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In Akkadian context, there are basically two ways to “read” a given sign:

(I): a logographic reading; the values are inherited from the Sumerian period. In this case, the sign will be transliterated in capital letters.

(II): a phonographic (or syllabographic) reading; the sign represents the pronunciation of a syllable in either the Sumerian or Akkadian languages. In this case, the (phonemic value of the) sign will be transliterated with small letters.

Logographic signs are, without exception, inherited from Sumerian period (is it correct?). It seems that when being transliterated, their “sign name” is written (such as AN or DU). Presumably, each sign is supposed to have a unique “sign name”. I was wondering where this “sign name” comes from and unfortunately I could not find a straightforward answer. I guess that “sign name” is a Sumerian phonetic reading of a sign. But which reading? We know that cuneiform signs are polyvalent in a Sumerian context and hence there are normally more than a single (Sumerian) phonetic reading for a given sign. Then, for a given cuneiform sign, which of its possible (Sumerian) phonetic readings is crystallized into its sign name?

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  • If the phonetic polyvalence in Sumerian represented polysemy as well, presumably the name corresponding to the Akkadian meaning is used (I’m guessing). For example (and completely making things up out of thin air, if the same sign can be read either AN meaning ‘house’ or DU meaning ‘ocean’ in Sumerian, but is only used logographically in the sense ‘ocean’ in Akkadian, then it would make sense if that logograph is named DU in Akkadian. Commented Jan 28, 2023 at 19:48
  • Hello @JanusBahsJacquet, thanks for sharing with me your insight. It’s an intriguing conjecture. Thanks. Commented Jan 30, 2023 at 21:37

2 Answers 2

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As you've correctly surmised, each sign has one or more readings, which might be logographic, phonetic, or semagraphic (determinatives). The "name" of a sign is nothing more or less than its most popular reading, in the eyes of modern scholars.

For example, the sign 𒈪 has the readings mi, , ŋi₆, ŊE₆ "night", and GIGGI "black", among others. But its conventional "name" is "MI", because that's the most famous/popular usage of it, and is a lot easier to typeset in a journal than 𒈪.

In theory, any reading of a sign uniquely identifies it: that's what the accents and subscripts are for. Since both 𒈪 and 𒈨 can be indicate the sound /me/, 𒈨 is transcribed as me when used for such purposes, while 𒈪 is transcribed as me₂ or . This means that "MÉ" also unambiguously identifies 𒈪. In practice, though, "MI" has become conventional, so it's what Assyriologists tend to use.

We now know that the ancient Akkadian scribes actually had their own names for signs, which they used in their lexical lists: for them, 𒈪 was called gikkigu. But we don't know these names for most signs, and they're practically never used nowadays.

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    Hello @draconis, thank you very much for your illuminating response. Now I understand it. This sentence was so much clarifying: “In theory, any reading of a sign uniquely identifies it”. Thank you very much! Commented Feb 10, 2023 at 17:49
  • "In practice, though, "MI" has become conventional, so it's what Assyriologists tend to use." That's circular reasoning which really breaks the answer for me. For historical linguistics, a little more stress on history would be welcome. For example, there are unidentified signs which are refered to by code following an authoritative list known as Liste der archaischen Keilschriftzeichen (LAK). Other conventiens might follow suit with similar publications, necessarily, because subscripts aren't part of the reading.
    – vectory
    Commented Mar 5, 2023 at 22:11
  • @vectory It might be unsatisfying, but that's how it is. Particular authors chose particular names to refer to the signs themselves (as opposed to their uses), and once enough authors decided to call this one MI instead of MÉ or GE6 etc, it became conventional. It's the same reason any technical terms stick around.
    – Draconis
    Commented Mar 5, 2023 at 22:16
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I tried to find the answers of the questions raised above. These are my findings; though I am not sure if I am right:

  1. The logograms we see in Akkadian are all inherited from the Sumerian period; no logographic value has been added during the Akkadian period.

  2. In sign lists every sign is assigned a “sign name”. What is this “sign name”? It is one of its phonographic (syllabographic actually) values in Sumerian language. However, the sign could have more than one phonographic value in Sumerian. So which of them is selected as its name? Answer: sign names appearing in sign lists are merely cataloging conventions. For instance, the sign “named” AN in Borger’s work could also have been named DINGIR. Because DINGIR is another phonographic value for this sign in Sumerian.

  3. When a sign is read logographically, it is its logographic value that appears in transliteration; not the sign name. How? the Sumerian phonographic representation of the appropriate logographic value (i.e. one of those possible sign names) is written in capital letters.

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  • "no logographic value has been added during the Akkadian period." I believe this is incorrect because the beginning of the Akkadian period is not totally clear. Jagersma's grammar of Sumerian (2010, page 4) describes the situation quite well and implies anything that can be read with a sufficient degree of certainty to "... have been produced by scribes for whom Sumerian was not their mother tongue but only a language which they had learned during their scribal education." and "An even older layer of endingless forms has been proposed, but remains unproven (Civil 2007; Sommerfeld 2006)."
    – vectory
    Commented Mar 5, 2023 at 21:42

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