Sumerian/Grammar/Lesson Six - A Sumerian Sentence

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Finally we find ourselves prepared with all the tools to read a complete Sumerian sentence. I'm going to show you the complete sentence right away, then we'll analyze it just like we've analyzed noun phrases and verb phrases in the previous lessons.

The Sentence[edit | edit source]

And now, here is your first Sumerian sentence! You can use the hovertext to explore each piece of the sentence.

This sentence is real Sumerian. It's from a literary piece called "Enki's journey to Nibru", and can be referenced in the ETCSL as (in other words, line thirteen of the linked text, which is numbered 1.1.4).

Eridug.a e gu.a bi.n.du

We have already broken the sentence into words, which is something you'll have to do on your own when you read from a tablet, but for right now, let's see what we can figure out about this sentence.

Concepts[edit | edit source]

As we analyze this sentence, you'll notice that we take each phrase, find its base, and then examine the particles affixed to the base. This is how you'll really analyze Sumerian when you're at a museum or online at the ETCSL. It's a very methodical approach, and can often resolve any ambiguities that arise from the context. First, let's make sure we know our base words!

Vocabulary[edit | edit source]

  • Eridug = Eridug, the name of a city in ancient Sumer
  • e = house, temple
  • gu = riverbank
  • du = to build

Analysis[edit | edit source]

Let's take a look at each separate phrase. We note that from the vocabulary that the first three phrases must be noun phrases, and the last phrase is a verb phrase. Let's examine them!

Eridug.a[edit | edit source]

From the vocabulary, we immediately notice the name Eridug here. Now, this is going to be the base of our noun phrase. So what's the other piece here? As it turns out, Sumerian used .a to mean a lot of different things, so we have to be careful. One of the uses of .a is as the locative particle. The locative case is used, as the name suggests, to locate the action in a sentence. In this case, our base noun is Eridug, so it seems quite likely that the .a is, in fact, the locative marker. So we read Eridug.a as in Eridug, or possibly at Eridug (context will help you decide which reading is better).

e[edit | edit source]

Our vocabulary lists this little word as meaning house, or in some contexts, temple. But, unlike the other noun phrases in this sentence, this one seems to have no case marker! So how do we know what case to put this noun phrase?

Well, linguists like to tell us that every single noun phrase in a sentence needs to be marked for some case or other, and when things show up with no markers, they like to put a "null" marker in their analysis. So instead of just e, our analysis will look like e.Ø. The mark that looks like a zero there just means we have a null marking.

Now, in Sumerian, the null marking means that the noun is in the absolutive case. You're probably not familiar with this case, as it doesn't crop up in English. For now, just think of it like our direct object. In other words, the null marking marks whatever the action is happening to.

gu.a[edit | edit source]

We know from above that gu means riverbank, so all we have to do now is figure out the .a particle. Just as in the first noun phrase, it seems likely that this .a is the locative particle, locating our action. So we can read this phrase as at the riverbank.

bi.n.du[edit | edit source]

We already know that du means to build, so let's analyze the other pieces in this verb phrase. First, we have the .n in the middle. This is a little particle letting us know that the agent of the action was third-person singular. As Sumerian does not distinguish biological gender, let's just use masculine for this translation. That gives us .n.du meaning he builds. Now we are left with the bi. particle.

Sumerian, as is typical of agglutinating languages, likes to "cross-reference" the cases of all noun phrases in a sentence with markers in the verb. In other words, for every noun phrase that has a case marker, there will be a little marker in our verb as well. So if you had a sentence with a noun phrase in the dative case and one in the comitative case, you would see a matching dative marker and a matching comitative marker in the verb.

In our example sentence, we only see noun phrases in the locative case. That's what this little bi. particle does - it cross-references the locative case. In particular, it cross-references locative phrases which have non-human bases. Here, we're talking about a riverbank and the city of Eridug, both inanimate things, so we use the inanimate cross-reference, bi..

Finally, Sumerian allows us to cross-reference the patient of an action (think of it like the object of the sentence). This cross-reference is usually a particle attached at the end of the phrase, or suffixed after the verbal root. But we look here, and see nothing after our verb root, du. What does this mean? Well, just like we saw the absolutive case marker marking the e just above on a noun, the third-person singular patient case is marked with on a verb. So we would really analyze our verb as bi.n.du.Ø.

Got all that? So in order, we would analyze our verb as:

bi.n.du.Ø = inanimate-locative-cross-reference.3rd-sg-animate-agent.BUILD.3rd-sg-inanimate-patient

Whew! That's a lot to take in, but I think you get the idea. Each particle in our verb here cross-references a noun phrase in our sentence. (The actual subject of the sentence isn't explicitly written here, but we just translate it as "he").

Putting it all together[edit | edit source]

Now that we've analyzed all four pieces of this sentence, let's see what we have! The first phrase translated to "at Eridug", the second to "the house", the third to "by the riverbank", and the last to "he built". So now we can translate the entire sentence:

Eridug.a e gu.a bi.n.du

Analyzed phrase by phrase:

at Eridug, the house, by the riverbank, he built

And translated:

At Eridug, he built the house by the riverbank

The important thing to remember here is that once you've broken your sentence up into words (or more properly, phrases), then it's just a simple process of analysis to determine the meaning of each piece, then adding the meanings back together to get your final translation.

Pretty fun, huh? You just read your first sentence in Sumerian!

Quick Quiz[edit | edit source]

Now, let's try one yourself! I'll give you a sentence and the vocabulary for the base words, then see if you can figure out what each phrase means, and put it all together to see what the sentence means.

Nanna.r bad

Quiz vocabulary[edit | edit source]

  • Nanna = Nanna, a Sumerian deity
  • bad = wall
  • .ir = dative case marker
  • mu. = ventive verbal marker
  • na. = dative case verbal cross-reference

Quiz hints[edit | edit source]

You can use the hovertext over any piece of the example sentence to get more information on that particular particle or word.

If you're wondering what the ventive mode is, it means that the action of the verb is performed in the direction of the speaker. This can be meant concretely or abstractly. In this case, with the verb du = to build, it's likely that the meaning is a little more abstract. The speaker perhaps became the owner of the built object, or something like that.

If you're wondering what the dative case is, it marks a noun phrase as being the beneficiary of the action. In this case, it's attached to a deity, Nanna, so it's likely that whatever action was being done, it was being done for Nanna.

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