Emerging in Sumer in the late fourth millennium BC to convey the Sumerian language, which was a language isolate (the Uruk IV period), cuneiform writing began as a system of pictograms, stemming from an earlier system of shaped tokens used for accounting.In the third millennium, the pictorial representations became simplified and more abstract as the number of characters in use grew smaller (Hittite cuneiform).Originally, pictographs were either drawn on clay tablets in vertical columns with a sharpened reed stylus or incised in stone.This early style lacked the characteristic wedge shape of the strokes.Mesopotamia's "proto-literate" period spans roughly the 35th to 32nd centuries.The first documents unequivocally written in Sumerian date to the 31st century at Jemdet Nasr.
By adjusting the relative position of the tablet to the stylus, the writer could use a single tool to make a variety of impressions.
The earliest known Sumerian king whose name appears on contemporary cuneiform tablets is Enmebaragesi of Kish.
Surviving records only very gradually become less fragmentary and more complete for the following reigns, but by the end of the pre-Sargonic period, it had become standard practice for each major city-state to date documents by year-names commemorating the exploits of its lugal (king).
From about 2900 BC, many pictographs began to lose their original function, and a given sign could have various meanings depending on context.
The sign inventory was reduced from some 1,500 signs to some 600 signs, and writing became increasingly phonological.
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Words that sounded alike would have different signs; for instance the syllable "gu" had fourteen different symbols.