Sumerian/Grammar/Lesson Two - Possessives

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The Possessives[edit]

Sumerian seal

General Comments[edit]

In any language, we need a way to distinguish my sheep from your sheep. In English, as we just saw in the last sentence, we have little words like my and your to do the job. It's pretty common, in fact, to have special purpose words just like these, and many languages do. Some languages, like Sumerian, choose to use a suffix instead. There's nothing special or different, it's just a choice. These little suffixes, you might recall, are called particles.

So, in Sumerian, the possessives are suffixed particles (just like the plural particle, .ene). Let's look at the English phrase her queen, where we see two separate words being used. The same phrase in Sumerian is nin.ani (remember that the dot between nin and ani simply means a logical break for analysis purposes only - it is not pronounced or written in regular practice). Other than this purely syntactic change, from an independent word to a suffixed particle, the possessives really are pretty much the same thing in both languages.

Remember, though, that unlike English, the particle is suffixed. Note that nin.ani literally transcribes as queen-her, but we would obviously translate the phrase as her queen.

The Possessive Particles[edit]

It's pretty standard for grammars of ancient languages to display things in tables, with a word on the left, and information about the person, number, gender or case of that word on the right (or whatever interesting things you're talking about). In Sumerian, we replace gender with animate/inanimate (a topic we'll get to later), but the idea is the same. Assume I'm showing you the animate form unless noted otherwise.

Here is the table for the possessive particles:

.ĝu my 1st sg
.zu your (s) 2nd sg
.ani his/her 3rd sg
.bi its 3rd sg inanimate
.me our 1st pl sent.
.zu.ne.ne your (p) 2nd pl
.a.ne.ne their 3rd pl

[Thomsen §101]

Some Examples[edit]

So now that you've seen the particles, let's try using them! It's easy to do, just attach the suffix to a noun, and presto! Instant possessives.

  1. ama.ĝu = my mother
  2. lugal.ani = his king or her king
  3. nin.a.ne.ne = their queen

Easy, right?

Comments on the Particles[edit]

Orthography (writing) and Phonology (sounds)[edit]

The first striking thing about this table is the presence of the ĝ. What is this? Well, it represents a sound that was present in the Sumerian language, but one which we do not know the exact quality of, so we simply use a letter that we think was close in sound (in this case, g) and add a hat to it to distinguish it from a regular /g/. Scholars presume, at this point, that this sound was like the final nasal at the end of the word king, which linguists write as the /ŋ/ sound. However, we are at a bit of a loss to say this with any certainty, as the Sumerian writing system was not alphabetic, and the only phonemic evidence we have came from the Akkadians who later tried to sound it out. For our purposes here, though, go ahead and pronounce it like /ŋ/, to distinguish it from regular old /g/.

Note: <ĝ> is not to be confused with <ğ>, a letter in the Turkish alphabet.

Treatment of Plurals[edit]

Further, we notice that some of the plural particles look a lot like the singular ones, with the addition of an /ene/ sound. Combining particles like this is typical of Sumerian. Indeed, the plural particle itself is .ene, as we learned in the last lesson, so it looks like our plural possessives are exactly that: possessives with plural markers attached.

This is a distinguishing feature of an agglutinative language - they like to have lots of small particles that modify the meaning of a base word, and then they might combine any number of these individual particles to finally arrive at their final meaning.

As an example, let's look at the Sumerian word bad.a.ne.ne. Our base word here is bad, meaning wall, and we have our possessive particle .ani making his/her wall, and finally we tack on .ene, making their wall (noting that the final i sound in .ani gets swallowed up by the leading e in .ene). So to analyze a Sumerian word, you just break down the particles. Couldn't be simpler!

Treatment of Classes[edit]

Also, we see that there is only one case of a non-sentient class posessive, namely the 3sg. You might ask how to represent an idea like the base of the cliffs - and you'd be right to ask. We see several mechanisms used to work around this limitation, but in practice, it's almost always clear what the text is saying even though we might say it in a different way in English.

Phonological Changes[edit]

[Don't worry about remembering this section too carefully. We'll come back to this stuff later.]

The posessive particles have one quirk when they are attached to something in the genitive or locative case. Namely, the singular particles end up with an /a/ sound at the end:

  • .ĝa - my (1sg sent., gen & loc)
  • .za - your (s) (2sg sent., gen & loc)
  • .ana - his/her (3sg sent., gen & loc)
  • .bi.a or .ba - its (3sg non-sent., gen & loc)

Vocabulary[edit]

  1. til = life
  2. bad = wall (n)
  3. Uruk = Uruk, a great city in early Mesopotamia
  4. e = house, and sometimes temple
  5. e.gal = temple

Quick Quiz[edit]

[Additional vocabulary: the suffixed particle .ak denotes the genitive, so X Y.ak can be read X of Y . Also, the preposition "for" becomes a post-position, .ir]

Sumerian to English:

  1. til.zu
  2. bad.bi
  3. nin.ani
  4. bad Uruk.ak


English to Sumerian:

  1. for her child
  2. my king
  3. his house
  4. the queen of your temple

Answers (or, use the hovertext)

History[edit]

Much of what we know about Sumerian comes from dried clay tablets, inscribed between 3000 BCE and 1500 BCE, in a writing style called cuneiform. The scribes would take a reed stalk, chop the stem at an angle (much like clipping a flower stem when put in a vase), and make small impressions in the clay to form characters. These impressions were often somewhat like elongated triangles, and hence "wedge-shaped", which is the meaning of the word cuneiform.

The subject matter we find on these tablets varies considerably. Most of what we find, as one would expect from a flourishing society, are government documents or trade agreements between two parties, or the like. Less frequently, we find more official documents, like dedicatory inscriptions buried under large state buildings, and more rarely, we find literary or poetic documents.

Because the scribes used (predominantly) clay tablets, time has often not treated them well. Often a sentence or phrase is lost or deformed, limiting our ability to understand a given document. Fortunately, scribes were occasionally asked to use stone or other more solid materials. Some of the most beautiful Sumerian inscriptions are of this type, to be found in museums all over the world. The Louvre houses an impressive collection of all types of Sumerian documents, for example.


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