Sumerian language: Cuneiform

Sumer, the southernmost region of ancient Mesopotamia(modern-day Iraq) is the earliest known civilization in history. It is known for numerous innovations and inventions which result in being significant for every region of ancient Mesopotamia.

The Sumerian language was one of the many innovations of this region. It was developed since the 4th millennium BC and went on until 2000 BC and was spoken in Mesopotamia. The language was later overtaken and replaced by the Akkadian language.

Sumerian, the spoken language of Sumer was categorized under the language isolate for its peculiar prestige. It was classified so as the language did not have any connection with other attested languages.

However, the language was later taken over and accepted by Akkadians, Babylonians, and Assyrians.

The Sumerians developed a written form of the language Sumerian which was known as Sumerian Cuneiform or Sumero-Akkadian cuneiform. 

The primary purpose of developing Cuneiform was to represent sound and to record the spoken language of Sumerians. Later its scope spread to recording daily events, astronomy, trades, and literature.

Cuneiform was developed with symbols and pictographs, which would represent goods and livestock traded. And, the recording was done on clay tablets.

The symbols and scripts were inscribed on clay tablets by pressing the lines and important symbols into soft-moist clay. 

Although the Sumerians developed the cuneiform, it was also used by the Akkadians and Babylonians but with a few modifications. 

Sumerian Cuneiform was divided into five periods which includes Archaic Sumerian – 31st to 26th Century BC, Old Sumerian-26th to 23rd Century BC, Neo-Sumerian- 23rd to 21st Century BC, Late Sumerian- 20th to 18th Century BC, and Post Sumerian – after 1700 BC.

Kish tablet is the oldest document which includes Sumerian Cuneiform and is written during the proto-literate period. The period was from 34th to 31st Centuries, and almost 939 signs were used then. 

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However, from 2600 BC the logographic symbols were generalized which used a wedge-shaped stylus to record the details on the moist clay. The script inscribed can be read either as one of several logograms each corresponding to a Sumerian spoken language.

Also, some Sumerian language was written with multiple cuneiforms sings famously known as diri-spellings. It was named so after the logogram diri which is written with signs SI and A.

History of Sumerian language:

Cuniform found in Clay Tablet(c. 3100 – 2900 BC) preserved in Walter Museum
Cuniform found in Clay Tablet(c. 3100 – 2900 BC) preserved in Walter Museum
Photo Source: Wikimedia

The Sumerian cuneiform dated back to c.3200 BCE, where the majority of the words were administrative texts used for the scribal education. 

Scribes were trained to conduct the affairs in every state using the Sumerian language. However, they used Akkadian language more. 

Primarily the texts were written vertically from top to bottom but later changed to the horizontal left to right during 3,000 BC

The older text had 1000 symbols, whereas the new one had 400 symbols. Although the symbols were written once, they had multiple pronunciations and consisted of phonograms and syllables.

These texts were in the pictographs, which made it easier to read. The pictographs and texts were inscribed on clay tablets which included a few names of scribes and functions performed. 

Besides these, the pictographs also showed the origin of Akkadian, which proves that the Sumerian and Akkadian language was intermixed.

Later, a new set of texts came into existence during 2800 BCE, and these too were administrative texts made mainly for scribal education.

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Apart from the texts, Sumerian literature is also popular literature in history. It is the earliest literature which began during EDIII – early dynasty period III – 2500 BCE in Abu Salabikh and ancient Shuruppak. 

Around 3rd and 2nd millennium, the Sumerian language was taken over by Akkadian language. Since then, the Sumerian language remained only as a holy, religious, or literary language and the Akkadian language was used for everyday purpose.

Phonology and grammar in Sumerian language:

Sumerian language is classified under language isolate as it is not related to any spoken language of that period or any other. 

Grammatically speaking, it is an agglutinative, subject-object-verb, and split ergative language which can add suffixes or prefixes. 

For instance: the pronominal suffixes include /-en/ which is used in case of the first and second person singular and /-e/ used for third-person singular.

Likewise, prefixes include /-n-/,/-b-/, and /-e-/. However, the prefixes were not used commonly during the early phase of the texts. 

Nouns, during this period, was organized into two primary grammatical genders which are animate nouns and inanimate nouns. 

Animate nouns included living things like humans, gods, animals, and also the statues whereas inanimate noun included not alive or sentients such as rock and robot. They were also referred to as pronouns.

Verbs included the tense-aspect which were complex consisting of complete and incomplete actions. They also marked mood, voice, intensity, and polarity. 

There was no proper plural form of any words. But, in case of meaning plural, a singular word was duplicated to make it into plural. For instance, the river is a singular word, and river-river would be its plural forms.

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Apart from this, there were a total of 4 vowels and 16 consonants. The consonants were distributed on six stop consonants and into three different places of articulation distinguished by aspiration.

And, the vowels were distinguished by the script such as /a/, /e/, /i/, and /u/. Also, this language has a combination of decimal and sexagesimal, such as 1 = dili? diš? 4= limmu, 8=ussu, and 10= u.


Sumerians have left an impact on almost every aspect of inventions from ancient Mesopotamia time until today. They have had numerous developments before anyone else during their period. 

Sumerian language or Sumerian cuneiform being two of them. Besides these, the invention of sailboats, chariots, wheels, ploughs, and metallurgy are some of the significant inventions.

However, it is a challenging thing to prove that the words were of the Sumerian language as the ideograms could be read in any language like English, Spanish, or German.

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