Sumerian/Grammar/Lesson Nine - Cuneiform

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General Comments on Sumerian Cuneiform[edit | edit source]

Before we get into the nitty gritty of reading Sumerian in cuneiform, we should probably first take a look at some of the concepts and issues involved with cuneiform in general, and Sumerian cuneiform in particular. A few of these details are laid out below. A lot more can be said, but as this is a course on Sumerian I won't spend too much time on the topic.

How Sumerian is Written[edit | edit source]

Now that you've learned a bit about the Sumerian language, you're probably wondering how to read it. You probably know that Sumerian is written in cuneiform. But what does that mean, exactly? How does cuneiform work? Who invented cuneiform?

To the best of our knowledge, people started using symbols on small clay objects to represent legal contracts between people. We have some artifacts from circa 3500 BC that show things like sheep and oxen, with rudimentary counts and numbers. Our best guess is that this kind of visual symbology lead, eventually, to the desire to express more abstract ideas in clay as well. By 3000 BC, we start seeing more interesting symbols being written down, and more complex ideas being represented. It is still very difficult to know what all these artifacts mean, or even how we should interpret many of the individual symbols. There is a lot of work yet to be done on this topic - but very important work! Writing has only developed independently four or five times in the course of human civilization, and we really would like to understand that process better. Unfortunately, we are at a great disadvantage being so temporally removed from early Sumerian, as well as not really understanding Sumerian itself, making early decipherment even more tricky.

By 2100 BC or so, we see a complete and fully-formed writing system - nothing like the clunky logographs of the past. Now, we have symbols that are purely phonetic, as well as taxograms, which are not pronounced at all, but are purely to assist in the reading and writing of the text! This is the cuneiform we'll be mostly interested in for a starting point, but remember that cuneiform, just like any other medium, had a long history and evolution before this time, and continued to be used for millennia afterward.

But even in this well-formed state, there are quite a few open questions about the system, and quite a few problems inherent in the script itself that make understanding both cuneiform and the language it is trying to represent quite difficult. If you enjoy a good mystery, Sumerian cuneiform is one of the best. It is a testament to the skill and intuition of the early Sumerologists that we know as much as we do today, considering the paucity of data they had to work with!

Problems with Cuneiform and Sumerian[edit | edit source]

Some of the problems we have with Sumerian cuneiform are rooted in the origins of the script. If you draw a picture of a sun rising above the horizon as a representation of day, how do you represent dawn? Dusk? High noon? Also, if you're just drawing pictures, you don't have any explicit connection to the actual phonology - the pronunciation of the word for day, for example. Also, how do you draw the concept of resolve? Or even when?

Help from Sumerian[edit | edit source]

We get some helpful clues from Sumerian itself, when written in cuneiform. As we've already seen, a lot of Sumerian words were short one-syllable forms, and as such, there were a lot of homophones (words that sound the same but have different meanings - think mount, as in saddle, versus mount, as in mountain). Because of this, we don't actually see the Sumerians struggle to find a symbolic representation for when. It turns out that the Sumerian word ud, which is the word for day, is also a homophone for the preposition when. So instead of finding a whole new cuneiform symbol for when, they just re-used the sun-rising-over-the-horizon symbol. In this way, we can find out a lot about Sumerian phonology - we can learn which words were homophones very easily, as they use the same picture for different words that sound alike. (Of course, they also had different symbols for homophones, too - Sumerian lil meant fool, written one way, but it meant breeze when written a different way.)

Another huge source of information comes from the purely phonetic symbols. Lucky for us, Sumerian scribes liked to "chain" sounds together when adding particles. So lugal.ani might be written in cuneiform as lu-gal-la-a-ni. The "l" sound at the end of lugal was chained to the vowel in the next syllable to make la. This type of writing is extremely helpful to us now - seeing as we have no direct phonetic evidence in Sumerian, we can at least make good guesses that when we see the la-a-ni symbols, it's a good bet that the preceding word ended in an "l" sound. Using these types of internal comparisons, we can build up a phonetic idea of what Sumerian was like, but for symbols that show up less frequently, we're still in the dark. How can we figure out what these symbols mean?

