When grammar sketches serve you well

The other day, I got The Ancient Languages of Mesopotamia, Egypt and Aksum, which collects a handful of articles from the larger Cambridge Encyclopedia of Ancient Languages. I got it, in particular, for the article on Sumerian, which gives an abbreviated grammar. Very often, when people start out in a language, there’s a temptation to look at a simplified sketch of the grammar. But in this case, I’ve found that it’s after working through 30 Sumerian texts or so that I’m getting the most value. Working through Hayes, I have found some of the material on verb formation to awfully ponderous, but it accounts for what is going on in the particular forms from the readings. Had I come to these forms with a generalized idea, I imagine I would have been quite baffled as I tried to fit them into the simple and elegant pattern I had learned at the outset. But coming to the grammar sketch with Hayes almost finished, I could see pieces of the puzzle falling together and could simultaneously take stock of how the generalizations made sense of things and why the exceptions would make learning the Sumerian verb the way you learn Latin paradigms problematic. In other words, sometimes the quick understanding of a simplified presentation of grammar would be misleading while the identical presentation is edifying if you’re using it to impose some order on what you already know.

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Just in case Sumerian isn’t obscure enough…

In the text mentioned above, one of the entries is Elamite. Like Sumerian, it is a language isolate – no known relatives, past or present. It was spoken in parts of Iran and at the edge of Mesopotamia in a timeframe not entirely dissimilar from that when Sumerian, then Akkadian, ruled Mesopotamia (indeed, the Sumerian king Ur-Namma was said to have known some Elamite himself). Resources for Elamite appear to be scarce, even compared to resources for Sumerian. But if you speak Spanish and you want to dig into transcribed texts (with aids for grammar and vocabulary), there is an excellent site out there: Textos elamitos. I wish I could find a comparable site for Sumerian. If you haven’t yet started your obscure Mesopotamian language explorations and want something a little more off the beaten path than Sumerian, this site is a great place to begin with the Elamite language.

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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