Lesson 3: Sumerian Words

Sumerian Words

Getting Acquainted with Sumerian Words and Cuneiform Script

Lesson Introduction

This lesson is all about familiarizing yourself with the different types of Sumerian words. Don’t feel you have to memorize everything! We’ll be going into further depth on each word-type later.

In this lesson, we’ll be introducing you to Sumerian:

  • Nouns and Plurals
  • Pronouns and Gender
  • Adjectives and Auslauts
  • Verbs and Copulas

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.

auslaut: the final consonant, sound, or syllable in a word or syllable boundary.

copula: a verb that connects the subject of a sentence to a subject complement; often the word ‘was’, ‘is’, or ‘will be’.

enclitic: a word or particle that suffixes to the end of another word.

hamţu: an Akkadian (Akk.) word meaning quick that describes a perfective verb; that is a completed action, or one that is expected to be completed in the future.

imperfective (imperf.): a form of a verb that shows an action in progress or has not yet been completed.

impersonal: a class of nouns considered inanimate in Sumerian, such as animals, inanimate objects, places, as well as some classes of humans, such as slaves and enemies.

intransitive: referring to a verb that does not require a direct object, such as the verb ‘sleep’ in the sentence ‘the cat sleeps’.

marû: an Akkadian (Akk.) word meaning fat or slow that describes an imperfective verb; an unfinished or ongoing action.

perfective (perf.): a form of a verb that shows a completed action, or an action which is expected to be completed in the future.

personal: a class of nouns considered animate, such as deities and humans except for slaves, enemies, and other people spoken of disparagingly.

pronominal element: components in a sentence representing pronouns, such as prefixes, infixes, and suffixes in the verbal chain.

reduplication: the repetition of a word to express a grammatical or semantic feature, such as plurality, intensity, or verb tense.

transitive: a verb that requires a direct object to complete its meaning, such as ‘the cat eats mice’.

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! Remember, you can see the vocabulary for all lessons in the Online Sumerian Dictionary.

a: 𒀀 n., water, fluid; semen, seed; offspring, child, progeny; canal, watercourse; tears; flood. prep., suff., (-a) (loc. case marker) in, at; where, wherein; when. part. suff., (-a) nominalizing suffix.

ab: 𒀊 n., lake, sea; hole, opening, window, vent; niche, nook. part., inf., (-b-) when preceded by /a/ {a + b}: by it/them (3rd impers.) (erg.); following /ga-/ -b- refers to direct object ‘it’.

ama: 𒂼 n., mother.

a-ni: 𒀀𒉌 pron., he/she, him/her (older variation of e-ne).

a-ne-ne: 𒀀𒉈𒉈 pron., he/she, him/her (before OB).

anše: 𒀲 n., donkey, equid, pack animal.

dilmunki: 𒉌𒌇𒆠 (NI.TUKki) n., prop., Sumerian trading partner in the Persian Gulf between Mesopotamia and Indus Valley civilization, conquered by King Sargon II; a sacred city/territory which some speculate inspired the story of the Garden of Eden.

dub: 𒁾 n., (clay) tablet, document. v., to push (away/down).

dub-sar: n., scribe.

dúr: 𒂉 n., anus, buttocks; dwelling. v., to sit (down) (marû); to be seated, set down; to break wind; to occupy, dwell.

durun: v., to sit (down) (pl. marû/hamţu).

èn: 𒇷 pron., he/she, him/her (rare OB).

den-líl: 𒀭𒂗𒆤 n., prop., Sumerian god of the earthly sky (as opposed to the celestial sky). 

e-ne: 𒂊𒉈 pron., (OB); he/she, him/her, that one (pers.). part., suff., (-(e)ne); plural marker for personal nouns.

e-ne-ne: 𒂊𒉈𒉈 pron., he/she, him/her (before OB).

èš: 𒀊 n., shrine, sanctuary.

ga: 𒂵 n., milk. part., suff., (-ga) replaces auslaut /g/ in some words {g + a}.

ga-ab-šúm: 𒂵𒀊𒋧 n., seller (lit. let me it give).

gaz: 𒄤 v., to kill, execute, slaughter; to break, crumble, grind, grate; to smash, crush.

gibil: 𒉋 v., to be new, fresh; to (make new), renew, renovate.

ĝá(-e): 𒂷(𒂊) pron., I, myself; my.

ĝál: 𒅅 v., to exist, be (somewhere).

ĝe26(-e): 𒂷(𒂊) pron., I, me, myself; my.

ḫar: 𒄯n., ring.

