Cuneiform in Unicode.

Robert Mesibov, of Tasmania, Australia, posts about a pleasing conjunction of old and new:

If you were wandering the streets of a busy city in the Fertile Crescent a few thousand years ago, you might have run across someone jotting down a few notes on a small clay tablet […] The jotting-down was done with the cut stem of a reed, and the result is today called cuneiform writing, after the wedge shape of some of the written elements (Latin cuneus, “wedge”). Cuneiform writing on clay was around for at least 3000 years and was adopted for use in a range of languages. […]

Like many people, I’m fascinated by this ancient solution to the data storage problem. Archivists in the digital era have to cope with bit rot and frequent changes in media and format. Clay is clay, and today there are still hundreds of thousands of ancient cuneiform tablets, their data content unaltered after thousands of years.

If you’re interested in cuneiform writing, you’ll be pleased to hear that the major cuneiform symbol groups have been assigned blocks in Unicode. There are also online resources for everyday computer users who want to learn more about cuneiform and the cuneiform-using cultures. The Open Richly Annotated Cuneiform Corpus (ORACC) project not only welcomes new participants, but is also strong on FOSS and open data.

Some cuneiform TTF fonts are available. The best-looking I’ve found are the four Old Persian fonts built by “Fereydoun Rostam”, the pseudonym of a Brazilian graphic artist: “Behistun”, “Kakoulookiam”, “Khosrau” and “Zarathustra”. Fereydoun includes a keymap and a Unicode chart in each font package. All four fonts play well with LibreOffice […] and look great in a terminal […]

(The Mesibov post has links to the fonts as well as images.)


  1. John Cowan says

    Old Persian, however, is not Sumero-Akkadian, just vaguely inspired by it the way Cherokee is inspired by Latin and with the same reason (the tools used to write it). It’s half abugida, half alphabet, and it’s encoded separately in Unicode.

  2. David Marjanović says

    But the best part is this link.

  3. Amanda Adams says

    I see, at David’s link… “The oxen is slow, but the earth is patient.” …so, they didn’t catch the error…

  4. Stu Clayton says

    For copyediting you have to pay extra. Not for nothing is the site named “Dumb Cuneiform”.

  5. John Cowan says

    That just makes it more authentic. It’s not like Old Persian scribes didn’t make misteaks too.

  6. Christian Weisgerber says

    A while back I noticed that at the start of Wikipedia’s article on Troy, I actually get to see Hittite cuneiform. So awesome. It must be included in Google’s Noto fonts, which I originally installed to get CJK characters.

  7. Trond Engen says

    From Wikipedia on Troy:

    Hittite: ???????????????? Wilusa or ???????????????? Truwisa

    That is awesome.

    Also, the sa’s are the same, but the wi’s are different.

  8. Dumb question alert: would the various forms of Cuneiform have been mutually intelligible or were the languages too dissimilar?

  9. The cuneiform differed somewhat, but the main factor is that the languages were unrelated, so an Akkadian trying to read Hittite would have been like an American trying to read Maltese.

  10. January First-of-May says

    The cuneiform differed somewhat, but the main factor is that the languages were unrelated, so an Akkadian trying to read Hittite would have been like an American trying to read Maltese.

    …while an Akkadian trying to read Elamite would presumably have been like an American trying to read Cherokee.
    Can’t think of a good analogy for Old Persian, alas, but, IIRC, aside from that one big thing in Behistun (and possibly a few other less monumental inscriptions in a similar genre), not much had been written (at the time) in Old Persian cuneiform anyway.

    (IIRC, it was big news when, a few years ago, someone actually found an actual document in Old Persian cuneiform somewhere in the Achaemenid archives; the document was something like half a line long, and no other one had been found since.
    Most of the archives’ documents, for the record, were in Aramaic and/or a contemporary version of Akkadian; there were a few in Greek, and IIRC some in other languages/scripts, but only the one extremely short Old Persian cuneiform text is known.)

    EDIT: actually, now that I’ve found out more about Elamite, I revise the comparison: an Akkadian trying to read Elamite would be like an American trying to read Kyrgyz. The comparison with Cherokee is more appropriate for Old Persian.

  11. David Marjanović says

    There we go.

    The Achaemenid bureaucracy was mostly in Elamite; in other words, the scribes were locals.


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