How did Sumerian die?

This often debated question is more complex, both in its meaning and its possible answers, than casual consideration might suggest. It is true that everyone has a concrete idea of what a living language is, as well as a dead one. The former is spoken by individuals in some community in the course of their daily interactions, while the latter has no one who speaks it in his daily life and exists only in writing, if that at all. Nevertheless these two conceptions sit at opposite ends of a linguistic spectrum within which a language can manifest itself in more subtle ways. Living in our modern age of globalization, we are both hindered and helped by the distance in time and space separating us from the venerable languages of past civilizations - helped in that linguistics has emerged as a scientific discipline apart from philology and in that our great hindsight sometimes gives us amazing access to the writings and culture of a language's entire tradition, yet hindered in that such access is often fragmentary or narrowly focused, and of course, in that we have no native speakers of the language or members of a community that used it.

Such is how it is with Sumerian. Yet the situation offers some hope of understanding when we consider the unusually large corpus of Sumerian texts surviving for us and the cultural cohesion that held Mesopotamia together for three millennia. This provides material for supported conjectures and at least a partial answer to the question heading this section.

The nature of language death in general

First though the question itself. What is a dead language, and what does it mean for a language to die? Focus in recent years has put language death in a modern socio-linguistic framework, and its approach yields information that cannot usually be deduced from the written record. We could say that a language is living when it has some community of individuals who have enough grammatical and lexical competence to speak it with each other in order to facilitate their daily interactions. The speakers need not be fluent, nor does the language actually need to be anyone's 'mother tongue'. Although this distinction was often implicitly glossed over in older linguistic theories, it will be important when we consider Sumerian. Still, 'linguistic competence' needs to be great enough such that individuals can handle a wide range of daily social situations involving each other. One can go on to consider on a deeper level what linguistic competence really is (e.g. whether it should be viewed as a cerebral faculty conditioned and stimulated by one's linguistic contacts, as Chomskians might argue, or as a pragmatic tool a person uses in a community to elicit certain reactions from others). Here we will simply say a person can speak any particular language with adequate competence if he can achieve his daily needs with it in a community of its speakers.

One should remember, incidentally, that language death is not necessarily the actual end of the language in toto, since languages can become fossilized into ones that are still productive but expressed only in writing, or ones that are not productive at all but simply taught and read as part of a cultural heritage. The evolution of Sumerian fits into this description well, and one could plausibly argue that much of our understanding of the Sumerian language as a cultural phenomenon comes not only from its usage by the Sumerians themselves, but also their inheritors who dutifully preserved the language in writing.

A language begins to die when the above mentioned competence among all its users starts breaking down, and it dies when the competence is irrecoverable, practically speaking. In this intermediate phase of a language the real complications in analysis begin. Competence can be lost in a number of ways, all involving one essential, practically obvious element: the influence of another language in a speaker's environment.

One of the most important aspects of such influence is the prestige of the language measured against others used in the same community. Every society has the concept of a 'prestige' language. Sometimes it is associated with high social class, or formal education, with antiquity or ceremonial occasions, or perhaps a particular ethnic identity or religious tradition. Such distinctions are particularly evident when considering sociolects and dialects within one language. The usage of Greek, Latin, French in Western civilization, and the status of 'academic English' today would be examples of these ideas. Societies also recognize what could be called 'practical' languages, that is, ones that people use as a default within a multi-lingual environment to guarantee understanding and consistency in communication. The status of English today is a clear example. Finally, societies also have the concepts of 'vulgar', 'non-standard', 'corrupt', or 'localized' language, which might be associated with low social class, low education, a stigmatized ethnic group or region, with a language's deviant novelty or its antiquated impracticability.

