The term ‘Sumerian’ applies to speakers of the Sumerian language. The Sumerian language is generally regarded as a language isolate in linguistics because it belongs to no known language family; Akkadian belongs to the Afro-Asiatic languages.
The Sumerian language of ancient Sumer was spoken in Southern Mesopotamia from at least the 4th millennium BC. Sumerian was replaced by Akkadian as a spoken language around 2000 BC, but continued to be used as a sacred, ceremonial and scientific language in Mesopotamia until about 1 AD. Then, it was forgotten until the 19th century. Sumerian is distinguished from other languages of the area such as Hebrew, Akkadian, which also comprises Babylonian and Assyrian, and Aramaic, which are Semitic languages, and Elamite, which may be an Elamo-Dravidian language.
The chronology of the Sumerian language may be divided into several periods according to linguistic and historical considerations:
Archaic Sumerian – 3100 – 2600 BCE
Classical Sumerian – 2600 – 2300 BCENeo-Sumerian – 2300 – 2000 BCE
Post-Sumerian – 2000 – 100 BCE
From the beginning of the second millennium, Babylonians and Assyrians maintained and utilized the extinct Sumerian language in much the same way that ancient Greek and Latin are used for artistic, religious and scholarly purposes today.
Sumerian was spoken in Sumer in southern Mesopotamia (part of modern Iraq) from perhaps the 4th millennium BC until about 2,000 BC, when it was replaced by Akkadian as a spoken language, though continued to be used in writing for religious, artistic and scholarly purposes until about the 1st century AD. Sumerian is not related to any other known language so is classified as a language isolate.
Sumerian cuneiform is the earliest known writing system. Its origins can be traced back to about 8,000 BC and it developed from the pictographs and other symbols used to represent trade goods and livestock on clay tablets. Originally the Sumerians made small tokens out of clay to represent the items. The tokens were kept together in sealed clay envelopes, and in order to show what was inside the envelopes, they press the tokens into the clay in the outside.
Examples of the clay tokens
Over time they realised that the tokens were not needed as they could make the symbols in the clay. They also developed a numeral system to represent multiple instances of the same symbol rather than just inscribing them all. The symbols became stylised over time and eventually evolved into a complete writing system. The earliest texts come from the cities of Uruk and Jamdat Nasr and date back to 3,300BC.
The name ‘cuneiform’ means ‘wedge-shaped’ and comes from the Latin cuneus (wedge). It is based on the appearance of the strokes, which were made by pressing a reed stylus into clay. These type of symbol emerged in 3,000 BC.
By about 2,800 BC some of the Sumerian glyphs were being used to represent sounds using the rebus principle. For example, the symbol for arrow, pronounced ‘ti’, was used to represent the word for life (til). There were also many glyphs which were pronounced the same but represented different words. Later a system of determinatives, which gave you a hint at the category a word belonged to, and of phonetic components, which indicated how to pronounce a word, developed, and helped disambiguate the meanings of glyphs.
Here are some examples of how glyphs changed over time:
Type of writing system: semanto-phonetic – the symbols consist of phonograms, representing spoken syllables, determinatives, which indicate the category a word belonged to and logograms, which represent words.
Direction of writing: variable – early texts were written vertically from top to bottom, but by about 3,000 BC the direction had changed to left to right in horizontal rows. At the same time the signs were rotated 90° anticlockwise and started to be made up mainly of wedges.
Number of symbols: between about 1,000 in older texts to 400 in later texts.
Many of the symbols had multiple pronunciations.
Used to write: Sumerian
Sumerian syllabic glyphs