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The Sumerian Language
September 20, 2007 10:08 PM   Subscribe

Sumerian is the first language for which we have written evidence and its literature the earliest known. The Electronic Text Corpus of Sumerian Literature, a project of the University of Oxford, comprises a selection of nearly 400 translated literary compositions recorded on sources which come from ancient Mesopotamia (modern Iraq) and date to the late third and early second millennia BCE. Not enough for you? Why not impress your friends (and confuse your enemies) by translating some english words into Sumerian?
posted by Effigy2000 (39 comments total) 28 users marked this as a favorite

 
is this something i'd have to be part deep one to understand?
posted by vrakatar at 10:48 PM on September 20, 2007 [1 favorite]


Thank... Effigy20..., I will enjoy....and then this one time....surprisingly, few were(?)....subsequent prosecution....
1 line fragmentary
unknown no. of lines missing

posted by Abiezer at 11:08 PM on September 20, 2007 [2 favorites]


Stup... ...iezer beat [me] to ...illy q[uip?]

[At] least pre[sident Bush?] saved me.

[this is good]
posted by Kattullus at 11:33 PM on September 20, 2007


Something which has never occurred since time immemorial: a young woman did not fart in her husband's embrace [Proverbs 1:12]
posted by UbuRoivas at 11:35 PM on September 20, 2007


The Nam-shub of Enki?

Bow to my will, citizens of the Raft!
posted by Spacelegoman at 11:40 PM on September 20, 2007 [2 favorites]


Although I cannot speak for all citizens of the Raft, I - for one - welcome our new space Lego man overlords!

*bows deeply*
posted by UbuRoivas at 12:01 AM on September 21, 2007


"Whatever it is that hurts you, don't talk to anyone about it."

La plus ça change...
posted by From Bklyn at 12:41 AM on September 21, 2007


cool. Thanks Effigy!
posted by honest knave at 1:17 AM on September 21, 2007


Abdullah Ocalan the kurdish revolutionary who's in prison in Turkey has written a rather interesting book about Sumer and it's descendants and how it relates to modern day politics.
posted by public at 1:48 AM on September 21, 2007


Enlil called the storm -- the people groan. He brought the storm of abundance away from the Land -- the people groan. He brought the good storm away from Sumer -- the people groan. He issued directions to the evil storm -- the people groan. He entrusted it to Kin-gal-uda, the keeper of the storm. He called upon the storm that annihilates the Land -- the people groan. He called upon the evil gales -- the people groan.

Enlil? Was this a Sumerian codeword for the Jews?
posted by three blind mice at 2:23 AM on September 21, 2007


Enjoy the Sumerian literature we've got, because whatever's left to find is being looted.

‘The looters have been told by the traders that if an object is worth anything at all, it must have an inscription on it.’ – Joanne Farchakh, archaeologist
posted by Pallas Athena at 3:03 AM on September 21, 2007


'He put a hot fish in her navel.'
posted by Mayor Curley at 3:49 AM on September 21, 2007


Sumerian, sum don't.
posted by Henry C. Mabuse at 4:29 AM on September 21, 2007


Perfect:

83-91. The beer-drinking mouth ……. My little one ……. The beer-drinking mouth ……. Ninkasi …….
5 lines unclear

126. You should not pass judgment when you drink beer.


From the "instructions of Šuruppag".
posted by patricio at 4:31 AM on September 21, 2007


That's a great collection of proverbs:

3
You should not cut the throat of that which has already had its throat cut.

1.4
You should not say to Ninĝišzida: "Let me live!"

1.5
Do not make me pass through the gate!

1.8
"Though I still have bread left over, I will eat your bread!" Will this endear a man to the household of his friend?

1.10
My things changed things.


Surely these timeless morsels of wisdom are as applicable as ever. Which among us would not like to make the proud boast: "My things changed things"?

Also, [this is good]!

This, on the other hand (from the final link), is balderdash:
For best results, use simple words as language has developed a lot since the time of this ancient language.
Language hasn't "developed" a whit; Sumerian was just as complex as any modern language. Don't blame Sumerian for your stupid software.

posted by languagehat at 5:20 AM on September 21, 2007


Language hasn't "developed" a whit; Sumerian was just as complex as any modern language.

