Sumerian language

Sumerian language

Overview
Sumerian is the language of ancient Sumer
Sumer
Sumer was a civilization and historical region in southern Mesopotamia, modern Iraq during the Chalcolithic and Early Bronze Age....

, which was spoken in southern Mesopotamia
Mesopotamia
Mesopotamia is a toponym for the area of the Tigris–Euphrates river system, largely corresponding to modern-day Iraq, northeastern Syria, southeastern Turkey and southwestern Iran.Widely considered to be the cradle of civilization, Bronze Age Mesopotamia included Sumer and the...

 (modern Iraq
Iraq
Iraq ; officially the Republic of Iraq is a country in Western Asia spanning most of the northwestern end of the Zagros mountain range, the eastern part of the Syrian Desert and the northern part of the Arabian Desert....

) since at least the 4th millennium BC. During the 3rd millennium BC, there developed a very intimate cultural symbiosis between the Sumerians and the Akkad
Akkad
The Akkadian Empire was an empire centered in the city of Akkad and its surrounding region in Mesopotamia....

ians, which included widespread bilingualism. The influence of Sumerian on Akkadian
Akkadian language
Akkadian is an extinct Semitic language that was spoken in ancient Mesopotamia. The earliest attested Semitic language, it used the cuneiform writing system derived ultimately from ancient Sumerian, an unrelated language isolate...

 (and vice versa) is evident in all areas, from lexical borrowing on a massive scale, to syntactic, morphological, and phonological convergence.
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Encyclopedia
Sumerian is the language of ancient Sumer
Sumer
Sumer was a civilization and historical region in southern Mesopotamia, modern Iraq during the Chalcolithic and Early Bronze Age....

, which was spoken in southern Mesopotamia
Mesopotamia
Mesopotamia is a toponym for the area of the Tigris–Euphrates river system, largely corresponding to modern-day Iraq, northeastern Syria, southeastern Turkey and southwestern Iran.Widely considered to be the cradle of civilization, Bronze Age Mesopotamia included Sumer and the...

 (modern Iraq
Iraq
Iraq ; officially the Republic of Iraq is a country in Western Asia spanning most of the northwestern end of the Zagros mountain range, the eastern part of the Syrian Desert and the northern part of the Arabian Desert....

) since at least the 4th millennium BC. During the 3rd millennium BC, there developed a very intimate cultural symbiosis between the Sumerians and the Akkad
Akkad
The Akkadian Empire was an empire centered in the city of Akkad and its surrounding region in Mesopotamia....

ians, which included widespread bilingualism. The influence of Sumerian on Akkadian
Akkadian language
Akkadian is an extinct Semitic language that was spoken in ancient Mesopotamia. The earliest attested Semitic language, it used the cuneiform writing system derived ultimately from ancient Sumerian, an unrelated language isolate...

 (and vice versa) is evident in all areas, from lexical borrowing on a massive scale, to syntactic, morphological, and phonological convergence. This has prompted scholars to refer to Sumerian and Akkadian in the third millennium as a Sprachbund
Sprachbund
A Sprachbund – also known as a linguistic area, convergence area, diffusion area or language crossroads – is a group of languages that have become similar in some way because of geographical proximity and language contact. They may be genetically unrelated, or only distantly related...

.

Akkadian gradually replaced Sumerian as a spoken language somewhere around the turn of the 3rd and the 2nd millennium BC (the exact dating being a matter of debate), but Sumerian continued to be used as a sacred, ceremonial, literary and scientific language in Mesopotamia until the 1st century AD. Then, it was forgotten until the 19th century, when Assyriologists began deciphering
Decipherment
Decipherment is the analysis of documents written in ancient languages, where the language is unknown, or knowledge of the language has been lost....

 the cuneiform
Cuneiform
Cuneiform can refer to:*Cuneiform script, an ancient writing system originating in Mesopotamia in the 4th millennium BC*Cuneiform , three bones in the human foot*Cuneiform Records, a music record label...

 inscriptions and excavated tablets left by these speakers. Sumerian is a language isolate
Language isolate
A language isolate, in the absolute sense, is a natural language with no demonstrable genealogical relationship with other languages; that is, one that has not been demonstrated to descend from an ancestor common with any other language. They are in effect language families consisting of a single...

.

Stages


The history of written Sumerian can be divided into several periods:
  • Archaic Sumerian — 31st–26th c. BC,
  • Old or Classical Sumerian — 26th–23rd c. BC,
  • Neo-Sumerian — 23rd–21st c. BC,
  • Late Sumerian — 20th–18th c. BC,
  • Post-Sumerian — after 1700 BC.


Archaic Sumerian is the earliest stage of inscriptions with linguistic content, beginning with the Jemdet Nasr
Jemdet Nasr period
The Jemdet Nasr period is an archaeological culture in southern Mesopotamia that is generally dated to 3100–2900 BCE. It is named after the type-site Jemdet Nasr, where the assemblage typical for this period was first recognized. Its geographical distribution is limited to south–central Iraq...

 (Uruk III) period from about the 31st to 30th centuries BC. It succeeds the proto-literate period, which spans roughly the 35th to 30th centuries.

Some versions of the chronology may omit the Late Sumerian phase and regard all texts written after 2000 BC as Post-Sumerian. The term "Post-Sumerian" is meant to refer to the time when the language was already extinct and only preserved by Babylonians and Assyria
Assyria
Assyria was a Semitic Akkadian kingdom, extant as a nation state from the mid–23rd century BC to 608 BC centred on the Upper Tigris river, in northern Mesopotamia , that came to rule regional empires a number of times through history. It was named for its original capital, the ancient city of Assur...

ns as a liturgical and classical language
Classical language
A classical language is a language with a literature that is classical. According to UC Berkeley linguist George L. Hart, it should be ancient, it should be an independent tradition that arose mostly on its own, not as an offshoot of another tradition, and it must have a large and extremely rich...

 (for religious, artistic and scholarly purposes). The extinction has been traditionally dated approximately to the end of the Third Dynasty of Ur
Third Dynasty of Ur
The Third Dynasty of Ur, also known as the Neo-Sumerian Empire or the Ur III Empire refers simultaneously to a 21st to 20th century BC Sumerian ruling dynasty based in the city of Ur and a short-lived territorial-political state that some historians regard as a nascent empire...

, the last predominantly Sumerian state in Mesopotamia, about 2000 BC. However, this date is very approximate, as many scholars have contended that Sumerian was already dead or dying as early as around 2100 BC, by the beginning of the Ur III period, while others believe that Sumerian persisted as a spoken language in a small part of Southern Mesopotamia (Nippur
Nippur
Nippur was one of the most ancient of all the Sumerian cities. It was the special seat of the worship of the Sumerian god Enlil, the "Lord Wind," ruler of the cosmos subject to An alone...

 and its surroundings) until as late as 1700 BC.
Whatever the status of spoken Sumerian between 2000 and 1700 BC, it is from this period that a particularly large amount of literary texts and bilingual Sumerian-Akkadian lexical lists survive, especially from the scribal school of Nippur. This, along with the particularly intensive official and literary use of the language in Akkadian-speaking states during the same time, is the basis for the distinction between a Late Sumerian period and all subsequent time.

Dialects


Two varieties
Variety (linguistics)
In sociolinguistics a variety, also called a lect, is a specific form of a language or language cluster. This may include languages, dialects, accents, registers, styles or other sociolinguistic variation, as well as the standard variety itself...

 (dialect
Dialect
The term dialect is used in two distinct ways, even by linguists. One usage refers to a variety of a language that is a characteristic of a particular group of the language's speakers. The term is applied most often to regional speech patterns, but a dialect may also be defined by other factors,...

s or sociolect
Sociolect
In sociolinguistics, a sociolect or social dialect is a variety of language associated with a social group such as a socioeconomic class, an ethnic group, an age group, etc....

s) of Sumerian are recorded. The standard variety is called eme-ĝir (ĝ pronounced ŋ). The other recorded variety is called eme-sal ( EME.SAL, possibly "fine tongue" or high-pitched voice.), though often translated as "women's language." (The root sal can have several meanings.) Eme-sal is used exclusively by female characters in some literary texts. (This may be compared to the female languages or language varieties that exist or have existed in some cultures, e.g. among the Chukchi
Chukchi people
The Chukchi, or Chukchee , ) are an indigenous people inhabiting the Chukchi Peninsula and the shores of the Chukchi Sea and the Bering Sea region of the Arctic Ocean within the Russian Federation. They speak the Chukchi language...

s and the Caribs) In addition, it is dominant in certain genres of cult songs etc.. The special features of eme-sal are mostly phonological (e.g. m is often used instead of ĝ as in me vs standard ĝe26, "I"), but words different from the standard language are also used (e.g. ga-ša-an vs standard nin, "lady"). Sumerian words adapted into Akkadian were sometimes of the eme-sal variety, so that it may have been the more colloquial variety.

Grammar


Sumerian is an agglutinative language
Agglutinative language
An agglutinative language is a language that uses agglutination extensively: most words are formed by joining morphemes together. This term was introduced by Wilhelm von Humboldt in 1836 to classify languages from a morphological point of view...