With this scale of prestige it is not surprising to find multi-lingual or multi-dialectical individuals switching between their usage of them based on their environment. High prestige languages often have a limited scope of employment, whether that is measured in terms of the number of individuals competent in them, the actual level of that competency, or the circumstances of the languages' usage. Their scope tends to shrink with certain demographic and cultural shifts as well as pressure from other languages, and with the shrinking comes lowered competence. If the language has a written tradition it becomes more confined to text. Practical languages of course enjoy wide scope of employment and high competency and tend to influence the usage of other languages in the same speaker, most commonly through lexical transfer, but also syntactic analogy. If influential enough they can hinder the competence in other languages because of their reduced usage. Low prestige languages tend to be unwritten, quickly evolving, and learned outside 'official' institutions like schools. Moreover native speakers of a low-prestige language are often strongly motivated to learn the higher-prestige language around them, whereas native speakers of the higher-prestige language feel little need or interest in learning the low-prestige one. Thus in this way also higher prestige languages asymmetrically influence lower ones.

Demographic and cultural shifts can also affect competence in a language. At the extreme end there is the scattering of a community that isolates speakers of the language from one another, because the children of such individuals growing up in the new environment tend to have less competence than their parents. Less extreme but more prevalent are the steady immigration of individual families with children into a new linguistic environment or the passing away of the last 'pure' generations that grew up learning the old language without influence from new ones. Wide-spread changes in school curricula can effect similar changes (see Dixon pg. 108). This is especially true for high prestige languages, the nature of whose learning and maintenance are often dependent on formalized instruction.

With such manners of change in mind one can cluster the degrees of competence in a spoken language around three points. The first, naturally, consists of fluent speakers, which would include advanced but not perfect learners of the language. Secondly there are what are often termed 'heritage speakers', or as Chris Woods has termed them, 'semi-speakers' (Woods pg. 106). That is, people who grew up in a household with fluent parents or siblings or had early, abortive instruction in the language from the community, but are otherwise largely isolated from it. Such people may have moderately developed speaking and especially listening skills but lack writing or reading skills, and their grammar can be significantly influenced by other dominant languages in the environment . Finally, there are people growing up under parents (often semi-speakers) who have a weak enough competence themselves, or who use the language so rarely, that they have only a disjointed, limited vocabulary.

It is common for competence to degrade along generational lines, i.e. the type of linguistic environment a child grows in. However for adult fluent speakers competency is not drastically affected (E Cook apud Michalowsky p.178). That is, fluent speakers do not lose when they switch to another language for the rest of their lives, or even exhibit strong influence of the new language on the old. It is the creation of communities of semi-speakers, who have limited access to the language when growing up, that is the first significant blow to the language's vitality as a vernacular. Such need not happen in the case of written languages, as the special contexts of their usage imply the need for substantial formal training in them, so competency is an issue of education, and not early linguistic environments.

Finally, it should be noted that significant language interference occurs only in the context of intense cultural contact. This socio-lingual assertion is in contrast to the view that the structural characteristics of the languages themselves plays a key role (see Dixon pg. 75). Rather if anything, significant structural influence can only occur in an environment of intense cultural contact, since only there can the average speaker be heavily exposed to competing linguistic influences in his developmental stage.

The situation for Sumerian

As Piotr Michalowsky points out in a recently published essay (Michalowsky, pg. 163), in studying the life of Sumerian it is important to remember that we carry certain modern biases and implicit assumptions about how languages interact and die out. Such can affect the way we understand the life and death of Sumerian, whose case is exacerbated by the overall fuzzy picture of history the written sources and archaeology leave us.

Perhaps the largest assumption is that linguistic identity equals ethnic identity, and that the understanding of ethnicity within ancient Mesopotamia was roughly the same as ours. Both modern and ancient counterexamples to the first statement abound. When we consider that in the mid-third millennium at Abu Salabikh scribes with both Semitic and Sumerian names were composing Sumerian literary texts, the way in which these writers viewed each other may not have been, say, the way in which two 19th century French and German novelists would see each other, but more likely the way an educated Roman and an Athenian Greek writer in the first century AD saw each other. That is, seeing (classic) Greek not as a characteristic attached to a clear ethnic group (the way Aramaic or Hebrew might have been), but rather as the unquestioned vehicle of high literature and philosophy associated with the whole eastern Mediterranean. We should also be open to the possibility that even for the Sumerian-named scribes themselves, the Sumerian used in literary or cultic works may not have closely resembled the Sumerian on the street, particularly in the peripheral regions in close contact with other languages.

