Sunday, June 21, 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


As I noted in my last blog, Sumerian and Egyptian are the oldest languages for which writing exists.  Most scholars view cuneiform, the writing system invented for Sumerian, as being slightly older than hieroglyphics, the writing system invented for Egyptian.  (Some Egyptologists have argued, based on recently discovered drawings from the Egyptian desert, that Egyptian writing is older than the oldest cuneiform, but they have not forged a consensus.)


Writing is best defined as “visible speech.” Writing systems make spoken words “visible” in three basic ways.  First, the individual sounds of a language--its phonemes or vowels and consonants--can be represented by individual symbols, called an alphabet. The writing system we use for the English language is a good example of this.  This type of system requires a person to memorize somewhere between 20-30 symbols, which can be combined to represent words.  A second method breaks up spoken words syllabically, and the symbols of the writing system represent various combinations of vowels and consonants.  Syllabic systems require a person to memorize somewhere between 40-85 symbols. A syllabic writing system is still used today to represent the Cherokee language.  A third type of writing system, logographic, is composed of symbols, which represent entire words.  These systems often have hundreds of symbols to memorize; in some cases, like Chinese, there are thousands of symbols. 


The cuneiform writing of the Sumerians consists of about 600 signs.  It is not purely alphabetic, syllabic, or logographic, but rather the signs are drawn from each category.  A handful of signs represent individual vowels; most signs represent either syllables or whole words.  In many cases, an individual sign can have multiple functions. 


In the first image below, part of an inscription of the King Amar-Suen of the Ur III Dynasty, one sign will nicely illustrate the versatility of cuneiform signs.  (Note that the inscription has a curve to it because it was written around a door socket.)  The second image shows one sign, which probably was a representation of a star initially.  It appears in many contexts in the inscription. Look for this sign in the following lines:


In line 9, this sign is used as a determinative.  Determinatives were used by Sumerian scribes to indicate the class of things that a word belonged to.  These signs were not pronounced in spoken language, but they were important in writing, and there were determinatives for wooden objects, stone objects, cities, gods, men, women, etc….  In this case the sign means that the name of a god follows.  In this case the god is Enlil, the chief god of Sumeria.  Interestingly, some of the kings of this dynasty thought of themselves as gods, which was typical in Egypt but unusual in Sumeria, and so their names contain this sign in written texts. 


In line 10, this sign is used as a logograph and represents the word “dingir” or god.  Coupled with the “zid” sign, which means “true or effective,” the line translates as “the effective god.”


Finally, in line 14, this same sign is used syllabically, as “an.” Coupled with the sign that follows it, it is one of two syllables which form the word “anub, “ which means “corner.”  It is part of a longer expression that is often used to refer to powerful kings in Sumeria.  This expression translates best in English as “the king of the four quarters.”


David Burzillo

1 comment:

doshimaitri said...

To learn english is very difficult as well as very easy language.Again in english the perfect thing we must know is the use of grammer. If we know it then it will be very easy to talk as well as to understand English immersion .