, meaning that words could consist of a chain of more or less clearly distinguishable and separable affix
Affix
An affix is a morpheme that is attached to a word stem to form a new word. Affixes may be derivational, like English -ness and pre-, or inflectional, like English plural -s and past tense -ed. They are bound morphemes by definition; prefixes and suffixes may be separable affixes...

es and/or morpheme
Morpheme
In linguistics, a morpheme is the smallest semantically meaningful unit in a language. The field of study dedicated to morphemes is called morphology. A morpheme is not identical to a word, and the principal difference between the two is that a morpheme may or may not stand alone, whereas a word,...

s.

Sumerian is a split ergative
Split ergativity
Split ergativity is shown by languages that have a partly ergative behaviour, but employ another syntax or morphology — usually accusative — in some contexts...

 language. It behaves as a nominative–accusative language in the 1st and 2nd person of present-future tense/incompletive aspect
Grammatical aspect
In linguistics, the grammatical aspect of a verb is a grammatical category that defines the temporal flow in a given action, event, or state, from the point of view of the speaker...

 ( marû-conjugation), but as ergative–absolutive in most other forms of the indicative mood. Similar patterns are found in a large number of unrelated split ergative languages (see more examples at split ergativity
Split ergativity
Split ergativity is shown by languages that have a partly ergative behaviour, but employ another syntax or morphology — usually accusative — in some contexts...

). In Sumerian the ergative case is marked by the suffix -e and the absolutive case (as in most ergative languages) by no suffix at all (the so-called "zero suffix"). Example of the ergative pattern: lugal-e e2 mu-un-du3 "the king built the house"; lugal ba-ĝen "the king went" (the transitive
Transitivity (grammatical category)
In linguistics, transitivity is a property of verbs that relates to whether a verb can take direct objects and how many such objects a verb can take...

 subject is expressed differently from the intransitive subject, as it takes the suffix -e). Example of the nominative–accusative pattern: i3-du-un (< *i3-du-en) "I go (away)"; e2 ib2-du3-un (< *ib2-du3-en) "I build the house" (the transitive subject is expressed in the same way as the intransitive subject, as both verbs takes the same 1st person singular suffix -en).

Sumerian distinguishes the grammatical genders human/non-human
Animacy
Animacy is a grammatical and/or semantic category of nouns based on how sentient or alive the referent of the noun in a given taxonomic scheme is...

 (personal/impersonal), but it does not have separate male/female gender pronouns. The human gender includes not only humans but also gods and in some cases the word for "statue". Sumerian has also been claimed to have two tenses (past and present-future), but these are currently described as completive and incompletive or perfective and imperfective aspects
Grammatical aspect
In linguistics, the grammatical aspect of a verb is a grammatical category that defines the temporal flow in a given action, event, or state, from the point of view of the speaker...

 instead. There are a large number of cases
Declension
In linguistics, declension is the inflection of nouns, pronouns, adjectives, and articles to indicate number , case , and gender...

: absolutive (-Ø), ergative
Ergative
The term ergative is used in grammar in three different meanings:* Ergative case* Ergative-absolutive language* Ergative verb...

 (-e), genitive (-(a)k), dative/allative ("to, for") (-r(a) for human nouns, -e for non-human nouns), locative ("in, at") (-a, only with non-human nouns), comitative (-da), equative
Equative case
Equative is a case with the meaning of comparison, or likening. The equative case has been used in very few languages in history. It was used in the Sumerian language....

 ("as, like") (-gin), directive/adverbial
Adverbial
In grammar an adverbial is a word or a group of words that modifies or tells us something about the sentence or the verb. The word adverbial is also used as an adjective, meaning 'having the same function as an adverb'...

 ("towards") (-š(e)), ablative ("from") (-ta, only with non-human nouns). The naming and number of the cases varies in the scientific literature.

Another characteristic feature of Sumerian is the large number of homophone
Homophone
A homophone is a word that is pronounced the same as another word but differs in meaning. The words may be spelled the same, such as rose and rose , or differently, such as carat, caret, and carrot, or to, two, and too. Homophones that are spelled the same are also both homographs and homonyms...

s (words with the same sound structure but different meanings), which are perhaps pseudo-homophones, as there might have been differences in pronunciation such as tone
Tone (linguistics)
Tone is the use of pitch in language to distinguish lexical or grammatical meaning—that is, to distinguish or inflect words. All verbal languages use pitch to express emotional and other paralinguistic information, and to convey emphasis, contrast, and other such features in what is called...

 or some phonemic distinctions that are unknown. The different homophones (or, more precisely, the different cuneiform signs that denote them) are marked with different numbers by convention, "2" and "3" being often replaced by acute accent
Acute accent
The acute accent is a diacritic used in many modern written languages with alphabets based on the Latin, Cyrillic, and Greek scripts.-Apex:An early precursor of the acute accent was the apex, used in Latin inscriptions to mark long vowels.-Greek:...

 and grave accent
Grave accent
The grave accent is a diacritical mark used in written Breton, Catalan, Corsican, Dutch, French, Greek , Italian, Mohawk, Norwegian, Occitan, Portuguese, Scottish Gaelic, Vietnamese, Welsh, Romansh, and other languages.-Greek:The grave accent was first used in the polytonic orthography of Ancient...

 diacritic
Diacritic
A diacritic is a glyph added to a letter, or basic glyph. The term derives from the Greek διακριτικός . Diacritic is both an adjective and a noun, whereas diacritical is only an adjective. Some diacritical marks, such as the acute and grave are often called accents...

s respectively. For example: du = "go", du3 = dù = "build".

The standard modern grammar of Sumerian is that of Dietz-Otto Edzard
Dietz-Otto Edzard
Dietz-Otto Edzard was a German scholar of the Ancient Near East and grammarian of the Sumerian language.-Works:* Sumerian Grammar 2003...

 (2003).

Classification


Sumerian has been the subject of controversial proposals purportedly identifying it as related genetically with almost every known agglutinative language, as well as with some non-agglutinative languages. As the most ancient written language, it has a peculiar prestige, and such proposals sometimes have a nationalistic background and generally enjoy little popularity among linguists because of their unverifiability. Excluding fringe nationalist claims, some examples of suggested related languages include:
  • Hurro-Urartian languages
    Hurro-Urartian languages
    The Hurro-Urartian languages are an extinct language family of the Ancient Near East, comprising only two known languages: Hurrian and Urartian, both of which were spoken in the Taurus mountains area.-Classification:...

     (see Subarian, Alarodian)
  • Munda languages
    Munda languages
    -Anderson :Gregory Anderson's 1999 proposal is as follows. Individual languages are highlighted in italics.*North Munda **Korku**Kherwarian***Santhali***Mundari*South Munda **Kharia–Juang***Juang***Kharia...

     (Igor M. Diakonoff)
  • Dravidian languages
    Dravidian languages
    The Dravidian language family includes approximately 85 genetically related languages, spoken by about 217 million people. They are mainly spoken in southern India and parts of eastern and central India as well as in northeastern Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh, Afghanistan, Iran, and...

     (see Elamo-Dravidian)
  • Nostratic languages
    Nostratic languages
    Nostratic is a proposed language family that includes many of the indigenous language families of Eurasia, including the Indo-European, Uralic and Altaic as well as Kartvelian languages...

     (Allan Bomhard)
  • Dené–Caucasian languages (John Bengtson
    John Bengtson
    John D. Bengtson is a historical and anthropological linguist. He is a past president and currently a vice-president of the Association for the Study of Language in Prehistory, and has served as editor of the journal Mother Tongue...

    )

Development



The Sumerian language is the earliest known written language. The "proto-literate" period of Sumerian writing spans ca. 3500 to 3000 BC. In this period, records are purely logographic, with no linguistic or phonological content. The oldest document of the proto-literate period is the Kish tablet
Kish tablet
The Kish tablet is a limestone tablet found at Tell al-Uhaymir, Babil Governorate, Iraq - the site of the ancient Sumerian city of Kish. It is dated to ca. 3500 BC...

. Falkenstein (1936) lists 939 signs used in the proto-literate period (late Uruk
Uruk period
The Uruk period existed from the protohistoric Chalcolithic to Early Bronze Age period in the history of Mesopotamia, following the Ubaid period and succeeded by the Jemdet Nasr period. Named after the Sumerian city of Uruk, this period saw the emergence of urban life in Mesopotamia. It was...

, 34th to 31st centuries)

Records with unambiguously linguistic content, identifiably Sumerian, are those found at Jemdet Nasr
Jemdet Nasr
Jemdet Nasr is a tell or settlement mound in Babil Governorate that is best known as the eponymous type site for the Jemdet Nasr period . The site was first excavated in 1926 by Stephen Langdon, who found proto-cuneiform clay tablets in a large mudbrick building thought to be the ancient...

, dating to the 31st or 30th century BC. From about 2600 BC, the logographic symbols were generalized using a wedge-shaped stylus to impress the shapes into wet clay. This archaic cuneiform ("wedge-shaped") mode of writing co-existed with the pre-cuneiform archaic mode. Deimel (1922) lists 870 signs used in the Early Dynastic IIIa period (26th century). In the same period the large set of logographic signs had been simplified into a logosyllabic script comprising several hundred signs. Rosengarten (1967) lists 468 signs used in Sumerian (pre-Sargonian
Sargon of Akkad
Sargon of Akkad, also known as Sargon the Great "the Great King" , was an Akkadian emperor famous for his conquest of the Sumerian city-states in the 23rd and 22nd centuries BC. The founder of the Dynasty of Akkad, Sargon reigned in the last quarter of the third millennium BC...