Really? What word did the Sumerians have for airplane?
posted by three blind mice at 5:26 AM on September 21, 2007


three blind mice: drop your cultural blinkers for a minute. the sumerians had one hundred words for bread!

(or, at least, so i hope from their proverbs)
posted by UbuRoivas at 5:51 AM on September 21, 2007


It's a common mistake to equate complexity with a large vocabulary. Let's suppose we dump the entire English vocabulary into a computer program that can only say "X is Y." You get "corrupt is vegetable," "is is is," and so on. Is that a complex language? No, obviously not. Vocabulary is irrelevant to what we're talking about—it's just the building blocks the language uses to form larger units, and it's the way those larger units are formed—the grammar—that creates complexity. In Georgian, for example, the subject of a sentence is in one of three different cases depending on the tense of the verb. To an English-speaker, that seems insanely complex. To non-English-speakers, on the other hand, the system of English phrasal verbs seems insanely complex. There are no exact measures for these things, but in general languages seem to have around the same level of complexity (except for creoles and languages that have been worn down, so to speak, by being used as lingua francas, like Swahili), it just gets distributed differently between morphology and syntax.

Also, comparing vocabularies isn't as easy as saying "Ha ha, Sumerian didn't have a word for 'airplane'!" Sumerian had lots of words for things English doesn't have words for (plants, ritual objects, various features of ancient Mesopotamian daily life). People tend to think of languages spoken by "primitive" peoples as simple and having a limited vocabulary (sloppy journalists are always saying things like "a few thousand words"), when in fact those languages are often incredibly complex from our point of view (in part because they haven't been eroded by wider use) and have large vocabularies much of which is irrelevant to, and thus ignored by, foreigners.
posted by languagehat at 5:53 AM on September 21, 2007 [2 favorites]


The word "airplane" is the mark of a complex language?
posted by DU at 5:58 AM on September 21, 2007


Forgot to add: language has been around for at least a hundred thousand years. The difference of a few thousand years between Sumer and today is a drop in the bucket.

Babel's Dawn is an interesting blog on the origin of language.
posted by languagehat at 5:58 AM on September 21, 2007 [1 favorite]


For more em-gir fun, there's the Sumerian Lexicon (pdf), which can help in understanding the names of all those Sumerian deities. You can also learn Mesopotamian math. You can make a cuneiform font with the Sumerian Unicode Chart and the numbers chart (pdfs; couldn't find them online so I've got them on my site).
posted by effwerd at 5:59 AM on September 21, 2007


Oh, by Enki, that 'translate' (dictionary lookup) link uses the term 'Sumeria.' It's not even ten and my eye twitch is back for today.

When I was in college, one of my professors could read Sumerian, which is a lot more impressive when it's not a tablet, but a door-stop that was all worn away and scratched up. He used to show us slides from the last time he was in Baghdad, back in the 50s.

I was a Near Eastern archaeology major. I was in 'Babylonia After 1600' class with that professor the day that my hopes of doing archaeology in the Crescent were dashed. And since I just don't have the love for the language - it's nifty, don't get me wrong, and I've used some Sumerian for fiction purposes - the only route left is to be a tablet translator and I just can't bring myself to write a dissertation on something like 'reduplication in Neo-Akkadian period ritual texts.'

Which is why I'm going back to school for science.

That being said, I do yell at people on occult boards who use terrible Sumerian. I mean, if you want to use an ancient language, go to a library once in your lives and use some logic - there isn't going to be a Sumerian translation for 'Satan.' The Thickets wanted to use Middle Egyptian so they found a real translator. But noo, you're in a death metal band, you've got spikes, you don't need accuracy. Aaarg.
posted by cobaltnine at 6:31 AM on September 21, 2007 [2 favorites]


Forgot to add: language has been around for at least a hundred thousand years. The difference of a few thousand years between Sumer and today is a drop in the bucket.

