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Article by Noemi Borrelli, University of Naples "L'Orientale"

Language family and linguistic characteristics

Sumerian (eme-gi7 “the native tongue”) is a language isolate, for which no satisfactory relationship to other known languages has yet been found. It is considered an agglutinative language with a split-ergative construction and a predominance of monosyllabic words (Jagersma 2010).


The first evidence for the cuneiform writing dates back to the end of the 4th millennium BCE. This script has a logo-syllabic structure: a mixed system of logograms (word signs) and phonograms (sound signs), the latter attested only at a second stage.

Cuneiform signs, which in Sumerian and Akkadian usually have a syllabic value, have a multivalent use: a single sign can have both a logographic and a phonographic reading. A semantic association evidently led the writing development, causing as a straightforward consequence the phenomenon of polysemy, one of the basic principles of the cuneiform script. A logogram could acquire new logographic value not only through meaning association but also through sound similarities.

Accordingly, different signs can share the same phonetic value.

It occurs that certain signs can also work as semantic classifiers or, less frequently and introduced much later, as phonetic complements. These classifiers, which were not actually read, are otherwise known in Assyriology as determinatives.

Due to, and in spite of, its cumbersome and yet flexible system, the cuneiform writing was used along more than three millennia and in a geographical horizon that spanned from ancient Iran to the Levantine area, from Egypt to Anatolia. Many languages adopted the cuneiform system regardless their nature, their grammar or their linguistic relationships. Sumerian and Akkadian, Elamite and Old-Persian, Hurrite and Hittite, Ugaritic and Eblaite had as a common ground the cuneiform script.

Chronological and geographical extent

The first evidence of the Sumerian language has been dated to the 3100 BCE, soon after the first cuneiform pictograms appeared. Even though the language structure behind these pictograms cannot be identified because of the lack of grammatical morphemes (function words), it is very likely to identify it with Sumerian itself (Michalowski 1996).

Cuneiform writing, and therefore the Sumerian and Akkadian language, persisted in the scribal and cultic milieu until the Seleucid period, a time when Aramaic had long replaced Akkadian as spoken and written language and Greek was required as administrative tool. Indeed, the last batch of cuneiform tablets, called Graeco-Babyloniaca, were produced in Babylon between the 1st century BCE and the 1st century CE. The Graeco-Babyloniaca recorded ritual and religious compositions written in Akkadian and Sumerian on the obverse with a transliteration in Greek characters on the reverse (Westenholz 2007; Geller 1997).

Evolution of language, idiomatic differences

The evolution of the Sumerian language roughly follows this classification:

  • Archaic Sumerian: 3100-2600 BCE
  • Old / “Classic” Sumerian: 2600-2300 BCE
  • Neo-Sumerian: 2300-2000 BCE
  • Late Sumerian: 2000-1700 BCE
  • Post Sumerian: 1700-100 BCE/100 CE

In the second half of the 3rd millennium two dialects can be distinguished: a Northern Sumerian and a Southern Sumerian, which differed from each other for such rules as vowel harmony or passive construction. Moreover, a further “dialect” has been identified as Emesal, “fine tongue”, used only in literary and cultic contexts from the Old-Babylonian period onward. Sumerian was dead as a spoken language already in the 19th century. From this moment onward, it was only used as a written language and it was exclusively transmitted in cultic and scribal contexts and provided with Akkadian translations. Especially in later texts, several errors, due to the misunderstanding of the Sumerian language, can be noted in both grammar and writing.

Symbolic value and vectors of cultural influences

The cuneiform script was the first and foremost responsible for the surviving of Sumerian, since the Mesopotamian culture was primarily a conservative one. The relentless attempt, which the scribes perpetrated along several centuries, saved Sumerian from oblivion and encapsulated it in an unceasing copying of the existing texts. The same interpretation of the Sumerian language much owes to Akkadian: it is from the latter that the former was reconstructed.

However, the relationship between Sumerian and Akkadian was an active one. As far as textual evidence allows to guess, since the 3rd millennium Sumerian and Akkadian came in contact and created a sort of mutual symbiosis of both culture and language. The bilingual context, born from this interaction, led to phenomena such as borrowings and convergence in the lexical, morphological, syntactical and phonological fields, on both sides.

