The earliest known form of writing was the Sumerian language. The Kish tablet is the oldest extant document from that time period with writing on it, but the largest early collection of Sumerian writings were found at Jemdet Nasr. Writing developed as a set of logographic signs that later were changed into a logosyllabic script that had a few hundred signs; researchers found 468 different signs used in documents found at Sumerian Lagash. The period from the 26th through the 24th centuries BCE are considered the classical period of Sumerian cuneiform writing. Anthropologists were able to decipher the Sumerian from Akkadian glossaries, as Sumerian cuneiform was adapted to the Akkadian language. The actual key, though, came from the Behistun inscription, which is inscribed in Elamite, Old Persian and Akkadian. The 19th century archeologist Henry Rawlinson was the first to decipher this, because of his familiarity with modern Persian. In 1855, Rawlinson found other similar inscriptions in Babylon, specifically at Uruk, Larsa and Nippur. This unknown language was first called “ Sumerian” in 1869, because of the fact that there was a known given title in history of “ King of Sumer and Akkad.” Paul Haupt was the first to translate a bilingual Akkadian-Sumerian source text, and the first list of Sumerian ideographs was published in 1889. Because each sign can have a variety of phonetic equivalents, it has been difficult to understand Sumerian – indeed, during the 1870’s, a team of French researchers studied the assertion that Sumerian might not be a language at all, but instead, a code. It was the work of Charles Fossey that led to the first major Sumerian-Akkadian dictionary, that would appear in part in 1907 and in full form in 1934.
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In developed countries today, literacy is not considered a status symbol; instead, it is considered a minimum standard for economic survival. In developing countries, and throughout most of the world in past centuries, though, literacy served as access to power. Consider that the Roman Catholic Church, for almost 1500 years, controlled all access that believers had to information about God. The priests were, by and large, the only ones who could read, and all of the services were conducted in Latin, which was a language that was not indigenous to 99% of Catholics throughout the world before the Protestant Reformation. Since most parishioners could not understand the worship services, and they could not read the Bible, they had to rely on whatever the priests told them – a development that gave the priests a considerable amount of power. Literacy meant information, which meant power.
As one can see from the story of Sumerian cuneiform, even the most renowned archaeologists can make mistakes – after all, even the esteemed linguist Frederich Delitzsch was hornswaggled by the notion that Sumerian cuneiform was just a code, instead of a language all its own. For this reason, it is important to seek independent archaeological confirmation for the conclusions that researchers draw, because there are just too many angles to consider when transliterating, translating and interpreting language. As in most scientific disciplines, the concept of peer review and independent verification keeps errors from being considered truth, so that the interpretation of historical data can take place correctly and accurately.