Monday, June 15, 2009

"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." 

David Burzillo

I have always been fascinated by the early civilizations of Mesopotamia--the name ancient Greek writers gave to the land between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, an area now familiar to most people as Iraq.  Some years ago, I received a faculty enrichment grant to study one of the early languages of this region, Akkadian, a language better known by its Babylonian and Assyrian dialects.  This summer I will be studying Sumerian.


As an historian, language and writing have always fascinated me because of their importance to the story of human history and the evidence they provide for historians to do their work. The use of language is one of the most important characteristics differentiating our species from other animals. Linguists differ on the date of the first use of language by humans, but even the most recent date goes back to about 50,000 years ago. Linguists typically define writing as “visible speech,” and as such, you cannot have writing without language. The first evidence of human writing comes from about 5000 years ago, long after the first use of language. Note that writing is not necessary for language to exist.   


Sumerian and Egyptian are the oldest human languages for which written records exist.  Knowledge of ancient Egypt was never lost, but knowledge of its language was, only to be spectacularly recovered by Jean Francois Champollion in the 1820’s primarily through his work on the Rosetta Stone. In contrast, knowledge of the Sumerians, their language, and their writing system were all lost until the middle of the nineteenth century.  Enthusiasm for Biblical archaeology led to numerous excavations in the Near East by Europeans at sites such as Nineveh, Nimrud, and many others, revealing the ancient cities of Mesopotamia, many of which had played important roles in the stories of the Old Testament.  In the process archaeologists unearthed thousands of clay tablets with wedge-shaped symbols on them, a writing system which today is known as cuneiform.  Old Persian and Babylonian were some of the first languages of the region that were deciphered by scholars.  As knowledge of Babylonian improved, some scholars who could not make sense of odd words in certain tablets suggested that another language was present in them.  As it turns out Babylonian scribes produced numerous tablets with Babylonian words in one column and their Sumerian equivalents in the other. These tablets are now known as lexical lists and were used to teach Sumerian to Babylonian scribes.   By the late 1860’s, scholars were able to correctly label the unknown language in these columns as Sumerian.  While some scholars were initially unwilling to accept the existence of the Sumerians and their language, excavations at Nineveh and Lagash later in the century provided unequivocal proof of the existence of this people and language.  


The study of Sumerian poses a number of challenges.  While the language is considered deciphered, and scholars can read numerous texts in Sumerian, the language is far from fully understood. Because of this, some historians of language and writing classify the Sumerian language as “unknown.” There are many obstacles to a complete understanding of the language.  First, linguists group languages in families, and questions about an unknown language can sometimes be answered by analogy to known languages from that family.  Sumerian, unfortunately, is an isolate—it is not related to any other language, living or dead--so analogy cannot be used to shed light on obscure elements of it.  Second, the largest number of documents in Sumerian come from a period called Ur III by historians.  This period began in 2112 BCE, perhaps two thousand years after Sumerian began to be spoken, so linguists are unsure how close this form of Sumerian is to the original form of the language.  Finally, linguists worry about the extent to which our knowledge of Sumerian is influenced by its usage by Babylonian scribes.  Since the lexical lists composed by these scribes are so important to our knowledge of Sumerian, how much of what they wrote down about Sumerian was influenced by these languages? How reliable a picture of Sumerian do these texts actually present?  Sumerian studies have come a long way in the past 130 years, but there is still a great deal that we don’t know about the language.


A final thought: a Sumerian student in 3000 BCE, would learn the Sumerian language in the same way that I learned English: at home from listening to and interacting with family.  Once he started attending school, there was already some facility with the language.  At school the finer points of grammar might be learned and practiced and more complex, technical vocabulary learned, but the young scribe could focus on learning the 500 or so signs that were needed to write the language.  A modern student of Sumerian needs to learn the language and the signs at the same time.  This, I suppose, is the biggest challenge of learning Sumerian: as a modern student of the language, I am not bringing any knowledge of the language to the table as I begin “scribal school.”  I must learn the language and the writing system simultaneously.


The attached image is an inscription from a clay brick.  It celebrates Ur Nammu, the founder of the Ur III dynasty, and his building of the city wall of Ur and a temple for the moon god Nanna.  

David Burzillo


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