) Lagash
Lagash
Lagash is located northwest of the junction of the Euphrates and Tigris rivers and east of Uruk, about east of the modern town of Ash Shatrah. Lagash was one of the oldest cities of the Ancient Near East...

. The pre-Sargonian period of the 26th to 24th centuries BC is the "Classical Sumerian" stage of the language.

The cuneiform script is adapted to Akkadian
Akkadian language
Akkadian is an extinct Semitic language that was spoken in ancient Mesopotamia. The earliest attested Semitic language, it used the cuneiform writing system derived ultimately from ancient Sumerian, an unrelated language isolate...

 writing from the mid 3rd millennium. Our knowledge of Sumerian is based on Akkadian glossaries. During the "Sumerian Renaissance" (Ur III) of the 21st century BC, Sumerian is written in already highly abstract cuneiform glyphs directly succeeded by Old Assyrian
Old Assyrian
Old Assyrian refers to the Old Assyrian period of the Ancient Near East, ca. 20th to 16th centuries BC *the Old Assyrian Empire, see Assyrian Empire*the Old Assyrian language, see Akkadian language...

 cuneiform.

Transcription


Transcription, in the context of cuneiform, is the process in which an epigraphist makes a line art drawing to show the signs on a clay tablet or stone inscription in a graphic form suitable for modern publication. Not all epigraphists are equally reliable, and before a scholar publishes an important treatment of a text, the scholar will often arrange to collate the published transcription against the actual tablet, to see if any signs, especially broken or damaged signs, should be represented differently.

Transliteration is the process in which a Sumerologist decides how to represent the cuneiform signs in Roman script. Depending on the context, a cuneiform sign can be read either as one of several possible logograms, each of which corresponds to a word in the Sumerian spoken language, as a phonetic syllable (V, VC, CV, or CVC), or as a determinative (a marker of semantic category, such as occupation or place). (See the article Transliterating cuneiform languages). Some Sumerian logograms were written with multiple cuneiform signs. These logograms are called diri-spellings, after the logogram 'diri' which is written with the signs SI and A. The text transliteration of a tablet will show just the logogram, such as the word 'diri', not the separate component signs.

Cuneiform


The key to reading logosyllabic cuneiform
Cuneiform script
Cuneiform script )) is one of the earliest known forms of written expression. Emerging in Sumer around the 30th century BC, with predecessors reaching into the late 4th millennium , cuneiform writing began as a system of pictographs...

 came from the Behistun inscription
Behistun Inscription
The Behistun Inscription The Behistun Inscription The Behistun Inscription (also Bistun or Bisutun, Modern Persian: بیستون The Behistun Inscription (also Bistun or Bisutun, Modern Persian: بیستون...

, a trilingual cuneiform inscription written in Old Persian, Elamite and Akkadian
Akkadian language
Akkadian is an extinct Semitic language that was spoken in ancient Mesopotamia. The earliest attested Semitic language, it used the cuneiform writing system derived ultimately from ancient Sumerian, an unrelated language isolate...

.

In 1838, building on the 1802 work of Georg Friedrich Grotefend
Georg Friedrich Grotefend
Georg Friedrich Grotefend was a German epigraphist.-Life:He was born at Hann. Münden and died in Hanover. He was educated partly in his native town, partly at Ilfeld, where he remained till 1795, when he entered the university of Göttingen, and there became the friend of Heyne, Tychsen and Heeren...

, Henry Rawlinson (1810–1895) was able to decipher
Decipherment
Decipherment is the analysis of documents written in ancient languages, where the language is unknown, or knowledge of the language has been lost....

 the Old Persian section of the Behistun inscriptions, using his knowledge of modern Persian. When he recovered the rest of the text in 1843, he and others were gradually able to translate the Elamite and Akkadian sections of it, starting with the 37 signs he had deciphered for the Old Persian. Meanwhile, many more cuneiform texts were coming to light from archaeological excavations, mostly in the Semitic
Semitic languages
The Semitic languages are a group of related languages whose living representatives are spoken by more than 270 million people across much of the Middle East, North Africa and the Horn of Africa...

 Akkadian language
Akkadian language
Akkadian is an extinct Semitic language that was spoken in ancient Mesopotamia. The earliest attested Semitic language, it used the cuneiform writing system derived ultimately from ancient Sumerian, an unrelated language isolate...

, which were duly deciphered.

By 1850, however, Edward Hincks
Edward Hincks
The Reverend Edward Hincks was an Irish clergyman, best remembered as an Assyriologist and one of the decipherers of Mesopotamian cuneiform....

 (1792–1866) came to suspect a non-Semitic origin for cuneiform. Semitic languages are structured according to consonantal forms, whereas cuneiform, when functioning phonetically, was a syllabary
Syllabary
A syllabary is a set of written symbols that represent syllables, which make up words. In a syllabary, there is no systematic similarity between the symbols which represent syllables with the same consonant or vowel...

, binding consonants to particular vowels. Furthermore, no Semitic words could be found to explain the syllabic values given to particular signs.

Sumerian


In 1855 Rawlinson announced the discovery of non-Semitic inscriptions at the southern Babylonian sites of Nippur
Nippur
Nippur was one of the most ancient of all the Sumerian cities. It was the special seat of the worship of the Sumerian god Enlil, the "Lord Wind," ruler of the cosmos subject to An alone...

, Larsa
Larsa
Larsa was an important city of ancient Sumer, the center of the cult of the sun god Utu. It lies some 25 km southeast of Uruk in Iraq's Dhi Qar Governorate, near the east bank of the Shatt-en-Nil canal at the site of the modern settlement Tell as-Senkereh or Sankarah.-History:According to...

, and Uruk
Uruk
Uruk was an ancient city of Sumer and later Babylonia, situated east of the present bed of the Euphrates river, on the ancient dry former channel of the Euphrates River, some 30 km east of modern As-Samawah, Al-Muthannā, Iraq.Uruk gave its name to the Uruk...

. Julius Oppert
Julius Oppert
Julius Oppert , French-German Assyriologist, was born at Hamburg, of Jewish parents.After studying at Heidelberg, Bonn and Berlin, he graduated at Kiel in 1847; and the next year went to France, where he was teacher of German at Laval and at Reims...

 suggested that a non-Semitic, "Turanian" language had preceded Akkadian in Mesopotamia, and that speakers of this language had developed the cuneiform script.

In 1856, Hincks argued that the untranslated language was agglutinative
Agglutinative language
An agglutinative language is a language that uses agglutination extensively: most words are formed by joining morphemes together. This term was introduced by Wilhelm von Humboldt in 1836 to classify languages from a morphological point of view...

 in character. The language was called "Scythic" by some, and, confusingly, "Akkadian
Akkadian language
Akkadian is an extinct Semitic language that was spoken in ancient Mesopotamia. The earliest attested Semitic language, it used the cuneiform writing system derived ultimately from ancient Sumerian, an unrelated language isolate...

" by others. In 1869, Oppert proposed the name "Sumerian", based on the known title "King of Sumer and Akkad", reasoning that if Akkad
Akkad
The Akkadian Empire was an empire centered in the city of Akkad and its surrounding region in Mesopotamia....

 signified the Semitic portion of the kingdom, Sumer
Sumer
Sumer was a civilization and historical region in southern Mesopotamia, modern Iraq during the Chalcolithic and Early Bronze Age....

 might describe the non-Semitic annex.

Credit for being first to scientifically treat a bilingual Sumerian-Akkadian text belongs to Paul Haupt
Paul Haupt
Hermann Hugo Paul Haupt was a Semitic scholar, one of the pioneers of Assyriology in the United States....

 (1858–1926), who published Die sumerischen Familiengesetze (The Sumerian family laws) in 1879.

Ernest de Sarzec
Ernest de Sarzec
Ernest Choquin de Sarzec was a French archaeologist, to whom is attributed the discovery of the civilization of ancient Sumer. He was in the French diplomatic service; on being transferred to Basra in 1872 as a vice-consul, he became interested in the excavations at Ur, started by the British...

 (1832–1901) began excavating the Sumerian site of Tello (ancient Girsu, capital of the state of Lagash
Lagash
Lagash is located northwest of the junction of the Euphrates and Tigris rivers and east of Uruk, about east of the modern town of Ash Shatrah. Lagash was one of the oldest cities of the Ancient Near East...

) in 1877, and published the first part of Découvertes en Chaldée with transcriptions of Sumerian tablets in 1884. The University of Pennsylvania
University of Pennsylvania
The University of Pennsylvania is a private, Ivy League university located in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, United States. Penn is the fourth-oldest institution of higher education in the United States,Penn is the fourth-oldest using the founding dates claimed by each institution...

 began excavating Sumerian Nippur
Nippur
Nippur was one of the most ancient of all the Sumerian cities. It was the special seat of the worship of the Sumerian god Enlil, the "Lord Wind," ruler of the cosmos subject to An alone...

 in 1888.

A Classified List of Sumerian Ideographs by R. Brünnow appeared in 1889.

The bewildering number and variety of phonetic values that signs could have in Sumerian led to an unfortunate detour in understanding the language – a Paris
Paris
Paris is the capital and largest city in France, situated on the river Seine, in northern France, at the heart of the Île-de-France region...

