Friday, July 17, 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 is studying Sumerian,an ancient language from Southern Mesopotamia."

For the past 130 years, Sumerian scholars have worked hard to figure out the vocabulary and grammar of the Sumerian language.  While much progress has been made, there are still many aspects of Sumerian which remain mysterious, and debates and disagreements abound in the scholarly community.  Despite this fact, there is much that is agreed upon, and scholars are pretty confident about much of the language.  As a result, many documents have been translated, and the Sumerian history they reveal is an important part of many ancient and world history courses today.


I thought I would give a brief explanation of how a text in Sumerian is translated.  The text above  is a royal inscription from a clay brick.  The inscription contains a dedication to Nanna, the Sumerian moon god, and the god to whom the largest (and most famous) temple of the city of Ur was dedicated.  The brick was dedicated by Ur-Nammu, the founder of the dynasty, who probably ruled from 2112 BCE to 2095 BCE. 


The first step in the process in to transliterate the inscription, which means writing out the values of each sign.  The transliteration tells the reader exactly what signs are present. (This text has eight lines, which are read starting from the top of the left-hand column and moving down, and then going to the top of the right-hand column and moving down.)


The transliteration of this inscription looks like this:


1  dšeš-ki (=Nanna)

2. lugal-a-ni

3. Ur- dNammu

4. lugal-šeš-ab-ki (=Urim5ki)-ma-ke4

5. e2-a-ni

6. mu-na-du3

7. bad3-šeš-ki(=Urim5ki)-ma 

8. mu-na-du3


The next step is to produce a transcription of the signs.  Sumerian scholars do not believe that the original purpose of the cuneiform writing system was to render the spoken language as exactly as possible in writing; many scholars think that, at least early on, the writing system might have been more of a shorthand, and scribes were left to fill in the blanks.  A transcription attempts to show the best estimate of the “correct phonological shape” of the inscription, what the language actually conveyed.  As you will see, there are differences between the transliterated version of the inscription and its transcription.


The transcription of this inscription looks like this:


1.    [Nanna

2.    lugal.ani].(r)

3.    [Ur.Nammu

4.    lugal.Urim5.ak].e

5.    [e2.ani].Æ


7.    bad.urim5.a.Æ




Finally, the translation takes place:


1.    For Nanna,

2.    his king—

3.    Ur-Nammu

4.    the king of Ur—

5.    his temple—

6.    built

7.    The city wall of Ur—

8.    he built for him. 


I will not discuss all the details of this short text, but I will note a couple of points:

1.  Sumerian is an agglutinative language, meaning it builds up words by joining many different prefixes and affixes to verbal and nominal roots.  The verb in lines 6 and 8, for example, consist of five elements.  The mu is called a conjugation prefix.  There are a number of conjugation prefixes, but scholars are not sure what purpose they served.  The na is called a directional prefix, and it tells something about case relationships.  In line 6 for example, the na cross references the dative case (marked with an .r in line 1).  The n is a personal affix.  It tells the reader about the relationship between the agent and patient (the terminology used in ergative languages for what we call the subject and direct object).  The n here cross references the agent, Ur-Nammu, who is described in lines 3 and 4, and is marked with an .e. Next comes the verbal root du3.  This verb means to build.  Finally, there is a personal affix.  In the case of this verb form, there is no need for one, so in the transcription a Æ  is written.  (This Æ would actually be a zero with a line through it, but I could not get it to appear correctly in the blog.) This particular verb is pretty simple; many Sumerian verbs contain many more prefixes and affixes.


2.  Note that in line 1 there are three signs for Nanna, the moon god.  The d (in superscript) is a determinative.  It would not be pronounced in spoken Sumerian, but it tells the reader of a written text that what followed was the name of a god.  The šeš-ki signs together represent Nanna.


3.  Finally, in line 4 the transliteration reads lugal-Urim5ki-ma-ke4  but the transcription reads lugal.Urim5.ak.e.The m of the ma sign duplicates the m at the end of Urim, so the second of the two m’s is not written.  The a of ma is joined with the k of ke4.   The ak sign is the genitive marker.   Finally, the e of the ke4 is the ergative marker, indicating that what precedes these signs is the agent (or subject) of the statement.  This line of the inscription is a pretty good indication of how the writing system is not an exact phonetic representation of the language. 


David Burzillo



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