ḫi: 𒄭 v., to mix (up); to process.

ḫur: 𒄯 v., to scratch, draw, incise.

ḫur-saĝ: 𒄯𒊕 n., mountain, foothills, steppe.

kalag: 𒆗 v., to be strong, mighty, powerful; to strengthen, reinforce. adj., strong, swift.

ki-šár: 𒆠𒊹 n., totality, whole earth, horizon; everywhere.

kug: 𒆬 n., metal; silver, precious metal. v., to be pure, holy, sacred; to purify, sanctify. adj., bright, white; pure, sacred, holy.

la: 𒆷 n., plenty, abundance; wealth, luxury; happiness, joy, bliss; youthfulness; wish, desire; lust.

líl: 𒆤 n., air, wind, breath; outdoors, open air/country; emptiness, nothingness; ghost, phantom, spirit (of a place).

ma: 𒈠 part., suff., (-ma) when the locative or nominalizing suffix -a follows the auslaut /m/.

me-en: 𒈨𒂗 v., I am/you are (cop.).

me-en-dè-en: 𒈨𒂗𒉈𒂗 v., we are (cop.).

me-en-zé-en: 𒈨𒂗𒍢𒂗 v., you are (pl.) (cop.).

me-eš: 𒈨𒂠 v., they are (pl.) (cop.).

dnin-ḫur-saĝ: 𒀭𒎏𒄯𒊕 n., prop., the first Sumerian mother/earth goddess involved in the creation of human beings.

paḫ: 𒈜 n., leg.

saĝ: 𒊕 n., head; point; leader; front (side), beginning; top, surface. adj., first, prime. prep., in front.

sar: 𒊬 n., garden; area, volume; surface measurement (garden plot). v., to write, inscribe; to insert, enter.

šár: 𒊹 n., totality, world, horizon, ball. v., to be numerous. adj., many, numerous, innumerable. num., 3600.

šen: 𒊿 v., to be pure, clear.

šúm: 𒋧 n., garlic, onion. v., to give, lend.

tuš: 𒂉 n., home. v., to sit, lie (down) (transitive); to dwell, reside; to be at home.

za(-e): 𒍝(𒂊) pron., you (sg.), yourself.

zag (zà): 𒍠n.,(right) side; outer edge, boarder, cusp; outskirts, frontier; end, limit; beginning.

za(g)-mu: 𒍠𒈬 n., the New Year.

zé: 𒍢 pron., you (sg.).

Sumerian Words

Unlike English, Sumerian sentences don’t use punctuation. Fortunately, Sumerian scribes and their successors were kind enough to try to keep individual sentence, phrases, or ideas on a single line. Sometimes, they even put slashes between words and ideas, although not always.

Most cuneiform texts are full of long sentences, and it can be difficult to tell where one word or phrase ends and the next begins.

Consider the following sentence:

𒌷𒆠𒆬𒆬𒂵𒀀𒀭𒂊𒉈𒁀𒀀𒀭𒈨𒂗𒍢𒂗𒆳𒉌𒌇𒆠𒆬𒂵𒀀𒀭

Now, consider how rough it looks transliterated using English characters:

irikikugkuggaàmenebaàmmeenzéenkurdilmunkikuggaàm

Don’t worry! Any sentence without spaces or punctuation looks overwhelming—even the English translation:

purifiedarethecitiesyouaretheonestowhomtheyareallottedtheforeignlanddilmusispurified

Despite the lack of punctuation, you probably had a much easier time reading the English version. That’s because your brain is familiar with the individual words, and can recognize the boundaries.

With practice, you’ll be able to do this with Sumerian, too. Eventually, you’ll be able to look at the cuneiform and read:

𒌷𒆠𒆬𒆬𒂵𒀀𒀭 | 𒂊𒉈𒁀𒀀𒀭𒈨𒂗𒍢𒂗 | 𒆳𒉌𒌇𒆠𒆬𒂵𒀀𒀭

iriki kug-kug-ga-àm | e-ne ba-àm me-en-zé-en | kur dilmunki kug-ga-àm

purified are the cities—you are the ones to whom they are allotted—the land of Dilmun is purified

But before you can reach this stage, you’ll need to start familiarizing yourself with Sumerian words. Let’s get started!

Sumerian Nouns

Some Sumerian nouns are simple, one-sign words.

ama 𒂼: mother

REMEMBER: There are no articles in Sumerian. Thus, ama can be translated as: mother, a mother, or the mother.