Also when talking about the death of Sumerian, one should technically step back first and ask whether there were, in fact, multiple Sumerian dialects coexisting in southern Mesopotamia in the mid 3rd millennium. The 'EME.SAL' tongue has been suggested (Alster 1982, Krecher 1967a) although its restricted usage has lead most to believe it was only a form of Sumerian used in certain cultic settings. Other traces of dialectical differences can be found in some Old Sumerian Lagash texts (cf. Bauer pg. 467). By and large, however, the written documentation has obscured variations in dialect and, with the caveat about EME.SAL, has usually been considered a single 'standard' Sumerian.

The Late 3rd Millennium

The textual record indicates that Sumerian was the main vernacular in southern Mesopotamia until at least the middle of the 3rd millennium. We say main and not exclusive vernacular because by the ED IIIa period we find in texts from Abu Salabikh and Fara Semitic scribal names scattered among Sumerian ones. There are also numerous Semitic loan words attested, and even one whole literary document (a hymn to Shamash) in Semitic (Krebernik, pg. 320). The greater presence of Semitic influence in Abu Salabikh than in Fara indicates a gradation of language influence, with Sumerian predominating in the south and Semitic in the north.

A major point of debate concerning the death of Sumerian is whether it was in rapid decline in the late 3rd millennium. The standard viewpoint, championed by scholars including Michalowski, Gelb, and Cooper, argues that influence from Semitic speakers (notable even in ED III) came to a climax in the Sargonic period, after which the 'Sumerian renaissance' of the Ur III kings was only a conscious political, administrative, and literary matter that did not involve the spoken vernacular (Michalowski, pg. 167).

This viewpoint rests on two arguments. One is the effective influence of the Sargonic conquests linguistically in the south. The other is the unconvincing correlation between personal names and language used in writing on the one hand, and language as spoken vernacular on the other.

The first argument concerns the degree to which the Sargonic kings held forceful sway over major aspects of life in the Sumerian city-states. Implicit within this argument, moreover, is a general theory about language contact and change. It is clear that the south always held a hostile attitude toward its northern, Semitic-speaking conquerors, as multiple rebellions broke out during the history of the empire. The first was under Rimush, the son and first successor to Sargon, right upon his succession to the throne. A coalition of cities including Ur, Adab, Lagash, and Umma led the revolt which, according to Rimush's royal inscriptions, left tens of thousands of southerners dead, enslaved, or deported (Westenholtz, pg. 41). Even that was not the end of it for Rimush, as the northern city of Kazallu rebelled later and met with a similarly disastrous defeat (Westenholtz, pg. 42). Subsequently there was a larger revolt against Naramsin that included all of the southern cities as well as some northern ones like Sippar beyond the old Sumerian core. However this effort also ended in great slaughter for the rebellious cities, which did not see another major insurrection until the emergence of the Ur III dynasty.

Nevertheless, it was probably not the total number of dead southerners that mattered for the longevity of Sumerian so much as the Akkadian administrative control and the policy of awarding property to the dynasty's loyal followers. The novelty of a Semitic domination of the south brought with it a novel communication structure. Correspondence with Agade was now in Akkadian. Sargon himself left most of the Sumerian city-states' bureaucracy intact, leaving local affairs up to the ensis, who sometimes oversaw large-scale resource processing for the state and were held accountable to higher Akkadian officials (Foster pg. 32, Westenholtz pg. 50). However after the revolts against Rimush the Akkadian kings instituted a new, mid-level bureaucracy to levy taxes and manpower (Westenholtz pg. 50). As testament to this there are numerous administrative centers in the south within and without the cities. They have mostly Akkadian language documents in contrast to the older Sumerian administrative repositories, which have only Sumerian (ibid). In addition, the Akkadian kings would grant to their followers tracts of land in the south gained through the defeat of the cities, especially properties whose previous owners died in the rebellion (ibid).

