Hammurabi is of great social significance, the concept of judiciary power being exercised by a code of laws and not by a particular ruler is established first here in Mesopotamia.

 

The second cultural milestone is the Gilgamesh Epic, as it is the most prominent literary work of Babylonian civilization, as yet discovered in Mesopotamia. It narrates the achievements and adventures of a popular hero, and it consists of twelve tablets, of six columns each (three on the obverse and three on the reverse) of about 50 lines per column, or 3600 lines in total. However, no more than half was found in the excavations of the palace of King Ashurbanipal (668–26 B.C.)  at Nineveh among his huge royal collection of cuneiform tablets.

 

the flood tablet tablet 11 epic gilgamesh
The Flood Tablet, Tablet 11 of the Gilgamesh epic, Neo-Assyrian, ca. 7th century BC, via the British Museum, London

 

Curator’s comments

This object is the single most famous cuneiform text and caused a sensation when its content was first read in the 19th century because of its similarity to the Flood story in the Book of Genesis.

It is the 11th of the 12 Tablets that constitute the Epic of Gilgamesh and tells how the gods determined to send a flood to destroy the earth, but one of them, Ea, revealed the plan to a human Utu-napishtim, whom he instructed to make a boat in which to save himself and his family. He orders him to take into it birds and beasts of all kinds.

Utu-napishtim obeyed and when all were aboard, and the door shut the rains descended and all the rest of mankind perished. After six days the waters abated, and the ship grounded. The first bird released “flew to and fro but found no resting-place.” A swallow likewise returned but finally, a raven which had been sent out did not return showing that the waters were receding.

Utu-napishtim, who later told this story to Gilgamesh, thereupon emerged and sacrificed to the gods who, angry at his escape, granted him on the intercession of Ea divine honours and a dwelling place at the mouth of the river Euphrates.

 

Ancient Egypt: Hieroglyphics The Holy Script

 

The second phase in the evolution of the cuneiform script, namely the use of phonetic signs instead of symbols, not only resulted in the expansion of writing from accounting into literary texts, but also in its spreading out of Sumer to neighboring regions, particularly Egypt.

 

The first Egyptian inscriptions appeared as early as the 4th millennium BC on royal tombs. They were mainly used to indicate names, written phonetically as a puzzle consisting of symbols and phonetics, clearly imitating the Mesopotamian predecessor.

 

scarab inscription hieroglyphics
Scarab Inscribed with Hieroglyphs and Symbols, Middle Kingdom, late Dynasty 12-Dynasty 13, ca. 1850–1640 B.C., via The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

 

The Egyptians were prolific writers. Even the smallest object represented a suitable surface for their script, hieroglyphic and hieratic at its first stage, and later evolved into demotic and afterward into the Coptic text. Hieroglyphics came from the Greek word for “sacred carving” and hieratic also originated from the Greek word for priesthood. They were the sacred languages used to refer to Gods and Pharaohs.

 

Hieroglyphic writing, which appeared at the end of the 4th millennium, was a complex system of phonetic signs corresponding to one or more consonants, ideograms objects or abstract concepts, and determinatives that determine the words. These specified their semantic categories (e.g. man, woman). Hieratic script, which arose in parallel time with the hieroglyphics, is the  “cursive” format of hieroglyphics for easy use in daily and private matters, where appearance was less important than writing speed. These writings were used simultaneously for many centuries until the beginning of the 26th dynasty (664–30 BC), when a third one was introduced, the demotic script. Hieroglyphs from then on were used for monumental inscriptions, whereas religious texts were written in hieratic script, and the demotic script became that of the public administration and private documents.

 

The three scripts survived the Greek conquest by Alexander the Great in 332 BC and later at the end of the Ptolemaic reign the Roman conquest in 30 BC. The last demotic inscription dates to AD 473 with the spread of Christianity in Egypt. The Coptic script emerged in the 1st century AD, using the Greek alphabet and several special signs derived from demotic script to translate sacred texts into Egyptian. All previous scripts were made obsolete.

 

palette of narmer
The Palette of Narmer,  1st Dynasty, via the British Museum, London

 

The Palette of Narmer has inscriptions in hieroglyphs identifying the name and title of the Pharaoh, his attendants, and their enemies. Phonetic signs used to transcribe personal names were indigenous to Egypt and did not copy cuneiform script, but the concept of the phonetic system created by the Sumerians was adapted to evoke sounds in their own tongue.

