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Dissertation

A Descriptive grammar of Sumerian

This grammar describes Sumerian, an ancient Near Eastern language which was spoken in what is now southern Iraq, on the basis of written sources dating from about 2500 to 2000 BC.

Author
Bram Jagersma
Date
03 November 2010
Links
Full text in Leiden University Repository

Sumerian is an ancient Near Eastern language which was spoken in what is now southern Iraq. It is known to us from numerous inscriptions and clay tablets written in cuneiform, a script invented by the Sumerians in the late fourth millennium BC. Although Sumerian became obsolete as a living language about four thousand years ago, it continued to be used as a language of scholarship and cult until the end of the first millennium BC. Sumerian is a language isolate. Its position in a remote corner of the Near East shows it to be a last remnant of the languages that preceded the arrival of Semitic languages in the area. 

This grammar describes the Sumerian language on the basis of written sources dating from about 2500 to 2000 BC. Earlier texts are written in a script which is so defective that grammatical research is all but impossible. Most (if not all) later texts have been produced by scribes for whom Sumerian was not their mother tongue but only a language which they had learned during their scribal education. 

Sumerian makes extensive use of phrase-final clitics to express case, number, demonstratives, and possessive pronouns. This may lead to an impressive accumulation of such clitics on the last word of a noun phrase. Its twelve cases include an ergative and an absolutive. 

A Sumerian finite verbal form can contain up to nine prefixes and three suffixes, among them up to three different person markers. A single Sumerian verbal form can make up a complete clause on its own. A nice example of this is the Old Sumerian verbal form munnintumma’a ‘when he had made it befitting her’. The same form also illustrates another trait of Sumerian: it has hardly any conjunctions or subjunctions. Nearly all subordinate clauses are formed through nominalization. This particular example is a nominalized clause in the locative case. 

The Sumerian numeral system is unique in having a base ‘sixty’, after which counting begins afresh. Thus, ‘seventy’ is built as ‘sixty-ten’, ‘hundred’ as ‘sixty-forty’, ‘three hundred and sixty’ as ‘four-sixty’, and so on. This Sumerian system of counting has left its traces in our division of the hour into sixty minutes, of our minute into sixty seconds, and in our circle of 360 degrees.

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