It is not clear how all this affected the language on the street. The Sargonic kings down to Sharkalisharri ruled for about 140 years (Westenholtz pg. 17), with control over the south weakening toward the end. The foreign administrative structure would have created incentives for individuals to attach themselves to the bureaucracy even as they maintained most of their independence (Foster, pg. 35), and for this knowledge of Akkadian was very useful. Moreover it is true that languages usually experience a sudden 'tip', as Michalowski puts it (Michalowski pg. 181), going from relative stability to diminished obscurity often within a few generations. But whether Akkadian became a prestige language in the Sumerian heartland, strong enough to crowd out Sumerian within the span of a hundred years, is difficult to tell. Sumerian did and would continue to reign supreme in the realm of literature and religious cult activities, thus guaranteeing it vocal expression in scribal schools and temples. Beyond this, in the markets and ordinary houses, however, is another story. As a cautionary modern case, one can ask whether Arabic died out during the French occupation of Syria in the 19th century. Here there was a foreign, disliked occupier that controlled access to upward mobility. Yet French never seriously threatened Arabic, probably because of the deep written and oral tradition associated with it (e.g. Koran). This could be contrasted, say, with the fate of Indian languages in South American under pressure from Portuguese and Spanish. More likely, as Chris Woods argues (Woods pg. 110), Sumerian maintained its dominance in older, heavily populated urban centers in the south whereas newer smaller settlements around them, that cropped up either as a result of the new Akkadian administrative structure (e.g. Garshana) or immigration of new peoples into the region (Amorite), followed the pragmatic trend of mastering some level of Akkadian.

There was likely some degree of (spoken) bilingualism during this period which increased in the Ur III period. This is evidenced by a number of observations. First there are a number of letters from the Sargonic period containing both Sumerian and Akkadian, organized in ways that likely reflect how usage of the two languages interwove at the time (see Woods, pg. 102 for examples). Also, in the ED period Akkadian words loaned into Sumerian drop their inflectional ending and take on a final -a (e.g. damgara) which may be the Sumerian nominalizing morpheme, whereas in the Ur III period, we find loans into Sumerian keeping their inflectional endings (e.g. harranum). The preservation of the morphology of the borrowed words indicates that speakers of Sumerian had enough understanding of Akkadian to keep it when the loan words were used in a non-Akkadian (i.e. Sumerian) linguistic context. Finally, there is simply the fact that the Proto-Semitic gutturals which have survived in other branches of the language family died out in Akkadian, likely under phonological influence from Sumerian (Woods pg. 103).

The claim that spoken Sumerian well into decline in the Sargonic period (Michalowski, pg. 179) must also address what initially looks like solid counter-evidence from Ur III. This period is typically regarded as the time of a Neo-Sumerian renaissance, in which Sumerian was the language of both administration and literature. This is amply attested by the thousands of administrative and economic documents in Sumerian, as well as the collection of royal praise hymns and other literature that connect the ruling dynasty with the glories of the Sumerian past. There are examples in history of cultures that adopted a literary language which did not represent the vernacular of the time. There is, for instance, Latin in the late Roman empire and early Middle Ages, and perhaps even within the time of Virgil (see Strahl, pg. 84). Akkadian itself became an artificial language used as a vehicle for literature after it gave way to Aramaic in the second millennium (Michalowski, pg. 177).

Admonition is also cited in evaluating Sumerian personal names in the documents from the Ur III period. This is both on the grounds of historical example (Christian Europe) and the high degree of linguistic and cultural mixing that characterize Mesopotamia in general. As an example, it is known that a princess of Mari married off to the Ur III throne adopted an Akkadian name 'Taraam-Uram', which might indicate that Akkadian was the prestige language in Ur (Michalowski pg. 179). There are also the royal hymns Shulgi B and C in which the king speaks of his linguistic accomplishments, boasting of his ability to speak, among other things, Amorite, Sumerian, Elamite, and the language of Meluhha. However he does not mention Akkadian, which, as Rubio argues, one would expect if his native tongue were not Akkadian (see Michalowski pg.180).

