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The Sumerian Language:
Its Nature and History

Since the Sumerian language is known only from its imperfect written record the history of the records is quite important. For future reference the following gives the historical correspondence between the language record periods and the political history of the region of Sumer.

The Correspondence of the Linguistic Periods of
Sumerian and the Political Periods of Sumer
Sumerian Language
Historical PeriodYears BCE
Old Sumerian (OS)Early Dynastic2600 to 2400
Old Akkadian
2340 to 2200
Neo-Sumerian (NS)Gutian2200 to 2100
of Ur
2100 to 2000
Post-Sumerian (PS)Old Babylonian (OB)2000 to 1700
of Babylon
1700 to 1600

Sumerian was an agglutinating language, meaning that a statement was formed from a root word by adding prefixes and suffixes. Agglutinating languages are often called agglutinative, but clearly agglutinating is a better term.

The word order of Sumerian was generally SOV (subject-object-verb) when the verb was transitive and SV for an intransitive verb. Sumerian was an ergative, meaning that there is a special marker for the object of the transitive verb and that this marker was applied to the subject of an intransitive verb. English is not an ergative language and furthermore it does not distinguish between the use of a noun for a subject and for an object. However, personal pronouns in English are generally so distinguished. We say, He kissed her and She kissed him. In English we say He puckered up, but if English were an ergative language we would say Him puckered up. There is a certain logic to this construction in that the phrase Puckered him up, sounds right although unusual. (Somewhat like Star Wars' Yoda's syntax.)

Sumerian did not distinguish gender grammatically but did distinguish between human and nonhuman nouns and pronouns. In the linguistic literature the human-nonhuman distinction is often referred to as animate-inanimate where inanimate includes animals as well as things. Clearly inanimate is not the proper term.

(To be continued.)

Marie-Louise Thomsen, The Sumerian Language: An Introduction to its History and Grammatical Structure Akademisck Forlag, Copenhagen, 1984.

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