Ancient writing systems in the Mediterranean

A critical guide to electronic resources


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These initials indicate a writing system in which each symbol represents a consonant and the reader has to add the vowels. Arabic and Hebrew writing systems are ABJAD. The initials come from the first four letters of the Arabic alphabet ALEF, BEH, JEEM, and DAL.


Agglutinative is a term used to classify languages according to their morphology. A language is considered agglutinative if it adds a series of prefixes and suffixes to the root of the words in order to provide information about the gender, number, case, verb tense, etc.

For example in Sumerian, which was an agglutinative language,

"of the kings" is lugal - ene- ak

lugal = king; ene =plural; ek =genitive

in Latin, which is instead an inflective language,

"of the kings" is regum

reg = king; um = genitive, plural, masculine

Many ancient Eastern languages were agglutinative, e.g., Sumerian, Elamite, Hurrian, Kassite, and Turkish, Basque and Japanese are all agglutinative.



In an inscription, Boustrophedon means the writing alternates from left to right and then from right to left, in imitation of how the ox turns during ploughing.



A large recipient in which wine and water were mixed.



These are logograms employed as semantic classifiers for certain words. In Egyptian hieroglyphics, they always followed the word, and they also had the practical utility of separating words since in the writing system there were no spaces among words. In the cuneiform script some determinatives are placed before the word; others follow it. In Egyptian hieroglyphics, for example, the solar disk may be a determinative sign for the category of ‘light’ and so accompany all the words which are linked with this meaning (‘sun’, ‘light’, ‘day’, ‘solar disk’). Always considering Egyptian hieroglyphics, the sign of a seated man accompanies all the proper masculine names and the personal pronouns in first person, if the writer is male (if female, the determinative would be a seated woman). In the cuneiform script, there are several classes of determinatives, for example, those which precede personal names (I/m before masculine names and MÍ/f before feminine names); the one which is placed before names of gods and divinized things (d); those which stand before terms denoting utensils (DUG for clay vessels, GI for items made of reed, GIŠ for wooden objects, etc.); those which precede place names (URU for cities, KUR for countries and mountains, ÍD for rivers, etc.). An example of determinative which follows the word is the sign KI; it is placed after toponyms (e.g. URU.aš-šur.KI, “Assur”).



Geographically differentiated. Epichoric variants of an alphabet are writing systems with a common matrix but which can each be distinguished by number, form and meaning of the symbols used.

Erasmian pronunciation

System of rules for the pronunciation of Greek drawn up in the 17th century by the learned Erasmus of Rotterdam.


Originating from the isle of Euboea, facing the east side of the the Greek mainland. The most important setllements of the region during the archaic age were the cities of Chalcis and Eretria



An ideogram is a symbol which indicates a concept. In our times examples of much-used ideograms include Arabic numerals like 1, 2, 3, etc, or @, £.

Inflecting language

A language where certain parts of words are modified according to their syntactic function, principally verbs (conjugations) and substantives and/or adjectives (declination).



Logograms are symbols, graphemes, which indicate a word or an idea. Logograms are differentiated from syllabic or alphabetic symbols which instead indicate a sound directly. Hieroglyphics and ideograms are logograms. The logogram is by its nature separated from a specific sound, so messages written in logograms and ideograms can be understood by speakers of different languages.


Middle Kingdom

Period of Egyptian history from 2040 to 1782 BC, made up of two dynasties (11th and 12th) and characterized by the unification of the country by a dynasty of Theban princes. It is considered the classical period of Egyptian history, especially from the point of view of the language and literature. The most famous sovereigns of this period were Mentuhotep II (2060-2010 BC), Senusret II (1897-1878 BC) and Amenemhat III (1842-1797 BC).


New Kingdom

Period of Egyptian history from 1570 to 1070 BC, composed of three dynasties (18th - 20th). It represents the apogee of Egyptian history, both for the extension of the lands controlled in Nubia and in the Levant, and for the splendour of the monuments built. The New Kingdom began as well with the unification of the country by a Theban prince, this time to the cost of the Asiatic dominators (Hyksos) who had arrived in the Delta in the 2nd Intermediate Period (1782-1579 BC). A crucial period of the New Kingdom is the monotheistic experience promoted by the Pharaoh Amenhotep IV-Akhenaten around 1350 BC. The most famous sovereigns of this period are Hatshepsut (1498-1483 BC), Thutmosis III (1504-1450 BC), Amenhotep III (1386-1349 BC), Akhenaten (1350-1334 BC), Tutankhamen (1334-1325 BC), Ramesses II (1279-1212 BC) and Ramesses III (1182-1151 BC).

