Lesson 6: The Sumerian Ergative Case

The Sumerian Ergative Case

Identifying and Using the Sumerian Ergative Case Markers and Infixes

Lesson Introduction

Welcome to lesson 6—The Sumerian Ergative Case! In the next few lessons, we’ll be tackling some of the most important aspects of Sumerian grammar—the grammatical cases. In the coming lessons, the Sumerian language is really going to open up for you!

In this lesson, we’re going to:

Helpful Terms

 

active voice: in the active voice, the subject is the agent; that is, the noun doing the action.

direct object: a noun, pronoun, or noun phrase that directly receives the action of the verb in a sentence.

indirect object: a noun, pronoun, or noun phrase which is received by the direct object.

indirect reflexive: a verb form where the action indirectly returns to the subject, typically for their benefit or detriment.

middle voice: in the middle voice, the subject is both the agent and the patient; that is, the action affects the subject in some way.

passive voice: in the passive voice, the subject is the patient; that is, it receives the action.

postposition: a word or particle placed after a noun or pronoun to indicate a relationship with another word in the sentence.

preposition: a word or particle placed before a noun or pronoun to indicate its relationship to another word in the sentence.

reflexive: a verb form where the subject and object are the same, indicating the action is done by the subject unto itself.

valency: the ability of a verb to combine with noun phrases and pronouns, often distinguishing between intransitive (one participant) and transitive (two participants) verbs.

vowel harmony: a phonological process where vowels within a word harmonize to be all from the same class.

 

Lesson Vocabulary

Here are the new vocabulary words you’ll encounter in this lesson. Remember, you can see the full vocabulary list for all lessons, and the detailed definition in the Online Sumerian Dictionary.

dú (tud/tu) 𒌅 v., to give birth (to), bear a child; to beget; to be born; to make, fashion, create; to be reborn, transformed, changed.

gu7 (kú )𒅥 n., food, sustenance; fodder. v., to eat, consume, devour, swallow; to use; to finish (off); to feed, nurse.

ĝen (gen) 𒁺 v., to come/go (hamţu (sg.) of du).

izi 𒉈 n., fire, brazier.

ku6 (kud) 𒄩 n., fish. part., suff., determinative suffix indicating a class of fish.

le 𒇷 part., syllable used for spelling.

naĝ (nag/na8) 𒅘 n., a drink v.,  to drink; to irrigate, to water.

su 𒍪 v., to sink, submerge.

šeĝ6 (še6/šeg6): 𒉈 v.,  to heat, cook, bake, boil; to be hot; to fire (pottery).

šu 𒋗 v., to pour.

tuku 𒌇 n.,  creditor. v.,  to have, own, possess; to marry; to acquire, obtain; to receive, get (m. red.).

ù 𒅇 conj., and, but, also, furthermore, moreover.

ub 𒌒 part., syllable used for spelling.

ul4 𒄉 v., to be quick; to hurry, hasten. adv., greatly.

ul4-la-bi 𒄉𒆷𒁉 adv., quickly, very soon.

un 𒌦 n., people, population. part., syllable used for spelling.

zuḫ: 𒅗 v., to steal, rob.

Sumerian Grammatical Cases—Review

You’re probably familiar with the term preposition, which comes before the noun it refers to. Consider the following examples and the underlined pre-positions.

by the man

of the land

in the house

for the king

for the city

to(ward) the shrine

with the mother

from the mountain

like a star

In Sumerian, the words conveying these same meanings occur in postpositions; that is, they come after the noun.

lugal-e: 𒈗𒂊 by the man

ki[-ak]: 𒆠[𒀝] of the land

é-a: 𒂍𒀀 in the house

lugal-ra: 𒈗𒊏 for the king

iri-e: 𒌷𒂊 for the city

èš-šè: 𒀊𒂠 to(ward) the shrine

ama-da: 𒂼𒁕 with the mother

kur-ta: 𒆳𒋫 from the mountain

mul-gin7: 𒀯𒄀 like a star

As you probably remember from Lesson Two, these postpositions are the Sumerian grammatical case markers.

NOTE: The -ak 𒀝 in ki[-ak] 𒆠[𒀝] is in brackets because it doesn’t actually appear in this construction. We’ll discuss this phenomenon in detail in the next lesson.

