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It was only when Sumerian started to vanish that, in about 2050 BC, King Shulgi of Ur ordered the old oral literature to be recorded, on tablets which either did not survive or have yet to be found. Writing cuneiform to record Sumerian was quite a < previous page page_42 next page > < previous page page_43 next page > Page 43 challenge. But it gets worse. Another people, known as Akkadians, spread southward around the middle of the third millennium BC. By 2300 BC Akkadian was spoken all across the empire, with Sumerian as an increasingly poor relation (hence Shulgi’s determination to record it), dying out as a spoken language around 2000 BC.

A reed makes no sense. But the same sound (gi) also means ‘render’ or ‘repay’. Some smart accountant had simply borrowed the reed sign, switched contexts, and come up with a repayment symbol. The same principle can be applied to parts of words. ‘Barley’ was ‘she’, with a short ‘e’ as in ‘shepherd’, so the < previous page page_40 next page > < previous page page_41 next page > Page 41 ‘barley’ sign was used to begin all words starting ‘she-’. Endings worked in the same way. English does it in children’s code-games.

There, two great rivers, the Tigris and Euphrates, watered the rich plains that lay ‘between the waters’ (the meaning of Mesopotamia). Four increasingly complex urban societies – Sumer, Assyria, Babylonia, Elam – created several dozen cities of legendary and biblical fame, like Ur, Uruk, Nineveh and Babylon itself. In temples and palaces, produce was stored, tributes given, gifts exchanged; and all demanded records, inventories, ledger controls. To see how necessity mothered invention, imagine a harassed temple official in Uruk on the Euphrates 200 miles south-east of today’s Baghdad, some time around 3300 BC.

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