Help from the Akkadians[edit | edit source]

A huge source of information comes to us from Akkadian-speaking scribes. As time went on in Sumer, the Sumerian language died out in favor of Akkadian as the mother tongue. We're not sure why - maybe it was due to the invasion of Akkadian speaking kings who mandated a language change, and maybe it just died out for natural reasons. Whatever the case, we do know that the Akkadian-speaking kings of the region liked to use Sumerian writing for official documents, probably because it came with a great sense of grandeur, having been used by the great kings of old, and hopefully instilling anything the new kings had written with a sense of authoritarianism and entitlement.

Regardless of motivation, the reality was that a bunch of Akkadian speaking scribes were being forced to write in Sumerian, almost a dead language by this point. It must have been quite annoying for them, but it's a great boon for us. That's because the scribes had to compile big translation dictionaries, so no one would forget what the Sumerian translation of a given Akkadian word was. What a treasure! We have found some of these tablets, and as we have a pretty firm understanding of Akkadian, we are automatically treated to a huge list of Sumerian words that Akkadians used. Now, of course, these are all just translations, and translations from any language to another invariably lose some nuances, and we even see some scribal errors here and there, but by and large these bilingual texts contribute enormously to our understanding of Sumerian cuneiform. Some words that occur very infrequently in Sumerian texts would be almost untranslatable without these lexical lists.

The Evolution of Cuneiform[edit | edit source]

As mentioned before, cuneiform wasn't a fixed system. It evolved greatly over time, morphing to serve the desires of the scribes using it. When Akkadians usurped the system to write their own language, for instance, we see great changes in writing styles and symbols, as well as changes in the meanings of some symbols. Akkadians didn't use all the same syllables as Sumerians, after all, and certainly not in the same frequencies, so it only makes sense that they would want to make some changes in the way the script was written. This transition was not a simple one, as Sumerian and Akkadian are from completely different language families, meaning many syntactic constructs had to be completely abandoned, and many new words and particles created to fill the gaps.

This trend only increased as the script was modified and distributed to even more regions around Mesopotamia - when the Hittites and Old Persians got hold of it, the script needed to serve the Indo-European languages as well. Finally, someone in Ugarit got fed up with the whole thing, and decided to invent an "alphabet" of sorts - Ugaritic texts are found with a fairly good representation of an alphabet, with one symbol per sound. Unfortunately for us, this revolution in writing wasn't discovered in Sumerian times, so we're stuck with the mostly logographic/syllabic style of cuneiform.

Questions about Sumerian Cuneiform[edit | edit source]

One important question remains unanswered regarding the earliest origins of cuneiform. We assume, by and large, that the Sumerians invented cuneiform, as it is the first language that we can definitively identify to be written in cuneiform. But, as we know, early writing was just symbols on clay - it really could have been any language at all being written! In fact, it wasn't even "language" at all. There was no syntax, no grammar in those early texts to point to one language versus another.

So, for many years, we all assumed that cuneiform was invented by Sumerians. This is how science works - linguists just thought up the simplest explanation that conformed to the known facts at hand, and the simplest explanation in this case was that somebody in Sumer speaking Sumerian invented writing.

Unfortunately, this simple hypothesis started to show signs of strain as more and more research was done on cuneiform as a writing system. Sumerologists started to question why the script seemed so ill-adapted to the language. Why, for instance, are there so many variations in the texts? Is it because the original language the script was invented for had a different phonetic inventory than Sumerian? Were the Sumerians just trying to "fit" their language onto someone else's sounds? Or perhaps it is the simple fact that languages change - over time, it's completely possible that Sumerian changed internally so much that the script simply couldn't catch up. This is just good science - we have to be willing to change our hypothesis in the face of contrary and overwhelming evidence.

In this case, the evidence is nowhere near overwhelming. The whole issue is still an open question, and one that deserves more research. If those early tablets and artifacts do, in fact, contain the writings from a different, as yet unidentified, language, it would be a really tremendous discovery, and it could modify the whole way we see the early history of writing.

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