Sumerian language

From Academic Kids

Sumerian ()
Spoken in: Formerly spoken in Mesopotamia, currently extinct
Region: Southern Mesopotamia
Total speakers: extinct
Ranking: Not in top 100
Genetic classification: Language isolate


Official status
Official language of: Ancient Mesopotamia
Regulated by: -
Language codes
ISO 639-1-
ISO 639-2sux
See also: LanguageList of languages

The Sumerian language of ancient Sumer was spoken in Southern Mesopotamia from at least the 4th millennium BC. Sumerian was replaced by Akkadian as a spoken language around 2000 BC, but continued to be used as a sacred, ceremonial and scientific language in Mesopotamia until about 1 AD. Then, it was forgotten until the 19th century. Sumerian is distinguished from other languages of the area such as Hebrew, Akkadian, which also comprises Babylonian and Assyrian, and Aramaic, which are Semitic languages, and Elamite, which is an Elamo-Dravidian language.



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26th century BC document listing gifts to the high priestess of Adab on the occasion of her election

Henry Rawlinson (1810-1895) deciphered the cuneiform writing of Mesopotamia, and helped prepare The Cuneiform Inscriptions of Western Asia (5 vol., 1861–84) for the British Museum. These oversize volumes of cuneiform tablet transcriptions were the primary source of texts for cuneiformists, e.g., Father Johann Strassmaier who compiled an Alphabetisches Verzeichnis (cuneiform syllabary) in the 1880s, but Rawlinson's volumes contain little Sumerian because they mainly reproduce tablets from Akkadian-speaking Nineveh and Babylon.

Ernest de Sarzec (1832-1901) began excavating the Sumerian site of Tello (ancient Girsu, capital of the state of Lagash) in 1877, and published the first part of Découvertes en Chaldée with transcriptions of Sumerian tablets in 1884.

The University of Pennsylvania began excavating Sumerian Nippur in 1888.

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

Credit for being first to scientifically treat a bilingual Sumerian-Akkadian text belongs to Paul Haupt (1858-1926), who published Die sumerischen Familiengesetze [The Sumerian family laws]: in Keilschrift, Transcription und Übersetzung : nebst ausführlichem Commentar und zahlreichen Excursen : eine assyriologische Studie (Leipzig : J.C. Hinrichs, 1879).

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-based orientalist, Joseph Halevy, argued from 1874 onward that Sumerian was a secret code, and for over a decade the leading Assyriologists battled over this issue. For a dozen years, starting in 1885, even the great Friedrich Delitzsch accepted Halevy's arguments, not renouncing Halevy until 1897. Delitzsch would go on to publish a learned 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 fifty years it would be the standard for students studying Sumerian. Poebel's grammar was finally superseded when, in 1984, appeared The Sumerian Language, An Introduction to its History and Grammatical Structure, by Marie-Louise Thomsen.

The difficulty in translating Sumerian can be illustrated by a quote from Miguel Civil of the University of Chicago's Oriental Institute, regarding a tablet for making beer:

"Two previous attempts, by J.D. Prince in 1919 and M. Witzel in 1938, had produced less than satisfactory results. A line that now even a first year Sumerian student will translate "you are the one who spreads the roasted malt on a large mat (to cool)," was translated "thou real producer of the lightning, exalted functionary, mighty one!" by the first author, and "starkest du mit dem Gugbulug(-Tranke) den Gross-Sukkal" by the second.

"Two developments during the fifties made possible a better understanding of Sumerian literature. In Chicago, Benno Landsberger was editing the Materials for the Sumerian Lexicon. In Philadelphia, where I had been working before 1963, Samuel Noah Kramer was busy making available to scholars as many literary tablets as possible from the collections in Philadelphia, Istanbul, and Jena."

Landsberger worked to publish important bilingual Sumerian-Akkadian lexical tablets from the Old Babylonian period, which have greatly helped our knowledge of Sumerian vocabulary. Kramer and Thorkild Jacobsen both increased our understanding of Sumerian by publishing and translating Sumerian literary texts.