Being passed through scribal schools and in such fundamental works as the literary compositions, Sumerian deeply rooted in the Akkadian culture. Thanks to this syncretism, the cultural influence that Akkadian exercised centuries later over the surrounding areas necessarily conveyed the Sumerian legacy.

On these premises, every analysis carried out on Sumerian should inevitably imply cross-references to Akkadian.

Useful corpus to the study of peace lexicon and Work tools

Work tools

  • Electronic Pennsylvania Sumerian Dictionary
  • J.A. Halloran, Sumerian Lexicon: A Dictionary Guide to the Ancient Sumerian Language, Los Angeles, Logogram Publishing, 2006.
  • Reallexikon der Assyriologie und Vorderasiatischen Archäologie, Berlin-New York, De Gruyter, 1928-.

Historical Sources

  • Literary Texts (narrative, royal inscriptions, myths, hymns, laments)
  • Epistolary
  • Technical Texts (omens, rituals, incantations, exorcisms)

It is worth noting that not all the textual categories mentioned above can provide the same amount or typology of data, neither they offer a homogenous continuum in their distribution.

A preliminary distinction between a political concept of peace and a more “spiritual” one can be appraised in the different corpora, especially when a comparison between the Akkadian and the Sumerian realm is carried out. The next step will consider how these nuances in the meaning of peace are reflected in the lexicon.


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  • Fales M.F., 2008. “On Pax Assyriaca in the Eighth–Seventh Centuries BCE and Its Implications,” in R. Cohen, R. Westbrook (eds), Isaiah’s Vision of Peace in Biblical and Modern International Relations, New York, Palgrave Macmillan: 17-35.
  • — 2010. Guerre et paix en Assyrie: Religion et impérialisme. Les Conférences de l’École Pratique des Hautes Études, Paris, Cerf.
  • Geller M., 1997. “The Last Wedge” in Zeitschrift für Assyriologie und Vorderasiatische Archäologie, vol. 87 issue 1, Berlin-New York, De Gruyter: 43-95.
  • Jagersma B., 2010. A Descriptive Grammar of Sumerian. Leiden. [With a comprehensive discussion about previous grammars].
  • Liverani M., 1994. Guerra e diplomazia nell'Antico Oriente, 1600-1100 a.C., Roma-Bari, Laterza.
  • Michalowski P., 2004. "Sumerian", in Roger Woodward (ed.), The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the World's Ancient Languages, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press: 19-59.
  • Michalowski P., 1996. “Origin” in P.T. Daniels-W. Bright (eds), The World’s Writing Systems, New York-Oxford, Oxford University Press: 33-36.
  • Neumann H. et al. (Hrsg.), 2014. Krieg und Frieden im Alten Vorderasien. 52e Rencontre Assyriologique Internationale. International Congress of Assyriology and Near eastern Archaelogy (Münster, 17.–21. Juli 2006). Alter Orient und Altes Testament, Band 401, Münster, Ugarit-Verlag.
  • Oded B., 1992. War, Peace and Empire: Justifications for War in Assyrian Royal Inscriptions, Wiesbaden, Dr. Ludwig Reichert Verlag.
  • Perani M. (ed.), 2005. Guerra santa, guerra e pace dal Vicino Oriente antico alle tradizioni ebraica, cristiana e islamica: Atti del convegno internazionale, Ravenna 11 maggio-Bertinoro 12-13 maggio, 2004, Firenze, Giuntina.
  • Reallexikon der Assyriologie und Vorderasiatischen Archäologie, Berlin-New York, De Gruyter, 1928-.
  • Vidal J. (ed.), 2010. Studies on War in the Ancient Near East. Collected Essays on Military History, Alter Orient und Altes Testament, Band 372, Münster, Ugarit-Verlag
  • Westenholz A., 2007. “The Graeco-Babyloniaca Once Again.” Zeitschrift für Assyriologie und Vorderasiatische Archäologie, vol. 97, issue 2, Berlin-New York, De Gruyter: 262-313.

To cite this article

Noemi Borrelli, "Sumerian", Les mots de la paix/Terminology of peace [on-line]. Uploaded 23/2/2016, accessed