In theory, cuneiform glyphs are numbered to distinguish homophones: if there are two common glyphs pronounced /u/, one will be named U₁ and the other will be named U₂. If a glyph has multiple readings, the number is attached to a particular reading, so the glyph BI₁ is also known as PE₂, PI₂, BE₂, and SA₁₈, among others.

So far so good. But sometimes, the numbering seems to carry over from one reading to another. For example, the glyph GU₁₀ can also be read as /ŋu/, and there are no other common glyphs with that reading. But its alternate name is ŊU₁₀, not *ŊU₁—in fact, the name *ŊU₁ doesn't seem to be associated with anything at all.

Why does this happen?

  • Related: linguistics.stackexchange.com/questions/34498/…
    – Draconis
    Apr 26, 2020 at 1:23
  • "The name ... doesn't seem to be associated with anything at all", well, with the character itself, isn't it? I mean the way we call P by the name "Pe" or that squiggly a-character in Greek by the name "alpha" that doesn't mean aleph "bullseye" or anything really.
    – vectory
    Apr 29, 2020 at 0:17
  • @vectory No, what I'm saying is that the name *ŊU₁ is not associated with any cuneiform character (hence the star). Which is strange, because 1 is supposed to be assigned before 2, 2 before 3, etc.
    – Draconis
    Apr 29, 2020 at 0:24
  • Maybe it's the way we call P by the name "Pe" or "Rho" depending on codepoint. I still say alpha although it's clearly an A written in a funny hand. And even writing alexander in Latin codepoint--I'm more pragmatic than hardcore philologists at that---I might refer to it as alpha depending on the context. So in my mind Alpha1 is A2 and vice versa. Seems an orderly and forward compatible notation.
    – vectory
    Apr 29, 2020 at 0:29

1 Answer 1


I haven't found any authoritative source backing this up, but as best I can tell from perusing the ePSD: the numbering "carries over" from a reading using only Akkadian phonemes to a reading that contains non-Akkadian ones (particularly Sumerian ĝ/ŋ and ř/dr). Akkadian has always been the best-understood of the languages using syllabic cuneiform, and tends to set the standards for naming.

I speculate that this stems from a combination of uncertainty in the readings (since the phonetic transcriptions we have were written by Akkadian-speakers) and from typographical concerns (ĝ, ŋ, and ř aren't always easy to typeset). But if anyone can find a Sumerological source that actually explains this rationale, I'd gladly take that as the accepted answer.

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