Cuneiform is kind of a wedge issue.
OK, ha ha, you see what I did there. Cuneiform means ‘wedge-shaped’, from Latin cuneus ‘wedge’ plus form. But really, cuneiform was a wedge – one that slowly divided things that had been connected, but also one that slowly worked its way in, like a foot in the door.
I’ll give you an analogy. It won’t be exact, but you’ll get the idea.
Let’s say that instead of an alphabet, our culture started out writing things down with emoji. Obviously we couldn’t represent full, detailed sentences with emoji; we could signify specific things and general ideas. Cleverness allowed rebus-style communications: a picture of an eye, a picture of a heart, and a picture of a sheep to communicate “I love you” (because “eye love ewe”). We could also use the eye to mean ‘see’ or literally ‘eye’, the heart to mean literally ‘heart’ or by sound association ‘hard’, the sheep to mean ‘sheep’ or ‘cheap’. You’d get the idea because of the context and the things you know people usually say.
But because we didn’t have computers yet, we got tired of drawing all the fancy lines exactly. Someone gave us a new technology that let us easily and quickly make straight lines but not curved ones, so we made cartoonish simplified representations of the emoji. We also wanted to express more varied and involved things. Sometimes we would add an extra symbol to clarify what we meant. Usages got abstracted and standardized. And over time they got so simplifed that they generally lost any representation of the thing they originally named. But they also got to the level of flexibility that they could represent the same level of detail as you could get with speech. They were driving a wedge between sign and signified, but they had also wedged their way towards being a full representation of language as it was spoken.
But still, they were used in different contexts to mean different things. They weren’t purely phonetic. And different languages used them too. Unrelated languages, even. All of them with their own sound-alikes and mean-alikes. So you really would have to know the context to make sense of them.
Now let’s imagine that some people in another country have developed a phonetic way of writing things. An alphabet. Let’s say we start using it in the mid-20thcentury. It becomes all the rage for the younger generations, and cultures influenced by ours – and future versions of our culture – start using it. And everyone stops using the old abstracted emoji and eventually everyone forgets how they work, even though there are still lots of things just lying around written with them.
Future historians, using the new phonetic system, will know the literature all the way back to when we started using the phonetic system. They will take the oldest works they have written that way – hmm, Roth? Burgess? Pynchon? Vonnegut? Atwood? Irving? King? Walker? Byatt? – as original. Any themes related to them will be assumed to have been originated by them.
Future archaeologists and linguists start figuring out how to read the abstracted emoji writing.
And discover Shakespeare. And Scott. And Defoe, and Shelley, and the Brontës, and Austen, and Eliot…
Talk about getting a wedge into the past. It splits the understanding wide open!
Cuneiform is kind of a byword for something abstruse and incomprehensible, and no surprise: for centuries, travellers in the neighbourhood of Mesopotamia saw inscriptions and tablets in it and had no idea what they were supposed to be. Even when scholars started studying it, they ran into all sorts of traps and misdirections. It had been used for about 3000 years in evolving forms to convey quite a few unrelated languages, after all! So its replacement by phonetic writing systems derived from the Phoenician alphabet – including what became the modern Arabic, Hebrew, Greek, and Latin writing systems – drove a wedge between the written record of that time and the readers of later times.
But when scholars from those later times finally figured out cuneiform, they began to wedge into its time, to get a foot in the door of it and open it wide. And they discovered many stories that looked a lot like ones we had always assumed originated in the Bible – stories dating to centuries before the earliest Biblical versions. Now, that’s one heck of a wedge.
There are just a couple more things you might be wondering about. The first thing is why cuneiform’s strokes are wedge-shaped. The answer is that the reed stylus they used could make that kind of impression in clay tablets. And those tablets could be baked to harden and preserve them. Many tablets weren’t baked because they didn’t need to last the centuries – contracts, inventories, etc. But some of those got baked anyway when invaders came in and burned the buildings they were in. Which makes for some interestingly capricious historical records.
The second thing relates to why I keep saying “get a foot in the door”: you have three bones in your foot called the cuneiform bones. They’re articulated with the long bones leading to your toes. Feel your instep where it joins to the bottom of your leg: there they are, helping to make up the first part where your foot is bone all the way across instead of bones with gaps between them. The cuneiform bones are so named because, when seen from a certain angle, they’re wedge-shaped.
Thanks to Sam Hancock for suggesting cuneiform.