Sumerian/Grammar/Lesson Four - The Copula

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The Sumerian Verb "to be"[edit]

Finally, we get to the action! Well, to verbs anyway. The most basic and useful verb in many languages is the verb to be. The utility of this verb should be obvious.

Conjugating "to be"[edit]

Sumerian, like most other languages, uses conjugation of verbs to distinguish who is doing what. There are different forms, in principle at least, for the first, second and third persons, and for single and plural. The verb i.men = to be displays this type of conjugation:

i.men I am 1st sg.
i.men you(sg) are 2nd sg.
i.me.am he/she/it is 3rd sg.
i.menden we are 1st pl.
i.menzen you(pl) are 2nd pl.
i.meš they are 3rd pl.

Incidentally, that š character is just the symbol for what linguists call the /ʃ/ sound, like the first sound in the word should.

[Thomsen §536, Edzard §12.7.1.1]

Comments on the Conjugations[edit]

First, we see that all these words share the initial /i/ sound, and then variations on an m...n theme in the conjugations.

We also notice that, quite strikingly, the 1sg and 2sg are identical! While some of the other seeming ambiguities were really only skin deep, this one is a little bit more problematic. In fact, cases like this point out how little we understand even the basics of Sumerian. Were these really pronounced identically? If not, why are they written identically? There are other cases where the same sound is written using two or more different cuneiform symbols; is this enough evidence to propose that Sumerian was a tonal language, like Chinese, where the pitch or inflexion of a word is a fundamental component of meaning?

These are questions that I am certainly not qualified to answer, and I doubt if anyone at this point can say with certanity. Wiki users, please feel free to add your two cents. That's what a wiki is all about.

(Really) Simple Sentences[edit]

If you look at the translations above for, say, i.men, you'll notice that it actually translates as a subject and a predicate, namely both words in he is. This is really neat, because it means we can make really simple sentences out of just two Sumerian words!

For instance, if I wanted to write the sentence I am your king, we just need to translate each piece. We just learned that I am translates to i.men. Now, remember from (way back in) Lesson Two, to say your something, we use the possessive particle .zu. By this point, you've probably picked up that lugal means king, so your king is just lugal.zu. Easy!

And it's just as easy to put the two together to make a Sumerian sentence: I am your king = lugal.zu i.men.

The only thing you might notice as odd is that I put the verb part last here. In English, we usually put the subject and verb first in a sentence, like in I am your king. In Sumerian, the verb usually goes last, like in lugal.zu i.men. Not really that tricky, because you can usually figure out pretty quickly what a sentence means even if you happen to forget where all the pieces are supposed to go. (And after all, wherever the words are in the original Sumerian trumps anything I say here! They are, of course, the ultimate authorities.)

Quick Quiz[edit]

Vocabulary[edit]

Learn the conjugations of i.men.

Translations[edit]

We just learned the translation for I am your king. See if you can figure out these other simple phrases!

Sumerian to English:

  1. nin.zu i.men
  2. lugal Unug.ak.ene i.menden

English to Sumerian:

  1. they are your children
  2. he is the king of Uruk

Review Phrases[edit]

Here are some phrases to figure out as a review. Please edit these if you see any mistakes.

Questions

1) ses.ĝu.ene i.meš

2) bad til.ak i.me.am

3) nin.zu i.men

4) lugal.ene i.menden

5) nin Uruk.ak i.men

Answers

1) They are my brothers.

2) It is the wall of life. (I know it's confusing, but just go with it).

3) I am your sister. (Note that the context makes it 'I am' rather than 'you are').

4) We are kings.

5) I/You am/are the queen of Uruk.

The Copula[edit]

Now that we understand the verb "to be", it's a cinch to understand the copula.

In any language, there must be a way to link a subject with a predicate. In English, for instance, we say Helen was beautiful. We use the verb "to be" to perform this function, like we just saw above. In fact, we often see the conjugated forms of the Sumerian i.men when this situation arises. However, in Sumerian, there is another option: the copula is used.

By now you've noticed that lots of things in Sumerian are done via particles, those funny little syllables that are attached onto the end of a word to change meaning, change case, or do other neat things. Well, the copula is just the particle form of the verb "to be", known as the enclitic copula[1].

So instead of saying I am your king = lugal.zu i.men, we could just as easily say lugal.zu.en. Simple as that! The meaning is the same, it's just a little bit of syntactic variety to a common expression.

Here are the conjugation tables for the enclitic copula[2] with munus "woman"[3]:

Copula Gloss Sumerian English
1sg Munusmen I am a woman
1pl Munusenenden We are women
2sg Munusmen Thou art a woman
2pl Munusenenzen You are women
3sg Munusam She is a woman
3pl Munusenemeš They are women

Note that the copula marks the person and number of the absolutive argument. Also note that the pronunciations of the suffixes vary according Sumerian's to morphophonemic rules; thus, when "munus" takes the enclitc copula "(a)m" (which takes the vowel in parenthesis due to the fact that the preceding phoneme, /s/, is a consonant) as in Munusam the preceding phoneme to the enclitic copula is omitted, as is the case in Mam "It is a boat." See the references for further examples.

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  1. http://psd.museum.upenn.edu/ppcs/morph-exp.html
  2. http://home.comcast.net/~foxvog/Grammar.pdf
  3. Hayes, John L., "A Manual of Sumerian Grammar and Texts", Undena Publications, 2000, P. 421