Lesson 2: Sumerian Sentences

Lesson 2: Sumerian Sentences

Sumerian Syntax, the Nominal Chain, and the Verbal Chain

Lesson Introduction

In this lesson, you’ll learn:

  • Grammatical cases used in Sumerian sentences
  • Word order in Sumerian sentences
  • Nominal chains and their elements
  • Verbal chains and their elements

Helpful Terms

Here are some terms you’ll encounter in this lesson. Remember, these terms and others will be listed in the Glossary of Terms, which you might want to bookmark for convenience.

agent: refers to the noun causing the action in a sentence.

case marker: a particle suffixed to a noun to indicate its grammatical role in a sentence.

copula: a simple verb expressing being; usually a form of ‘was’, ‘is’, or ‘will be’.

dimensional infix: a particle within the verbal chain referring to the comitative, ablative, dative, locative, or terminative case marker in the nominal chain (the dimensional cases).

impersonal: in Sumerian sentences, an impersonal noun is an animate human of lower class, an animate animal, and all other inanimate nouns.

infix: a particle within the verbal chain referring to elements within the nominal chain.

modal prefix: a particle prefixed to a verb or verbal chain, usually indicating ability, obligation, necessity, or permission.

nominal chain: a string of nouns, adjectives, pronouns, case markers, and other non-verbal elements providing a complete idea about the subjects and objects in a sentence.

patient: refers to the noun experiencing the action in a sentence.

personal: in Sumerian sentences, a personal noun is an animate human being or deity.

syntax: the order of words in a sentence.

verbal chain: a string of prefixes, infixes, and suffixes attached to a verb to provide additional information about the action.

Lesson Vocabulary

Here are some of the vocabulary words you’ll encounter in this lesson. I’ve provided the most thorough definitions possible! You don’t need to memorize them right now, but you’ll come across these often, so it’s a good idea to get acquainted with them!

àm: 𒀀𒀭 v., he/she/it is (enclitic copula).

da: 𒁕 n., arm; near, close. v., to hold; to be near. prep., suff., (-da) with (com. case marker). conj., and (OA).

dù: 𒆕 v., to build, to make; to do, to perform.

é-gal: 𒂍𒃲 n., palace.

e-ne: 𒂊𒉈 part., suff., plural marker for personal nouns; -ne when precede by a vowel (before OB).

gìn: 𒆳 n., mountain(s); lapis lazuli.

ì: 𒉌 part., pref., conjugational prefix (indicates distance from speaker).

íb: 𒌈  part., pref., a stand-alone conjugational prefix (íb-√) referring to the agent (3rd imp.) (erg.).

in: 𒅔part., inf., (-n-) when preceded by /i/ {i+n=in} indicating he/she, him/her.

kur: 𒆳 n., mountain(s), highland; foreign land; underworld, netherworld.

munus: 𒊩 n., woman, female. det., pref., determinative indicating the name of a female.

na: 𒈾part., inf., (-na-) to him/her (dat.).

ne: 𒉈suff., (-(e)ne) plural marker for personal nouns when following a consonant.

ni: 𒉌 part., inf., (-ni-) indicates his/her/its location (pers./imp.) (loc.); indicates his/her/its direction (pers./imp.) (term.).

nin: 𒎏 n., lady, mistress, owner (f.), lord (f.), queen.

ra: 𒊏 part., suff., to/for (dat.).

sal: 𒊩 n., uterus, vulva. det., pref., determinative indicating the name of a female.

ta: 𒋫 part., suff., (-ta) away from, out of, since, after (abl.); by means of (inst.); creates an adverb.

ur: 𒌨 n., dog, lion, beast.

uš: 𒍑part., suff., (-) they/them (pers.) when the root verb ends in /u/.