Some nouns are compounds created by combining nouns, adjectives, and even verbs.

ki-šár 𒆠𒊹: whole earth, horizon (land-totality)*

é-gal 𒂍 𒃲: palace (house(n.)-great(adj.))

dub-sar 𒁾𒊬: scribe (tablet(n.)-write(v.))

NOTE: Supposedly, the Sumerians and their successors believed the Earth was flat. I disagree with this for a number of reasons, the use of a solid sphere in the words for ‘Earth’ and ‘horizon’, among them.

Some nouns are created through reduplication.

a-a 𒀀𒀀: father (lit. water(n.)-water(n.); semen(n.)-semen(n.))

Some nouns may have initially been compounds, but over time, morphed into a single sign:

𒇽: man

gal 𒃲: great

lugal 𒈗: king

Some nouns, including proper nouns, are actually short phrases which must be memorized:

ga-ab-šúm: 𒂵𒀊𒋧 seller (lit. let me it give) (gābšúm)

zà(g)-mu: 𒍠𒈬 New Year (lit. edge year [of the]) {zà+mu+[ak]}

dnin-ḫur-saĝ: 𒀭𒎏𒄯𒊕: Ninhursaĝ (queen mountain [of the])

Plural Nouns

Sumerian words can be made plural in a few different ways:

Through reduplication of a noun or adjective:

lugal-lugal: 𒈗𒈗 kings, [all the] kings (lit. king-king)

diĝir-gal-gal: 𒀭𒃲𒃲 gods, [all the] gods (lit. god great-great)

Plural Marker

The plural marker –(e)ne:

šeš-e-ne: 𒋀𒂊𒉈 brothers

dumu-ne: 𒌉𒉈 children, sons, daughters

Adjectival Suffix

When referring to plurality of animals and things, with the adjectival suffix -ḫi-a 𒄭𒀀 (mixed):

anše-ḫi-a: 𒀲𒄭𒀀 [assorted] pack-animals

Pronouns

Gender

The ‘gender’ of Sumerian words isn’t masculine and feminine, as the term implies. Instead, it’s often understood as animate or inanimate. But when it comes to Sumerian words, gender is best understood as personal or impersonal.

Personal nouns include deities and most people, whereas impersonal nouns are animals, inanimate objects, places, and some people, like slaves, enemies, and those whom might be spoken of disparagingly.

Whether a noun is personal or impersonal is especially important when dealing with pronouns and pronominal elements, like infixes in the verbal chain.

We’ll dedicate an entire lesson to pronouns. For now, let’s get familiar with a few.

Independent Personal Pronouns

Sumerian sentences don’t require independent personal pronouns, as they are often full of other pronominal elements. Still, you’ll see them periodically, often when there is a need to show contrast or emphasis.

Be aware that variations of these exist depending on the time period and region a text dates from. Also, be aware that variations and mutations are common depending on how the pronoun is used in the sentence.

We’ll discuss Sumerian pronouns in more depth in the next lesson. For now, let’s get acquainted with the independent pronouns.

Independent Pronouns

In the absolutive (no case marker) and ergative cases:

ĝe26: 𒂷 I/me, (performed) by me (1st sg.)

zé: 𒍢 you, (performed) by you (2nd sg.)

Before the enclitic copula -me-en, ĝe26 and get an additional -e 𒂊:

ĝe26-e: 𒂷𒂊 I/me (1st sg.)—ex. ĝe26-e-me-en: [it is] I [who] am

zé-e: 𒍢𒂊 you (2nd sg.)—ex. zé-e-me-en: [it is] you [who] are

Before a case marker with an /a/ (-a/-ra/-da/-ta/-ak), the /e/ of ĝe26 and becomes /a/. Be aware that the /a/ of -a (loc.-term) and -ak (gen.) replaces the /e/ of ĝe26 and entirely, resulting in multiple meanings for these pronouns.

ĝá: 𒂷 I/me, in me, of me (1st sg.)—ex. ĝá-da with me

za: 𒍝 you, in you, of you (2nd sg.)—ex. za-ra: to you

The independant pronoun ‘his/her’ has two variations, with (a)ne being the older and (e)ne being the later.

a-ni: 𒀀𒉌 he/she (3rd sg.) (OS, NS)

e-ni: 𒂊𒉌 he/she (3rd sg.) (OB)

Before the copula -àm, the /i/ becomes /e/:

a-ne: 𒀀𒉌 he/she (3rd sg.) (OS, NS)

e-ni: 𒂊𒉌 he/she (3rd sg.) (OB)

In nearly all instances:

a-ne-ne: 𒀀𒉈𒉈 they/them (3rd pl.)

e-ne-ne: 𒂊𒉈𒉈 they/them (3rd pl.) (OB)

NOTES: 1) In some OB texts, he/she is written èn 𒂗; 2) Independent 1st and 2nd person plural us, we, and you are unattested in Sumerian, but can be substituted with the copulas me-en-dè-en and me-en-zé-en, or created in other ways.

