Sumerian/Grammar/Lesson Three - The Genitive

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What is the Genitive Case?[edit | edit source]

The "genitive case" is nothing more than a way for a language to describe an "of" relationship. For instance, "the king of Ur" is a genitive construction. So is "the father of Sargon". No need to be scared of the terminology - linguists just like using fancy words to describe other types of fancy words.

The genitive in Sumerian[edit | edit source]

The genitive case is used heavily in Sumerian, and has several different forms. The simplest form is to suffix a two noun compound with the .ak particle. (Remember particles? They're the little things we tack on to words or phrases to modify the meaning of that phrase.)

Let's look at a couple examples. Consider the phrase lugal Urim.ak. First things first, we figure out our vocabulary. We remember that lugal means king, and Urim is the city we call Ur. So we have two nouns, and we also notice our new friend, the .ak particle. This tells us right away that we're looking at a genitive construction. So put it all together, and we get:

  • lugal Urim.ak = the king of Ur

Pretty simple, right? It really is that easy! Just remember to be on the lookout for that little .ak particle, and you'll be able to spot a genitive a mile away.

Here's another example: dumu nin Lagas.ak.ak. As usual, we find our vocabulary first. Of course, dumu means child, and nin means lady or queen. Lagas is just the city we call Lagash. Now at the end of this little phrase, we see something interesting: two little .ak particles! What could this mean? Well, just like in English, where you can say the son of the neighbor of the chairman of the board of the company, in Sumerian we can string multiple genitives together as well. In Sumerian, though, we unravel multiple genitive constructions from inside out, so we might read this example as:

  • dumu nin Lagas.ak.ak = dumu [nin [Lagas.ak].ak] = [the child of [the queen of Lagash]] = the child of the queen of Lagash

Nothing really new, we just put two genitive constructions back to back. You should probably have the idea by now, so we'll see if you can follow along with a little quick quiz.

Quick Quiz[edit | edit source]

Make sure you understand what the following little phrases mean. If you're having trouble, you can hover over the text to get a translation.

  • dumu nin.ani.ak

Dropping the final 'k'[edit | edit source]

This is all well and good, and on paper everything looks good. But what about on clay tablets? Well, it turns out that an often seen feature of spoken Sumerian was dropping phrase-final sounds off of case particles. Don't be scared by how technical that sounds - it happens in English, too! At least in America, we have a tendency to drop the final 'g' from the '-ing' suffix, so we might pronounce "going" as "goin'", or "digging" as "diggin'". Simple, right? Just drop a final sound from a particle.

In this case, the Sumerian genitive, our particle is .ak, and hence ends in a /k/ sound. In real written Sumerian, we often see phrases like lugal Urim.ak actually written as lu-gal Urim-ma, with no written acknowledgment of the final /k/ sound from the genitive particle.

But don't worry! It turns out that much of the time you'll find another case particle tacked on to the end of a genitive phrase, in which case the /k/ sound is in fact pronounced. For instance, if our phrase above were in the ergative case (which is kind of like the subject of a transitive sentence, more later), then we would add the particle .e to the end of the phrase, so we would have lugal Urim.ak.e, which would be written lu-gal Urim-ma-ke, with a pronounced /k/.

Even if you don't have other clues like this, you'll quickly see that context will normally erase any ambiguity in translation.

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