-based orientalist
Oriental studies
Oriental studies is the academic field of study that embraces Near Eastern and Far Eastern societies and cultures, languages, peoples, history and archaeology; in recent years the subject has often been turned into the newer terms of Asian studies and Middle Eastern studies...

, Joseph Halévy
Joseph Halévy
Joseph Halévy was an Ottoman born Jewish-French Orientalist and traveller.He did his most notable work was done in Yemen, which he crossed during 1869 to 1870 in search of Sabaean inscriptions, no European having traversed that land since AD 24; the result was a most valuable collection of 800...

, argued from 1874 onward that Sumerian was not a natural language, but rather a secret code
Secret Code
Secret Code is the debut major album of artist Aya Kamiki, released on July 12, 2006. It comes in a CD only version. Secret Code debuted at number 5 on the Oricon Weekly Charts for Japan and sold 65,004 copies in total...

 (a cryptolect), and for over a decade the leading Assyriologists battled over this issue. For a dozen years, starting in 1885, even the great Friedrich Delitzsch
Friedrich Delitzsch
Friedrich Delitzsch was a German Assyriologist. Born in Erlangen, he studied in Leipzig and Berlin, and in 1874 was habilitated as a lecturer of Semitic languages and Assyriology in Leipzig. In 1885 he became a "full professor" at Leipzig, and afterwards a professor at the Universities of Breslau ...

 accepted Halévy's arguments, not renouncing Halévy until 1897.

François Thureau-Dangin working at the Louvre in Paris also made significant contributions to deciphering Sumerian with publications from 1898 to 1938, such as his 1905 publication of Les inscriptions de Sumer et d’Akkad. Charles Fossey at the Collège de France in Paris was another prolific and reliable scholar. His pioneering Contribution au Dictionnaire sumérien–assyrien, Paris 1905–1907, now available in whole at Google Books, turns out to provide the foundation for P. Anton Deimel's 1934 Sumerisch-Akkadisches Glossar (vol. III of Deimel's 4-volume Sumerisches Lexikon).

In 1908, Stephen Langdon summarized the rapid expansion in knowledge of Sumerian and Akkadian vocabulary in the pages of Babyloniaca, a journal edited by Charles Virolleaud
Charles Virolleaud
Jean Charles Gabriel Virolleaud was a French archaeologist, one of the excavators of Ugarit.-References:* Bibliography and overviews of his publications by several writers appeared in Syria: Revue d’art oriental et d’archéologie, 33 .* Dupont-Sommer, André, “Notice sur la vie et les travaux de M...

, in an article 'Sumerian-Assyrian Vocabularies', which reviewed a valuable new book on rare logograms by Bruno Meissner. Subsequent scholars have found Langdon's work, including his tablet transcriptions, to be not entirely reliable. In 1944, a more careful Sumerologist, Samuel Noah Kramer
Samuel Noah Kramer
Samuel Noah Kramer was one of the world's leading Assyriologists and a world renowned expert in Sumerian history and Sumerian language.-Biography:...

, provided a detailed and readable summary of the decipherment of Sumerian in his Sumerian Mythology (now accessible on the Internet).

Friedrich Delitzsch published a learned Sumerian dictionary and grammar in the form of his Sumerisches Glossar and Grundzüge der sumerischen Grammatik, both appearing in 1914. Delitzsch's student, Arno Poebel, published a grammar with the same title, Grundzüge der sumerischen Grammatik, in 1923, and for 50 years it would be the standard for students studying Sumerian. Poebel's grammar was finally superseded in 1984 on the publication of The Sumerian Language, An Introduction to its History and Grammatical Structure, by Marie-Louise Thomsen. While much of Thomsen's understanding of Sumerian grammar would now be rejected by most or all Sumerologists, Thomsen's grammar (often with express mention of the critiques put forward by Pascal Attinger in his 1993 Eléments de linguistique sumérienne: La construction de du11/e/di «dire») is the starting point of most recent academic discussions of Sumerian grammar.

More recent monograph-length grammars of Sumerian include Dietz Otto Edzard's 2003 Sumerian Grammar and Bram Jagersma's 2010 A Descriptive Grammar of Sumerian (currently digital, but soon to be printed in revised form by Oxford University Press). Piotr Michalowski's essay (entitled, simply, "Sumerian") in the 2004 The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the World's Ancient Languages has also been recognized as a good modern grammatical sketch. There is relatively little consensus, even among reasonable sumerologists, in comparison to the state of most modern or classical languages. Verbal morphology in particular is hotly disputed. In addition to the general grammars, there are many monographs and articles about particular areas of Sumerian grammar, without which a survey of the field could not be considered complete.

The primary institutional lexical effort in Sumerian is the Pennsylvania Sumerian Dictionary project, begun in 1974. In 2004, the PSD was released on the Web as the ePSD. The project is currently supervised by Steve Tinney. It has not been updated on-line since 2006, but Tinney and colleagues are working on a new edition of the ePSD, a working draft of which is available on-line.

Phonology and grammar


Typologically
Linguistic typology
Linguistic typology is a subfield of linguistics that studies and classifies languages according to their structural features. Its aim is to describe and explain the common properties and the structural diversity of the world's languages...

, as mentioned above, Sumerian is classified as an agglutinative
Agglutinative language
An agglutinative language is a language that uses agglutination extensively: most words are formed by joining morphemes together. This term was introduced by Wilhelm von Humboldt in 1836 to classify languages from a morphological point of view...

 split ergative
Split ergativity
Split ergativity is shown by languages that have a partly ergative behaviour, but employ another syntax or morphology — usually accusative — in some contexts...

 language. Ever since its decipherment, the research of Sumerian has been made difficult not only by the lack of any native speakers, but also by the relative sparseness of linguistic data, the apparent lack of a closely related language, and the features of the writing system.

Note: in the following, assumed phonological or morphological forms are presented between slashes //, while plain text is used for the standard Assyriological transcription of Sumerian. Most of the examples are unattested.

Phonemic inventory


Modern knowledge of Sumerian phonology is inevitably extremely flawed and incomplete because of the lack of native speakers, the transmission through the filter of Akkadian
Akkadian language
Akkadian is an extinct Semitic language that was spoken in ancient Mesopotamia. The earliest attested Semitic language, it used the cuneiform writing system derived ultimately from ancient Sumerian, an unrelated language isolate...

 phonology and the difficulties posed by the cuneiform script. As I.M. Diakonoff observes, "when we try to find out the morphophonological structure of the Sumerian language, we must constantly bear in mind that we are not dealing with a language directly but are reconstructing it from a very imperfect mnemonic writing system which had not been basically aimed at the rendering of morphophonemics."

Consonants


Sumerian is conjectured to have at least the following consonants:
  • a simple distribution of six stop consonant
    Stop consonant
    In phonetics, a plosive, also known as an occlusive or an oral stop, is a stop consonant in which the vocal tract is blocked so that all airflow ceases. The occlusion may be done with the tongue , lips , and &...

    s, in three places of articulation
    Place of articulation
    In articulatory phonetics, the place of articulation of a consonant is the point of contact where an obstruction occurs in the vocal tract between an articulatory gesture, an active articulator , and a passive location...

     distinguished by a feature which may have been voicing (at least at later stages), aspiration or glottalization (at least at early stages):
    1. p (voiceless bilabial plosive
      Voiceless bilabial plosive
      The voiceless bilabial plosive is a type of consonantal sound used in many spoken languages. The symbol in the International Phonetic Alphabet that represents this sound is , and the equivalent X-SAMPA symbol is p...

      ),
    2. t (voiceless alveolar plosive
      Voiceless alveolar plosive
      The voiceless alveolar plosive is a type of consonantal sound used in many spoken languages. The symbol in the International Phonetic Alphabet that represents voiceless dental, alveolar, and postalveolar plosives is , and the equivalent X-SAMPA symbol is t...

      ),
    3. k (voiceless velar plosive
      Voiceless velar plosive
      The voiceless velar stop or voiceless velar plosive is a type of consonantal sound used in many spoken languages. The symbol in the International Phonetic Alphabet that represents this sound is , and the equivalent X-SAMPA symbol is k....

      ),
    4. b (voiced bilabial plosive
      Voiced bilabial plosive
      The voiced bilabial plosive is a type of consonantal sound, used in some spoken languages. The symbol in the International Phonetic Alphabet that represents this sound is , and the equivalent X-SAMPA symbol is b. The voiced bilabial plosive occurs in English, and it is the sound denoted by the...

      ),
    5. d (voiced alveolar plosive
      Voiced alveolar plosive
      The voiced alveolar plosive is a type of consonantal sound, used in some spoken languages. The symbol in the International Phonetic Alphabet that represents voiced dental, alveolar, and postalveolar plosives is , and the equivalent X-SAMPA symbol is d.-Features:Features of the voiced...

      ),
    6. g (voiced velar plosive
      Voiced velar plosive
      The voiced velar plosive is a type of consonantal sound, used in some spoken languages. The symbol in the International Phonetic Alphabet that represents this sound is , and the equivalent X-SAMPA symbol is g. Strictly, the IPA symbol is the so-called "opentail G" , though the "looptail G" is...

      ).