 

The word papyrus, what we commonly refer to today as paper, was invented by the ancient Egyptians as a writing sheet made from a plant, also called papyrus, that grows on the banks of the Nile river. During the excavation of a tomb at Saqqara, the earliest known papyrus was discovered dated to around 2900 BC. Papyri remained in use until the 11th century AD well after the invention of paper in China.

 

heganakht letter papyrus
Heqanakht Letter papyrus from the Middle Kingdom, Dynasty 12, ca. 1961–17 BC, via The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

 

Deciphering the mysterious signs of the Egyptian hieroglyphic scripts was made possible when the Rosetta Stone was excavated by soldiers of Napoleon’s Army who had invaded Egypt in 1799.

 

Written in three languages, hieroglyphics, demotic and Greek, it depicts a priestly decree about the emperor Ptolemy V on his coronation.

 

rosetta stone
The Rosetta Stone, 196 BC, via the British Museum, London

 

Using the known Greek language as a reference, the French scholar Jean-François Champollion (1790–1832) realized that hieroglyphs recorded the sound of the Egyptian language. This laid the foundations of deciphering ancient Egyptian language and expand the world’s knowledge of Egyptian culture.

 

Phoenician Alphabet: Evolution After Cuneiform And Hieroglyphics

 

Around the 2nd century BC, the Canaanites and the Phoenicians settled in the areas of modern-day Syria and Lebanon. They spoke Aramaic language initially written in cuneiform script, but eventually adapted the alphabet system, developed by the Phoenician people who resided in modern-day Lebanon.

 

From the 9th to the 6th century BC (Neo-Assyrian period), Aramaic was widely spoken in the region from the Mediterranean to the Indian subcontinent and later became the official language of the Persian Empire (550-330 BC).

 

phoenician alphabet
The Phoenician Alphabet with the corresponding Latin letters, via Forbes

 

The Phoenicians invented the first complete linear alphabet in the 11th century BC. More practical, easy to write with ink on papyrus, suitable for busy traders, it consists of only 22 consonants without vowels. Just like its Aramaic successors, Arabic and Hebrew, it is written from right to left.  The Greeks borrowed the Phoenician alphabet in the 8th c. BC, added vowels to it and changed the direction from left to right.

 

The Phoenician alphabetic script was also adopted and used by the Punic language, also called Canaanite or Phoenician-Punic, which became the language of the Carthaginian empire. Punic was influenced by the Amazigh, a group of languages used by North African Berber tribes.

 

funerary stele
Funerary stele with Aramaic inscription depicting Sin zir Ibni, a priest of Shahar the god of dawn, Aleppo, Syria, ca. 7th century BC, via The Louvre Paris

 

The stele of Sin zir Ibni, a priest of Shahar, is inscribed in the Phoenician alphabet. The language is Aramaic, and the inscription is placed on either side of the figure’s head, under the arch, and covers the entire base of the stele and part of the man’s skirt.

 

frieze punic inscription
Frieze with Punic inscription in Phoenician script, 146 BC, via the British Museum, London

 

Using the Phoenician alphabet, this limestone frieze in Punic, ca. 146 BC, was excavated from the Mausoleum of Ateban, from the Berber Kingdom of Numidia.

Humankind, with the invention of the Phoenician Alphabet, took a huge leap into producing records of civilization in literary and other everyday forms of writing. Practical, easy to use and adaptable to any language, the alphabet became the key that unlocked the potential stored over millennia of knowledge.

The rest is history indeed, Greek and later Latin adopted and modified the system to suit their linguistics needs, and the Greek α alpha and β beta, the first two letters, became the alphabet script we all use today.

Author Image

By Maria DragatakisMaria Dragatakis lives and works in Athens, Greece as an International Productions Coordinator for a local theater company. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in Classics and Classical Languages and Literatures from Ohio University. Art is her passion which she is been blessed to relish in her daily tasks, in the world of the theater, and the city she lives in with its rich cultural heritage. Her work has taken her around the world in a never-ending journey, always seeking the finer sentiment of euphoria that only art can produce.