Sumerian/Grammar/Lesson Eight - The Case System

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The Case System in Sumerian

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First things first: what is a case system? Briefly, a case system is simply a way for people to modify the relationships between elements in a sentence. For instance, consider the English sentence:

(1) I chastised them for her.

We find three pronouns here. The first-person singular (1sg) subject I, the third-person plural (3pl) object them, and finally the third-person singular feminine (f) beneficiary, her. Now, upon reflection, if our 1sg subject had been swapped with the 3pl object, the sentence would not read

(2a) * Them chastised I for her.

but rather

(2b) They chastised me for her.

(The asterisk ' * ' you see before sentence (2a) is just a little symbol that linguists use to say "this is bad syntax", or sometimes "this is a form we do not expect to see".)

We see immediately that the English language chooses two different words, I and me, for the 1sg, depending on what case it is in (subject or object respectively). The way this is handled in other languages varies, but the ideas are the same. Languages need some way to distinguish what part a constituent plays in the overall meaning of a sentence.

In Sumerian, the situation is actually easier! Instead of having to learn a whole slew of different words, one for each case for each person et cetera, Sumerian simply chooses to put a suffix on the unique word stem.

As an example, take the Sumerian word dumu, which means child or son (depending on context). If we simply attach the dative case suffix .ir, we end up with, meaning for the child. (This is general meaning of the dative case, incidentally; it expresses the beneficiary of an action.)

(If you're wondering, the period '.' you see before the dative suffix and inside the word is another simple linguistic convention, just indicating a logical division internal to a word, useful for analysis but not present in spoken or written language.)

Sumerian does, like English, have a few quirks though. We would not expect to see written just like that, but rather dumu.r. The vowels, and a few consonants, have a way of disappearing in Sumerian, especially the really common ones, like those that begin the case particles. (A "particle" is more or less a synonym for suffix here, but generally means any small bit that gets attached to a root word, and never appears on its own.)

Quick Quiz

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In the sentence The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog, make sure you know which words make up the subject clause and which the object clause.


The Cases Used in Sumerian

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While there is still some scholarly debate on this subject, I'll present here a list of cases which have been reasonably established in Sumerian, and their functions. We'll go into a couple of them in more detail here, and more later.

The ten cases are described, but you don't need to memorize this material. We will be treating each case in due time.

.ak genitive denotes x of y
.e ergative denotes the agent
absolutive denotes the patient
.a locative denotes location
.ir dative denotes a beneficiary
.da comitative denotes with
.ta ablative-instrumental denotes motion going away
.še terminative denotes motion going toward
.gin equative denotes like
.e directive denotes nearness

Genitive: used to express "X of Y" relationships; possession; this is a many-faceted construction in many languages, and Sumerian is no exception; see below for more

Locative: forms like the temple was built in the town; used to locate the topic and anchor it to a specific place

Dative: expresses a benefactorial relationship; I built this temple for you; see below for more

Absolutive: used for the ergative "patient"; the subject of an intransitive sentence; the object of a transitive sentence

Ergative: used for the ergative "agent"; the subject of a transitive sentence; the doer of an action

Comitative: for times when X is "with" or "among" Y

Ablative-Instrumental: expresses motion away from a place, or a tool or emotion with which an action is performed

Terminative: expresses motion to or into a place; also the goal or target of an action

Directive (also known as Locative-Terminative): expresses the relationship of being "near" something, or "near to". (This can only occur with non-sentient things, as in iri.e, meaning near the city.)

Equative: used for comparisons, and means roughly "like" or "as"; used when making (roughly) similies or metaphors, and also more literal comparisons

Quick Quiz

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Using the table above, make sure you can identify the case each of these noun phrases are in. You don't necessarily have to know what the noun means to know the case! This can be very useful sometimes when you're translating.

  • kurkur.e
  • bad.še
  • bad Urim.ak

A Closer Look At (some of) the Cases

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It's pretty important to understand the cases in Sumerian. Without them, it would be like reading English without prepositions! Meaning would be lost.

For now, you only need to learn the first two, namely the Genitive case and the Dative case. The rest we'll get to in later lessons, but I thought I'd let you peruse them here should the urge take you!


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Genitive: .ak; used to express posession, or other "X of Y" type relationships

Dative: .ir; used to express the beneficiary of an action

Quick Quiz on the Case System (1)

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  1. lugal = king, lord, chief
  2. nin = queen, lady
  3. e = house, temple
  4. dumu = child, son
  5. Uruk = Uruk, a major city in Mesopotamia


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Translate the following phrases (Sumerian to English):

  1. lugal Uruk.ak
  3. e lugal.ak
  4. dumu

Translate the following phrases (English to Sumerian):

  1. the son of the king
  2. for the queen of Uruk
  3. the child of Uruk

Answers (or, use the hovertext)

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