As a rule, /p/, /t/ and /k/ did not occur word-finally.
  • a phoneme
    Phoneme
    In a language or dialect, a phoneme is the smallest segmental unit of sound employed to form meaningful contrasts between utterances....

     usually represented by /r̂/ (sometimes written dr) that was possibly an alveolar tap
    Alveolar tap
    The alveolar flap or tap is a type of consonantal sound, used in some spoken languages. The symbol in the International Phonetic Alphabet that represents dental, alveolar, and postalveolar flaps is .-Definition:...

    , though some have argued for an aspirated affricate.
  • a simple distribution of three nasal consonant
    Nasal consonant
    A nasal consonant is a type of consonant produced with a lowered velum in the mouth, allowing air to escape freely through the nose. Examples of nasal consonants in English are and , in words such as nose and mouth.- Definition :...

    s in similar distribution to the stops:
    1. m (bilabial nasal
      Bilabial nasal
      The bilabial nasal is a type of consonantal sound used in almost all spoken languages. The symbol in the International Phonetic Alphabet that represents this sound is , and the equivalent X-SAMPA symbol is m...

      ),
    2. n (alveolar nasal
      Alveolar nasal
      The alveolar nasal is a type of consonantal sound used in numerous spoken languages. The symbol in the International Phonetic Alphabet that represents dental, alveolar, and postalveolar nasals is , and the equivalent X-SAMPA symbol is n....

      ),
    3. g̃ (frequently printed ĝ due to typesetting constraints, increasingly transcribed as ŋ) /ŋ/ (likely a velar nasal
      Velar nasal
      The velar nasal is the sound of ng in English sing. It is a type of consonantal sound, used in some spoken languages. The symbol in the International Phonetic Alphabet that represents this sound is , and the equivalent X-SAMPA symbol is N....

      , as in sing, it has also been argued to be a labiovelar nasal or a nasalized
      Nasalization
      In phonetics, nasalization is the production of a sound while the velum is lowered, so that some air escapes through the nose during the production of the sound by the mouth...

        labiovelar).
  • a set of three sibilants
    Sibilant consonant
    A sibilant is a manner of articulation of fricative and affricate consonants, made by directing a stream of air with the tongue towards the sharp edge of the teeth, which are held close together. Examples of sibilants are the consonants at the beginning of the English words sip, zip, ship, chip,...

    :
    1. s (possibly a voiceless alveolar fricative
      Voiceless alveolar fricative
      The voiceless alveolar sibilant is a common consonant sound in spoken languages. It is the sound in English words such as sea and pass, and is represented in the International Phonetic Alphabet as . It has a characteristic high-pitched, highly perceptible hissing sound...

      ),
    2. z (possibly a voiced alveolar fricative
      Voiced alveolar fricative
      The voiced alveolar fricatives are consonantal sounds. The symbol in the International Phonetic Alphabet that represents these sounds depends on whether a sibilant or non-sibilant fricative is being described....

      , /z/, as in zip)
    3. š (generally described as a voiceless postalveolar fricative
      Voiceless postalveolar fricative
      The voiceless palato-alveolar fricative or voiceless domed postalveolar fricative is a type of consonantal sound, used in many spoken languages, including English...

      , /ʃ/, as in ship),

  • a velar
    Velar consonant
    Velars are consonants articulated with the back part of the tongue against the soft palate, the back part of the roof of the mouth, known also as the velum)....

     fricative
    Fricative consonant
    Fricatives are consonants produced by forcing air through a narrow channel made by placing two articulators close together. These may be the lower lip against the upper teeth, in the case of ; the back of the tongue against the soft palate, in the case of German , the final consonant of Bach; or...

     /
    H
    H .) is the eighth letter in the basic modern Latin alphabet.-History:The Semitic letter ⟨ח⟩ most likely represented the voiceless pharyngeal fricative . The form of the letter probably stood for a fence or posts....

    / (sometimes just written h).
  • two liquid consonant
    Liquid consonant
    In phonetics, liquids or liquid consonants are a class of consonants consisting of lateral consonants together with rhotics.-Description:...

    s:
    1. l (a lateral consonant
      Lateral consonant
      A lateral is an el-like consonant, in which airstream proceeds along the sides of the tongue, but is blocked by the tongue from going through the middle of the mouth....

      ),
    2. r (a rhotic consonant
      Rhotic consonant
      In phonetics, rhotic consonants, also called tremulants or "R-like" sounds, are liquid consonants that are traditionally represented orthographically by symbols derived from the Greek letter rho, including "R, r" from the Roman alphabet and "Р, p" from the Cyrillic alphabet...

      ).


The existence of various other consonants has been hypothesized based on graphic alternations and loans, though none have found wide acceptance. For example, Diakonoff lists evidence for two l-sounds, two r-sounds, two h-sounds, and two g-sounds (excluding the velar nasal), and assumes a phonemic difference between consonants that are dropped word-finally (such as the g in zag > za3) and consonants that aren't (such as the g in lag). Other "hidden" consonant phonemes that have been suggested include semivowels such as /j/ and /w/, and a glottal fricative
Voiceless glottal fricative
The voiceless glottal transition, commonly called a "fricative", is a type of sound used in some spoken languages which patterns like a fricative or approximant consonant phonologically, but often lacks the usual phonetic characteristics of a consonant...

 /h/ or a glottal stop
Glottal stop
The glottal stop, or more fully, the voiceless glottal plosive, is a type of consonantal sound used in many spoken languages. In English, the feature is represented, for example, by the hyphen in uh-oh! and by the apostrophe or [[ʻokina]] in Hawaii among those using a preservative pronunciation of...

 that could explain the absence of vowel contraction in some words—though objections have been raised against that as well.

Very often, a word-final consonant was not expressed in writing – and was possibly omitted in pronunciation – so it surfaced only when followed by a vowel: for example the /k/ of the genitive case
Genitive case
In grammar, genitive is the grammatical case that marks a noun as modifying another noun...

 ending -ak does not appear in e2 lugal-la "the king's house", but becomes obvious in e2 lugal-la-kam "(it) is the king's house" (compare liaison in French).

Vowels


The vowels that are clearly distinguished by the cuneiform script are /a/, /e/, /i/, and /u/. It has also been argued that an /o/ phoneme might have existed, a fact that would have been concealed by the Akkadian transliteration which does not distinguish it from /u/. However, this hypothesis has not found wide support.

There is some evidence for vowel harmony
Vowel harmony
Vowel harmony is a type of long-distance assimilatory phonological process involving vowels that occurs in some languages. In languages with vowel harmony, there are constraints on which vowels may be found near each other....

 according to vowel height or ATR
Advanced tongue root
In phonetics, advanced tongue root and retracted tongue root, abbreviated ATR or RTR, are contrasting states of the root of the tongue during the pronunciation of vowels in some languages, especially in West Africa, but also in Kazakh and Mongolian...

 in the prefix i3/e- in inscriptions from pre-Sargonic Lagash
Lagash
Lagash is located northwest of the junction of the Euphrates and Tigris rivers and east of Uruk, about east of the modern town of Ash Shatrah. Lagash was one of the oldest cities of the Ancient Near East...

 (the specifics of the pattern have led a handful of scholars to postulate not only an /o/ phoneme, but even an /ɛ/ and, most recently, an /ɔ/) Many cases of partial or complete assimilation
Assimilation (linguistics)
Assimilation is a common phonological process by which the sound of the ending of one word blends into the sound of the beginning of the following word. This occurs when the parts of the mouth and vocal cords start to form the beginning sounds of the next word before the last sound has been...

 of the vowel of certain prefixes and suffixes to one in the adjacent syllable are reflected in writing in some of the later periods, and there is a noticeable though not absolute tendency for disyllabic stems to have the same vowel in both syllables. What appears to be vowel contraction in hiatus
Hiatus (linguistics)
In phonology, hiatus or diaeresis refers to two vowel sounds occurring in adjacent syllables, with no intervening consonant. When two adjacent vowel sounds occur in the same syllable, the result is instead described as a diphthong....

 (*/aa/, */ia/, */ua/ > a, */ae/ > a, */ue/ > u, etc.) is also very common.

Syllables could have any of the following structures: V, CV, VC, CVC. More complex syllables, if Sumerian had them, are not expressed as such by the cuneiform script.

Nominal morphology


The Sumerian noun
Noun
In linguistics, a noun is a member of a large, open lexical category whose members can occur as the main word in the subject of a clause, the object of a verb, or the object of a preposition .Lexical categories are defined in terms of how their members combine with other kinds of...

 is typically a one or two syllable root (igi "eye", e2 "house, household", nin "lady"), although there are also some roots with three syllables like šakanka "market". There are two grammatical gender
Grammatical gender
Grammatical gender is defined linguistically as a system of classes of nouns which trigger specific types of inflections in associated words, such as adjectives, verbs and others. For a system of noun classes to be a gender system, every noun must belong to one of the classes and there should be...

s, usually called human and non-human
Animacy
Animacy is a grammatical and/or semantic category of nouns based on how sentient or alive the referent of the noun in a given taxonomic scheme is...