Babel's Dawn is an interesting blog on the origin of language.
posted by languagehat at 8:58 AM on September 21


I'm so glad this thread showed up because now I get to ask languagehat a question I've always to ask him:

Homo sapiens has been around for about 250,000 years, and began evolving about 400,000 years ago. Among the evolutionary developments were the larger brains and the speech-capable larynx.

However, according to Steven Pinker, complex language started developing about 200,000 years ago, which means that all language development occured in our species, not our predecessors. So the question is, what was the evolutionary advantage of the dropped larynx before there was speech? Other creatures seems to have vocal communication (birds, dogs, etc), so it seems odd or unusual that humans would have gone from nothing to language via a single evolutionary stage. (from H. erectus to H. sapiens).

Was language a necessary or predictable outcome of the combination of the larger brain and larynx combination in H. sapiens, or was there some simultaneous but unrelated development (like an ice age bringing food scarcity) that necessitated improved communication between groups an individuals? I've always wondered about this. You don't have to answer if its too involved.

I will check out Babel's Dawn when I get a chance.
posted by Pastabagel at 6:57 AM on September 21, 2007


Metafilter: I always seem to be speaking about unpleasant things. [Proverbs 1.27]

Great post.
posted by escabeche at 7:25 AM on September 21, 2007 [1 favorite]


Encyclopedias from 1911 on the web? Is this a trap for Googling homework-doers?

Anyways, I always thought the hard part of Sumerian was the Cuneiform. So many freakin' arrows. It's kind of neat to have a writing system optimized to stamping, but I pity the poor guys who had to engrave it into stone.
posted by smackfu at 7:47 AM on September 21, 2007


It was a wedge issue at the time.
How many bad jokes can I get in one thread?
posted by Abiezer at 7:51 AM on September 21, 2007 [1 favorite]


this is excellent, thanks!

and smackfu, while I totally agree that it'd suck to be the engraver, they would comparatively be considered among the fortunate of the time, don't you think? consider the alternatives available...
posted by Busithoth at 8:22 AM on September 21, 2007


I'm so glad this thread showed up because now I get to ask languagehat a question I've always to ask him: ... what was the evolutionary advantage of the dropped larynx before there was speech?

Good Christ, I haven't the faintest idea! I studied historical linguistics, not evolution. (Also, I don't trust Pinker farther than I can throw his book, but that's a different rant.)

Encyclopedias from 1911 on the web? Is this a trap for Googling homework-doers?

The Eleventh Edition of the Britannica is the most famous encyclopedia ever produced, and some still consider it the best. It had articles by Swinburne, John Muir, Kropotkin, T. H. Huxley, Ernest Rutherford,and Bertrand Russell, among many other greats. Sure, if the only thing you use an encyclopedia for is the latest developments, it won't be of much use to you, but then who needs an encyclopedia for that in the age of the internet?

Anyways, I always thought the hard part of Sumerian was the Cuneiform.

Nope. The cuneiform is just another writing system, and once you get used to it it's not that hard to read. The language itself is a bitch. From the Wikipedia article:
Sumerian is a split ergative language. It behaves as a nominative-accusative language in the 1st and 2nd person of present-future tense/incompletive aspect (aka maruu-conjugation), but as ergative-absolutive in most other instances. In Sumerian the ergative case is marked by the suffix -e and the absolutive case (as in most ergative languages) by no suffix at all (the so-called "zero suffix"). Example: lugal-e e2 mu-du3 "the king built the house"; lugal ba-gen "the king went". Further 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 three person past tense forms, see above). Similar patterns are found in a large number of unrelated split ergative languages (see more examples at split ergativity).

Sumerian distinguishes the grammatical genders animate/inanimate (personal/impersonal). Accordingly, Sumerian 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 are 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).
But cobaltnine can tell you more than I.
posted by languagehat at 8:34 AM on September 21, 2007


Metafilter: You cannot butt me with your horns! Who is it that you are butting? You cannot kill me -- I am running away!
[Proverbs 1.109]

OK, now I'll stop.
posted by escabeche at 8:37 AM on September 21, 2007 [1 favorite]


Wait, this can't be Sumerian, there's nothing about Zuul or Gozer
posted by rottytooth at 9:49 AM on September 21, 2007


"what was the evolutionary advantage of the dropped larynx before there was speech?"

Speech existed before the dropped larynx. The dropped larynx just enabled a greater range of expressive sounds to be created. The advantage was increased sophistication in communicative sounds & greater coherence.
posted by Henry C. Mabuse at 10:09 AM on September 21, 2007


Ah, that reminds me of the linguist who translated Elvis songs into Sumerian-- Blue Suede Shoes being one of his showpieces.

*ten seconds later* Google is my friend. Behold: Elvis in Sumerian.
posted by jokeefe at 10:23 AM on September 21, 2007


From the same proverbs page referenced by escabeche, above:

"Possessions are flying birds -- they never find a place to settle."
posted by jokeefe at 10:33 AM on September 21, 2007


Oh my: " The lives of the poor do not survive their deaths."
posted by jokeefe at 10:34 AM on September 21, 2007


Speech existed before the dropped larynx. The dropped larynx just enabled a greater range of expressive sounds to be created. The advantage was increased sophistication in communicative sounds & greater coherence.

don't forget the mutant gene FOXP2, which spread like wildfire amongst early humans 200,000 years ago (wildfire = 500 to 1000 generations, or 10,000-20,000 years).

this gene gave early humans greater control over face, mouth & throat muscles - meaning a greater range of vocalised sounds - and the theory is that it gave such an evolutionary advantage to those who had it, that the more 'primitive' gene was quickly wiped out.

FOXP2 is apparently the gene without which we would only have the speech capacity of chimps.

see Svante Paabo & the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology (Leipzig) for more info.

(and no, I have no idea what Max Planck has to do with evolutionary biology either)
posted by UbuRoivas at 4:01 PM on September 21, 2007


But cobaltnine can tell you more than I.
posted by languagehat


I'm flattered, but I never did in depth study of Sumerian. It was more a picking up here and there, exposure to things like the Standard Inscription, and frustration with the way the Penn work on the dictionary was going. I was in school in the early 2000s - that project started in the 70s - and the letter 'A' was done. Aaarg. The other downside is mentioned in the Wikipedia article as well: there was a tendency for older scholars to exoticise everything in the Near East (Egyptian suffered this as well.) As someone I once knew said of Budge, who did the most popular but horribly translated Egyptian 'Book of the Dead,' "[Budge] could make a recipe for an omelet into a magical incantation."

But anyway, the cuneiform isn't the hard part. It's readable, once you put your mind to it. But there's no complete dictionary out there, which is almost as bad as not having one for Latin, given the length of time it was used for (1000 years or so), and the grammar is painful. It's an isolate - no knowledge of any other language will help you learn it.

Secondly, there's the real alienness of it that's hard to get around. The nouns aren't too bad. The verbs are, despite not having many cases, pack a lot of information into them. Now, because of the way it's written, it's kind of like adding to the base noun, instead of modifying the shape - all that stuff with dots, you see - but the ways some of the sentences can be worded are like a knot.

On the upshot, many of the written things out there are lists and receipts and the like and don't bother with as many different verbs. There's also the fun parts, like reduplication (I like reduplication, it's kind of like newspeak) and the ENDLESS REPETITION. It makes even eggs sound regal.
posted by cobaltnine at 4:25 PM on September 21, 2007


Certain domestic regimes could take a hint from the Sumerians:

"To be wealthy and insist (?) on demanding more is abominable."

Proverbs 1.23
posted by grubby at 5:19 PM on September 21, 2007


Dr. Ammondt's web site has more info on his Sumerian and Latin songs. Click on the "English" button, unless Finnish s your thing.

Also, the Sumerian translator didn't have three of the four first words I searched for: wise, clever and smart were all missing. :(
posted by darkstar at 10:51 PM on September 21, 2007


I take a month off MeFi and come back to find it's still Iraq, Iraq, Iraq...
posted by hoverboards don't work on water at 9:55 AM on September 24, 2007


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