Sumerian Case-Markers/Postpositions

-e: 𒂊 -by (ergative)

-ak: 𒀝 of (genitive)

-a: 𒀀 -in/at (locative)

-ra: 𒊏 to/for (personal) (dative)

e: 𒂊 to/for (impersonal) (directive)

-šè: 𒂠-to/toward; for [a purpose] (terminative)

-da: 𒁕 [together] with (comitative)

-ta: 𒋫from; with/by means of (ablative)

-gin7: 𒄀 like (equative)

REMEMBER: The absolutive case is unmarked, or if you prefer, marked with a -Ø (zero) ending).

For the most part, expressing the above ideas is as simple as suffixing the appropriate postposition to a word. However, there are some special circumstances you’ll want to be aware of. In this lesson, we’ll be covering the spelling and grammatical rules of the Sumerian ergative case.

But before we tackle that, let’s discuss a “conjugational prefix” that you’ll encounter throughout your Sumerian language journey.

The Conjugational Prefix ba- 𒁀

We’ll be discussing conjugational prefixes in depth in a later lesson. However, as we explore the Sumerian cases and their corresponding verbal infixes, we’ll be encountering the conjugational prefix ba- 𒁀 a lot! I mean…. a lot!

Depending on who you talk to, as a verbal prefix/infix, ba- 𒁀 ranges from being entirely untranslatable to having myriad meanings. I fall into the latter category.

We’re only going to be exploring a few of the potential meanings in this lesson, so let’s jump in!

In some situations, ba- 𒁀 is simply an impersonal indirect object prefix/infix.

lugal-e é izi ba-šúm: 𒈗𒂊𒂍𒉈𒁀𒋧 The king set (lit. gave) fire to the house.

In the above construction:

ba- 𒁀 as a Middle Voice Indicator

In other circumstances, ba- 𒁀 is best described as a middle voice indicator. But what is that?

Generally speaking, the subject of a sentence changes depending on the voice.

In the active voice, the agent (doer of the action) is the subject. In the passive voice, the patient (receiver of the action) is the subject.

Unfortunately, the middle voice is a bit more complicated.

In simplest terms, in the middle voice, the subject is both agent and patient. However, depending in the language, middle voice can have different meanings.

As far as Sumerian is concerned, middle voice usually indicates:

ba- 𒁀 as an Indirect Reflexive

An indirect reflexive occurs when the subject does something indirectly for or to its own benefit or detriment. In this way, the action is reflected back to the subject through an intermediary object or entity.

lugal-e é-gal ba-an-dù: 𒈗𒂊𒃲𒂍𒁀𒀭𒆕 The king built a palace (for himself).

munus-e ku6 ba-an-šeĝ6: 𒊩𒂊𒄩𒁀𒀭𒉈 The woman cooked a fish (to eat).

maš-ĝu10 ba-an-zuḫ: 𒈧𒈬𒁀𒀭𒅗 He stole my goat (for himself).

ba- as an Indicator of Spontaneous Change

ba- 𒁀 can also indicate a change in state that happens, presumably of its own accord, or by the actions of an unknown agent.

na ba-su: 𒈾𒁀𒍪 The stone sank.

ba-ĝen-eš: 𒁀𒁺𒂠 They left.

ba-ab-šu: 𒁀𒀊𒋗 It poured.

ba- 𒁀 as a Passive Voice Marker in Intransitive Sentences

In an agentless sentence, ba- 𒁀 can also indicate that the subject is the patient.

é ba-dù: 𒂍𒁀𒆕 The house was built.

ga é-a ba-an-ku4: 𒂵𒂍𒀀𒁀𒀭𒆭 Milk was brought into the house.

ku6 ba-ab-gu7: 𒄩𒁀𒀊𒅥 Fish was given to (be) eat(en).

Bringing It Together—Voice, Valency, and Aspect

Before we go any further into our discussion on the Sumerian ergative case, let’s dissect a few sentences to ensure you’re comfortable with the different forms a Sumerian sentence can take.

munus in-gu7: 𒊩𒅔𒅥The woman eats.

 

ku6 ba-gu7: 𒄩𒁀𒅥 Fish was eaten.

