I think the easiest way to start Sumerian is by looking at some familiar friends: nouns!
Before embarking on a discussion of plurality in Sumerian, first we need some good old fashion singular nouns to work with. Let's take the following vocabulary as a small sampler. These are some really common words in the tablets you might see in museums or books, so we might as well start seeing them early!
- lugal [𒈗] = king, master, lord
- šeš [𒋀] = brother
- ama [𒂼] = mother
- nin [𒊩𒆪] = sister; queen, lady
- dumu [𒌉] = child; son
[A note on pronounciation: remember, we don't really understand how Sumerian was pronounced. You're free to pronounce these words any way you like. In fact, you'll see a lot of words in older Sumerian discussions don't look anything like the words in this grammar, or other recent work. We're still discovering a lot here, so there's plenty of room for contribution.]
Simple Noun PhrasesEdit
Definite vs Indefinite nounsEdit
The simplest noun phrase in Sumerian is just a plain old noun, like the ones listed just above in the vocabulary. There are no written markers for definiteness or indefiniteness in Sumerian, however, which is a bit different from English. So, in Sumerian, if you see lugal, it can mean a king, the king, or even just king. While you might think this is confusing and ambiguous, in practice there is usually very little room for ambiguity. It's pretty easy from context to figure out what the original author intended. In fact, with a little experience, you won't even notice anything missing!
Another way to make a noun phrase is to just put two nouns directly next to each other; say, for instance, the king and queen. This is even simpler in Sumerian. You simply put the two words directly next to each other, with no other markings! So the king and queen becomes just lugal nin. There was originally no word for and in Sumerian, and only much later in the life of the language did scribes start using the word u, which is just a borrowed word from Akkadian. So we will omit the and in Sumerian, and just write it the way the old Sumerians used to.
(You'll see a bunch of borrowings between Akkadian and Sumerian -- the people of Mesopotamia started speaking Sumerian; then the Akkadians took over and Sumerian was used only for formal occasions, state or religious purposes. Similar to ecclesiastical Latin in the middle ages.)
Just to test your vocabulary and knowledge of simple noun phrases in Sumerian, I'll toss in some quizzes every now and then. If you see a little dotted underline, that means there's hovertext with the quiz answer. Good luck! Start by translating the following from Sumerian to English:
Also, even though you will never encounter the need to translate from English to Sumerian in actual practice (no one would understand you!), I will also provide "generation" exercises, translating from English into Sumerian. It's good practice. Try it on these simple phrases:
The Plural MarkerEdit
In Sumerian, it is very common for a suffix or prefix to be attached to a word. Sumerian does this to modify meaning, or relationships to other words in a sentence. The same happens in English. Consider the two words king and kings. We are all familiar with the plural ending -s in English, and this little -s is called a "particle". A particle is basically any part of a language that can't occur just by itself. You'd never see just s in an English sentence, for instance.
The same goes for Sumerian. In this case, making things plural, we just use the suffix .ene [𒂊𒉈]. That funny dot you see before the ene is just the way linguists like to write things. If you see a dot like this, you know you're looking at a particle. Plus, it neatly and logically separates the root word from any suffixes for easy analysis. So, for instance, šeš.ene [𒋀𒂊𒉈] could be translated brothers, or perhaps the brothers. (Remember your vocabulary from the first section?)
Using ene with noun phrasesEdit
So it's easy to make a noun plural! But what about plurals of more complex phrases, like mother and child? Well, in English it would be mothers and children, where each element gets pluralized. In Sumerian, however, we treat the two nouns as one logical chunk, and pluralize the whole thing once. For instance:
nin šeš [𒊩𒆪𒋀] = sister and brother
[nin šeš].ene [𒊩𒆪𒋀𒂊𒉈] = sisters and brothers
See our little friend .ene? There it is again, this time attaching itself to a two-noun phrase, instead of just a simple solo noun.
A little conventionEdit
Now, the phrase "nin šešene [𒊩𒆪𒋀𒂊𒉈]" can mean two things: either sister and brothers or sisters and brothers. There is some room for ambiguity here.
One more standard convention linguists use, is to put heavy braces (the "[" and "]" above) around sub-phrases, so you can see everything that is being modified by some other particle. In this case, this convention can help us disambiguate between the two possible meanings; here we see the plural particle (.ene) modifying a two-noun phrase (nin šeš). So we first translate the noun phrase, = sister and brother, and then modify the whole thing with the particle, = sisters and brothers.
It's actually pretty easy! And hopefully not too different from English.
Now, there are quite a few other ways to express plurality in Sumerian, but for now, let's proceed with this common particle and see what else we can learn.
[Thomsen §69, Edzard §5.3.1] - these bibliography references will occur throughout this text, and refer to ML Thomsen's "The Sumerian Language" and D O Edzard's "Sumerian Grammar", respectively.
Let's see if you remember your nouns!
And just for fun, translate from English to Sumerian:
(Every now and then I'll put in a History section. My Sumerian history isn't quite up to snuff, so if there are any Mesopotamian historians out there, go nuts!)
In case you're unfamiliar, Sumerian is the language that was spoken and written in many parts of the Fertile Crescent (Mesopotamia,) which includes the land between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in what is modern-day Iraq. Sumerian as a spoken language probably died out long before the written language became archaic. The reason: Ruling governments of this region (Akkadians) continued to use the written language as a lingua franca for the region, and indeed it remained so for many centuries after the Sumerian decline.
The name "Sumer" was coined and used by the Semitic Akkadians after the Sumerian civilization deteriorated. The Sumerians referred to themselves as "uĝ saĝ'giga" [𒌦𒊕𒈪𒂵], or "the black-headed people" and their area of inhabitance as "ki'en'gir" [𒆠𒂗𒂠], or "Land of the speakers of Sumerian."
When we talk about nouns in Sumerian, it's important to note that several concepts in English are not present. For instance, instead of dividing nouns into the familiar masculine and feminine genders, Sumerian chooses to divide by "animate" and "inanimate". (In fact, even these terms are a bit of a misnomer, as animals are classed as "inanimate".)
The important thing to remember is that neither of these divisions have any real impact on the meaning of a phrase. It is mostly useful for disambiguation or grammatical redundancy.