Terminology 2: signs and their components

the cuneiform sign

This is established by custom and usage, though the OED interestingly does not record this use. The nearest it gets is:

2. a. A mark or device having some special meaning or import attached to it, or serving to distinguish the thing on which it is put.

Freq. in sign of the cross (cf. cross n. 3 b).

The nineteenth century cuneiformists that it cites in its entry for ‘cuneiform’ exclusively use the word ‘character’, as in

1818 W. Taylor in Monthly Rev. LXXXV. 486 The cuneiform character is so simple in its component parts, that it..consists only of two elements, the wedge and the rectangle.

1876 Birch Rede Lect. Egypt 39 The recently discovered Assyrian annals in the cuneiform character.

And when one talks of the logographic graphs in the Chinese writing system, one similarly uses the word ‘character’.

Walker, p. 37, has this:

The signs were thus formed into groups of diverse patterns; and each group, composed of anything from one to twenty-seven such wedges in the classical script, constituted single symbol or ‘sign’ reproducing an object or representing a sound in a purely conventional form.

As I understand it, a cuneiform sign is a set of one or more graphs in the cuneiform script that are conventionally designated a ‘sign’ for a variety of different reasons.

the components

If one considers the act of writing, in any script, the objects under consideration will be as follows: the writing implement, the writing material, the writing system, and writing behaviour. For the cuneiform writing system, the vast majority of inscriptions were made on clay tablets using a stylus. Even at an earlier period when cuneiform was written on other media such as bronze or stone a wedge shaped script was adopted by convention modelled the clay form. 2,5000 years later, when Neo-Assyrian scholars annotated clay tablets with ink using brushes, they painted wedge shapes. The writing behaviour can be deduced from the way in which the writing is done, and will be dealt with in some detail below.

the writing implement

The stylus was normally made of reed, and was indeed called a ‘tablet-reed’. Reed was freely available in both Babylonia and Assyria, and had a hard sheath and tough fibrous interior that enabled it to be used for the indenting marks on clay. There is also evidence for wooden and metal styli, but reed seems to have been the norm.

The shape of this implement has attracted some discussion. In order to make the wedge shaped marks of cuneiform writing the end of the stylus that bit into the clay necessarily must have been some form of triangle, normally a right-angled triangle; whether the other side of the end of the stylus was also triangular, making an approximately square section, or curved, is a matter of debate. The reeds, for obvious reasons, have not survived.

the writing material

The writing material is clay, and a fine clay very suitable for the purpose of cuneiform writing is found commonly in the areas in which this writing system flourished. The clay was formed into usually rectangular shapes known as tablets. These could vary in size from that of a large postage stamp to that of a fair sized book, but the commonest sizes were those that can comfortably be held in the palm of the hand, for writing and reading. The palm sized tablets were normally inscribed on both sides, and one side was made slightly convex, perhaps for strength, the other being left flat; this was helpful for distinguishing between the obverse, front, side, which was always flat, and the reverse side, which was always rounded. The tablet always turns on a vertical axis, so that each side is upside-down relative to the other side.

the writing system

Cuneiform writing is a highly stylised system. It developed from an earlier pictorial (semasiographic) method of communication, where drawings were made in the clay with a pointed stylus. Drastic decisions were made to simplify this, and the result is a writing system composed of extremely few elements: in fact, almost all of the writing system is made with a few basic shapes.

the wedge

The fundamental element is the wedge, a regular three dimensional indentation in the clay: a pyramid, in fact.

The wedge has a point, which necessarily faces towards the scribe. The overall shape is composed (approximately) of three triangles, two right angled and one more or less equilateral. The hypotenuse of each right angled triangle forms the right and left sides of the wedge. The base of the equilateral triangle is the top of the wedge. The wedge has three inner edges, the inner top left, inner top right, and central inner edge. The cutting edge of the stylus forms the central inner edge of the wedge, the triangular top face of the stylus forms the top face of the wedge, and the left and right hand faces of the stylus form the left and right hand inner faces of the wedge.

The stylus was presented to the clay obliquely, forming two angles: the vertical angle, which decides the length of the wedge, and the horizontal angle, which determines whether the two inner faces are of approximately the same size, making an equilateral wedge, or one or the other is larger, producing a right-inclined or left-inclined wedge.

