Sumerian---the language written in the world’s oldest written texts---is unrelated to any modern language. Linguists have no idea what language group it belonged to. Babylonian and Assyrian are Semitic languages.
The origin of Sumerian is unknown. It was different from the Semitic languages---Akkadian, Eblaite, Elmamite, Hebrew and Arabic---that followed and appeared not to have been related to Indo-European languages that emerged much later in India and Iran. Only a few words derived from Sumerian have survived. They included "abyss," and "Eden." After Sumer was conquered by the Akkadians, spoken Sumerian began to die out but was later preserved by the Babylonians in sort of same way that Latin is kept alive by Europe cultures. It was taught in schools and used in religious rituals.
John Alan Halloran of sumerian.org wrote: “There appears to be some slight relation between Sumerian and both Ural-Altaic and Indo-European. This may just be due to having evolved in the same northeast Fertile Crescent linguistic area. I don't see any connection at all between Sumerian and Semitic. [Source: John Alan Halloran, sumerian.org]
On different Sumerian dialects, “There is the EME-SAL dialect, or women's dialect, which has some vocabulary that is different from the standard EME-GIR dialect. Thomsen includes a list of Emesal vocabulary in her Sumerian Language book. The published version of my Sumerian Lexicon will include all the variant Emesal dialect words. Emesal texts have a tendency to spell words phonetically, which suggests that the authors of these compositions were farther from the professional scribal schools. A similar tendency to spell words phonetically occurs outside the Sumerian heartland. Most Emesal texts are from the later part of the Old Babylonian period. The cultic songs that were written in Emesal happen to be the only Sumerian literary genre that continued to be written after the Old Babylonian period.”
Like other ancient languages, although we can read Sumerian we don’t known exactly what it sounded like. But that didn’t stop Jukka Ammondt, a Finnish academic, from recording an album of songs and poems in the ancient Sumerian language. The cuts included a the Elvis hit E-sir kus-za-gin-ga (“Blue Suede Shoes”) and verses from the epic poem Gilgamesh .
Websites and Resources on Mesopotamia: Ancient History Encyclopedia ancient.eu.com/Mesopotamia ; Mesopotamia University of Chicago site mesopotamia.lib.uchicago.edu; British Museum mesopotamia.co.uk ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Mesopotamia sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; Louvre louvre.fr/llv/oeuvres/detail_periode.jsp ; Metropolitan Museum of Art metmuseum.org/toah ; University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology penn.museum/sites/iraq ; Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago uchicago.edu/museum/highlights/meso ; Iraq Museum Database oi.uchicago.edu/OI/IRAQ/dbfiles/Iraqdatabasehome ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; ABZU etana.org/abzubib; Oriental Institute Virtual Museum oi.uchicago.edu/virtualtour ; Treasures from the Royal Tombs of Ur oi.uchicago.edu/museum-exhibits ; Ancient Near Eastern Art Metropolitan Museum of Art www.metmuseum.org
Archaeology News and Resources: Anthropology.net anthropology.net : serves the online community interested in anthropology and archaeology; archaeologica.org archaeologica.org is good source for archaeological news and information. Archaeology in Europe archeurope.com features educational resources, original material on many archaeological subjects and has information on archaeological events, study tours, field trips and archaeological courses, links to web sites and articles; Archaeology magazine archaeology.org has archaeology news and articles and is a publication of the Archaeological Institute of America; Archaeology News Network archaeologynewsnetwork is a non-profit, online open access, pro- community news website on archaeology; British Archaeology magazine british-archaeology-magazine is an excellent source published by the Council for British Archaeology; Current Archaeology magazine archaeology.co.uk is produced by the UK’s leading archaeology magazine; HeritageDaily heritagedaily.com is an online heritage and archaeology magazine, highlighting the latest news and new discoveries; Livescience livescience.com/ : general science website with plenty of archaeological content and news. Past Horizons : online magazine site covering archaeology and heritage news as well as news on other science fields; The Archaeology Channel archaeologychannel.org explores archaeology and cultural heritage through streaming media; Ancient History Encyclopedia ancient.eu : is put out by a non-profit organization and includes articles on pre-history; Best of History Websites besthistorysites.net is a good source for links to other sites; Essential Humanities essential-humanities.net: provides information on History and Art History, including sections Prehistory
Language at the Time of the Sumerians
In addition to the Sumerians, who have no known linguistic relatives, the Ancient Near East was the home of the Semitic family of languages. The Semitic Family includes dead languages such as Akkadian, Amoritic, Old Babylonian, Canaanite, Assyrian, and Aramaic; as well as modern Hebrew and Arabic. The language of ancient Egypt may prove to be Semitic; or, it may be a member of a super-family to which the Semitic family also belonged. [Source: Internet Archive, from UNT]
There were also "The Old Ones," whose languages are unknown to us. Some presume their speech ancestral to modern Kurdish, and Russian Georgian, and call them Caucasian. Let's call these peoples Subartu, a name given to them after they were driven northward by the Sumerians and other conquerors of Mesopotamia.