Grammatical Cases in Sumerian Sentences

A grammatical case is a word category which helps identify the role of a word in a sentence. While you don’t need to memorize them all right now, you’ll want to get acquainted with the cases used in Sumerian:

absolutive (abs.): the standard unaltered case of a noun.

ergative (erg.): indicates the agent; the noun doing the action, as in ‘[performed] by’.

genitive (gen.): indicates origin or derivation, as in “of”.

locative (loc.): indicates where something is happening, as in ‘in’, or ‘at’.

dative (dat.): indicates motion toward someone, as in ‘to/for [a person]’.

directive (dir.): indicates motion toward something, is in ‘to/for [a thing]’.

terminative (term.): indicates a final destination, as in ‘to [a place]’.

comitative (com.): indicates group action, as in ‘with’.

ablative (abl.): indicates removal or separation from; can also indicate manner or method (instrumental).

equative (equ.): indicates similarity, as in ‘like’, or ‘as’.

Case Markers

With the exception of the absolutive case, each of these grammatical cases can be identified by its case marker; a particle suffixed to the noun it refers to:

-Ø: zero ending (abs.)

-e: -by (erg.)

-ak: of (gen.)

-a: -in/at (loc.)

-ra: to/for (personal) (dat.)

-e: to/or (impersonal) (dir.)

-šè: -to/toward (term.)

-da: with (com.)

-ta: from/by means of (abl.)

-gin7: like (equ.)

For the most part, indicating case is as simple as suffixing a case marker to a noun:

lugal-e: [performed] by [a/the] king (lit. king-by)

nin-na[k]: of a/the queen (lit. queen-of) {nin + ak}

é-a: in/at [a/the] house (lit. house-in/at)

lú-ra: to/for [a/the] man (lit. man-to/for)

é-gal-e: for the palace

iri-šè: to/toward [a/the] city (lit. city-toward)

munus-da: with [a/the] woman

kur-ta: from [a/the] mountain

ur-gin7: like [a/the] dog

NOTE: Sumerian doesn’t use articles ‘a’, ‘an’, or ‘the’, which is why I have them in brackets in the above sentences.

Fun with Cuneiform

Cuneiform developed over the millennia from pictographic images to the complex wedge-shaped signs we know and love today. While many of the late-stage cuneiform words are unrecognizable from their pictographic predecessors, some signs still resemble the original pictogram.

For example, the KUR-sign resembles a tiny mountain range, while the MUNUS-sign is a literal depiction of female genitalia.

Fun with Pictograms

Can you make out the images in the cuneiform signs below? If you have trouble, try tilting your head to the left, and imagine what they might look like if they were turned upright 90 degrees.

𒂍 É-sign: house

𒆳 KUR or GÌN-sign: mountain, lapis lazuli

𒇽 -sign: man, person

𒊩 MUNUS or SAL-sign: woman

𒌷 URU-sign (iri, eri): city

Word Order in Sumerian Sentences

Subject-Object-Verb (SOV)

Like English, words in Sumerian sentences follow a particular pattern, or syntax. In English, the usual order of words is Subject-Verb-Object (SVO), as in:

  • The king built the palace.
  • The king(subject) built(verb) the palace(object).

However, in Sumerian, the normal word order is Subject-Object-Verb (SOV).

  • lugal-e é-gal ba-an-dù: [the] king built [the] palace, or the palace was built by the king
  • king(sub.)-by palace(obj.) it-he-built(v.)

Agent-Patient-Verb (APV)

In Sumerian, SOV sentence structure is better understood as Agent-Patient-Verb (APV), wherein:

  • the agent causes the action
  • the patient experiences the action

In the sentence the king built the palace:

the ‘king’ is the agent

  • because he causes the palace to be built

the ‘palace’ is the patient

  • because it experiences being built

Whether or not a sentence has an agent will be important later. For now, it’s helpful to get comfortable with the APV concept.

é-gal ba-dù: [a/the] palace was built

In this example, we don’t know who built the palace, and we may not need to.

Nominal and Verbal Chains

The sentence lugal-e é-gal ba-an-dù has two parts:

The nominal chain provides a full idea about the nouns in the sentence, whereas the verbal chain provides all the information we need about the action.

Sumerian sentences are almost always broken down into these two parts. The ability to identify these will make reading and translating Sumerian so much easier!