 

munus-e ku6 in-gu7: 𒊩𒂊𒄩𒅔𒅥 The woman ate the fish.

 

munus-e ku6 ba-in-gu7: 𒊩𒂊𒄩𒁀𒅔𒅥 Fish was eaten by the woman.

 

ku6 ul4-la-bi ba-gu7: 𒄩𒄉𒆷𒁉𒁀𒅥 The fish cooks quickly.

 

Now onto the Sumerian ergative case!

The  term “ergative” is derived from the Greek word “ἔργον” (érgon), which means work or action. The Sumerian ergative case marks the subject of a transitive verb; that is, the agent—the one transferring the (transitive) action to the patient.

NOTE: In older Sumerological literature, the Sumerian “ergative case” was referred to as the “agentive case”.

In the above constructions, you’ll notice that the word munus 𒊩 was suffixed with the ergative postposition/case marker -e 𒂊, letting us know that munus 𒊩 is the agent (doer) in the sentence. The same is true in the following constructions:

lugal-e é in-dù: 𒈗𒂊𒂍𒅔𒆕 The king built the house.

lugal-e é ba-in-dù: 𒈗𒂊𒂍𒁀𒅔𒆕 The house was built by the king.

In the above sentences, lugal 𒈗 is performing the action, and is thus marked by -e 𒂊. Depending on the time period and a number of other factors, this /e/ may take the auslaut of the preceding word.

lugal-e: 𒈗𒂊 by the king

lugal-le: 𒈗𒇷 by the king

In most instances, when the Sumerian ergative case marker follows a vowel-final word, such as ama 𒂼, 𒇽, or dumu 𒌉, the -e 𒂊 is omitted. This can be confusing, as the absolutive and ergative spellings are indistinguishable:

ama: 𒂼 mother (abs.), by the mother (erg.)

lú: 𒇽 man (abs.), by the man (erg.)

dumu: 𒌉 child (abs.), by the child (erg.)

Fortunately, meaning can be gleaned by the surrounding text:

ama ku6 in-gu7: 𒂼𒄩𒅔𒅥 The mother cooked the fish.

lú é in-dù: 𒇽𒂍𒅔𒆕 The man built the house.

dumu ku6 in-gu7: 𒌉𒄩𒅔𒅥 The child ate the fish.

To complicate matters further, sometimes the Sumerian ergative case marker -e 𒂊 isn’t dropped, but instead harmonizes with the preceding vowel. This is a phenomenon known as vowel harmony, and it can be confusing, because as you know, vowels suffixed to words can change the meaning.

lú-ù: 𒇽𒅇 by the man (ù 𒅇 is the Akkadian conjunction “and”)

ama-a: 𒂼𒀀 by the mother (-a 𒀀 is the locative postposition/case marker “in/at/on”)

Once again, your Sumerian skills and the surrounding context will be all that stands between you and confusion.

A Note on Vowel Harmony

In all likelihood, the above mutations are the result of the postposition -e 𒂊 creating a temporal lengthening of the preceding vowel, which speakers of Sumerian would have understood.

In other words, instead of writing out dumu-e 𒌉𒂊 or dumu-ù 𒌉𒅇, Sumerian speakers would have known to hold the final /u/ in dumu 𒌉and extra ‘beat’, resulting in dumu 𒌉. They may have also shortened the preceding /u/, resulting in more of a short /o/ or /u/ sound—/domū/.

This would have been enough for them to understand that dumu 𒌉is the agent in the sentence. Thus, writing out the additional -e 𒂊 would have been unnecessary.

Successive generations of scribes might have communicated this lengthening in writing by doubling the final vowel—ex. lú-e 𒇽𒂊 becomes lú-ù 𒇽𒅇.

How -e 𒂊 behaves after a vowel will vary by period, region, scribe, and even modern translation.

Throughout this grammar, we’ll make use of all of these variations within the Sumerian ergative case so you can get comfortable with them. For the most part, I’ll be writing -e 𒂊 after a consonant-final agent, and omitting it after a vowel-final agent.

lú: 𒇽 by the man

ama: 𒂼 by the mother

lugal-e: 𒈗𒂊 by the king

lugal-le: 𒈗𒇷 by the king

The ergative infix is a pronominal element within the verbal chain which refers back to the agent in the nominal chain; that is, it refers back to the noun marked by the Sumerian ergative case.

