Cuneiform writing is the first known form of written language. Created by the Sumerians around 3500 BC, it began as a system of pictographs. Through repeated use over time, the pictorial representations began to look simpler and more abstract.

The first pictograms were drawn on clay tablets in vertical columns with a pen made from a sharpened reed stylus. Then two developments made the process quicker and easier: People began to write in horizontal rows (rotating counter-clockwise all of the pictograms 90° in the process), and a new wedge-tipped stylus was used which was pushed into the clay, producing wedge-shaped ("cuneiform") signs. By adjusting the relative position of the tablet to the stylus, the writer could use a single tool to make a variety of impressions.

Cuneiform tablets could be fired in kilns to provide a permanent record, or they could be recycled if permanence was not called for. Many of the tablets found by archaeologists were preserved because they were baked when attacking armies burned the building in which they were kept.

Cuneiform, invented by the Sumerians to write the Sumerian language in, was adapted by the Akkadians, Babylonians, Elamites, Hittites and Assyrians to write their own languages and was widely used in Mesopotamia for about 3000 years, though the syllabic nature of the script as it was refined by the Sumerians was unintuitive to the Semitic-language speakers. This fact, before Sumerian civilization was rediscovered, prompted many philologists to suspect a precursor civilization to the Babylonian.

Most later adaptations of Sumerian cuneiform preserved at least some aspects of the Sumerian script. Written Akkadian included both phonetic symbols from the Sumerian syllabary, together with logograms that were read as whole words. Many signs in the script were polyvalent, having both a syllabic and logographic meaning. When the cuneiform script was adapted to writing the Hittite language, a layer of Akkadian logographic spellings was added to the script, with the result that we no longer know the pronunciations of many Hittite words conventionally written by logograms. The complexity of the system bears a resemblance to classical Japanese, written in a Chinese derived script; some of these Sinograms were used as logograms, others as phonetic characters. Contemporary Japanese graphically distinguishes the logograms (kanji) from syllabary characters (kana) but otherwise retains a similar system.

The complexity of the system launched a number of simplified versions of the script. Old Persian was written in a subset of simplified cuneiform characters, that formed a simple, semi-alphabetic syllabary, using far fewer wedge strokes than Assyrian used, together with a handful of logograms for frequently occurring words like "god" and "king." The Ugaritic language was written using the Ugaritic alphabet, a standard Semitic style alphabet (an abjad) written using the cuneiform method.

The use of Aramaic became widespread under the Assyrian Empire and the Aramaean alphabet gradually replaced cuneiform. The last known cuneiform inscription, an astronomical text, was written in 75 AD.

Knowledge of cuneiform was lost until 1835 when Henry Rawlinson, a British army officer, found some of the Behistun inscriptionss on a cliff at Behistun in Persia. Carved in the reign of King Darius of Persia (522 BC-486 BC), they consisted of identical texts in the three official languages of the empire: Old Persian, Babylonian, and Elamite. After translating the Persian, Rawlinson began to decipher the others. By 1851, he could read 200 Babylonian signs. This process was similar to the way in which Egyptian hieroglyphs were deciphered through the use of the Rosetta Stone.

Cuneiform has a specific format for transliteration.\n