It is said that the adoption of Sumerian cuneiform by Akkadian and other languages in the Middle East imposed constraints on those languages (due to the limited number of sounds represented in Sumerian).

Is this true? In what way does the adoption of cuneiform constrained those languages? How is this possible, while in logographic system like the cuneiform, a symbol corresponds to a word as opposed to a sound?

  • Could you cite exactly which source made this claim? It's difficult to comment on second-hand information.
    – Alek Storm
    Oct 11, 2011 at 17:50
  • I found it on Nicholas Ostler's Empires of the Word, and somehow the passage also exists here (Ctrl+F for "So Sumerian survived its")
    – Louis Rhys
    Oct 11, 2011 at 17:54

1 Answer 1


It seems that the answer lies in the source you cite in your own comment. Cuneiform at this stage was not purely logographic but rather a mixture of logographic signs and phonemic (or what the article refers to as "phonetic") signs, and the inventory of phonemic signs that existed was tailored to Sumerian, which had a very different morphology, phonology and phonetics from Akkadian. Note that the writer says that Sumerian "lived on as an imposed constraint on the expression (emphasis mine) of Akkadian...". By "expression" the author almost certainly is referring to the written expression of the language.

Are you familiar with the Japanese writing system at all? It's like if in a parallel universe you had grown up speaking German but no one ever taught you how to write it, but then someone handed you an instructional manual for Japanese writing--Kanji, hiragana, and katakana--and you had to try to adapt it for use as an orthography for German. For some words and morphemes you could use already-existing kanji and just re-establish their pronunciations. But how would you deal with the inflectional morphology that German has and Japanese lacks? You'd be forced to choose among letting it be implied, coming up with a kluge for expressing it using kana, or re-appropriating certain kanji to represent inflections. And if kanji didn't exist for certain words, how would you adapt kana to "spell them out"? There obviously isn't a one-to-one correspondence between phonemes in German and kana in Japanese, so you'd sometimes have to go without expressing certain contrasts that exist in German, like /l/ vs. /r/ (or, again, invent a novel way of marking these contrasts) and you'd also sometimes be forced to express certain phonemic sequences in a roundabout way--consonant clusters, for example. Of course none of this would hamper your ability to express yourself orally in German, though.

  • Thanks for the answer, I think it's a good analogy and yes, I know what Kanji, hiragana and katakana do. Is it possible that a few generations after adopting the cuneiform, the spoken expression got restricted as well? Was it the case with Akkadian?
    – Louis Rhys
    Oct 12, 2011 at 2:01
  • 1
    I don't have any expert knowledge on Akkadian, but it is generally held by linguists that a (spoken) language can never be "restricted" or "constrained" by its orthography, adopted or otherwise. Many languages thrive without any written form whatsoever! Oct 12, 2011 at 2:31
  • A modern real-life parallel can be seen in the situation for Cantonese, although its situation is less extreme. Cantonese, like any language, has a rich, nuanced grammar, with a lexicon, a phonology, and a syntax that are different from those of Mandarin. But speakers of Cantonese use the orthographic system of Standard Mandarin. In cases where there don't exist any characters for native Cantonese words, they have invented new characters, and in some cases Cantonese text utilizes constructions that are more characteristic of Mandarin than of Cantonesese. Oct 12, 2011 at 2:35
  • But native speakers consider "written Cantonese" to be a completely different beast from "spoken Cantonese", and it has not "hampered" the use or development of the language in any way! Oct 12, 2011 at 2:37
  • 1
    @LouisRhys > the spoken expression got restricted as well? Was it the case with Akkadian? - Taking into the account the extra-low literacy rate in those times, when the percentage of literate people was compared with the percentage of, say, neuro-surgeons in the modern population, there was no possibility that spoken Akkadian could be influenced by its writing system.
    – Yellow Sky
    Feb 2, 2014 at 18:51

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.