For example:

lugal-e é in-dù: 𒈗𒂊𒂍𒅔𒆕 The king built the house.

In this example:

The ergative infix is always found immediately before the root verb.

in-dù: 𒅔𒆕 he/she built {n + √}

Ergative Infix Paradigm

Depending on who the agent is—and the date of the text—the ergative infix will be:

-ø-: by me (possible unwritten a– 𒀀 or -ɂ- in early to mid OS)

-e-: 𒂊 by you (sg.) (unwritten/assimilated before OB)

-n-: by him/her (unwritten/assimilated before OB)

-b-: by it/them (sg./pl.) (impersonal)

-n-√-(e)š: by them (pl.) (-n- unwritten before mid NS)

“Helper Vowels”

There are no stand-alone consonants in Sumerian. In other words, you can’t say n-dù 𒆕or b-dù 𒆕. To render these ideas pronounceable, you need a “helper vowel”.

When the ergative infix is the only pronominal element in the verbal chain, the helper vowel is usually and /i/, although /e/ and /a/ are also seen.

ì-dù: 𒉌𒆕 I built

e-dù: 𒂊𒆕 you built

in-dù: 𒅔𒆕 he/she built

íb-dù: 𒌈𒆕 it/they (sg./pl.) (imp.) built

in-dù-uš: 𒅔𒆕𒍑 they (pl.) (pers.) built

OBSERVATION: Note the vowel harmony in the last example wherein the plural pronominal suffix -(e)š is written -uš 𒍑 after 𒆕 { + /š/ = dù-uš 𒆕𒍑}.

When the ergative infix is preceded by another element, the helper vowel harmonizes with the preceding vowel.

nu-dù: 𒉡𒆕 I did not build (alt. nu-a/ɂ-dù 𒉡𒀀𒆕)

nu-e-dù: 𒉡𒂊𒆕 you did not build

nu-un-dù: 𒉡𒌦𒆕 he/she did not build

nu-ub-dù: 𒉡𒌒𒆕 it/they (imp.) did not build

nu-un-dù-uš: 𒉡𒌦𒆕𒍑 they (pers.) did not build

 

ba-gu7: 𒁀𒅥 eaten by me (alt. ba-a/ɂ- gu7 𒁀𒀀𒅥)

ba-e-gu7: 𒁀𒂊𒅥 eaten by you

ba-an-gu7: 𒁀𒀭𒅥 eaten by him/her

ba-ab-gu7: 𒁀𒀊𒅥 eaten by it/them (imp.)

ba-an-gu7-uš: 𒁀𒀭𒅥𒍑 eaten by them (pers.)

NOTE: When negating a verb, nu 𒉡 precedes ba 𒁀 in the verbal chain:

nu-ba-šúm: 𒉡𒁀𒋧 was not given by me

nu-ba-e-šúm: 𒉡𒁀𒂊𒋧 was not given by you

nu-ba-an-šúm: 𒉡𒁀𒀭𒋧 was not given by him/her

nu-ba-ab-šúm: 𒉡𒁀𒀊𒋧 was not given by it/them (imp.)

nu-ba-an-šúm-uš: 𒉡𒁀𒀭𒋧𒍑 was not given by them (pers.)

In many cases, when the Sumerian ergative case marker follows a vowel-final word, such as ama 𒂼, 𒇽, or dumu 𒌉, the -e 𒂊 is omitted. This can be confusing, as the absolutive and ergative spellings are indistinguishable:

Lesson Six Summary

That’s it for this lesson! Believe it or not, you’ve just taken a major step forward on your Sumerian language journey! Understanding the Sumerian ergative case is going to allow you to start translating and constructing sentences with ease!

In this lesson, we:

Five Basic Interrogatives

a-ba: 𒀀𒁀 who (personal)?

a-na: 𒀀𒈾 what, who (impersonal)?

me: 𒈨 where? (later texts only)

én: 𒇷when? (later texts only)

a-gin7: 𒀀𒄀 how? (only 1 attested occurrence)

Exercises

In the Exercises portion of the previous five lessons, we tested your knowledge in different ways, such as True or False, Multiple Choice, Spot the Mistake, and more. However, in the coming lessons, the exercises are going to focus more on putting your Sumerian skills into practice through translation.