Nominal Chains in Sumerian Sentences

The nominal chain comes first in the sentence, and the word order is:

  • (n.) + (adj.) + (pron.) + (pl.) + (c.) + (cop.)

You don’t need all of these word types to create a nominal chain, but those you do have, should follow the above order.

Here are some examples:

dumu-ne: sons

  • (lit. son-plural)
  • {dumu(n.) + [e]ne(pl.)}

ur-gal-ĝu10: my big dog

  • (lit. dog-big-my)
  • {ur(n.) + gal(adj.) + ĝu10(pron.)}

diĝir-šeš-zu-ne-da: with your brother gods

  • (lit. god-brother-your-plural-with)
  • {diĝir(n.) + šeš(n.) + zu(pron.)+[e]ne(pl.) + da(com.)}

Be aware that a pronoun may come before the adjective:

é-zu gal-la-àm: your house is big

  • (lit: house-your-big-is)
  • {é(n.) + zu(poss. pron.) + gal(adj.) + àm(cop.)

NOTE: in the above construction, you’ll notice a /la/ between lugal and àm. This is a topic we’ll cover in more depth later, but suffice to say, this ‘meaningless’ /la/ acts as a spelling bridge between both words. For now, understand that all gal-la is trying to tell you is gal.a.

Verbal Chains in Sumerian Sentences

In my opinion, the verbal chain is the most difficult part of learning Sumerian. We’ll go into depth about the different elements within the verbal chain in subsequent lessons. For now, there are a few things you’ll want to remember.

Verbal Prefixes

First, Sumerian verbs in a sentence must be modified. For this reason, you will almost always see a verb with a prefix, which often confers additional meaning about the verb.

In the following examples, is the verb ‘to build’, and the prefixes relate to the agent; that is, the person doing the action.

Technically, if the verbal chain provides enough information, the nominal chain may be omitted completely.

ì-dù: I built it

e-dù: you built it

in-dù: he/she built it

in-dù-uš: they (personal) built it (includes the plural suffix /š/)

íb-dù: they (impersonal) built it

NOTE: While you may see Sumerian nouns listed as animate and inanimate, they’re better understood as personal or impersonal. Personal refers to people and deities, whereas impersonal refers to inanimate objects as well as animate beings considered lower in societal stature, such as slaves and animals.

Verbal Chain Order

Like nominal chains, verbal chains follow a particular order.

Note how only the first term, ‘modal-prefix’, is listed as a ‘prefix’. The rest are referred to as ‘infixes’, as they are found within the verbal chain and not at the beginning. However, it should be understood that a verbal chain can start with an infix.

NOTE: Some grammars and Sumerian linguists opt not to use the term ‘infix’ at all, and call them all prefixes.

YOU DO NOT NEED TO MEMORIZE THIS NOW. We’ll be covering these elements in more detail in subsequent lessons.

Just as we saw in the nominal chain, you don’t need all of these in elements in the verbal chain.

In the following example, each infix refers to information we would probably find in the nominal chain.

ì-na-ni-in-dù: he/she bult it there for him/her

Lesson Two Summary

Fantastic! You’re well on your way to learning Sumerian! Don’t worry if you feel a little overwhelmed. We’re tackling the hardest parts of learning Sumerian right out of the gate, and it only gets easier from here!

To summarize, in this lesson, we learned about:

Ø: zero ending (absolutive)

-e: -by (ergative)

-ak: of (genitive)

-a: -in/at (locative)

-ra: to/for (dative)

-šè: -to/toward (terminative)

-da: with (comitative)

-ta: from/by means of (ablative)

-gin7: like (equative)

Word Order

Nominal Chains

  • (n.) + (adj.) + (pron.) + (pl.) + (c.) + (cop.)

Verbal Chains


Complete the exercises using information and vocabulary from this and previous lessons. Remember, you can see the full list of vocabulary words in the Sumerian dictionary, and all of the helpful terms can be found here.

True or False

  1. Case markers indicate the role a noun plays in a sentence.
  2. All Sumerian sentences have agents.
  3. To be considered grammatically correct, verbs in Sumerian must be modified.