 (the first includes gods and the word for "statue" in some instances, but not plants or animals, the latter also includes collective plural nouns), whose assignment is semantically predictable. The adjective
Adjective
In grammar, an adjective is a 'describing' word; the main syntactic role of which is to qualify a noun or noun phrase, giving more information about the object signified....

s and other modifiers follow the noun (lugal maḫ "great king"). The noun itself is not inflected; rather, grammatical markers attach to the noun phrase
Noun phrase
In grammar, a noun phrase, nominal phrase, or nominal group is a phrase based on a noun, pronoun, or other noun-like word optionally accompanied by modifiers such as adjectives....

 as a whole, in a certain order. Typically, that order would be noun – adjective – numeral – genitive phrase – relative clause – possessive marker – plural marker – case marker, for example /diĝir gal-gal-ĝu-ne-ra/ ("god great (reduplicated
Reduplication
Reduplication in linguistics is a morphological process in which the root or stem of a word is repeated exactly or with a slight change....

)-my-plural-dative" = "for all my great gods"). The possessive, plural and case markers are traditionally referred to as "suffixes", but have recently also been described as enclitics or postpositions.

The plural markers are /-(e)ne/ (optional) for nouns of the human gender. Non-human nouns are not marked by a plural suffix. However, plurality can also be expressed with the adjective ḫi-a "various", with the plural of the copula /-meš/, by reduplication of the noun (kur-kur "all foreign lands") or of the following adjective (a gal-gal "all the great waters") – the reduplication is believed to signify totality – or by the plurality of the verb form only. Plural reference in the verb form is only possible for human nouns. The case markers are /-Ø/ (absolutive
Absolutive case
The absolutive case is the unmarked grammatical case of a core argument of a verb which is used as the citation form of a noun.-In ergative languages:...

), /-e/ (ergative
Ergative case
The ergative case is the grammatical case that identifies the subject of a transitive verb in ergative-absolutive languages.-Characteristics:...

), /-e/ (allative
Allative case
Allative case is a type of the locative cases used in several languages. The term allative is generally used for the lative case in the majority of languages which do not make finer distinctions.-Finnish language:In the Finnish language, the allative is the fifth of the locative cases, with the...

 = "to"), /-ak/ (genitive
Genitive case
In grammar, genitive is the grammatical case that marks a noun as modifying another noun...

), /-gin/ (equative
Equative case
Equative is a case with the meaning of comparison, or likening. The equative case has been used in very few languages in history. It was used in the Sumerian language....

 = "as, like"), /-r(a)/ (dative
Dative case
The dative case is a grammatical case generally used to indicate the noun to whom something is given, as in "George gave Jamie a drink"....

 = "to, for" = indirect object), /-(e)š(e)/ (traditionally called terminative case
Terminative case
In morphology, the terminative case is a case specifying a limit in space and time and also to convey the goal or target of an action.-Usage in Estonian:In the Estonian language, the terminative case is indicated by the '-ni' suffix:...

, but means "towards"), /-da/ (comitative
Comitative case
The comitative case , also known as the associative case , is a grammatical case that denotes companionship, and is used where English would use "in company with" or "together with"...

 = "together with"), /-a/ (locative
Locative case
Locative is a grammatical case which indicates a location. It corresponds vaguely to the English prepositions "in", "on", "at", and "by"...

 = "in, at"), /-ta/ (ablative
Ablative case
In linguistics, ablative case is a name given to cases in various languages whose common characteristic is that they mark motion away from something, though the details in each language may differ...

 = "from, by"). Additional spatial or temporal meanings can be expressed by genitive phrases like "at the head of" = "above", "at the face of" = "in front of", "at the outer side of" = "because of" etc.: bar udu ḫad2-ak-a = "outer.side sheep white-genitive-locative" = "in the outer side of a white sheep" = "because of a white sheep".

The attested independent personal pronoun
Personal pronoun
Personal pronouns are pronouns used as substitutes for proper or common nouns. All known languages contain personal pronouns.- English personal pronouns :English in common use today has seven personal pronouns:*first-person singular...

s are written ĝe26-e (1st p. sing.), ze2-e (2nd p. sing.), a-ne or e-ne (3rd p. sing. human), and a/e-ne-ne (3rd p. pl. human). The possessive pronominal morphemes are written -ĝu10 (1st p. sing.), -zu (2nd p. sing.), -(a)-n(i) (3rd p. sing. human), -b(i) (3rd p. sing./pl. non-human, also demonstrative and collective), -me (1st pers. pl.), -zu-ne-ne (2nd p. pl.), and -(a)-ne-ne (3rd pers.pl. animate). For most of the suffixes, vowels are subject to loss if they are attached to vowel-final words.

The Chinese box
Chinese boxes
Chinese boxes are a set of boxes of graduated size, each fitting inside the next larger box.A traditional style in Chinese design, nested boxes have proved a popular packaging option in the West for novelty or display reasons....

 structure of the noun phrase can be illustrated with the phrase sipad udu siki-k-ak-ene ("the shepherds of wool sheep"), where the first genitive morpheme subordinates siki "wool" to udu "sheep", and the second – udu siki "wool sheep" to sipad "shepherd".
General

The Sumerian finite verb
Finite verb
A finite verb is a verb that is inflected for person and for tense according to the rules and categories of the languages in which it occurs. Finite verbs can form independent clauses, which can stand on their own as complete sentences....

 distinguishes a number of moods
Grammatical mood
In linguistics, grammatical mood is a grammatical feature of verbs, used to signal modality. That is, it is the use of verbal inflections that allow speakers to express their attitude toward what they are saying...

 and agrees (more or less consistently) with the subject and the object in person, number and gender. The verb chain may also incorporate pronominal references to the verb's other modifiers, which has also traditionally been described as "agreement", although, in fact, such a reference and the presence of an actual modifier in the clause need not co-occur: not only e2-še3 ib2-ši-du-un "I'm going to the house", but also e2-še3 i3-du-un "I'm going to the house" and simply ib2-ši-du-un "I'm going to it" are possible.

The Sumerian verb also makes a binary distinction according to a category that some regard as tense (past vs present-future), others as aspect
Grammatical aspect
In linguistics, the grammatical aspect of a verb is a grammatical category that defines the temporal flow in a given action, event, or state, from the point of view of the speaker...

 (perfective vs imperfective), and that will be designated as TA (tense/aspect) in the following. The two members of the opposition entail different conjugation patterns and, at least for many verbs, different stems; they are theory-neutrally referred to with the Akkadian grammatical terms for the two respective forms – ḫamṭu (quick) and marû (slow, fat). Finally, opinions differ on whether the verb has a passive
Passive voice
Passive voice is a grammatical voice common in many of the world's languages. Passive is used in a clause whose subject expresses the theme or patient of the main verb. That is, the subject undergoes an action or has its state changed. A sentence whose theme is marked as grammatical subject is...

 or a middle voice and how it is expressed.

The verbal root is almost always a monosyllable and, together with various affix
Affix
An affix is a morpheme that is attached to a word stem to form a new word. Affixes may be derivational, like English -ness and pre-, or inflectional, like English plural -s and past tense -ed. They are bound morphemes by definition; prefixes and suffixes may be separable affixes...

es, forms a so-called verbal chain which is described as a sequence of about 15 slots, though the precise models differ. The finite verb
Finite verb
A finite verb is a verb that is inflected for person and for tense according to the rules and categories of the languages in which it occurs. Finite verbs can form independent clauses, which can stand on their own as complete sentences....

 has both prefix
Prefix
A prefix is an affix which is placed before the root of a word. Particularly in the study of languages,a prefix is also called a preformative, because it alters the form of the words to which it is affixed.Examples of prefixes:...

es and suffix
Suffix
In linguistics, a suffix is an affix which is placed after the stem of a word. Common examples are case endings, which indicate the grammatical case of nouns or adjectives, and verb endings, which form the conjugation of verbs...

es, while the non-finite verb
Non-finite verb
In linguistics, a non-finite verb is a verb form that is not limited by a subject and, more generally, is not fully inflected by categories that are marked inflectionally in language, such as tense, aspect, mood, number, gender, and person...

 may only have suffixes. Broadly, the prefixes have been divided in three groups that occur in the following order: modal prefixes, "conjugation prefixes", and pronominal and dimensional prefixes. The suffixes are a future or imperfective marker /-ed-/, pronominal suffixes, and an /-a/ ending that nominalizes the whole verb chain.
Modal prefixes

The modal prefixes are /Ø-/ (indicative), /nu-/ and /la-/, /li-/ (negative; /la/ and /li/ are used before the conjugation prefixes ba- and bi2-) /ga-/ (cohortative, "let me/us"), /ḫa-/ or /ḫe-/ with further assimilation of the vowel in later periods (precative or affirmative), /u-/ (prospective
Prospective
Prospective literally means "looking forward". It can also refer to an event that is likely or expected to happen in the future. For example, a prospective student is someone who is considering attending a school — typically a high school student who is seriously considering applying to a...

