Writing in Babylonia began as pictures. A cow’s head stood for “cow”; a leg and foot, for “to stand” or “to go”; a human head with a bowl beside it meant “to eat.” Gradually the pictures became stylized until they were unrecognizable unless seen in that developmental context. (Illustrations of these examples appear below. The forms in the left column are found in the earliest tables from Babylonia [before 3000 B.C.]; the forms in the right column were current at Ebla about 2300 B.C.)

To denote shades of meaning and to write abstract ideas, some signs came to be use for the sounds of the words they represented, rather than the meaning, although they continued to be used for meaning as well. For example, “thinking” might be difficult to show in picture writing, but a picture of a thin man beside a king could give the sound, in English of course, “thin-king.” Ancient scribes developed ways to mark the kind of meaning intended with non-phonetic signs called determinatives. Context would also help to indicate how the signs should be read; by context, the reader would know whether to read “thinking” or “the thin man is king” or “the king is a thin man.”

The earliest pictographic cuneiform writing was a most certainly developed for Sumerian, a non-Semitic language. When the signs created for writing Sumerian were adapted for Semitic Akkadian, many of them continued to be used with the same meaning, but now they were read in Semitic. Thus, the Sumerian sign DU (to go) was read as alaµkum (to go) in Akkadian (compare Hebrew haµlak).

At the same time, Sumerian signs were used in Akkadian purely for their values as sounds in Sumerian. Thus, the Sumerian sign DU was commonly used to write the syllable du in Akkadian words.

The sign DU in Sumerian could mean not only “to go” but also “to stand.” When it meant “to stand,” it was pronounced “gub.” So scribes writing Semitic languages like Akkadian also used this same sign for the syllable gub in Semitic words. And they also used it for some similar such as kub, gub, gup, kup, gup; Sumerian had no need to distinguish these sounds, but Semitic words do distinguish them, although in cuneiform one sign may be used for all of them.

So a particular sign could mean many different things. And they varied from time to time an place to pace. Knowing which signs were used with which values—and when and where—is essential for accurate interpretation of cuneiform tablets. Only as a large number of the Ebla tablets are published can the habits of the scribes in that city be defined and their methods of writing be understood.

Many of the disagreements over the readings of the Ebla tablets arose in the initial stages when scholars did not know enough about the way cuneiform was used at that early time in Syria. The situation is much clearer now, but many uncertainties remain.