The Conflicted History of Sumerian Philology

In 1913, Mikheil Tseretheli’s essay “Sumerian and Georgian: A Study in Comparative Philology” was published in the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society. In the preface to this essay, Tseretheli says that philologists often try to compare Sumerian to another language in hopes that they may “solve definitely the important problem of the origin of the primitive civilization of Chaldea” (Tseretheli 783). Tseretheli’s choice for comparison was Georgian (he was born in Georgia). Others have compared Sumerian with their own languages: Galgóczy (who was Hungarian) in 1911 compared Sumerian with Hungarian. 

During 1910 and 1911, the philology of Sumerian was hotly debated. Before then, Turanism of Sumerian was considered academically, and by 1913 was “violently criticized by the most authoritative philologists” (Tseretheli 784). Also, Assyriologists such as L.W. King and Stephen Langdon discouraged any further attempt to compare Sumerian with other languages until they could be sure of the phonetic elements. Despite this discouragement, Tseretheli moves forward with his thesis that Sumerian is related to a group of languages he calls “Georgian,” comprised of Georgian, Mingrelian, Lazian, and Svanian. 

Go back a few more years to find that Morris Jastrow, Jr. discusses the “Sumerian problem.” Sumerian simply couldn’t be assigned to any language group. As Jastrow explains, “[…] it still remains for the ‘Sumerologists’… to determine the group of languages to which the ‘Sumerian’ belongs. All attempts to do so have failed, and it must be confessed, rather sadly, that no serious progress toward such determination has been made since Professor Paul Haupt presented his paper on ‘Die sumerisch-akkadische Sprache’ at the International Congress of Orientalists in 1881” (Jastrow 89). 

This “Sumerian problem” was present in the late 19th century and the early 20th century. Decades later, it’s still a problem. Take, for example, “The Sumerian Problem,” written in 1972 by Jonathan R. Ziskind, in which he reviews Samuel Noah Kramer’s book History Begins at Sumer. Ziskind’s remarks sum up that the conflict continues: “When the depth and breadth of [the Sumerians’] legacy is considered, one is compelled to ask who the Sumerians were, and by so asking the ‘Sumerian Problem’ is raised. The issue has been debated and argued for almost a century now with historians and archaeologists joining the ofttimes heated discussions initiated by philologists during the second half of the nineteenth century” (Ziskind 34). 

According to Ziskind, the problem starts with finding non-Semitic elements in a language whose grammar was known to be Semitic. The issue grew when French excavators in Lagash, and American archaeologists in Nippur, found a large number of clay tablets with the same cuneiform style as the Akkadian tablets. However, the language was non-Semitic. “This language was subsequently called Sumerian, because the philologists noted that Babylonian kings called themselves ‘king of Sumer and Akkad.’ Since Akkadian was by then a known entity, the term Sumerian was applied to the unknown” (Ziskind 35). 

The debates continue through the 1980s. In Thorkild Jacobsen’s review of The Sumerian Language by Marie-Louise Thomsen, the reader doesn’t get past the first paragraph without hearing about the conflicts surrounding Sumerian philology. In Jacobsen’s words, “To pick one’s way through the wilderness of conflicting opinions that the field of Sumerian Grammar has become is no easy task[…]” (Jacobsen 123). Thomsen was praised for referring to and reporting “statements of other opinions at the appropriate places, thus charting broadly the various positions maintained by individual scholars in the field […] In most cases evaluation of the merits of the reported positions are left for the reader to decide for himself.” I’m not sure how the reader could decide for him- or herself, given that the conflict between expert opinions is so great. Jacobsen does admit, “a prospective reviewer may well pause and realize with some concern that the wide range of the book and the degree to which it leaves decisions of right or wrong to the reader tends to make his task one of trying to evaluate not just a book but in fact the formidable array of conflicting opinions of an entire field […]” 

And, of course, since the publication of Thomsen’s book and Jacobsen’s review, the research continues, and there is more to be said about the Sumerian language. Another interesting detail is that the Akkadian language has had its influence on Sumerian, which Gábor Zólyomi has referred to as “interference." In 1996, the Journal of Cuneiform Studies published Zólyomi’s article, “Genitive Constructions in Sumerian.” The article starts with what seems like a dig at philologists like Galgóczy; Zólyomi notes that while Hungarian is also characterized as an agglutinative language, it would not use a noun phrase “chain,” as Sumerian does. He does note that Akkadian may have had an impact on Sumerian. “I agree with the author in identifying the element ‘e as a demonstrative enclitic. From a formal point of view, the construction differs from the common noun phrase of Sumerian in that the demonstrative element occupies the slot of modifier (e.g. the place of adjectives) instead of that of specifier. It is easy to notice that in Akkadian the demonstrative annum behaves similarly to adjectives” (Zólyomi 33). 

My favorite aspect of this general timeline of Sumerian philology is the use of technology to aid research. In volume 65 (2002) of Near Eastern Archaeology, Kyle Cassidy’s article “Scholars Build Internet Dictionary to Unravel Sumerian Language” describes an electronic dictionary that lives online, with contributions of labor from scholars globally: “[…] scholars at institutions around the world will scan their tablets in their own collections and add them to the database, eliminating the need for costly travel between institutions. By doing so, scholars may work simultaneously on the same dataset, greatly expanding participation on the project. The distributed workload also reduces time and expenses required from each institution” (Cassidy 285). 

The willingness of scholars to embrace emerging technologies has impacted their research in a remarkable way. “Despite more than a century of research, our understanding of the Sumerian language remains incomplete. No doubt, emerging technologies such as the Sumerian electronic dictionary will provide scholars with unprecedented access […]” (Cassidy 285). Thanks to scholars who embrace technology, research development has accelerated. 

Sources:
  • Cassidy, Kyle. “Scholars Build Internet Dictionary to Unravel Sumerian Language,” Near Eastern Archaeology 65:4, 2002: pp. 284-285. 
  • Jacobsen, Thorkild. “Review: Sumerian Grammar Today,” Journal of the American Oriental Society, 1988: pp. 123-133.   
  • Jastrow, Morris, Jr. “A New Aspect of the Sumerian Question,” The American Journal of Semitic Languages and Literatures, 1906: 89-109. 
  • Tseretheli, M. “Sumerian and Georgian: A Study in Comparative Philology,” Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland, 1913: pp. 783-821. 
  • Ziskind, Jonathan R. “The Sumerian Problem,” The History Teacher, 1972: pp. 34-41. 
  • Zólyomi, Gábor. “Genitive Constructions in Sumerian,” Journal of Cuneiform Studies, 1996: pp. 31-47. 

Comments

  1. Very interesting post! Did you know if there's some active link to this sumerian dictionary? I've been building an iberian database with search facilities (http://cathalaunia.org/Iberika/Cerca?sig=simp) and it would be great to compare methodologies and interfaces for such ancient languages.

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    1. Sorry for the delayed reply. I don't have a link to an online Sumerian dictionary, unfortunately! Let me know if you find one.

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