Adjectives

For the most part, Sumerian adjectives follow the noun they modify.

ba-gal: 𒁀𒃲 great portion

NOTE: Be aware that in the early days of Sumerology, adjectives were suffixed to the noun with a hyphen in transliteration. It’s gone out of fashion, but I still prefer to suffix them. Just be aware that you might see it both ways.

A noun can be modified with multiple adjectives:

éš-gibil-tur: 𒀊𒉋𒌉 small new shrine

éš-gibil-kug-ga: 𒀊𒉋𒆬𒂵 new purified shrine

Adjectives can also be duplicated to indicate plurality or intensity:

diĝir-gal-gal: 𒀭𒃲𒃲great gods (lit. god great-great)

  • can also be read: REALLY great god

 

é-šen-šen: 𒂍𒊿𒊿 immaculate house (lit. house clean-clean)

  • can also be read: clean houses

Adjectives can also be made by suffixing the nominalizing suffix -a 𒀀 to verbs, creating a past participle; that is, a verb which acts like an adjective:

paḫ gaz-a: 𒈜𒄤𒀀 broken leg

é dù-a: 𒂍𒆕𒀀 built house

lú kalag-ga: 𒇽𒆗𒂵 strong man

Reduplicating Auslauts

The verb kalag 𒆗 means to be strong, but notice how we don’t simply suffix -a 𒀀 to it. Instead, we add an extra /g/ before -a.

kalag-a 𒆗𒀀 (early to mid OS)

kalag-ga 𒆗𒂵 (late OS onward)

Adding an extra syllable after the auslaut is a common practice when spelling Sumerian words—especially in later periods.

The consonant added to the vowel will be the same as the preceding auslaut:

kalag-a 𒆗𒀀 (early to mid OS)

lugal-la 𒈗𒆷 (late OS onward)

This phenomenon is common in nominal and verbal chains:

dumu den-líl-la: 𒌉𒀭𒂗𒆤𒆷 son of Enlil

 

šúm-ma-ab: 𒋧𒈠𒀊 give it (imperative)

  • {šúm + b}

Verbs

As you’ve probably already guessed, many Sumerian words can act as nouns, adjectives, verbs, or syllables:

an: 𒀭

  • n., sky, heaven; date cluster; An (god of the celestial sky).
  • v., to be high.
  • adj., high.
  • part., infix (-n-)

A sentence with an intransitive verb only has a subject, whereas a sentence with a transitive verb has a subject and a direct object.

Intransitive: The cat eats.

Transitive: The cat eats mice.

Sumerian verbs can be intransitive or transitive depending on how they’re used in the sentence.

Intransitivelú ba-úš: 𒇽𒁀𒍗 the man died

Transitivelugal-e lú ba-an-úš: 𒈗𒂊𒇽𒁀𒀭𒍗 the king killed the man

But there are some verbs that have specific transitive and intransitive forms. For example, the Sumerian words for to sit:

Intransitive: dúr 𒂉 (no subject required)

Transitive: tuš 𒂉 (subject required)

Notice how the same cuneiform sign 𒂉 is used despite the different use and reading of the word.

ba-dúr: 𒁀𒂉 he/she sits

ba-tuš: 𒁀𒂉 he/she sat

HINT: If you need help remembering the difference between intransitive and transitive verbs, just remember that transitive transfers the action to the object, and intransitive doesn’t.

 

Sumerian verbs can be understood to be imperfective (marû) or perfective (hamţu).

An imperfective verb can occur in the past, present, or future, and may be ongoing.

  • I went to the store [and might still be there].
  • You eat lunch at noon [every day].
  • She will sleep in the bed [until further notice].

A perfective verb is one that has been completed, or is definitely expected to be completed in the future.

  • I went to [and returned from] the store.
  • I will sleep in the bed [only once].

Most often, you’ll see imperfective and perfective Sumerian verbs listed marû or hamţu.

HINT: If you need help remembering which is which, remember that:

  • M is for marû and maybe (it happened, is happening, or will happen)
  • H is for hamţu and it definitely happened or will happen

Plural Verbs

Not only can verbs be transitive or intransitive, marû, or hamţu, they can also be singular or plural.

dúr: 𒂉, marû, sg.

tuš: 𒂉, hamţu, sg.

durun: 𒂉𒂉 marû/hamţu, pl.

