Sumerian Lexicon

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The following lexicon contains 1,255 Sumerian logogram words and 2,511 Sumerian compound words. A logogram is a reading of a cuneiform sign which represents a word in the spoken language. Sumerian scribes invented the practice of writing in cuneiform on clay tablets sometime around 3400 B.C. in the Uruk/Warka region in the south of ancient Iraq. [The etymology of ‘Iraq’ may come from this region, biblical Erech. Medieval Arabic sources used the name ‘Iraq’ as a geographical term for the area in the south and center of the modern republic.] The Sumerian language spoken by the inventors of writing is known to us through a large body of texts and through bilingual cuneiform dictionaries of Sumerian and Akkadian, the language of their Semitic successors, to which Sumerian is not related. These bilingual dictionaries date from the Old Babylonian period (1800-1600 B.C.), by which time Sumerian had ceased to be spoken, except by the scribes. The earliest and most important words in Sumerian had their own cuneiform signs, whose origins were pictographic, making an initial repertoire of about a thousand signs or logograms. Beyond these words, two-thirds of this lexicon now consists of words that are transparent compounds of separate logogram words. I have greatly expanded the section containing compounds in this version, but I know that many more compound words could be added.

Many cuneiform signs can be pronounced in more than one way and often two or more signs share the same pronunciation, in which case it is necessary to indicate in the transliteration which cuneiform sign is meant; Assyriologists have developed a system whereby the second homophone is marked by an acute accent (´), the third homophone by a grave accent (`), and the remainder by subscript numerals. The homophone numeration here follows the ‘BCE-System’ developed by Borger, Civil, and Ellermeier. The ‘accents’ and subscript numerals do not affect the pronunciation. The numeration system is a convention to inform Assyriologists which, for example, of the many cuneiform signs that have the reading du actually occurs on the tablet. A particular sign can often be transcribed in a long way, such as dug4, or in a short way, such as du11, because Sumerian was like French in omitting certain amissable final consonants except before a following vowel. Due to this lexicon’s etymological orientation, you will usually find a word listed under its fullest phonetic form. Transcriptions of texts often contain the short forms, however, because Sumerologists try to accurately represent the spoken language. Short forms are listed, but you are told where to confer.

The vowels may be pronounced as follows: a as in father, u as in pull, e as in peg, and i as in hip. Of the special consonants, gtilde is pronounced like ng in rang, h is pronounced like ch in German Buch or Scottish loch, and š is pronounced like sh in dash.

Following the definitions, the lexicon may indicate in a smaller font the constituent elements of words that in origin were compound words, if those elements were clear to me. Etymologies are a normal part of dictionary-making, but etymologies are also the most subject to speculation. It is possible that, in some cases, I have provided a Sumerian etymology for what is actually a loanword from another language. I encourage scholars to contact me with evidence from productive roots in other proto-languages when they have reason to believe that a Sumerian word is a loan from another language family. In light of the Sumerian propensity for forming new words through compounding in the period after they invented cuneiform signs, it should not be surprising to find this same propensity in words dating from before their invention of written signs. The structure and thinking behind the Sumerian vocabulary is to me a thing of beauty. We are fortunate to be able to look back into the minds of our prehistoric ancestors and see how they thought and lived via the words that they created.

The lexicon’s etymological orientation explains why the vocabulary is organized according to the phonetic structure of the words, with words sharing the same structure being listed together and alphabetically according to their final consonants and vowels, as this method best groups together related words. This principle has been abandoned after words of the structure CVC(V) in this version, as words that are phonetically more complex than this do not group together by meaning. The phonetically more complex words and the compound words are listed alphabetically simply by their initial letters.

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