Fill in the Blank

Use one of the following options to complete the sentence:

in-__-uš: they (personal) built

  1. an
  2. mul
  3. ur
  4. zu

ba-an-__-ge-eš: he/she made them to stand

  1. ak
  2. da
  3. gir15
  4. sud
  5. zi

diĝir-šeš-zu-ne-__: with your brother gods

  1. a
  2. šè
  3. da
  4. e
  5. ta

Translate Sumerian into English

  1. ur-gal
  2. nin-zu-ra
  3. dumu-ĝu10-ne-da
  4. lugal-e é-gal in-dù
  5. lú-e munus-ra iri-a é ì-na-in-dù *Don’t worry about the precise word order in the English translation.

Translate English into Sumerian

  1. my big dog
  2. from the city
  3. your young son
  4. with your brothers
  5. you built it

Spot the Mistake

  1. da-munus: with the woman
  2. é-tur: palace
  3. dnanna-ĝu10-diĝir: my god, Nanna

Translate Cuneiform

  1. 𒂍
  2. 𒇽
  3. 𒌷

Bring It All Together

In the following sentence, identify:

lugal-e nin-ra iri-a é ì-na-ni-in-dù: The king built the house for the queen in the city.

  1. the nominal chain:
  2. the verbal chain:
  3. the agent:
  4. the patient:
  5. the location:
  6. the object:
  7. the conjugational prefix:
  8. the dative infix:
  9. the locative infix:
  10. the ergative infix:


True or False

  1. Case markers indicate the role a noun plays in a sentence—TRUE
  2. All Sumerian sentences have an agent—FALSE
  3. To be considered grammatically correct, verbs in Sumerian must be modified—TRUE

Fill in the Blank

in-__-uš: they (personal) built


ba-an-__-ge-eš: he/she made them to stand

5) zi

diĝir-šeš-zu-ne-__: with your brother gods

3) da

Translate Sumerian into English

  1. ur-gal: big dog
  2. nin-zu-ra: to/for your queen
  3. dumu-ĝu10-ne-da: with my sons
  4. lugal-e é-gal in-dù: The palace was built by the king.
  5. lú-e munus-ra iri-a é ì-na-in-dù: A/the man bult a house in the city for the woman (or some variation thereof)

Translate English into Sumerian

  1. my big dog: ur-gal-ĝu10
  2. from the city: iri-ta
  3. your young son: dumu-tur-zu
  4. with your brothers: šeš-zu-ne-da
  5. you built it: e-dù

Spot the Mistake

  1. da-munus: with the woman
    • incorrect word order
    • correct: munus-da
  2. é-tur: palace
  3. dnanna ĝu10-diĝir: my god, Nanna
    • incorrect word order
    • correct: dnanna diĝir-ĝu10

Translate Cuneiform

  1. 𒂍 É
  2. 𒇽
  3. 𒌷 URU (also iri, or eri)

Bring It All Together

lugal-e nin-ra iri-a é ì-na-ni-in-dù: The king built the house for the queen in the city.

  1. the nominal chain: lugal-e nin-ra iri-a é
  2. the verbal chain: ì-na-in-dù
  3. the agent: lugal
  4. the patient: é
  5. the location: iri
  6. the conjugational prefix: ì-
  7. the dative infix: -na-
  8. the locative infix: –ni
  9. the ergative infix: -in-


If you find these online Sumerian lessons helpful, or if you’d like to support my Sumerian language work, please consider donating at: paypal.me/sumerianastrologyhttps://paypal.me/sumerianastrology?country.x=US&locale.x=en_US


  1. Christine

    The cuneiform signs do not appear on this webpage.

    1. Abbey Quinn

      They’re showing up on my end–multiple browsers and devices. Can I ask what browser/device you’re using? That’ll help me troubleshoot. Also, I’ll see if I can find a way to make a downloadable file of each lesson in case someone else encounters the issue. As the lessons progress, there will be a LOT of cuneiform, so I’ll need to figure it out asap 😀 Thanks for the feedback!!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *