The term "cuneiform script" covers a set of related scripts in use in the Ancient Near East for more than three millennia, evolving from an ideographic symbol system of the Uruk IV period (mid 4th millennium BC) until its gradual marginalization in Neo-Assyrian times, lingering on into Classical Antiquity (the last known inscription dates to the 1st century AD).
At least the following stages should be distinguished:
- Uruk IV to Early Dynastic II: pictographic (proto-cuneiform), before 2600 BC (rotated by 90 degrees around 2800 BC), some 940 distinct signs are in use.
- Early Dynastic III:
- abstract ideographic (linear), for monumental inscriptions from ca. 2600 BC, some 870 distinct signs.
- archaic cuneiform, for writing in clay, from ca. 2600 BC, "font variant" of the monumental script
- Neo-Sumerian (Ur III) cuneiform, around 2000 BC, some 500 distinct signs.
- Old Assyrian cuneiform, ca. 2000 - 1500 BC, some 600 distinct signs
- Hittite cuneiform is a variant (mostly a subset) of Old Assyrian, some 380 distinct signs
- (Middle Assyrian, ca. 1500 - 1000 BC, transitional between Old and Neo-Assyrian)
- Neo-Assyrian, ca. 1000 BC until the script's extinction, considerable simplification of glyph shapes
There is a tendency of reducing the sign inventory, from some 1,000 to 500 signs during the 3rd millennium (late Uruk to Neo-Sumerian times), and to less than 400 in Hittite orthography, and a tendency of glyph simplification during the 2nd millennium (Neo-Sumerian to Neo-Assyrian times).
the Old Persian and Ugaritic scripts are "cuneiform" in appearance, but not directly related to this script.
Unicode as of version 5.0 defines a single "Sumero-Akkadian cuneiform" range, considering historical glyph developments from archaic to Neo-Assyrian glyph variants (comparable to the encoding philosophy of the Runic and Old Italic ranges). The character inventory, character names and sample glyph shapes in the official character chart are oriented towards archaic (mid third millennium BC, Sumerian) cuneiform; fonts implementing Assyrian or Hittite ductus will require considerably fewer than the total of 982 codepoints.
The script was originally designed for the Sumerian language, and adapted in turn to Akkadian, and hence to the Hittite and Hurrian languages. Languages of cuneiform records include:
- Old Akkadian — 2500 – 1950 BCE
- Old Babylonian/Old Assyrian — 1950 – 1530 BCE
- Middle Babylonian/Middle Assyrian — 1530 – 1000 BCE
- Neo-Babylonian/Neo-Assyrian — 1000 – 600 BCE
- Late Babylonian — 600 BCE – 100 CE
- Hittite — 1800 BCE – 1200 BCE
- Luwian, in glosses in Hittite texts
- Hurrian/Urartian ca. 1800 to 600 BCE