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.