A Concise Glossary for Sumerian
This page is a collection of brief descriptions of the technical terms which arise in the course of Sumerian study.
The case system in Sumerian is a system of particles, typically suffixes for nominal casing and infixes for verbal casing, which signify semantic relationships between the various elements in a sentence. Furthermore, a case marking applied to a noun in a sentence usually has a second appearance in the verb form.
Ergativity is a way of using grammar to mark the relationships between actors in a sentence. For instance, in the transitive sentence "Homer wrote The Iliad", Homer is the Agent of the action, and The Iliad is the Patient. In intransitive sentences, such as "Gilgamesh died", there is only one actor, namely Gilgamesh, called the Subject.
An ergative language will use the same case for the Patient and the Subject (as Sumerian does), while an accusative language (as English) will put Agent and Subject in the same case.
Many languages separate nouns into classes. In English, we separate some nouns into gender categories, namely male and female. In Sumerian, there is no gender distinction, but rather a distinction between sentient and non-sentient (also called animate/inanimate, person/non-person). Roughly, people are sentient, and everything else is non-sentient. Occasionally, an animal will be referred to in the sentient class, but this is only when they are personified in a fable-story to be actual characters in the narrative.
The concept of Number, from a linguistic point of view, is simply a count of the number of entities to be grouped into a pronoun or other word. Most languages, Sumerian included, have a Singular (e.g., me, the flooding river, an ice cream cone) and Plural (e.g. us, the flooded plains, sprinkles).
When speaking of the Person attribute in linguistic analysis, we are talking about the difference between I, you, and she. First-person means the group includes the speaker, second-person means the group includes the intended listener, and third-person means the group includes neither the speaker or listener, but a separate party entirely.
Parts of Speech
Linguistics talk a lot about different parts of speech (POS). Basically, they've discovered over the years that most if not all languages have words which are typically linked to things, and act in certain well-defined ways in sentences, and words which are typically actions and work in other ways. Because of this consistency across so many languages, we have developed words like noun, verb and adverb to describe these different categories.
A pronoun is one example of a part of speech. Pronouns are typically small common words used to reference things already indicated in the conversation. For instance, in the sentence "I didn't find the book, because I had lost it the day earlier", the word it is a pronoun used to reference the object of the previous clause, namely the book.
In English, the subject of a sentence indicates, typically, the topic or agent or main actor in the sentence. For instance, in the sentence "The priest blessed the temple," our subject is "the priest". The subject case is just one part of the much larger topic of a case system.
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