Normalization or transcription

The normalization or transcription of a word or text of a language attested epigraphically is the form which is considered the closest to the actual pronunciation of that language. In the case of the Akkadian cuneiform, the normalization or transcription of an Akkadian word or text in Latin characters gives the form of that word or text as we presume it actually was in the spoken language. In the normalization, an Akkadian word is written with long vowels and doubled consonants which in the cuneiform script and in its transliteration are not marked (e.g. a-ma-tum = amātum, “word”, qá-ra-dum = qarrādum, “hero”). Secondly, in the normalization every logogram (sumerogram) is replaced with the corresponding Akkadian word (e.g. É.GAL = ēkallum, “palace”).



A type of vase: a jar with a handle, used to draw wine from the crater and pour it into the cups.

Old Kingdom

Period of Egyptian history which extends from 2686 to 2182 BC, made of four dynasties (3rd-6th). This period was characterized by increasing centralization of power, a flourishing building activity (the best-known pyramids were all constructed during this period), expansion of trade and of intellectual activity. The most famous sovereigns of this period, who built great monuments, were Djoser (2668-2649 BC), Khufu (2589-2566 BC), Khafra (2558-2532 BC), Menkaura (2532-2504 BC) and Nyuserre (2453-2422 BC). With the 6th dynasty, Pharaonic power was decentralized, and the Old Kingdom ended in anarchy.



See writing pictographic.


Dialect in which the aspirate (h) is weakened to the point of disappearing, to such a point that it is no longer indicated in writing.



Seal of varying dimensions in the form of a scarab with a flat base on which inscriptions or figurative decorations can be engraved. The dung beetle, animal sacred to the god Khepri, was considered a living metaphor of the morning sun in ancient Egypt. Scarabs of larger dimensions could be engraved with celebrative inscriptions of various types: the ones created by Amenhotep III  to commemorate various events of his reign – like his marriage to the Great Royal Wife Tiy, a huge lion hunt or the excavation of a lake for the queen’s residence – are very famous.


By definition, Akkadian, Eblaite, Arabic, Hebrew, Aramaic, Ethiopian are Semitic languages. The Semitic languages fall into two main groups: the languages of the East Semitic group and those of the West Semitic group. Akkadian and, perhaps, also the language documented in the texts of Ebla of 25th/24th century BC belong to the first group. Ugaritic, Canaanite (including Phoenician and Hebrew), Aramaic, Arabic, the ancient South Arabian languages, the Semitic languages of Ethiopia (Ge‘ez, Amharic, etc.) belong to the West Semitic group, which may be further subdivided in various subgroupings.


Symbol, complementary

Symbols used in the Greek alphabet to indicate the phonemes ks, ph, ch and ph (in the Ionic alphabet familiar to us: Ξ, Φ, Χ, Ψ), introduced progressively and in different ways into the Greek alphabets; some alphabets remained without them for a long time.



Transliteration is a sign-by-sign rendering of the sequence of graphemes which constitutes a word or text of a language in a sequence of graphemes of another script. In the case of the Akkadian cuneiform, the transliteration of an Akkadian word or sentence in Latin characters gives the sequence of syllabograms or syllabograms and logograms which constitute that word or sentence (e.g. a-ma-tum, “word” [normalized as amātum], é-tum, “house” [normalized as bītum]).


Writing, alphabetic

A writing system where each sign represents a phoneme (consonant or vowel).

Writing, pictographic

A writing system which uses pictograms, that is, signs which represent concrete objects. The pictograms are logograms, like the ideograms and Egyptian hieroglyphics, with the specific characteristic that they represent concrete persons and things. A pictogram can be understood by speakers of different languages.

Writing, syllabic

A writing system where each sign represents a syllable.