Sumerian is the language of ancient Sumer, which was spoken in southern Mesopotamia (modern Iraq) since at least the 4th millennium BC. During the 3rd millennium BC, there developed a very intimate cultural symbiosis between the Sumerians and the Akkadians, which included widespread bilingualism. The influence of Sumerian on Akkadian (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. 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 the cuneiform inscriptions and excavated tablets left by these speakers. Sumerian is a language isolate. The term 'Sumerian' applies to speakers of the Sumerian language. The Sumerian language is generally regarded as a language isolate in linguistics because it belongs to no known language family; Akkadian belongs to the Afro-Asiatic 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 may be an Elamo-Dravidian language.
The chronology of the Sumerian language may be divided into several periods according to linguistic and historical considerations:
Sumerian language was not deciphered until the nineteenth century of our era, when it was found to be different from both the Indo-European and Semitic language groups. Fifteen hundred cuneiform symbols were reduced in the next thousand years to about seven hundred, but it did not become alphabetic until about 1300 BC.
By 2500 BC libraries were established at Shuruppak and Eresh, and schools had been established to train scribes for the temple and state bureaucracies as well as to legally document contracts and business transactions.
Schools were regularly attended by the sons of the aristocracy and successful; discipline was by caning. Sumerian, the oldest known written language in human history, was spoken in Mesopotamia (modern Iraq and peripheral regions) throughout the third millennium BC and survived as an esoteric written language until the death of the cuneiform tradition around the time of Christ.
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).Sumerian distinguishes the grammatical genders animate/inanimate (personal/impersonal) with separate pronouns, but does not have separate male/female gender pronouns.
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 (such as tone) that we do not 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 accent and grave accent diacritics repectively. For example: du = "to go", du3 = dĚ = "to build".
Sumerian has been the subject of controversial proposals purportedly identifying it 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.
Finding a place for the Sumerian language in modern analytic linguistics has proven to be a formidable challenge since the first steps of decipherment. Contributing to this dilemma are, first and foremost, the lack of any native speakers (a problem with all ancient tongues); second, the sparseness of linguistic data (which is a distinct difference to many other ancient languages, but a similarity to many others); third, the apparent lack of a closely related tongue (contrast with Akkadian to the Semitic tongues); and finally, the comparatively small amount of research dedicated to the task so far.
These issues notwithstanding, researchers have generally agreed on a few broad typological classifications for the language, as seen above. Sumerian is an agglutinative language, in which many small affixes may be attached to a word, gradually building up refinements in meaning and specificity to the typically abstract lexical root. Furthermore, we see strong indications of at least partial ergativity, where we have the morphological marker for intransitive subjects identical to that of transitive direct objects.
When we make these claims, however, we must be acutely aware that our understanding of the language is frighteningly incomplete.
Leaving aside the problems of classification and typology, however, linguists have pieced together what might be termed a "framework" descriptive grammar of the language, aided lexically by lists of Sumerian words with Akkadian counterparts left to us by ancient scribes.
These lists were necessary as Sumerian was, apparently, the "official language" of Mesopotamia for some time after the language ceased to be spoken by the local population.
It is this grammar, albeit incomplete and often frequently revised and updated, that we can use to read the basic meanings from a wide variety of the extant texts found throughout Mesopotamia and the surrounding lands.
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