Ancient writing systems in the Mediterranean

A critical guide to electronic resources


edited by: Salvatore Gaspa

  • Introduction
  • Ancient Writing Systems
  • Further information

Sumerian, the earliest known written language, was called by Sumerians eme-ki- en-gi-ra, “language of Kiengir (Native Land)”, or eme-gi7(-r), “native tongue”, while Akkadian-speaking people called it lišān Šumeri(m), “language of Sumer”. It is attested as a spoken language from the end of the fourth/beginning of the third millennium BC to the first centuries of the second millennium BC, although it continued to be used as a written and scholarly language in scribal schools as late as the first millennium BC. After its death as a living language, it was used by Akkadian-speaking scribes as a literary, scholarly, and liturgical language. The last Sumerian words appeared in Greek script on Greek-Babylonian clay tablets (first century BC - first century AD) attesting the end of the tradition of cuneiform writing in Mesopotamia.

In general terms, Sumerian was spoken in southern Mesopotamia from around the area of Nippur (Nuffar) southward. No linguistic affiliation of the language of the Sumerians is known at present and various attempts to relate this isolated language to ancient and modern languages have given no convincing results. In addition, since the majority of Sumerian texts were written by non-Sumerian speakers after the death of the language as a native tongue, a description of the historical development of Sumerian is very difficult if not impossible at present. The main features of the language are agglutination (i.e., words consisting of sequences of distinct morphemes), ergativity (i.e., the subject of intransitive verbs has the same marker as the object of transitive verbs), and class system (i.e., opposition between animate and inanimate nouns). The lexicon is characterized in the great majority of cases by monosyllabic and disyllabic words, a large number of which are homophonous. Nouns and verbs are expressed by monosyllabic or disyllabic word which may be modified by a number of prefixes and suffixes. The Sumerian noun is characterized by a number of cases: ergative, absolutive, genitive, dative, comitative, terminative, ablative-instrumental, locative, locative-terminative. The continuous interaction over the centuries with Akkadian promoted the development of a Sumero-Akkadian linguistic area resulting in mutual influences in these languages. After the disappearance of the Sumerian language and civilization, the Semites of Mesopotamia continued to learn this language and literature, thus inheriting a number of cultural elements of the Sumerian civilization and transmitting them to other societies of the Ancient Near East. Some scholarly texts in Sumerian attest the use of the eme-sal dialect, a sort of “fine tongue” (often translated as “women’s language”) which was used to write grammatical and lexical forms in certain literary compositions such as hymns and laments. Most compositions in the eme-sal dialect date to the later part of the Old Babylonian period. A large number of Mesopotamian cuneiform texts were written in Sumerian: economic, administrative, and legal documents, royal inscriptions, literary compositions (e.g., myths, epics, hymns), incantations, proverbs, liturgical texts, and laments. In the second and first millennia BC Sumerian survived in Babylonia and Assyria as a written and scholarly language for literary compositions as well as for royal inscriptions. 

According to the historical periods of composition of the Sumerian texts we may distinguish three main language stages: Old or Classical Sumerian (texts from about 2600 BC to the end of the dynasty of Akkad,  c. 2200 BC), Neo-Sumerian ( c. 2200-2000 BC), and Post-Sumerian (or Old Babylonian Sumerian, c. 2000-1600 BC). It is also possible to distinguish the late phase of the language as Late Sumerian ( c. 20th-18th centuries BC) and Post-Sumerian (after 1700/1600 BC). Texts in Sumerian were written and studied in Old Babylonian scribal schools to learn the cuneiform writing and to acquire competence both in Sumerian as a scholarly language and in the Sumerian literary genres.

Mesopotamia: diffusion area of the Sumerian language and the cuneiform script

The Sumerian heartland was southern Mesopotamia and included the cities of Nippur (Nuffar), Lagash (Al-Hibba), Uruk (Warka), Ur (Muqayyar), Eridu (Abu Shahrain), Kish (Oheimir), Adab (Bismaya), Umma (Giokha), Shuruppak (Fara), Girsu (Telloh), and other centres. The place of origin of the Sumerians and of their language is still debated. It is also not clear whether the Sumerian language was also spoken in other areas. Through the diffusion of the scribal school as an institution in the cities of Mesopotamia, Sumerian became a fundamental part of the cursus studiorum of the scribes. In fact, it was necessary to learn Sumerian in order to learn the cuneiform script. The cuneiform writing system, firstly adopted for Sumerian, was then used by Semites and other Near Eastern peoples to write their languages from the third to the first millennium BC. Outside the Sumerophone area, the cuneiform was adopted with some changes to write Akkadian (Old Akkadian, Babylonian and Assyrian dialects), Hittite, Hurrian, Elamite, and Old Persian.

Ancient Writing Systems

  1. Sumerian Cuneiform

Further information

  1. Bibliography