 "after/when/if", also used as a mild imperative), /na-/ (negative or affirmative), /bara-/ (negative or vetitive), /nuš-/ (unrealizable wish?) and /ša-/ with further assimilation of the vowel in later periods (affirmative?). Their meaning can depend on the TA.
"Conjugation prefixes"

The meaning, structure, identity and even the number of "conjugation prefixes" have always been a subject of disagreements. The term "conjugation prefix" simply alludes to the fact that a finite verb
Finite verb
A finite verb is a verb that is inflected for person and for tense according to the rules and categories of the languages in which it occurs. Finite verbs can form independent clauses, which can stand on their own as complete sentences....

 in the indicative mood must always contain one of them. Some of their most frequent expressions in writing are mu-, i3- (ED Lagash
Lagash
Lagash is located northwest of the junction of the Euphrates and Tigris rivers and east of Uruk, about east of the modern town of Ash Shatrah. Lagash was one of the oldest cities of the Ancient Near East...

 variant: e-), ba-, bi2- (ED Lagash: bi- or be2), im-, im-ma- (ED Lagash e-ma-), im-mi- (ED Lagash i3-mi or e-me-), mi-(always followed by pronominal-dimensional -ni-) and al-, and to a lesser extent a-, am3-, am3-ma-, and am3-mi-; virtually all analyses attempt to describe many of the above as combinations or allomorphs of each other. The starting point of most analyses are the obvious facts that the 1st person dative always requires mu-, and that the verb in a "passive" clause without an overt agent
Agent (grammar)
In linguistics, a grammatical agent is the cause or initiator of an event. Agent is the name of the thematic role...

 tends to have ba-. Proposed explanations usually revolve around the subtleties of spatial grammar, information structure (focus), verb valency, and, most recently, voice. Mu-, im- and am3- have been described as ventive morphemes, while ba- and bi2- are sometimes analyzed as actually belonging to the pronominal-dimensional group (inanimate pronominal /-b-/ + dative /-a-/ or directive /-i-/). Im-ma-, im-mi-, am3-ma- and am3-mi- are then considered by some as a combination of the ventive and /ba-/, /bi-/ or otherwise a variety of the ventive i3- has been argued to be a mere prothetic vowel, al- a stative
Stative verb
A stative verb is one that asserts that one of its arguments has a particular property . Statives differ from other aspectual classes of verbs in that they are static; that is, they have undefined duration...

 prefix, ba- a middle voice prefix, etcetera.
Pronominal and dimensional prefixes

The dimensional prefixes of the verb chain basically correspond to, and often repeat, the case markers of the noun phrase. Like the latter, they are attached to a "head" – a pronominal prefix. The other place where a pronominal prefix can be placed is immediately before the stem, where it can have a different allomorph and expresses the absolutive or the ergative participant (the transitive subject, the intransitive subject or the direct object), depending on the TA and other factors, as explained below. However, this neat system is obscured by the tendency to drop or merge many of the prefixes in writing and possibly in pronunciation as well. -da-, -ta-, -ši- (early -še3-), occurring in this order, are the comitative, ablative and terminative verbal prefixes; the dative (occurring before the others) is probably /-a-/, and a directive /-i-/ (occurring after the others) is widely recognized as well. The pronominal prefixes are /-n-/ and /-b-/ for the 3rd person singular animate and inanimate respectively; the 2nd person singular appears as -e- in most contexts, but as /-r-/ before the dative (-ra-), leading some to assume a phonetic /-ir-/ or /-jr-/. The 1st person may appear as -e-, too, but is more commonly not expressed at all (the same may frequently apply to 3rd and 2nd persons); it is, however, cued by the choice of mu- as conjugation prefix (/mu-/ + /-a-/ >> ma-). The 1st, 2nd and 3rd plural infixes are -me-,-re?- and -ne- in the dative and perhaps in other contexts as well, though not in the pre-stem position (see below). An additional exception from the system is the prefix -ni- which corresponds to a noun phrase in the locative – in which case it doesn't seem to be preceded by a pronominal prefix – and, according to Gábor Zólyomi and others, to an animate one in the directive – in the latter case it is analyzed as pronominal /-n-/ + directive /-i-/. Zólyomi and others also believe that special meanings can be expressed by combinations of non-identical noun case and verb prefix. Also according to some researchers /-ni-/ and /bi-/ acquire the forms /-n-/ and /-b-/ (coinciding with the absolutive–ergative pronominal prefixes) before the stem if there isn't already an absolutive–ergative pronominal prefix in pre-stem position: mu-un-kur9 = /mu-ni-kur/ "he went in there" (as opposed to mu-ni-kur9 = mu-ni-in-kur9 = /mu-ni-n-kur/ "he brought in – caused [something or someone] to go in – there".
Pronominal suffixes and conjugation

The pronominal suffixes are /-en/ for the 1st and 2nd person singular, /-e/ for the 3rd singular in marû TA and /-Ø/ in ḫamṭu TA, /-enden/ for the 1st plural, /-enzen/ for the 2nd plural, /-ene/ for the third plural in marû and /-eš/ in ḫamṭu (the initial vowel in all of the above suffixes can be assimilated to the root). The general principle for pronominal agreement in conjugation is that in ḫamṭu TA, the transitive subject is expressed by the prefix, and the direct object by the suffix, and in the marû TA it's the other way round; as for the intransitive subject, it is expressed, in both TAs, by the suffixes and is thus treated like the object in ḫamṭu and like the subject in marû (except for the fact that its 3rd person is expressed, not only in ḫamṭu but also in marû, by the suffixes used for the object in the ḫamṭu TA). A major exception from this generalization are the plural forms – in them, not only the prefix (as in the singular), but also the suffix expresses the transitive subject. Additionally, the prefixes of the plural are identical to the ones of the singular – /-?-/ or /-e-/, /-e-/, /-n-/, /-b-/ – as opposed to the -me-, -re-?, -ne- that are presumed for non-pre-stem position – and some scholars believe that the prefixes of the 1st and 2nd person are /-en-/ rather than /-e-/ when they stand for the object. Before the pronominal suffixes, a suffix /-e(d)-/ with a future
Future tense
In grammar, a future tense is a verb form that marks the event described by the verb as not having happened yet, but expected to happen in the future , or to happen subsequent to some other event, whether that is past, present, or future .-Expressions of future tense:The concept of the future,...

 or related modal meaning can be inserted, accounting for occurrences of -e in the third person singular marû of intransitive forms; because of its meaning, it can also be said to signal marû in these forms.

Examples for TA and pronominal agreement: (ḫamṭu is rendered with past tense, marû with present): /i-gub-en/ ("I stood" or "I stand"), /i-n-gub-en/ ("he placed me" or "I place him"); /i-sug-enden/ ("we stood/stand"); /i-n-dim-enden/ ("he created us" or "we create him"); /mu-e?-dim-enden/ ("we created [someone or something]"); i3-gub-be2 = /i-gub-ed/ ("he will/must stand"); ib2-gub-be2 = /i-b-gub-e/ ("he places it"); /i-b-dim-ene/ ("they create it"), /i-n-dim-eš/ ("they created [someone or something]" or "he created them"), /i-sug-eš/ ("they stood" or "they stand").

Confusingly, the subject and object prefixes (/-n-/, /-b-/, /-e-/) are not commonly spelled out in early texts, although the "full" spellings do become more usual during the Third Dynasty of Ur
Third Dynasty of Ur
The Third Dynasty of Ur, also known as the Neo-Sumerian Empire or the Ur III Empire refers simultaneously to a 21st to 20th century BC Sumerian ruling dynasty based in the city of Ur and a short-lived territorial-political state that some historians regard as a nascent empire...

 (in the Neo-Sumerian period) and especially during the Late Sumerian period. Thus, in earlier texts, we find mu-ak and i3-ak (e-ak in early dynastic Lagash) instead of mu-un-ak and in-ak for /mu-n-ak/ and /i-n-ak/ "he/she made", and also mu-ak instead of mu-e-ak "you made". Similarly, pre-Ur III texts also spell the 1st and 2nd person suffix /-en/ as -e, making it coincide with the third person in the marû form.
Stem

The verbal stem itself can also express grammatical distinctions. The plurality of the absolutive participant can be expressed by complete reduplication of the stem or by a suppletive stem. Reduplication can also express "plurality of the action itself", intensity or iterativity. With respect to TA marking, verbs are divided in 4 types; ḫamṭu is always the unmarked TA. The stems of the 1st type, regular verbs, do not express TA at all according to most scholars, or, according to M. Yoshikawa and others, express marû TA by adding an (assimilating) /-e-/ as in gub-be2 or gub-bu vs gub (which is, however, nowhere distinguishable from the first vowel of the pronominal suffixes except for intransitive marû 3rd person singular). The 2nd type express marû by partial reduplication of the stem as kur9 vs ku4-ku4; the 3rd type express marû by adding a consonant (te vs teĝ3); and the 4th type use a suppletive stem (dug4 vs e). Thus, as many as four different suppletive stems can exist, as in the admittedly extreme case of the verb "to go": ĝen ("to go", ḫamṭu sing.), du (marû sing.), (e-)re7 (ḫamṭu plur.), sub2 (marû plur.)
Other issues

The nominalizing suffix /-a/ converts non-finite and finite verbs into participles and relative clauses: sum-ma "given", mu-na-an-sum-ma "which he gave to him", "who gave (something) to him", etc.. Adding /-a/ after the future/modal suffix /-ed/ produces a form with a meaning similar to the Latin gerundive: sum-mu-da = "which will/should be given". On the other hand, adding a (locative-terminative?) /-e/ after the /-ed/ yields a form with a meaning similar to the Latin ad + gerund (acc.) construction: sum-mu-de3 = "(in order) to give".

The copula verb /me/ "to be" is mostly used as an enclitic: -men, -men, -am, -menden, -menzen, -(a)meš.

