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Our sixty-minute hour comes from Sumerian

Sumerian is a dead language that is not related to any other language. Howeverr, Bram Jagersma managed to compile a grammar of the language, based on inscriptions and clay tablets. Traces of the Sumerian number system can still be seen in our sixty-minute hour. Jagersma received his PhD on 4 November.


Kleitablet met daarop een oorkonde in het Soermerisch, plm. 3000 v. Chr.
Kleitablet met daarop een oorkonde in het Soermerisch, plm. 3000 v. Chr.

Until 4,000 years ago, Sumarian was a living language in the south of Iraq. Then it was supplanted by Accadian, at least in daily life.  The language survived a further 2,000 years in the culture and writings of scholars. not only in Iraq, but also in the rest of Mesopotamia and in a number of places in the Near East.


The writings - hundreds of inscriptions and many tens of thousands of clay tablets from the period 2500 to 2000 BC were written in cuneiform script, invented by the Sumerians themselves. The limitations of this writing system and because Sumerian was a dead and isolated language, writing the language was no simple task. But Jagersma succeeded, partly by thoroughly analysing the spelling and loan words from and into other languages.

Word and sound symbols

One very obviouis characteristic of Sumerian script is that everything is written continuously. Originally the language only consisted of symbols for words (like Chinese),but gradually sound symbols were added, until only the stem of the word was written as a symbol. The complexity with which Jagersma was faces in analysing the language can be seen in the finite form of the verb: this is made up of the stem with between one and nine prefixes and between one and three suffixes.

Finite verb form as a complete sentence

Sumerian originally only consisted of word symbols
Sumerian originally only consisted of word symbols

These prefixes and suffixes express a broad range of meanings, including time, aspect, modus, person and the number both of the subject, the direct object or the indirect object, and certain adjuncts. This means that a single finite verb form with all its prefixes and suffixes can express a complete sentence. For example, the verb  munnintumma?a (the question mark and the final รก'are not a mistake) means 'when he had made this suitable for her here.'

Descriptive linguistics

Jagersma is not the first person to study Sumerian: 'The language was rediscovered in the second half of the 19th century and since them a number of different grammars have been written. But mine is the first to be based on descriptive linguistics. All the examples have a detailed linguistic analysis, so called glosses, that can be used by people who do not know cuneiform script or Sumerian. And the notes about phonetics are much more extensive in my grammar. In fact, I am amazed at how much you can learn about the pronunciation of a language that hasn't been spoken for more than 4,000 years.'

Jigsaw puzzle

Working on the grammar was at times tedious and called for a lot of patience: 'You are dealing with an enormous number of texts in a difficult and often ambiguous script. What you are doing is endlessly comparing sentences and forms with one another, searching for symmetry.  It is fantastic if suddenly the penny drops because then you are closer to ancient Sumerian and the origin of our history.'

Numerical system based on 60

The Sumerian numerical system is unique in the sense that it is based on the number sixty. It can still be found in the division of an hour into sixty minutes and a minute into sixty seconds. Our 360 degree circle is another example.

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