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I wasn't sure where to ask this question. I hope this is the right place...

My question is a little more complicated than the title suggests.

I'm wanting to read the Epic of Gilgamesh in the ancient Babylonian/Sumerian. I'm wondering if I learn Akkadian or Ugaritic, will I be able to read the Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh? Which one (if either) would be better to learn? Or is Sumerian totally (or mostly) unrelated and I should learn it itself? Honestly, I know so little about these three languages and how they are related, I'm not sure exactly where to start.

I'm also wondering if it is easier to learn one first and then the other?

Any insight on this would be much appreciated.

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From Wikipedia:

The literary history of Gilgamesh begins with five Sumerian poems about Bilgamesh (Sumerian for "Gilgamesh"), king of Uruk, dating from the Third Dynasty of Ur (c. 2100 BC). These independent stories were later used as source material for a combined epic. The first surviving version of this combined epic, known as the "Old Babylonian" version, dates to the 18th century BC ... Only a few tablets of it have survived. The later "standard" version dates from the 13th to the 10th centuries BC ... Approximately two thirds of this longer, twelve-tablet version have been recovered.

And:

From the diverse sources found, two main versions of the epic have been partially reconstructed: the standard Akkadian version, or He who saw the deep, and the Old Babylonian version, or Surpassing all other kings. Five earlier Sumerian poems about Gilgamesh have been partially recovered, some with primitive versions of specific episodes in the Akkadian version, others with unrelated stories.

Thus, if you want to read what is typically termed the Gilgamesh Epic, you need to learn Standard Akkadian or Old Babylonian, not necessarily Sumerian. Standard Akkadian is a later stage of Old Babylonian. Old Babylonian is highly regular which makes it a good starting point; from there you can learn Standard Akkadian by learning about the developments. The other direction is more complicated. Still, the Gilgamesh Epic is a literary work and it will take time before you can read it; in my university students of Old Babylonian start with the Codex Hammurabi. You can read the texts in transcription, or else you need to learn the cuneiform signs, which also differ per period.

Sumerian is a language isolate that had a lot of language contact with the precursor of Old Babylonian (cuneiform is originally Sumerian). It is perfectly possible to learn Akkadian without knowledge of Sumerian, but if you are interested in the Sumerian poems you clearly need to learn it.

While Akkadian is an East Semitic language, Ugaritic is a North West Semitic language, as far as I know not directly related to the Gilgamesh epic. It is genealogically closer to Ancient Hebrew and Old Aramaic or even Arabic than to Akkadian (although, like Akkadian, it features nominal cases which Hebrew and Aramaic do not). Perhaps you thought it is related because it is also cuneiform? But cuneiform is a generic term for writing incised on clay tablets. The cuneiform of Akkadian of different periods uses different signs, and like that Ugaritic is yet another writing system, with the most important difference that Ugaritic writing is alphabetic while Akkadian is syllabic.

Let me know if you want textbook suggestions and if so for what.

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  • Wow. Thank you Keelan. Your answer was very enlightening. I guess I'm going for Old Babylonian & Akkadian then. Is worthington's book good? Are you aware of any type of chart or diagram that lists out the scripts side-by-side for easy comparison? Scripts of say Akkadian/Old Babylonian and from different periods? – Phillip Nov 26 '18 at 18:02
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    @Phillip if you're going to self-teach, Worthington's Complete Babylonian is definitely a good textbook. Black's Concise Dictionary of Akkadian would be a good fit. If you're going to start with OB, some of the entries may not be where you expect them to be due to some sound shifts, but this is manageable and it fits better with Standard Akkadian. If you need a reference grammar, Huehnergard's Grammar of Akkadian is good. – Keelan Nov 27 '18 at 20:59
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Sumerian is a language isolate: no other language is known to be related to it.

Akkadian and Ugaritic, on the other hand, are Semitic languages: they're related to each other (as well as to Hebrew, Arabic, etc), though not very closely.

The main connection between them is the basic principle of their writing system (cuneiform), which was also shared by Hittite and a few others (*). But if you're hoping to read Sumerian, learning Sumerian is the best route to take.

(*) In particular, Sumerian, Akkadian, and Hittite used variants of the same cuneiform script, which may have been borrowed and reinterpreted by Ugaritic; or Ugaritic might have just made something similar/inspired by Sumerian, like Cherokee to English. They're not identical.

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  • You mean Sumerian, right? – jlawler Nov 17 '18 at 3:26
  • @jlawler Oops, indeed. Didn't proof that before posting. – Draconis Nov 17 '18 at 3:43
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    Saying that Ugaritic and Akkadian have the same writing system is slightly inaccurate. It is both cuneiform, but Ugaritic is alphabetic and Akkadian syllabic. You also wouldn't say English and Russian have the same writing system if they're both written on paper. – Keelan Nov 17 '18 at 6:49
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    @Keelan: More to the point: Ugaritic and Sumerian/Akkadian cuneiform are not genetically related, which English and Russian script are. – fdb Nov 17 '18 at 12:13
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    @Keelan Added a note about that – Draconis Nov 17 '18 at 16:18

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