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Sumerian Languages

semitic, cuneiform, sumerians, language, writing and idiom

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SUMERIAN LANGUAGES. The pris tine, agglutinous language spoken by the earli est, prehistoric people of Mesopotamia, a region generally referred to in surviving documents as mat Shumeri u Akkadi, i.e., land of the Sumer ians and Akkadians, probably the biblical Shinar or Shin'aar. It was a non-Semitic people thus dwelling in the lowlands between the Euphrates and Tigris, as comparative philology has of recent years proved beyond a doubt. True, the eminent French scientist, Joseph Halevy, in 1876, and certain of his followers, contended for the non-existence of any such early non Semitic population. Halevy attempted to ac count for the early Sumerian documents in cuneiform characters by assuming a Semitic, priestly, secret style of writing, a cryptography, and cited as a parallel the Egyptian hierarchical writing. However, this has since been amply disproved. The meaning of the word Sumerian, or rather Shumerian, refers to the word "reed,'" greed? in that idiom, evidently because of the marshy, reedy landscape. The Sumerians and the Akkadians seem to have formed one people, though originally they may have come from different parts of the earth. The Sumerians, at any rate, as their tongue, an agglutinous one, shows, must have come from the north, possibly the Ural region, as there were no words or word pictures and phrases in it sym bolizing fauna and flora of the subtropics.

So far as the records go, the Sumerians were the earliest nation, and their system of writing, the cuneiform, is likewise the earliest we know of. Later on, the Sumerians, by co habitation and intermarriage, were gradually amalgamated with the later Semitic invaders, Arab tribes originally coming chiefly from the island of Bahrin. The Sumerian tongue like wise coalesced in a manner with the Semitic idiom, the latter being superimposed on the former, much as the Norman French was super imposed on Anglo-Saxon, and thus the later Babylonian was formed. Sumerian civilization and language, however, were highly developed before the coming of the Semites, as well in the construction of the latter as in its religion, its religious observances, its legislation, arts, science and social life. The Semitic Babyloni

ans imbibed the earlier civilization.

Nevertheless, the "Sumerian problem' so called, had for generations perplexed Assyriol ogists. Oppert, in 1854, first made modest, though in a measure successful attempts to un ravel its mysteries. But Prof. Paul Haupt, assisted by Profs. Peter Jensen and Zimmern, somewhat profiting by these initial labors, stead ily hewed his way through these etymological brambles, and it is strikingly illustrative of the value of Haupt's pathbreaking labors that all subsequent phonetic and grammatical work in Sumerian has only tended to confirm Haupt's views in almost every instance. Haupt's "Sumerian Family Laws" and "Akkadian and Sumerian Cuneiform Texts" laid the founda tion to all later researches. In the investiga tion of the Sumerian idiom no comparison should be made between Sumerian vocables and those of more recent agglutinous idioms, despite frequent tempting resemblances, such as in Turkish, for instance. Now and then, though, certain similarities are traceable with Esthonian and Finnish. Sumerian, as far as has been shown up to the present, must be held a language standing alone by itself, a "prehis toric philological remnant.' To Prof. Friedrich Delitzsch is due the merit of having clearly shown the full meaning, the derivation and development of Babylonian cuneiform signs. They were, then, at first pure i picture writing and finally grew into conven tionalized ideographic and syllabic sign lists. The etymological labor involved in this proc ess of gradual elucidation was surrounded with enormous difficulties.

Sumerian cuneiform was adopted at least about B.c. 7000. By B.C. 5000 we see it already specialized, and between a.c. 4000 and we perceive it applied to the transmission of the invading Semitic language, the Babylo nian; and since then the Semitic Assyrians, the Medes, the Turanian Susites, and the Caucasian Armenians have all habitually used the cunei form.

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