Nevertheless there is evidence that Sumerian was alive and well in Ur III. Walther Sallaberger surveyed the personal names and the languages appearing in late third and early second millennium texts in southern Mesopotamia, and found that there is a rather clear break around the 19th century (Sallaberger pg.108-137). Before this time, Sumerian names vastly outweigh Semitic ones in southern sites except in places evidently used as Akkadian administrative centers (e.g. Garshana, Sallaberger pg. 116). Afterwards, however, the ratio reverses and Semitic names dominate. The one exception is Nippur, which is usually explained by its special status as the religious and cultural focus of Sumerian civilization. As a response to the cautionary note about interpreting personal names, Sallaberger notes that names in ancient Mesopotamia, in any language, are traditionally transparent in meaning to their bearers, and furthermore the names in the documents, including literary texts, show phonological, orthographic, and lexical parallel to changes in the language as a whole. Chris Woods cites examples of this from Umma, Lagash, and especially Nippur. For instance, there is an Ur III name ga2-ke4-esz2-he2-til3 'may he live for my sake' with adverbial postposition 'akesz', which can be compared with the Pre-Sargonic version 'ga2-ka-nam-he2-til3', with the adverbial postposition 'akanam' (Woods pg. 99).

Similarly, Sallaberger found a break roughly around the same time in the language itself that was used in legal, administrative, and epistolary documents in the same sites. The epistolary documents (i.e. letters) are the most telling sign of daily language use, since they presume an understanding of the syntactic constructions, idioms, and vocabulary used in oral communication (see Cooper, pg. 241). Sallaberger also pointed out the dialectical and stylistic variation in the written Sumerian out of pre-Sargonic Girsu and 19th century Uruk, with the former showing flexible use of Old Sumerian while the latter had limited vocabulary and showed influence from Akkadian syntax (Sallaberger pg. 131).

Such phenomena suggest that Sumerian continued as a living language at least in some of the southern cities, in particular Umma, Lagash, and Nippur, the cultural capital of Sumerian, while Akkadian dominated further north and in the rural areas.

The Old Babylonian Period

Sallaberger's onomastic and epistolary analysis indicates a shift around the 19th century. This can be explained by the political and environmental disruptions at the end of the Ur III empire, which likely lead to the decline of urban life in the southern cities like Ur, Umma, and Lagash. One important change was probably the shift in the course of the Tigris away from Adab, Umma, and Girsu that devastated the irrigation network and led to large-scale emmigration (Sallaberger pg. 134). The agricultural and economic decline of this region would have led to a demographic restructuring in which the political center of Mesopotamia shifted toward the Semitic north while remnants of the Sumerian core receded further south into the isolated marshlands. There may be traces of this residual presence in the personal names of some of the kings from the Sealand Dynasty (ca. 1750-1500) such as Peshgaldaramash and Melamkurkura (Woods pg. 110). Another factor would have been the influx of Amorites into the region that may have disrupted old trade and communication pathways (cf. Ishbi-Erra's excuse to the last Ur III king Ibbi-Sin, that he was unable to ship grain to the capital because of threats along the supply routes because of Amorites), and of course the sacking of Ur by the Elamites at the end of the third millennium.

However this does not mean that Sumerian did not continue on into the Isin-Larsa and OB period as a language of the learned and of rituals. Indeed it is with the onset of the Old Babylonian Period that a new scribal culture centered around the Edubba becomes prominent. Nick Veldhuis has argued that in contrast to the Ur III period, in the OB period the learning curriculum in scribal schools became standardized and there poured out a profusion of exercise tablets from students who copied canonical Sumerian texts (Veldhuis pg.??). Sumerian was taught orally and in writing in the Edubba, albeit as part of the scribal milieu apart from the language on the streets, similar to the usage of medieval Latin. Part of the purpose of the Edubba was to preserve the linguistic Sumerian heritage in a new Semitic environment. This is not to say that Akkadian suffered as a kind of demotic tongue. In fact it was Akkadian, with a more cursive orthography and more supple expressive capacity, that the average scribe worked with in his career. This was especially true in the composition of letters between individuals, which developed into a rich epistolary tradition that has not found in Sumerian.

