Written Akkadian

Akkadian is written using cuneiform signs. Most texts are on clay tablets, but there are also monumental inscriptions on stone. In written Akkadian a cuneiform sign may play one of three possible roles. One is as a syllable, though many signs have several possible syllabic values, not phonetically related, and the precise one may only be clear from the context. Another role is as a “determinative” indicating that the following or preceding word is the name of a person, god, bird, plant, etc. Third, it can represent a whole word or part of a word, but without the usual sound values; this usage derives from Sumerian, and in this case the sign is called a “Sumerogram”.

The extent to which Sumerograms are used varies from text to text. The Hammurabi law code for example never uses them for verbs — all verbs in the law code are spelled out using syllables. On the other hand a medical text may well give a verb using a single sign, regardless of its tense, mood or aspect. There are also intermediate usages where a word sign is complemented by a syllable indicating which of two or three alternate words are intended, and in what form. To some extent a scribe’s choice of whether to spell things out can depend on the amount of space available on the tablet, and different copies are written in different ways.