Indo-Europeans spoke languages ancestral to all modern European languages except Finnish, Hungarian, and Basque. It was also ancestral to modern Iranian, Afghan, and most of the languages of Pakistan and I ndia. They were not native to the Near East, but their intrusions into the area made them increasingly important after 2500 B.C..
The Akkadians, who followed the Sumerians spoke a Semitic language. Many cuneiform tablets are written in Akkadian. “Speakers of the Sumerian language coexisted for a thousand years with speakers of 3rd millenium Akkadian dialects, so the languages had some effect on each other, but they work completely differently. With Sumerian, you have an unchanging verbal root to which you add anywhere from one to eight prefixes, infixes, and suffixes to make a verbal chain. Akkadian is like other Semitic languages in having a root of three consonants and then inflecting or conjugating that root with different vowels or prefixes.”
Akkadian is an extinct East Semitic language that was spoken in ancient Mesopotamia from the 30th century B.C. It is the earliest attested Semitic language. It used the cuneiform script, which was originally used to write the unrelated, and also extinct, Sumerian. [Source: Wikipedia]
The Akkadians were Semitic-speaking people, which distinguished them from the Sumerians. Under Sargon of Akkad (r. ca. 2340–2285 B.C.), they established a political center in southern Mesopotamia and created the world's first empire, which at the height of its power united an area that included not only Mesopotamia but also parts of western Syria and Anatolia, and Iran. From about 2350 B.C. to the Persians took over in 450 B.C., Mesopotamia was largely ruled by Semitic-speaking dynasties with cultures derived from Sumer. They include the Akkadians, Eblaites and Assyrians. They fought and traded with the Hittites, Kassites and Mitanni, all possibly of Indo-European descent. [Source: World Almanac]
The Semitic language spoken by the Akkadians spoke was first recorded around 2500 B.C. It was a highly complex language that served as a common means of communication throughout the Middle East in the second millennium B.C. and was the predominate tongue of the region for more than 2,500 years. The language of the Assyrians and Aramaic, the language of Jesus, were derived from Akkadian.
Morris Jastrow said: “ It is the lasting merit of the distinguished Joseph Halevy of Paris to have diverted Assyriological scholarship from the erroneous course into which it was drifting a generation ago, when, in the older Euphratean culture, it sought to differentiate sharply between Sumerian and Akkadian elements. Preference was given to the non-Semitic Sumerians, to whom was attributed the origin of the cuneiform script. The Semitic (or Akkadian) settlers were supposed to be the borrowers also in religion, in forms of government, and in civilisation generally, besides adopting the cuneiform syllabary of the Sumerians, and adapting it to their own speech. Hie Sumer, hie Akkad! Halevy maintained that many of the features in this syllabary, hitherto regarded as Sumerian, were genuinely Semitic; and his main contention is that what is known as Sumerian is rnerely an older form of Semitic writing, marked by the larger use of ideographs or signs to express words, in place of the later method of phonetic writing wherein the signs employed have syllabic values." [Source: Morris Jastrow, Lectures more than ten years after publishing his book “Aspects of Religious Belief and Practice in Babylonia and Assyria” 1911 <>]
According to the University of Cambridge: Akkadian was deciphered in the mid nineteenth century. As there was controversy over whether the decipherment had been achieved or not, in 1857 the Royal Asiatic Society sent drawings of the same inscription to four different scholars, who were to translate without consulting one another. A committee (including no less than the Dean of St Paul's Cathedral) was set up to compare the translations.
A dictionary of Akkadian, also known as Assyrian, was assembled at the University of Chicago is 25 volumes long. The project was started in 1921 and finished in 2007, with much of the work done under the direction of the scholar Erica Reiner.