The imperative mood
Imperative mood
The imperative mood expresses commands or requests as a grammatical mood. These commands or requests urge the audience to act a certain way. It also may signal a prohibition, permission, or any other kind of exhortation.- Morphology :...

 construction is produced with a singular ḫamṭu stem, but using the marû agreement pattern, by turning all prefixes into suffixes: mu-na-an-sum "he gave (something) to him", mu-na-e-sum-mu-un-ze2-en "you (plur.) gave (something) to him" – sum-mu-na-ab "give it to him!", sum-mu-na-ab-ze2-en "give (plur.) it to him!" Compare the French tu le lui donnes, vous le lui donnez (present tense) – donne-le-lui!, donnez-le-lui!

Syntax


The basic word order is subject–object–verb; verb finality is only violated in rare instances, in poetry. The moving of constituent towards the beginning of the phrase may be a way to highlight it, as may the addition of the copula to it. The so-called anticipatory genitive (e2-a lugal-bi "the owner of the house/temple", lit. "of the house, its owner") is common and may signal the possessor's topicality. There are various ways to express subordination, some of which have already been hinted at; they include the nominalization of a verb, which can then be followed by case morphemes and possessive pronouns (kur9-ra-ni "when he entered") and included in "prepositional" constructions (eĝer a-ma-ru ba-ur3-ra-ta "back – flood – conjugation prefix – sweep over – nominalizing suffix – [genitive suffix?] – ablative suffix" = "from the back of the Flood's sweeping-over" = "after the Flood had swept over"). Subordinating conjunctions such as ud-da "when, if", tukum-bi "if" are also used, though the coordinating conjunction u3 "and", a Semitic adoption, is rarely used. A specific problem of Sumerian syntax is posed by the numerous so-called compound verb
Compound verb
In linguistics, a compound verb or complex predicate is a multi-word compound that acts as a single verb. One component of the compound is a light verb or vector, which carries any inflections, indicating tense, mood, or aspect, but provides only fine shades of meaning...

s, which usually involve a noun immediately before the verb, forming a lexical or idiom
Idiom
Idiom is an expression, word, or phrase that has a figurative meaning that is comprehended in regard to a common use of that expression that is separate from the literal meaning or definition of the words of which it is made...

atic unit (e.g. šu...ti, lit. "hand-approach" = "receive"; igi...du8, lit. "eye-open" = "see"). Some of them are claimed to have a special agreement pattern that they share with causative
Causative
In linguistics, a causative is a form that indicates that a subject causes someone or something else to do or be something, or causes a change in state of a non-volitional event....

 constructions: their logical object, like the causee, receives, in the verb, the directive infix, but in the noun, the dative suffix if animate and the directive if inanimate.

Sample text


FAOS 05/1, Ent 28, A http://cdli.ucla.edu/cdlisearch/search/index.php?SearchMode=Text&txtID_Txt=P222532 (the beginning of an inscription by Entemena
Entemena
Entemena was a son of En-anna-tum I, and he reestablished Lagash as a power in Sumer. He defeated Illi of Umma, with the aid of Lugal-kinishe-dudu of Uruk, successor to Enshakushanna, who is in the king list.-Artifacts:...

 of Lagash
Lagash
Lagash is located northwest of the junction of the Euphrates and Tigris rivers and east of Uruk, about east of the modern town of Ash Shatrah. Lagash was one of the oldest cities of the Ancient Near East...

, appr. 2400 BC).

Transliteration:

I.1-7: den-lil2 lugal kur-kur-ra ab-ba dingir-dingir-re2-ne-ke4 inim gi-na-ni-ta dnin-ĝir2-su dšara2-bi ki e-ne-sur

8-12: me-silim lugal kiški-ke4 inim dištaran-na-ta eš2 GAN2 be2-ra ki-ba na bi2-ru2

13-17: uš ensi2 ummaki-ke4 nam inim-ma diri-diri-še3 e-ak

18-19: na-ru2-a-bi i3-pad

20-21: eden lagaški-še3 i3-ĝen

22-27: dnin-ĝir2-su ur-sag den-lil2-la2-ke4 inim si-sa2-ni-ta ummaki-da dam-ḫa-ra e-da-ak

28-29: inim den-lil2-la2-ta sa šu4 gal bi2-šu4

30-31: SAḪAR.DU6.TAKA4-bi eden-na ki ba-ni-us2-us2

32-42: e2-an-na-tum2 ensi2 lagaški pa-bil3-ga en-mete-na ensi2 lagaški-ka-ke4 en-a2-kal-le ensi2 ummaki-da ki e-da-sur

II.1-3a: e-bi id2 nun-ta gu2-eden-na-še3 ib2-ta-ni-ed2

3b: GAN2 dnin-ĝir2-su-ka 180 30 1/2 eš2 niĝ2-ra2 a2 ummaki-še3 mu-tak4

3c: GAN2 lugal nu-tuku i3-kux(DU)

4-5: e-ba na-ru2-a e-me-sar-sar

6-8: na-ru2-a me-silim-ma ki-bi bi2-gi4

9-10: eden ummaki-še3 nu-dab5

11-18: im-dub-ba dnin-ĝir2-su-ka nam-nun-da-ki-gar-ra bara2 den-lil2-la2 bara2 dnin-ḫur-sag-ka bara2 dnin-ĝir2-su-ka bara2 dutu bi2-du3

Translation

I.1-7: Enlil
Enlil
Elizabeth Barrett Browning was one of the most prominent poets of the Victorian era. Her poetry was widely popular in both England and the United States during her lifetime. A collection of her last poems was published by her husband, Robert Browning, shortly after her death.-Early life:Members...

, king of all the lands, father of all the gods, by his firm command, fixed the border between Ningirsu and Shara
Shara (god)
In Sumerian mythology Shara is a minor god of war, mainly identified with the city of Umma, north-east of Unug . He is identified in some texts as the son of Inana .-References:...

.

8-12: Mesilim
Mesilim
Mesilim or Mesalim was lugal of the Sumerian city-state of Kish.Though his name is missing from the Sumerian king list, Mesilim is among the earliest historical figures recorded in archaeological documents. He was a monarch in the 3rd Dynasty of Kish, reigning some time in the "Early Dynastic...

, king of Kish
Kish
-Geography:*Kish Island, an Iranian island and a city in the Persian Gulf*Kish, Iran, a city on Kish Island*Kish District, an administrative subdivision of Iran*Kish Rural District, an administrative subdivision of Iran...

, at the command of Ishtaran, measured the field and set up a (boundary-) stone there.

13-17: Ush, ruler of Umma
Umma
Umma was an ancient city in Sumer. Note that there is some scholarly debateabout the Sumerian and Akkadian names for this site.-History:...

, acted haughtily.

18-19: He ripped out that (boundary-) stone

20-21: and marched toward the plain of Lagash
Lagash
Lagash is located northwest of the junction of the Euphrates and Tigris rivers and east of Uruk, about east of the modern town of Ash Shatrah. Lagash was one of the oldest cities of the Ancient Near East...

.

22-27: Ningirsu, warrior of Enlil, at his just command, made war with Umma.

28-29: At Enlil's command, he threw his great battle net over it

30-31: and heaped up burial mounds for it on the plain.

32-42: Eannatum
Eannatum
Eannatum was a Sumerian king of Lagash who established one of the first verifiable empires in history. One inscription of his, found on a boulder, states that Eannatum was his Sumerian name, while his "Tidnu" name was Lumma.-Conquest of Sumer:...

, ruler of Lagash, uncle of Entemena
Entemena
Entemena was a son of En-anna-tum I, and he reestablished Lagash as a power in Sumer. He defeated Illi of Umma, with the aid of Lugal-kinishe-dudu of Uruk, successor to Enshakushanna, who is in the king list.-Artifacts:...

, ruler of Lagash, fixed the border with Enakale, ruler of Umma;

II.1-3a: made the (boundary-)channel extend from the Nun canal to the Gu'edena;

3b: left a 1,290 meter length of Ningirsu's field, toward the side of Umma

3c: and established(?) it as an ownerless field.

4-5: At that (boundary-)channel he inscribed (new boundary-)stones,

6-8: and restored the (boundary-)stone of Mesilim.

9-10: He did not cross into the plain of Umma.

11-18: On the (boundary-)levee of Ningirsu – the Namnundakigara – he built a shrine of Enlil, a shrine of Ninhursag
Ninhursag
In Sumerian mythology, Ninhursag or Ninkharsag was the earth and mother goddess, one of the seven great deities of Sumer. She is principally a fertility goddess. Temple hymn sources identify her as the 'true and great lady of heaven' and kings of Sumer were 'nourished by Ninhursag's milk'...

, a shrine of Ningirsu, and a shrine of Utu
Utu
Utu is the Sun god in Sumerian mythology, the son of the moon god Nanna and the goddess Ningal. His brother and sisters are Ishkur and Inanna and Erishkigal....

.

See also



Further reading

  • Ebeling, J., & Cunningham, G. (2007). Analysing literary Sumerian : corpus-based approaches. London: Equinox. ISBN 1-84553-229-5
  • Halloran, J. A. (2007). Sumerian lexicon: a dictionary guide to the ancient Sumerian language. Los Angeles, Calif: Logogram. ISBN 0-9786429-1-0

External links