A Brief History of Sumerology

Posted in: Ancient Near East Today, ASOR
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By: Erika Marsal

Sumerian is the language of ancient Sumer, that is, southern Mesopotamia, during the third millennium BCE. But what is Sumerian, really? A short glance at any modern Sumerian grammar comes across as a never-ending list of scholars proposing a succession of mismatched interpretations of the difficult parts of that especially difficult language, which to this day remains unrelated to any other known language.

The study of the Sumerian language and, specially, the correct interpretation of the Sumerian verbal morphemes, (the smallest grammatical units in a language) has been subject of long debate. Understanding Sumer and its literature means first looking at the history of Sumerology, to identify what we do and don’t know about this language of the third and second millennium BCE.

Map of the ancient Near East.

In order to reconstruct this most arcane of academic disciplines we must go back to the 18th century, when the cuneiform script of Mesopotamia was still being deciphered. Just as the Rosetta Stone did with the Egyptian hieroglyphs, the monumental trilingual inscriptions of the Persian king Darius the Great at Behistun in Iran provided early Ancient Near East specialists the opportunity to finally understand cuneiform writing.

The inscription at Behistun.

The inscription at Behistun.

The inscription provided the same royal text in three languages, Old Persian, Elamite, and the Babylonian version of Akkadian, all of which used similar versions of the cuneiform script. Between 1835 and 1844, the great Orientalist and East India Company officer Henry Rawlinson (1810–1895) carefully studied and edited the Old Persian version of the text, while the philologist Edwin Norris (1795–1872) did the same with the Elamite version. Finally in 1851, along with other scholars such as Edward Hincks (1792–1866) and Jules Oppert (1825–1905), Rawlinson accomplished the transliteration and translation of the Babylonian portion of the text.

Henry Rawlinson

Archibald Sayce

The analysis of the cuneiform script, however, continued and Hincks began to question whether the Semitic-speaking people of Babylonia were the true inventors of this writing system. In 1855, Rawlinson published an article in the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society reporting the discovery of non-Semitic inscriptions on bricks and tablets from sites in southern Babylonia. Only months later, Hincks achieved a triumph in recognizing an unknown language and correctly establishing that it was agglutinative in character, where words are composed of elements linked together in a chain of suffixes and infixes that are used to indicate tenses, cases, or numbers. The decipherment of the newly discovered language was the beginning of a new and challenging (if still unnamed) enterprise, Sumerology.

Regular progress in describing the new language was made during the following years. In 1869, Oppert suggested calling the new language as “Sumerian”, based on some inscriptions that used the title “King of Sumer and Akkad.” In 1871 Archibald H. Sayce (1846–1933) presented a primary approach to the grammar of the language in his groundbreaking article “On an Accadian Seal,” which began with the memorable sentence “The cuneiform records have disclosed to us a new language.” Sayce’s study added new sign values and philological observations.

Jules Oppert

The royal title “king of Sumer and Akkad” highlighted in a stamped inscription of the Ur III king Ur-Nammu. Musée du Louvre, Paris.

Systematic study of this new language then progressed rapidly. The German scholar Paul Haupt (1858–1926) published his “Grundzüge der akkadischen Grammatik” in 1882 and correctly established the existence of two Sumerian dialects: eme-gîr (the standard variety) and eme-sal (mainly used by female characters in literary texts). Although these first analyses successfully comprehended the basics of the Sumerian language, the boundaries between Sumerian and its contemporary Semitic neighbour, the Akkadian language, were not yet clearly established. Indeed, Oppert’s suggestion to name the new language Sumerian was not accepted until much later and Sumerian still continued to be called “Akkadian” for many years. 

In the following decades, the British Museum acquired a large and important collection of cuneiform tablets from Mesopotamia. The French-born scholar George Bertin (1848–1891) undertook an extensive study of Sumerian grammar in several articles, of which the most important was his “Sumero-Akkadian Grammar” (1888). Bertin was one of the first scholars to describe a recognizably grammar of this language, explaining some peculiarities of Sumerian…

With the beginning of the 20th century, the number of articles and findings related to Sumerian language rapidly increased. In 1911, Stephen Langdon published a leading scientific monograph dedicated to Sumerian grammar, and in 1914, Friedrich Delitzsch followed with his own monograph on the topic, the Grundzüge der sumerischen Grammatik.

A hand-copy of the Babylonian “flood” cuneiform text by A. Poebel.

Delitzsch’s grammatical ideas and description of verbal prefixes provided the foundation for the pioneer analysis later developed by his pupil Arno Poebel (1881–1958). Poebel’s main work, Grundzüge der Sumerischen grammatik (1923), which had the same title as that of Delitzsch’s, can be considered the foundation of modern Sumerology.

But in August 1914, the First World War broke out in Europe. The conflict occupied the major imperial powers and national budgets were accordingly adjusted. Excavations in the Near East were suspended and many archaeologists returned home. Some young scholars were called to arms or simply drafted from their respective occupations into other government institutions. The development of Sumerian studies was severely hampered during these years.

After the First World War, Anton Deimel (1865–1954), who was professor at the Pontifical Institute in Rome, began collecting materials for his main work, the Sumerisches Lexikon, which is still today the only complete published dictionary of Sumerian language. His work was presented in 1959 and spanned nine volumes. Deimel also published the second edition of his Sumerian grammar, the Sumerische Grammatik (1939).

Also during these years, in 1932, Viktor Christian (1885–1963), who like Poebel, had studied under Delitzsch, incorporated some notions of the still new science of Linguistics into the study of the Sumerian language. In his work Beiträge zur sumerischen Grammatik (1957), Christian classified Sumerian among the so-called ergative languages (where, unlike Indo-European languages, the subject of the intransitive sentences is marked the same way as the object of the transitive sentences) and clarified the particular behaviour of Sumerian subject and object marks. Christian’s intuition was, however, not immediately appreciated and it was not until 1967, with the great Russian scholar Igor Diakonoff (1914–1999), that the ergative pattern in Sumerian began to be seriously considered.

After the Second World War the study of Sumerian continued rapidly, permitting a deeper view into Sumerian literature and history. In 1949 the German Assyriologist Adam Falkenstein (1906–1966) published his Grammatik der Sprache Gudeas. Taking the grammar from Poebel as a basis, Falkenstein made important advances on Sumerian grammar and literature. In addition, Falkenstein adopted an innovative methodology, limiting his research to a corpus of contemporary documents, specifically the Ur III period of the late third millennium BCE and its inscriptions, instead of analysing the whole Sumerian language at once.

Second edition of Falkenstein’s grammar.

During the 1980’s, parallel with the new publications of an increasing number of Sumerian literary texts, the Danish scholar Marie-Louise Thomsen attempted a modernization of Falkenstein’s work. The impact of linguistics has also been increasingly valuable for Sumerology and some important grammars are still bringing new and profitable observations to the field.

But a complete understanding of the Sumerian language is still an exciting and unfinished task. Understanding the language itself is critical to addressing the question of whether ‘Sumerians’ were actually an ethnic group, and how the language went from a living, spoken language during the third millennium BCE to a purely written one in later millennia, used for administration, literature, and liturgy. The mysteries of Sumer are thus tied directly to those of Sumerian and its grammar.

Erika Marsal is a doctoral candidate at the Institut für Orientalistik at the University of Vienna.



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