Thanks, I’m glad it’s interesting to someone other than myself.
I started to wander through this wilderness a decade ago and, to quote George Eliot yet again:
“The young ones have always a claim on the old to help them forward. I was young myself once and had to do without much help; but help would have been welcome to me, if it had been only for the fellow-feeling’s sake.”
I’m going to answer your questions, but let’s tighten up our terminology a little so we know what exactly I’m recommending to you.
First off, you already know that cuneiform is just a style of script utilized by a number of ancient peoples to record their varied languages, over roughly, a span of three millennia. This includes, though not exclusively, Sumerian, Akkadian, and Hittite — each of these hailing from a completely distinct language group and having their own separate issues with respect to the application of cuneiform to their writing.
The cuneiform language that I’ve studied, that I’m most familiar with, is Akkadian — by which I mean that branch of Eastern Semitic that includes the Old Akkadian of Sargon, the Old Babylonian of Ḫammurapi, the Neo-Assyrian of Aššur-bāni-apli, and the Neo-Babylonian of the so-called Chaldeans (including Nabû-kudurrī-uṣur, the Biblical Nebuchadnezzar). But even Akkadian changed dramatically over this 2000 year period; by way of comparison, Chaucer wrote in English, died a little over 600 years ago, but to most modern speakers The Canterbury Tales might as well be written in German.
In any case, I can give you the most information about Akkadian — if you’re instead interested something else like Eblaite or full-on Sumerian (rather than the bits you’ll pick up through Akkadian), I can only describe the shorelines of those continents, not where the inland roads go once you get there.
Of course, if you don’t particularly care about one of these any more than another and want simply to mess around with a cuneiform language, I suspect that Akkadian is by far the most accessible and that it has the greatest wealth of resources available — though I’ll be the first to concede that I’m a partisan and that I’ve had little contact with any of the others. While it might be that there’s an amazing text out there which will have you proficient with Hittite after a day, unfortunately, I’m not in any position to know about it.
In any case, if you want to get serious about learning Akkadian, look no further than John Huehnergard’s A Grammar of Akkadian. This is what I used in 2003 and it’s what I continue to consult to this day. It’s a wonderful classroom text that was created with self-study in mind and each chapter has a set of exercises to drill you on the grammar and vocabulary. As you move through chapters and begin to take on more and more grammar, the exercises do an excellent job of refreshing you on those things that you’re already supposed to have learned. Even more important is that there’s a readily available Key with complete answers to the exercises, so you’re not left to guess as to whether or not you’ve made the best translation possible.
Now I know it might sound like I’m trying to sell you A Grammar of Akkadian — make sure to get the new Third Edition, by the way — but I’ll let you know up front that the cuneiform is not actually introduced until chapter nine. In fact, you’ll not get into determinatives or logograms until chapter thirteen, but if you’re aiming to actually learn the language, rather than develop a passing familiarity with it, you’ll need this approach.
Also, keep in mind that I came to Akkadian with a significant background in Latin, so I’m not really sure how difficult this book would be for someone without any experience learning an inflected language, or without a considerable grasp of English grammar. Akkadian is by no means easy, but Huehnergard at least presents it in a way that allows you to teach yourself, if you go about it assiduously.
Moving away from Huehnergard, Daniel C. Snell’s Workbook of Cuneiform Signs is a good resource to have, again, because it drills you, this time primarily on the signs themselves. That’s just something you can’t escape, not if you actually want to achieve anything; but the more you drill and memorize the better you’ll be at it. Admittedly, I haven’t cracked the Workbook in a couple of years, but I remember it being helpful when I first started getting into cuneiform script, because it forces you to mentally break down cuneiform signs into their constituent wedges. If you make it far enough to actually start translating cursive cuneiform, I think you’ll realize that scribes didn’t always form the signs completely, at least not like Huehnergard or Labat tell you they should have and that this kind of orthographic dissection will go a long way to helping you puzzle out obscure sign forms.
As far as other Akkadian grammars go, I haven’t used Richard Caplice’s Introduction to Akkadian in years, nor for that matter, David Marcus’s A Manual of Akkadian. Both are popular texts in the field, however, neither is as comprehensive as Huehnergard’s Grammar and of course, neither have extensive exercises with a Key. Caplice is most certainly not for beginners who learn outside of a classroom.
Beyond the grammars, Douglas Miller’s An Akkadian Handbook is a helpful resource to have around, but you won’t really learn much from it, by itself. It’s basically a quick reference for paradigms, names, and common determinatives, and it’s a lot smaller and easier to pull out than the big dictionaries.
With dictionaries, it really doesn’t get much better than the Chicago Assyrian Dictionary (CAD), which is available, free, online. If you’re looking for something more compact and in a single volume, Jeremy Black’s A Concise Dictionary of Akkadian summarizes the information available in the CAD. Both of these dictionaries are Akkadian-English only, but Mark Cohen authored a short book called An English to Akkadian Companion to the Assyrian Dictionaries, which I own, but I’ve never really found a use for.
Keep in mind that all three of the dictionary works above only present their information in transliteration — the actual cuneiform itself is left to the sign lists. My preferred list is Rene Labat’s Manuel d’Épigraphie Akkadienne, which I’ve blogged about before. It’s a wonderful, handwritten text that shows the chronological development of every single cuneiform sign. Even if you’re not interested in Akkadian, it’s a magnificent book to have for its own sake. Rykle Borger’s Mesopotamisches Zeichenlexikon is another, great to have around for reference. Both of these books are out of print and hard to come by, but well worth the money and the time spent hunting them down if you’re serious about cuneiform.
Let’s see, beyond that, there are two books I’d recommend on cuneiform culture in general, though you won’t learn anything about translation itself from them. The Oxford Handbook of Cuneiform Culture will provide you with hours of reading on cuneiform and the cultural medium in which it flourished and Dominique Charpin’s Reading and Writing in Babylon is a more focused discussion of these themes.
So that’s basically as much as I can tell you. There are, of course, other works like Complete Babylonian: A Teach Yourself Guide and Cuneiform, Reading the Past, but I don’t know anything about them beyond their Amazon listings. All the books above are books I own and books I’ve used.
Certainly I realize that all of this is probably more than you expected and may veer much farther into the heady land of academia than you’d ever have the time or the patience for. And there’s nothing wrong with that — it’s your hobby, enjoy it as little or as much as you want. With Huehnergard alone, you could make a serious attempt at Akkadian, but if you want something lighter, I won’t fault you. Unfortunately, I’m not sure such a thing exists, or how much you’d actually learn from it if it did.
I’d be interested to know what you figure out and if you come across anything beyond what I’ve listed above.