Continuing with Sumerian

My usual timetable of looking at multiple languages has been almost completely given over to Sumerian lately. Part of the allure of language learning, I think, is making the exotic familiar. And the more you explore languages, the harder it becomes to stumble across languages that are completely unfamiliar. But learning the oldest written language we know – that’s exotic! And who knows? If the Anunaki school of the 2012ers are right, I’ll be ready to talk to our alien overlords when they return. Granted, I’ll only be able to tell them things like “Ur Nammu, King of Urim, had this canal dredged for Enlil” or “Gudea, leader of Lagash, built this Girsu Temple for his Lord, Dumuziabzu”, but it’s a start!*

The other day, I learned the Sumerian and Akkadian words for pleasure garden (kirimah and kirimahu respectively). There was something exciting in knowing the term for this in the land of the once famed Hanging Gardens of Babylon. Just so, while I’m going to work at my Sumerian for some time more before drifting back to Akkadian and perhaps taking up Hittite, there’s something to be said for reading from among the first law codes ever written down.

In my last post, I talked about learning an ancient language like a child – picking up reading the way a child learns from picture books. I continue to find this the most effective way to deal with Sumerian. I recently got Volk’s Sumerian Reader, glanced at one of the readings and instantly recognized it as one I had worked through in Hayes’ Manual of Sumerian. It was a fun moment, realizing I had picked up enough that outside my regular study book, Sumerian still spoke to me and that it could even feel familiar. Other texts are more of a challenge of course, but a few minutes with the index and much comes. Of course, I’m still reading mostly dedicatory inscriptions, so I know what I’m looking for, but that’s the point. The key to using language – even an ancient one, and for reading, is to make it your own, and that means exposure to things you can figure out over an extended period of time till it becomes something you’ve lived, its words echoing in your brain, and not just something you’ve studied.

Trying to learn an ancient language? Don’t memorize grammar tables. Read texts, work through them till you understand how they work, and then read through them again and again until they ring as familiar as Dr. Seuss or the old nursery rhymes. In this way, be it Greek or Hebrew or Sumerian or for that matter a modern language, it won’t just be something you’ve studied and forgotten. It will be something you know and can feel inside you so that even if the words and grammar one day go, the experience of that language will be a part of your life’s story.

About G Barto

Geoffrey Barto has been teaching language and culture for more than twenty years. His focus is helping people use language to achieve their goals, both for personal growth and in building their careers. The right words can make all the difference in the world!
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5 Responses to Continuing with Sumerian

  1. jabnaki says:

    Do you think your Sumerian pronunciation is good?

    • G Barto says:

      I presume it’s terrible. We pieced together Akkadian as best we could largely by comparing it with Hebrew. And we pieced together Sumerian as best we could largely by looking at the notes Akkadians made about it. This is about like preparing for a trip to Cairo by using your Pashto to piece together a Tajik’s notes on Arabic, as taught to him by his father who learned from a Persian who had been taught to read the Koran by a Syrian. If a Sumerian popped out of a time machine next to me and we tried to communicate, my degree of success would depend not on my mastery of what we think we know about Sumerian pronunciation, but on my deviations aligning with those places where our conjectures are wrong. Pronouncing Sumerian aloud, like pronouncing ancient Egyptian aloud, is mostly about capturing the language in your own mind in a way that you can get comfortable with it.

  2. jabnaki says:

    Are you trying to give it a foreign sound that it does not sound like your mother tongue? I do that when I read something in a language for which I don’t know the real pronunciation.

    I know somebody who speaks Egyptian and uses the first reconstructed pronunciation instead of the new one which is a bit more likely. She uses it because it got a longer tradition.

  3. Dustin says:

    I need help to decipher What i thing might be Sumerian text I want to know what it says. Email me please and i will send you a picture of the text.

    • G Barto says:

      Hello Dustin,
      My Sumerian is largely limited to older inscriptions in non-standardized cuneiform – mainly the inscriptions in Hayes and Volk. Cuneiform was also used for Akkadian, Hittite and Old Persian, to pick three. If your text is in the older inscriptional form, I might recognize it. If it’s in standard cuneiform and a language other than Sumerian, likely not anymore.

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