What were they thinking? The logic of the cuneiform script, our earliest writing system

Posted on: 27 November 2023

What were they thinking? The logic of the cuneiform script, our earliest writing system

The mysterious logic of the world’s first writing systems will be explored by ancient language expert Dr Martin Worthington at a free public talk this week.

The talk, entitled ‘Pictures to words – parsing the logic of early Cuneiform’, forms part of the Trinity Centre for the Book seminar series. It will take place on Wed, 29th Nov, 4.30-6pm in Trinity Long Room Hub Arts and Humanities Research Centre.

Martin Worthington, Associate Professor in Middle Eastern Studies, explained: “For over half of human history, from before 3000 BC to after the 'year zero', there were people writing in the cuneiform script. This wedge-shaped script on clay tablets is probably the oldest writing system in the world. In its mature form the script includes over 800 signs each with several different meanings. In my talk I will explore how these meanings developed and the logic by which they were assigned to signs.

“For example, the sign for 'to mix' goes back to a picture of a cake – an association we can easily relate to today. Similarly, the verb 'to suck' was represented by putting the sign for 'milk' inside the sign for 'mouth' – no doubt a reference to babies sucking milk from their mothers.

“Going back to the original pictures, and comparing these with the readings the signs went on to accrue, it is possible to tease out associations and ways of thinking that have wide cultural interest. My talk will present a tip of this cuneiform iceberg.”

The seminar series forms part of the public outreach programme of the Trinity Centre for the Book. Launched in April 2023 this new research centre, hosted in Trinity Long Room Hub, is harnessing the Library’s outstanding collections and the university’s significant concentration of experts to further our understanding of one of society’s most important technologies – the book.

The Trinity Centre for the Book seminar series in early 2024 will include a presentation by Dr Angela Griffith and Dr Billy Shortall on ‘The Cuala Press: Art, Craft, Innovation’, the printing house established by Elizabeth and W. B. Yeats, on January 31st and a talk by Prof Chris Morash, author of Dublin: A Writer’s City, entitled ‘Yeats and Genetic Criticism: Rethinking the Book’ on 28 February.

Previous seminars in the series were at talk by Dr Rachel Moss and Dr Tim O’Neill in September entitled 'The scribal hand: Creating wonder in the Book of Kells’, as part of Trinity’s new Arts and Humanities Research Festival, and a talk by  Dr Catherine Barbour and Dr Mariana Villegas Triay on ‘Creating Community: Women Responding to Crisis through Creative Writing in Co. Donegal’.

More about the Trinity Centre for the Book

The Trinity Centre for the Book launched in April 2023 aspires to make Trinity a globally recognised centre for the study, understanding and sharing of the book. The centre will capitalise on Trinity’s outstanding Library collections that span thousands of years, from the Egyptian Books of the Dead to the Library’s rapid response collecting initiative ‘Living in  Lockdown’ ­– a hybrid collection of physical works and born digital submissions.

The centre is also harnessing the university’s significant concentration of expertise, with more than 150 researchers publishing over 1,000 works on book history over the last ten years. The centre will examine all aspects of the history of the book to broaden our understanding of its rich cultural and social importance. This will include the key role it has played in communicating knowledge and lived experience for millennia, to recent developments in non-alphabetic forms of communication  such as emojis and the emergence of AI-driven content generation engines such as ChatGPT.


Media Contact:

Fiona Tyrrell | Media Relations | tyrrellf@tcd.ie | +353 1 896 3551