Assyrians and Babylonians Spoke Akkadian
According to the University of Cambridge: “Assyrian and Babylonian are members of the Semitic language family, like Arabic and Hebrew. Because Babylonian and Assyrian are so similar – at least in writing – they are often regarded as varieties of a single language, known today as Akkadian. How far they were mutually intelligible in ancient times is uncertain. During the 2nd millennium BC, Akkadian was adopted all over the Near East as the language of scholarship, administration, commerce and diplomacy. Later in the 1st millennium BC it was gradually replaced by Aramaic, which is still spoken in some parts of the Middle East today.
For centuries, Akkadian was the native language in Mesopotamian nations such as Assyria and Babylonia. Because of the might of various Mesopotamian empires, such as the Akkadian Empire, Old Assyrian Empire, Babylonia, and Middle Assyrian Empire, Akkadian became the lingua franca of much of the Ancient Near East. However, it began to decline during the Neo-Assyrian Empire around the 8th century BC, being marginalized by Aramaic during the reign of Tiglath-Pileser III. By the Hellenistic period, the language was largely confined to scholars and priests working in temples in Assyria and Babylonia. [Source: Wikipedia]
The last known Akkadian cuneiform document dates from the first century AD. Neo-Mandaic spoken by the Mandaeans, and Assyrian Neo-Aramaic spoken by the Assyrian people, are two of the few modern Semitic languages that contain some Akkadian vocabulary and grammatical features. Akkadian is a fusional language with grammatical case; and like all Semitic languages, Akkadian uses the system of consonantal roots. The Kültepe texts, which were written in Old Assyrian, had Hittite loanwords and names, which constitute the oldest record of any language of the Indo-European languages.
David Testen wrote in the Encyclopædia Britannica: “Semitic languages, languages that form a branch of the Afro-Asiatic language phylum. Members of the Semitic group are spread throughout North Africa and Southwest Asia and have played preeminent roles in the linguistic and cultural landscape of the Middle East for more than 4,000 years. [Source: David Testen, Encyclopædia Britannica]
In the early 21st century the most important Semitic language, in terms of the number of speakers, was Arabic. Standard Arabic is spoken as a first language by more than 200 million people living in a broad area stretching from the Atlantic coast of northern Africa to western Iran; an additional 250 million people in the region speak Standard Arabic as a secondary language. Most of the written and broadcast communication in the Arab world is conducted in this uniform literary language, alongside which numerous local Arabic dialects, often differing profoundly from one another, are used for purposes of day-to-day communication.
Maltese, which originated as one such dialect, is the national language of Malta and has some 370,000 speakers. As a result of the revival of Hebrew in the 19th century and the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, some 6 to 7 million individuals now speak Modern Hebrew. Many of the numerous languages of Ethiopia are Semitic, including Amharic (with some 17 million speakers) and, in the north, Tigrinya (some 5.8 million speakers) and Tigré (more than 1 million speakers). A Western Aramaic dialect is still spoken in the vicinity of Maʿlūlā, Syria, and Eastern Aramaic survives in the form of uroyo (native to an area in eastern Turkey), Modern Mandaic (in western Iran), and the Neo-Syriac or Assyrian dialects (in Iraq, Turkey, and Iran). The Modern South Arabian languages Mehri, arsusi, Hobyot, Jibbali (also known as Ś eri), and Socotri exist alongside Arabic on the southern coast of the Arabian Peninsula and adjacent islands.
Members of the Semitic language family are employed as official administrative languages in a number of states throughout the Middle East and the adjacent areas. Arabic is the official language of Algeria (with Tamazight), Bahrain, Chad (with French), Djibouti (with French), Egypt, Iraq (with Kurdish), Israel (with Hebrew), Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Mauritania (where Arabic, Fula [Fulani], Soninke, and Wolof have the status of national languages), Morocco, Oman, the Palestinian Authority, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Somalia (with Somali), Sudan (with English), Syria, Tunisia, the United Arab Emirates, and Yemen. Other Semitic languages designated as official are Hebrew (with Arabic) in Israel and Maltese in Malta (with English). In Ethiopia, which recognizes all locally spoken languages equally, Amharic is the “working language” of the government.