In fact there is a group of OB texts known as the Edubba dialogues, which bring to life the experience of students being drilled and instructed orally in Sumerian as a foreign language. Several texts indicate that teaching Sumerian had an oral component. In the Edubba D dialogue, for instance, there are the lines: tukum-bi dumu e2-dub-ba-[(a)-me-en] [eme]-gir15 e-zu-u3-a3[m] [eme]-gir15-ta inim e-da-bal-e-en, "If you are a student, do you know Sumerian? Yes, I can speak Sumerian." Similarly in Edubba Dialogue 1 (Two Scribes), there is: eme-gir15-sze3 eme-zu si nu-ub-sa2, "Your tongue cannot manage the Sumerian lan- guage." (See Woods pg. 112 for more examples). The relatively skeletal nature of many of the lexical lists used in instruction of the OB Edubba also indicate that knowledge was transmitted orally, obviating the need for pronunciation (see Civil 1975, pg. 130-131).

The Mid-Second Millennium and Later

By this time knowledge of Sumerian began to decline even as an intellectual language. From the mid second millennium on Sumerian literary texts were usually presented in bilingual Sumerian-Akkadian versions, and the school canon was drastically reduced. In a way, it began a life similar to Sumerian in the early second millennium. By now classical Old Babylonian Akkadian itself has ceased to be a vernacular, even as it was used as a language of international communication in the Amarna period and even as literary production continued well into Seleucid and Parthian times (Michalowski pg. 177). The last trickles of Sumerian continued down to the late first millennium BC. Here we find Greek texts containing Sumerian words (examples?)


* Alster, Bendt, 1982 "Emesal in Early Dynastic Sumerian? What is the UD.CAL.NUN Orthography? ASJ 4:1-6.

* Bauer, J. 1998, “Der vorsargonische Abschnitt der mesopotamischen Geschichte.” In Mesopotamien: Späturuk-Zeit und Frühdynastische Zeit, edited by J. Bauer, R. K. Englund, and M. Kre- bernik, pp. 431–585. Orbis Biblicus et Orientalis 160/1. Freiburg: Universitätsverlag; Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht.

* Civil, M., 1975, “Lexicography.” In Sumerological Studies in Honor of Thorkild Jacobsen on his Seven- tieth Birthday, June 7, 1974, edited by S. Lieberman, pp. 123–57. Assyriological Studies 20. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

* Cooper, J., 1973, “Sumerian and Akkadian in Sumer and Akkad.” Orientalia, n.s., 42: 239–46.

* Dixon, R. M. W., 1997 The Rise and Fall of Languages. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

* Foster, B., 1993a, "Management and Administration in the Sargonic Period", in M. Liverani (ed.), Akkad, the First World Empire. Structure, Ideology, Traditions, HANE/S-V. Padua, 25-39.

* Krecher, Joachim, 1967a "Zum Emesal-Dialekt des Sumerischen" HSAO 1, pg. 87-110.

* Michalowski, P., 2006: "The Lives of the Sumerian Language", in S.L. Sanders (ed.), Margins of Writing, Origins of Cultures, Chicago, 159-184.

* Sallaberger, W., 2004, “Das Ende des Sumerischen. Tod und Nachleben einer altmesopotamischen Sprache.” In Sprachtod und Sprachgeburt, edited by P. Schrijver and P.-A. Mumm, pp. 108–40. Bre- men: Hempen Verlag.

* Strahl, W., 2004, "Ein unsterbliches Gespenst: Latein", In Sprachtod und Sprachgeburt, edited by P. Schrijver and P.-A. Mumm, pp. 108–40. Bre- men: Hempen Verlag.

* Veldhuis

*Westenholz, A., The Old Akkadian Period: History and Culture.” In Mesopotamien: Akkade-Zeit und Ur III-Zeit, edited by W. Sallaberger and A. Westenholz, pp. 17–117. Orbis Biblicus et Ori- entalis 160/3. Freiburg: Universitätsverlag; Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht.

* Woods C. 2006, “Bilingualism, Scribal Learning, and the Death of Sumerian”, in S.L. Sanders (ed) Margins of Writing, Origins of Culture, Chicago 91-120.

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