Sumerian/Grammar/Lesson Five - The Verb Chain

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An Introduction to The Sumerian Verb Chain[edit | edit source]

The verb in Sumerian can look a little daunting at first. Sumerian is an agglutinating language, which means that instead of using lots of small separate words, we use lots of small affixed particles to affect meaning. We've already seen this before, in the plural marker .ene, the possessive suffixes, and case markers. So we're already familiar with suffixes in general.

Now, the verb uses prefixes as well as suffixes to make well-formed words. An example we've seen before is:


As an introduction to the verb form in Sumerian, let's take a closer look at this chain of affixes attached to the base, du, meaning "to build".

Incidentally, whenever you're reading Sumerian, you're likely to encounter parts of words in parentheses, or sometimes even whole words. This generally means that in the original source material, we actually don't see the form given, but we put it in there in the transliteration for convenience.

Marking the Patient of a verb (who was it done to)[edit | edit source]

First, the single suffixed particle is the . This just signifies that we had a Patient which was 3rd person singular. Other persons and numbers have different suffixes, but this one happens to be the null suffix.

Marking the Agent of a verb (who did it)[edit | edit source]

Now let's look at the prefixes from closest-in to farthest-out. The (n.) is there to let us know that our agent was 3rd person singular (again, other persons and numbers have different prefixes).

Marking the Dative case (English: to)[edit | edit source]

Next, na. is basically a reference -- it tells us that somewhere else in the sentence we had a noun phrase that was in the dative case. This is typical in Sumerian -- for many of the cases, we will "resume" the presence of a phrase in that case with a prefix to the verb chain. More on this later.

Marking the Ventive case (English: get)[edit | edit source]

Finally, we have the mu. at the very front. At present, scholars seem to feel that this is the "Ventive" prefix. which changes a verb to incoming rather than outgoing, e.g. get (rather than give). Others still prefer to call it a "Conjugation Prefix", and not commit to an interpretation. We just don't know!

The big picture[edit | edit source]

Whew! Now that we've looked at each affix, we notice something. Namely, to analyze a verb form, we just need to break it up into its prefixes and suffixes, then examine each of those in turn. Each one will give us a little more information about the verb or the sentence. A truer use of analysis has never been made.

This practice of breaking down a verb into its component pieces is extremely important in Sumerian. The verb chains can get almost ridiculously complex, with 8 or 9 affixes attached to a stem. Needless to say, this is an important area of study, and we still have much to learn about the interactions of all the particles.

We are now ready to look at some of these pieces in more detail.

The Sumerian Verb[edit | edit source]

Let's take a look now at each piece of the Sumerian verb chain.

The Verb Stem[edit | edit source]

In Sumerian, verbs usually come in simple one syllable chunks, typically in CVC (consonant-vowel-consonant, e.g. dug) or CV (e.g. our friend du from above).

Reduplication[edit | edit source]

This simple structure for verbs leads to a couple of interesting ideas. First, an idea employed by the Sumerian language itself, is that we can make simple modifications to verbs to alter their meaning. With a short verb like dug, we might simply double it (called reduplication) to read dug.dug. In this case, it alters the verb from what is called the ĥamtu form to the maru form. We'll discuss what these are a little later, but the important thing to note here is that restricting ourselves to relatively simple forms allow this type of alteration fairly naturally. (Contrast the reduplication of some English verbs, like "reduplicate" for example -- it's hard to imagine people saying "reduplicatereduplicate" in any context!)

Homophones and the possibility of Tonality[edit | edit source]

Second, these almost sparse verb forms lead very often to homophones -- two verbs that are written the same way, but mean different things. There simply aren't enough simple verb forms to handle the wide variety of verbs needed in even simple writings. Now, there are a few other languages where word forms are typically very compact, one syllable or so. In these languages, take many Chinese dialects for example, speakers typically use tone to differentiate meaning. The Chinese word "ma" spoken with a high pitch, for example, means "mother", while when spoken with a falling-then-rising tone means "horse". Imagine the insults that might arise if tonality were not present to disambiguate these meanings (among others)!

So, some scholars have hypothesized that Sumerian was, in fact, a tonal language. While there are many good indicators for this, principally in the large number of homophones (particularly in fairly common verbs), there simply isn't enough evidence to support the idea yet.

In any case, it is seldom necessary for us to worry about this. Most readings are clear from context or from similarity to other inscriptions. The important thing about the simple phonological structure of the Sumerian verb is that it makes it easy to recognize simple modifications of that very form.

The Personal Affixes[edit | edit source]

Whenever there is an agent or patient in a sentence, Sumerian puts a particle inside the verb chain to cross-reference the noun phrase in question. Although there are some other possibilities for placement, for now let's just assume that the agent cross-reference goes just before the verbal root, and the patient cross-reference goes after. We'll see these in more detail in the next lesson.

The Dimensional Prefixes[edit | edit source]

Just like the particles for cross-referencing agent and patient, Sumerian also likes to cross-reference all the other noun-phrases in a sentence. So any noun phrases in your sentence that are marked in the dative case will show up in the verb chain with a dative particle cross-reference, and a comitative noun phrase will have a comitative cross-reference particle. Again, we'll see a real example of this in the next lesson to make things more concrete. For now, just remember that Sumerian likes to tack things onto the verb chain that match up with the noun phrases in the sentence.

The Conjugation Prefixes[edit | edit source]

The Modal Prefixes[edit | edit source]

In our simple verb in (1) above, there was room, believe it or not, for one more prefix. These are called the Modal Prefixes, and they convey the mood of the sentence. In linguistics, mood has a special meaning -- you might be familiar with the English moods of Indicative ("The ziggurat burned") and Imperative ("Burn the ziggurat!"). Both of these moods, plus others, occur regularly in Sumerian. As in English, the indicative mood is used quite heavily in normal writing. This mood is marked by having no prefix at all in the Modal Prefix spot (the head of the verb chain). Other moods are marked by explicit prefixes here.

Modal Prefixes
Prefix Mood
nu. Negative
bara. Vetitive, Negative Affirmative
na. Prohibitive, Affirmative
ga. Cohortative
ha. Precative, Affirmative
sa. <see below>
u. Prospective
iri. <see below>
nus. <see below>
<none> Indicative

Now, it's not important to know all these right now. The list is here to show you what kinds of options are available to the Sumerian scribe. We'll cover many of these later in more detail.

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