We can say that the fundamental wedge shape is made in one simple movement, with the stylus descending into the clay while remaining at the same horizontal and vertical angles relative to the writing surface, and presenting to it so as to make an equilateral wedge. More complex movements were possible and common, but we begin with this simple form as a hypothetical norm. The complex movements are normally stylistic rather than graphemic; however, one wedge (the corner wedge: see below) is graphemically distinct and depends for its shape on a complex hand movement.

varieties of wedge

The length of the wedge is flexible, depending on the position of the wedge in the sign. One could say that wedges can be long or short, but in fact they seem to vary in length quite freely according to the number of other wedges they cross. Very long wedges are normally horizontal because the writing has a fundamental orientation towards narrow horizontal rows of graphs. Long wedges often cross vertical wedges in order to bind them into the sign of which they are component parts, but may also be used in order to fill space.

Wedges commonly point in one of three directions: downwards, towards the bottom of the tablet; rightwards, towards the right hand edge of the tablet, or obliquely downwards to the right, at 45 degrees down from a right pointing wedge. This preference reflects the fundamentally right-handed orientation of the writing system. Other directions are found, but are significantly less common, especially in the later stages of the script.

traditional notation

Assyriologists have been faced with the task of representing this three dimensional object in a two dimensional medium. They have adopted the expedient of omitting the two sides of the wedge, depicting it simply by a small equilateral triangle representing the top face of the wedge, and a long stroke projecting from its apex representing the central inner edge of the wedge. This has the advantage of clarity: wedges in the clay commonly overlap each other, and overlapping triangles in a two dimensional drawing look confusing and messy, whereas a line can cross another line or lines without confusion. A further degree of stylisation involves writing a small equilateral triangle with a long straight protrusion from its apex, as in the more conservative representation, but extending the base of the triangle to the right and to the left, forming a T shape with a triangle at the intersection of its component strokes. This further eases the problem of clarifying intersecting wedges. However both of these representational methods are rather removed from what the three dimensional figure in the clay looks like, and students used to reading transcriptions have something of a learning curve when faced with what the ancient scribes actually wrote.

writing behaviour and the wedge shape

The shape of a wedge may differ from the basic pyramidal form for three reasons: graphemic, stylistic, or accidental. Each of these has implications for the deduced writing behaviour of the individual scribes who produced them.

accidental variation

In gneral cuneiform seems to have been written from top to bottom and from left to right. However within that basic tendency there is some variation as to the order in which the wedges were produced, and this order has been suggested as a useful identifier for the work of individual scribes: in other words, it indicates a potentially individual writing behaviour. Order of inscription alters the basic shape of a wedge. The act of indentation pushes clay away from the cutting edge of the stylus, and if there is a wedge already indented into the clay that is being pushed, it will distort it. This variation is accidental, but nonetheless of considerable potential signficance.

graphemic variation

There is a special kind of wedge known as the corner wedge. This is made by pushing the end of the stylus into the clay at a vertical angle of 45 degrees, making a triangle whose three sides are the same length, then twisting the end of the stylus clockwise through 40 or 50 degrees while decreasing the angle of the stylus to the clay. This produces a wedge that looks like a boomerang, which indeed was the name given to them by Babylonian scholars. This wedge looks very different from the normal pyramidal shape, and in fact its occurrence is graphemic: it alters the meaning of the text.

stylistic variation

In spite of the simplicity of the basic behaviour involved in creating a wedge, scribes showed some art and ingenuity in varying it, presumably for aesthetic effect.

Firstly, instead of the stylus being presented to the clay so that each face of it produced an equal sized face in the wedge, the horizontal angle of the wedge could be altered to make a right-inclined or left-inclined wedge.

Secondly, as a variation of this, a scribe could proceed as if contructing the boomerang shape of a corner wedge, as above, and then bring the hand down to lengthen the point of the wedge. This makes a shape rather like the tailplane of an aeroplane.

Thirdly, along wedge may be made by making a short wedge, then lowering the hand and the cutting edge of the stylus towards the clay while allowing the point of the implement to lift a little, so that the implement pivots round the point of the original short wedge. This makes a thick triangle modulating at its point into a long thin triangle, rather like a woodscrew without the screw.

Other stylistic variants are possible. It is there that individual (idiographic) behaviour is likely to be found.

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