Enclitic Copula—To Be

There are two Sumerian words which mean to be. The first is ĝal 𒅅, which means to be present, or to exist.

The second is the Sumerian enclitic copula, which can take a few different forms, depending on where and how it’s used in a sentence—usually a variation of /àm/, /ma/, or /me/. As you probably guessed, the common denominator is the consonant /m/:

Singular

-me-en: 𒈨𒂗 I am, you are (-me 𒈨 in OS) (mēn)

-àm: 𒀀𒀭(A.AN) he/she/it is

Plural

-me-en-dè-en: 𒈨𒂗𒉈𒂗 we are (mēndēn)

-me-en-zé-en: 𒈨𒂗𒍢𒂗 you are (mēnzēn)

-me-eš: 𒈨𒂠 they are (-me 𒈨 in NS) (mēš)

NOTE: In Old Sumerian texts, -me-en is often simply -me, and in Neo-Sumerian texts, -me-eš can be found as -me. Understanding when the text you’re reading dates to can help you determine the correct meaning of -me.

The Copula in Use

lugal-me-en: 𒈗𒈨𒂗 I am/you are you king

nin-àm: 𒎏𒀀𒀭 she is queen

é-a-me-en-dè-en: 𒂍𒀀𒈨𒂗𒉈𒂗 we are in the house

gal-me-en-zé-en: 𒃲𒈨𒂗𒍢𒂗 you (pl.) are great

tur-tur-me-eš: 𒌉𒌉𒈨𒂠 they are little ones

Lesson Three Summary

Congratulations! We covered a lot of ground in this lesson. Don’t get overwhelmed. We’ll be going into more detail in these Sumerian words in future lessons.

To summarize, in this lesson, we learned:

Sumerian Sentences

  • contain no punctuation

Singular Nouns

  • can be simple nouns
  • can be compounds created by combining nouns, adjectives, verbs, and phrases
  • can be created through reduplication

Plural Nouns

  • can be created through reduplication of a noun or adjective
  • can be created by suffixing the plural marker –(e)ne
  • can be created with the adjectival suffix -hi-a when dealing with impersonal nouns

Pronouns

  • are best understood as personal (humans and deities), and impersonal (inanimate objects, animals, and some groups of people)

Adjectives

  • usually follow the noun
  • can modify a noun in succession
  • can be duplicated to indicate plurality or intensity
  • can be created by suffixing -a 𒀀 to verbs

Auslauts

  • are often duplicated as a syllable which corresponds to the following vowel
  • are found duplicated in the nominal chain and verbal chain

Verbs

The Sumerian Copula

  • differs from the verb ĝal 𒅅, to be/exist
  • can be singular or plural

Exercises

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

True or False

  1. Sumerian sentences don’t use punctuation.
  2. Sumerian nouns, adjectives, and verbs can be duplicated.
  3. A sentence with a transitive verb has an object.

Fill in the Blank

Use one of the options to complete the sentences:

 

ga-__-šúm: 𒂵___𒋧 seller

  1. a𒀀
  2. ab 𒀊
  3. ama 𒂼
  4. an𒀭
  5. ane 𒀀𒉈

 

me-en-zé-__: 𒈨𒂗𒍢___

  1. ak 𒀝
  2. an 𒀭
  3. en 𒂗
  4. íb 𒌈
  5. in 𒅔

 

__ kalag-ga: ___𒆗𒂵 strong king

  1. a-a 𒀀𒀀
  2. an 𒀭
  3. dumu 𒌉
  4. é-gal 𒂍𒃲
  5. lugal 𒈗

Translate Sumerian into English

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

  1. a-a den-líl-la: 𒀀𒀀𒀭𒂗𒆤𒆷
  2. lugal-e lú ba-an-úš: 𒈗𒂊𒇽𒁀𒀭𒍗
  3. šeš-e nin-ra é ba-an-dù: 𒋀𒂊𒎏𒊏𒂍𒁀𒀭𒆕

Translate English into Sumerian

  1. you are my mother
  2. he is your bother
  3. they are small children

Spot the Mistake

HINT: You may have to refer to the section on Verbal Prefixes in Lesson 2.

  1. gibil-tur éš: 𒀊𒉋𒌉 small new shrine
  2. lú úš: 𒇽𒍗 the man died
  3. šeš kalag-a: 𒋀𒆗𒀀 strong brother (