As you work through the exercises below, you may need to refer to the Online Sumerian Dictionary, although most of the translations are going to use words you should be familiar with by now.

Identify the Words and Elements in Each Sentence

For each of the following sentences, identify the:

The first one is done for you:

  1. lú é in-dù: 𒇽𒂍𒅔𒆕 The man built a house.

 

  1. lú munus in-tuku: 𒇽𒊩𒅔𒌇 The man married a woman.

 

  1. munus-ra é an-šúm: 𒊩𒊏𒂍𒀭𒋧 (He) gave the house to the woman.

 

  1. a-ne-ne é-a in-ti-iš: 𒀭𒉈𒉈𒂍𒀀𒅔𒋾𒅖 They lived in the house.

 

 

  1. munus-e dumu-nita an-dú: 𒊩𒂊𒌉𒀴𒀭𒌅 The woman gave birth to a son.

Translate Sumerian into English

  1. lú é munus-ra iri-a in-dù: 𒇽𒂍𒊩𒊏𒌷𒀀𒅔𒆕
  2. a-ne-ne dumu-ne-da é-a in-ti-iš: 𒀭𒉈𒉈𒌉𒉈𒁕𒂍𒀀𒅔𒋾𒅖
  3. munus ki-aĝ-ĝa-ni dam-àm: 𒊩𒆠𒉘𒂷𒉌𒁮𒀀𒀭
  4. munus é-a dumu in-dú: 𒊩𒂍𒀀𒌉𒅔𒌅
  5. dumu-e ga ba-an-naĝ: 𒌉𒂊𒂵𒁀𒀭𒅘

Translate English into Sumerian

NOTE: Don’t worry too much about the word order in the English translation.

  1. The man built a house in the city:
  2. That house was built by that man:
  3. The woman was married at the shrine:

Answer Key

Identify the Words and Elements in Each Sentence

  1. lú é in-dù: 𒇽𒂍𒅔𒆕 The man built a house.

 

  1. lú munus in-tuku: 𒇽𒊩𒅔𒌇 The man married a woman.

 

  1. munus-ra é an-šúm: 𒊩𒊏𒂍𒀭𒋧 (He) gave the house to the woman.

 

  1. a-ne-ne é-a in-ti-iš: 𒀭𒉈𒉈𒂍𒀀𒅔𒋾𒅖 They lived in the house.

 

  1. munus-e dumu-nita an-dú: 𒊩𒂊𒌉𒀴𒀭𒌅 The woman gave birth to a son.

Fill in the Blank

  1. lú é munus-ra iri-a in-dù: 𒇽𒂍𒊩𒊏𒌷𒀀𒅔𒆕 The man built the house for the woman in the city.
  2. a-ne-ne dumu-ne-da é-a in-ti-iš: 𒀭𒉈𒉈𒌉𒉈𒁕𒂍𒀀𒅔𒋾𒅖 They lived in the house with their children.
  3. munus ki-aĝ-ĝa-ni dam-àm: 𒊩𒆠𒉘𒂷𒉌𒁮𒀀𒀭 The woman was his beloved wife.
  4. munus é-a dumu in-dú: 𒊩𒂍𒀀𒌉𒅔𒌅 The woman gave birth in the house.
  5. dumu-e ga ba-an-naĝ: 𒌉𒂊𒂵𒁀𒀭𒅘 The child drank milk.

Translate English into Sumerian

  1. The man built a house in the city: lú é iri-a in-dù 𒇽𒂍𒌷𒀀𒅔
  2. That house was built by that man: lú é-bi ba-an-dù. 𒇽𒂍𒁉𒁀𒀭𒆕
  3. The woman was married at the shrine: munus-e èš-a ba-an-tuku 𒊩𒂊𒀊𒀀𒁀𒀭𒌇

Translate English into Sumerian

  1. Are you my mother? a-ba ama-ĝu10-me-en
  2. Is he a deity? (a/e-ni) diĝir-àm
  3. Who is king? a-ba lugal-àm
  4. Who is that man? a-ba lú-àm
  5. What is this place? a-na ki-àm
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