"This summer, Rivers teachers are embarking on a variety of activities through the school’s faculty enrichment grants, which aim to promote the intellectual growth of Rivers teachers through research, education, and other independent projects. Today, we hear from David Burzillo, who will be studying Sumerian,an ancient language from Southern Mesopotamia."
One of the many challenges of learning Sumerian is getting used to the many aspects of the language that make it so different from English. One major difference is how words are built up in the language. When language analysis and the grouping of languages into families was taking place in earnest in the 19th century, linguists came up with a typology for classifying the world’s languages. Three major types were identified, based on the way that words were created. Isolating languages are languages in which basically every morpheme is a separate word. Chinese is an isolating language. Fusional or inflectional languages fuse endings to word roots and use the word endings to convey important information about person, number, tense, etc… Latin is a fusional or inflectional language. Sumerian is an agglutinative language. In agglutinative languages strings of prefixes and suffixes are linked to nominal and verbal roots to make words. For a novice Sumerian student like me, recognizing the verbal roots and then identifying the various prefixes and suffixes that go with them is incredibly time consuming.
To illustrate, here is an example from an inscription of Amar-Sin on a stamped brick:
Column II of a Brick Inscription of Amar-Sin
One of the many verbs in the inscription is in line eleven of the second column, the last line in the image. Its transliteration is:
This line is transcribed by Sumerologists in the following way:
This line of the inscription is part of a curse, in which Amar-Sin calls upon the gods Nanna and Ningal to “put an end to the offspring” of anyone who changes the position of the statue he has set up or tears down its pedestal.
The verbal root is til, which means “to live.” This, though, is only one of the seven elements that make up this verb. What is the function of all the other elements? What information do they convey?
1. ḫe2 is a modal prefix, regularly used to introduce curses.
2. i3 is a conjugation prefix. (The i contracted into the e of the previous sign, a common occurrence in Sumerian.) As I noted in an earlier blog, Sumerologists are not in agreement about the actual function of conjugation prefixes.
3. b is a personal prefix, which refers back to the direct object (offspring) in the previous line.
4. til is the verbal root
5. e indicates that this is a maru verb, a type of Sumerian verb which probably indicates an incompleted action
6. ene is a plural marker, needed because the subject of the verb is plural (the gods Nanna and Ningal)
7. 0 is a personal affix which cross-references the subjects (again, the gods Nanna and Ningal)
As you can see from this verb form, despite the fact that the verbal root is quite simple, there is a lot of important information conveyed in the prefixes and affixes attached to it. It is this characteristic of combining prefixes and suffixes and roots which led to the definition of Sumerian as an agglutinative language, and it is one of the many aspects of the language which takes some getting used to.