Efficient use of ambiguity in an early writing system: Evidence from Sumerian cuneiform

TitleEfficient use of ambiguity in an early writing system: Evidence from Sumerian cuneiform
Publication TypeConference Paper
Year of Publication2019
AuthorsHermalin, N., & Regier T.
Published inProceedings of the 41st Annual Meeting of the Cognitive Science Society
Keywordsambiguity, cuneiform, efficient communication, Information theory, writing systems

Ambiguity has often been viewed as a hindrance to communication. In contrast, Piantadosi et al. (2012) argued that ambiguity may be useful in that it allows communication to be efficient, and they found support for this argument in the spoken forms of modern English, Dutch, and German. The historical origins of this phenomenon cannot be probed in the case of spoken language, but they can for written language, as it leaves an enduring trace. Here, we explore ambiguity and efficiency in one of the earliest known written forms of language: Sumerian cuneiform. Sumerian cuneiform exhibits extensive ambiguity, and for that reason it has been considered to be poorly suited for communication. We find, however, that ambiguity in Sumerian cuneiform supports efficient communication, mirroring the earlier findings for spoken English, Dutch, and German. Thus, the early stages of human writing exhibit evidence suggesting pressure for communicative efficiency.


We thank Robert K. Englund for giving us permission to reprint the image shown in Figure 1. This study was supported in part by the Defense Threat Reduction Agency; the content of the study does not necessarily reflect the position or policyof the U.S. government, and no official endorsement should be inferred.

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