Despite the fact that they are no longer regularly spoken, several Semitic languages retain great significance because of the roles that they play in the expression of religious culture—Biblical Hebrew in Judaism, Geʿez in Ethiopian Christianity, and Syriac in Chaldean and Nestorian Christianity. In addition to the important position that it occupies in Arabic-speaking societies, literary Arabic exerts a major influence throughout the world as the medium of Islamic religion and civilization.
Semitic Languages of the Past
David Testen wrote in the Encyclopædia Britannica: “Written records documenting languages belonging to the Semitic family reach back to the middle of the 3rd millennium bce. Evidence of Old Akkadian is found in the Sumerian literary tradition. By the early 2nd millennium bce, Akkadian dialects in Babylonia and Assyria had acquired the cuneiform writing system used by the Sumerians, causing Akkadian to become the chief language of Mesopotamia. The discovery of the ancient city of Ebla (modern Tall Mardīkh, Syria) led to the unearthing of archives written in Eblaite that date from the middle of the 3rd millennium bce. [Source: David Testen, Encyclopædia Britannica]
Personal names from this early period, preserved in cuneiform records, provide an indirect picture of the western Semitic language Amorite. Although the Proto-Byblian and Proto-Sinaitic inscriptions still await a satisfactory decipherment, they too suggest the presence of Semitic languages in early 2nd-millennium Syro-Palestine. During its heyday from the 15th through the 13th century bce, the important coastal city of Ugarit (modern Raʾs Shamra, Syria) left numerous records in Ugaritic. The Egyptian diplomatic archives found at Tell el-Amarna have also proved to be an important source of information on the linguistic development of the area in the late 2nd millennium bce. Though written in Akkadian, those tablets contain aberrant forms that reflect the languages native to the areas in which they were composed.
From the end of the 2nd millennium bce, languages of the Canaanite group began to leave records in Syro-Palestine. Inscriptions using the Phoenician alphabet (from which the modern European alphabets were ultimately to descend) appeared throughout the Mediterranean area as Phoenician commerce flourished; Punic, the form of the Phoenician language used in the important North African colony of Carthage, remained in use until the 3rd century ce. The best known of the ancient Canaanite languages, Classical Hebrew, is familiar chiefly through the scriptures and religious writings of ancient Judaism. Although as a spoken language Hebrew gave way to Aramaic, it remained an important vehicle for Jewish religious traditions and scholarship. A modern form of Hebrew developed as a spoken language during the Jewish national revival of the 19th and 20th centuries.
Nam-shub of Enki Confusion of Tongues
The nam-shub of Enki is from the Sumerian cuneiform. It records speaking in tongues as God's punishment to separate spiritual people from those attempting to climb their own "Tower of Babel" to force God to give them a direct revelation. [Source: piney.com]
Once upon a time, there was no snake, there was no scorpion,
There was no hyena, there was no lion,
There was no wild dog, no wolf,
There was no fear, no terror,
Man had no rival.
In those days, the land Shubur-Hamazi,
Harmony-tongued Sumer, the great land of the me of princeship,
Uri, the land having all that is appropriate,
The land Martu, resting in security,
The whole universe, the people well cared for,
To Enlil in one tongue gave speech.
Then the lord defiant, the prince defiant, the king defiant,
Enki, the lord of abundance, whose commands are trustworthy,
The lord of wisdom, who scans the land,
The leader of the gods,
The lord of Eridu, endowed with wisdom,
Changed the speech in their mouths, put contention into it,
Into the speech of man that had been one.
Similarly Genesis 11:1-9 reads:
1.And the whole earth was of one language, and of one speech.
2.And it came to pass, as they journeyed from the east, that they found a plain in the land of Shinar; and they dwelt there.
3.And they said one to another, Go to, let us make brick, and burn them thoroughly. And they had brick for stone, and slime had they for mortar.
4.And they said, Go to, let us build us a city and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven; and let us make us a name, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.
5.And the LORD came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of men builded.
6.And the LORD said, Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language; and this they begin to do: and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do.
7.Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another's speech.
8.So the LORD scattered them abroad from thence upon the face of all the earth: and they left off to build the city.
9.Therefore is the name of it called Babel; because the LORD did there confound the language of all the earth: and from thence did the LORD scatter them abroad upon the face of all the earth.
Proverbs from Ki-en-gir (Sumer)
Proverbs from Ki-en-gir (Sumer), c. 2000 B.C.
