Dead languages /
Ancient World / Mesopotamia / Languages /
Extinct language spoken in Sumer (Mesopotamia) from the 4th millennium BCE until around 2000 BCE, when Akkadian replaced it. It is the world's oldest written language.
Its family has never been established, among the main suggestions are Ural-Altaic (which includes Turkish), Dravidian, Brahui and Bantu. Sumerian is still classified as a Language isolate. Sumerian has at early stages been labelled Scythian, or even Akkadian by scholars. Sumerian never became an international language, remaining for long within the borders of Sumer.
There were several Sumerian dialects, and interestingly a distinction between official Sumerian, Eme-gir, and poetic Sumerian, Eme-sal.
Sumerian is agglutinative: preserving the word root intact while using prefixes, infixes and suffixes to express grammatical changes. There is no clear distinction between nouns and verbs, which is unlike Indo-European or Semitic languages. Gender was not expressed to nouns. Verbs had fairly complex structures.
Sumerian had 16 consonants: b, d, g, ŋ, h, k, l, m, n, p, r, s, ś, š, t, z and 4 vowels: a, i, e, u.
Sumerian can be classified to 4 periods, Archaic, Old or Classical, New and Post.
This variant of Sumerian belongs to the period from before 3100 until around 2500 BCE. From this period we have cuneiform texts from business and administration, as well as school texts.
Structures and vocabulary of archaic Sumerian is still little known, due to challenges with too few sources.
Old or Classical Sumerian
This variant of Sumerian belongs to the period around 2500 until 2300 BCE.
There is a great amount of sources available from this period. Among our main sources are the records of the first rulers of Lagash. These are scripts dealing with business, law, administration and even private inscriptions.
Scholars have been able to reconstruct the grammar and vocabulary of Old Sumerian.
This variant of Sumerian belongs to the period around 2300 until 2000 BCE, a time when Akkadian gained ground at the cost of Sumerian. Sumerian would be reduced to a language spoken only in Sumer proper.
During the 3rd Dynasty of Ur, Sumerian returned as the main language of this region, when in around 2000 BCE new peoples emerged in the region, mainly the Amorites. As they established new the new powers of Mesopotamia, their language, Amorite language would be the state language.
This variant of Sumerian is really the dying phase of New Sumerian, but it would take about 2000 years. It would become a written language only, used for cuneiform writing.
Although a dying language, this period is one of the most productive and many old texts were written down first now. Sumerian would gain an importance and status not too different from what Latin for long has enjoyed in Europe. Even with Hellenistic times (beginning 4th century BCE) Sumerian texts would be transcribed by scholars in Greek letters.
Confused? Try to find a good place to start learning about Mesopotamia in
Where to begin?