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.


Sumerian is the first known written language. Its script, called cuneiform, meaning "wedge-shaped", was later also used for Akkadian, Ugaritic and Elamite. It was even adapted to Indo-European languages like Hittite (which also had a hieroglyphic script, as did the Egyptians) and Old Persian, though the latter merely used the same instruments, and the letter shapes were unrelated.

Ancient Mesopotamia
Cities / empires
Sumer: UrukUrEridu
Akkadian Empire: Agade
Assyria: AssurNineveh
Kings of Sumer
Kings of Assyria
Kings of Babylon
Cuneiform script
Edit (

Sumerian is an agglutinative language, meaning that words could consist of a chain of more or less clearly distinguishable and separable suffixes.

Sumerian is a split ergative language. In an ergative language the subject of a sentence with a direct object is in the so-called ergative case, which in Sumerian is marked with the suffix -e. The subject of an intransitive verb and the direct object (of a transitive verb) are in the absolutive case, which in Sumerian, and most ergative languages, is marked by no suffix (or the so-called "zero suffix"). Example: lugal-e e2 mu-du3 "the king built the house"; lugal ba-gen "the king went". A split ergative language is one that behaves as ergative in some contexts and as a nominative-accusative language (like English) in others. Sumerian behaves as a nominative-accusative language e.g. in the 1st and 2nd person of present-future tense/incompletive aspect (aka maruu-conjugation), but as ergative in most other instances. Similar patterns are found in a large number of unrelated split ergative languages (see more examples at split ergativity). Example: i3-du-un (<< *i3-du-en) = I shall go; e2 i3-du3-un (<< *i3-du3-en) = I shall build the house (in contrast with the 3 person past tense forms, see above). Besides, Sumerian is a language with Suffixaufnahme (see more at the relevant entry).

It has an animate/inanimate word class distinction. Sumerian has also been claimed to have two tenses (past and present-future), but these are currently described as completive and incompletive aspects instead. There is a large number of cases - nominative, ergative, genitive, dative, locative, comitative, equative ("as, like"), terminative ("to"), ablative ("from"), etc (the exact list varies somewhat in different grammars).

Another characteristic feature of Sumerian is the large number of homophones (words with the same sound structure but different meanings) - or perhaps pseudo-homophones, since there might have been differences in pronunciation that we don't know about. The different homophones (and the different cuneiform signs that denote them) are marked with different numbers by convention, 2 and 3 being replaced by acute and grave accent diacritics repectively. For example: du = to go, du3 = dù = to build.

Sumerian has been controversially identified as genetically related with almost every known agglutinative language. As the most ancient known language, it has a peculiar prestige, and such proposals sometimes have a nationalistic background and generally enjoy little popularity in the linguistic community because of their unverifiability. Examples of suggested related languages include the Hurro-Urartian languages (see Subarian, Alarodian), the Basque language, the Dravidian language (see Elamo-Dravidian), Munda languages (Igor M. Diakonoff), Ural-Altaic languages such as Hungarian (Miklos Erdy) and Tibeto-Burman (Jan Braun). More credibility is given to inclusion of Sumerian in proposed super-families like Nostratic or Dene-Sino-Caucasian, but the mere identifiability of these is itself controversial.


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The Sumerian verb has two conjugations, transitive and intransitive, and two aspects, referred to as hamtu and maru (following the terms in Akkadian grammars of Sumerian).

The verbal endings are:

1st person, sg., intransitive, -en
1st person, pl., intransitive, -en-dè-en
2nd person, pl., intransitive, -en-zè-en


  • Edzard, Dietz Otto. (2003) Sumerian Grammar.
  • Hayes, John L. (2000) A Manual of Sumerian Grammar and Texts.
  • Thomsen, Marie-Louise. (2001). The Sumerian Language: An Introduction to Its History and Grammatical Structure.
  • Volk, Konrad. (1997) A Sumerian Reader.

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