1. Whoever has walked with truth generates life.
2. Do not cut off the neck of that which has had its neck cut off.
3. That which is given in submission becomes a medium of defiance.
4. The destruction is from his own personal god; he knows no savior.
5. Wealth is hard to come by, but poverty is always at hand.
6. He acquires many things, he must keep close watch over them.
7. A boat bent on honest pursuits sailed downstream with the wind; Utu has sought out honest ports for it.
8. He who drinks too much beer must drink water.
9. He who eats too much will not be able to sleep. [Source: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Mesopotamia]
10. Since my wife is at the outdoor shrine, and furthermore since my mother is at the river, I shall die of hunger, he says.
11. May the goddess Inanna cause a hot-limited wife to lie down for you; May she bestow upon you broad-armed sons; May she seek out for you a place of Happiness.
12. The fox could not build his own house, and so he came to the house of his friend as a conqueror.
13. The fox, having urinated into the sea, said AThe whole of the sea is my urine.@
14. The poor man nibbles at his silver.
15. The poor are the silent ones of the land.
16. All the households of the poor are not equally submissive.
17. A poor man does not strike his son a single blow; he treasures him forever.
ùkur-re a-na-àm mu-un-tur-re
[How lowly is the poor man!
A mill (for him) (is) the edge of the oven;
His ripped garment will not be mended;
What he has lost will not be sought for! poor man how-is lowly
garment-ripped-his not-excellent-will be
what-lost-his not-search for-will be [Source: Sumerian.org]
ùkur-re ur5-ra-àm al-t[u]r-[r]e
ka-ta-kar-ra ur5-ra ab-su-su
The poor man --- by (his) debts is he brought low!
What is snatched out of his mouth must repay (his) debts. poor man debts-is thematic particle-made small
mouth-from-snatch debts thematic particle-repay
níg]-ge-na-da a-ba in-da-di nam-ti ì-ù-tu Whoever has walked with truth generates life. truth-with whoever walked life generates
Babylonian Proverbs from the Library of Ashurbanipal, c. 1600 B.C.
Some Babylonian Proverbs from the Library of Ashurbanipal, c. 1600 B.C.
1. A hostile act you shall not perform, that fear of vengeance shall not consume you.
2. You shall not do evil, that life eternal you may obtain.
3. Does a woman conceive when a virgin, or grow great without eating?
4. If I put anything down it is snatched away; if I do more than is expected, who will repay me?
5 He has dug a well where no water is, he has raised a husk without kernel.
6. Does a marsh receive the price of its reeds, or fields the price of their vegetation?
7. The strong live by their own wages; the weak by the wages of their children. [Source: George A. Barton, “Archaeology and the Bible”,” 3rd Ed., (Philadelphia: American Sunday School, 1920), pp. 407-408, Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Mesopotamia]
8. He is altogether good, but he is clothed with darkness.
9. The face of a toiling ox you shall not strike with a goad.
10. My knees go, my feet are unwearied; but a fool has cut into my course.
11. His ass I am; I am harnessed to a mule---a wagon I draw, to seek reeds and fodder I go forth.
12. The life of day before yesterday has departed today.
13. If the husk is not right, the kernel is not right, it will not produce seed.
14. The tall grain thrives, but what do we understand of it? The meager grain thrives, but what do we understand of it?
15. The city whose weapons are not strong the enemy before its gates shall not be thrust through.
16. If you go and take the field of an enemy, the enemy will come and take your field.
17. Upon a glad heart oil is poured out of which no one knows.
18. Friendship is for the day of trouble, posterity for the future.
19. An ass in another city becomes its head.
20. Writing is the mother of eloquence and the father of artists.
21. Be gentle to your enemy as to an old oven.
22. The gift of the king is the nobility of the exalted; the gift of the king is the favor of governors.
23. Friendship in days of prosperity is servitude forever.
24. There is strife where servants are, slander where anointers anoint.
25. When you see the gain of the fear of god, exalt god and bless the king.
Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons
Text Sources: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Mesopotamia sourcebooks.fordham.edu , National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, especially Merle Severy, National Geographic, May 1991 and Marion Steinmann, Smithsonian, December 1988, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Discover magazine, Times of London, Natural History magazine, Archaeology magazine, The New Yorker, BBC, Encyclopædia Britannica, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Time, Newsweek, Wikipedia, Reuters, Associated Press, The Guardian, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, World Religions edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); History of Warfare by John Keegan (Vintage Books); History of Art by H.W. Janson Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.), Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.
Last updated September 2018