I've read the following in Edzard's "Sumerian Grammar" from 2003:

Determinatives: these are signs which precede or follow words or names in order to specify them as belonging to semantic groups. Determinatives can be proven not to have been pronounced (although doubt may exist in specific instances).

I can't, however, find any other sources about this. How can it be proven?

  • 1
    I'm not well read on Sumerian at all, but poetic meter could be a good method here. If the meter is known to have some structure (say, the iambic pentameter beloved of Early Modern English), but only when you ignore determinatives (which could obviously occur at any point in the line, and so cannot easily be incorporated into the structure of the meter), that would be good evidence that they weren't pronounced – Tristan May 6 '20 at 9:01
  • As long as we're guessing, also transcriptions and borrowings into other languages could provide clues. – Keelan May 6 '20 at 9:12
  • 1
    @Tristan - Unfortunately, "the Sumerian definition of poetry is unknown. It is not rhymed, although “comparable effects were sometimes exploited.” It did not use syllabo-tonic versification, and the writing system precludes detection of rhythm, metre, rhyme, or alliteration. Quantitative analysis of other possible poetic features seems to be lacking, or has been intentionally hidden by the scribes who recorded the writing." (From Wikipedia article Sumerian literature, the sources quoted are there, too.) – Yellow Sky May 6 '20 at 11:06

A good argument for determiners being silent can be this: names of different kinds of trees and names of wooden things were preceded by the determiner G̃IŠ (tree, wood, tool), for example:

  • G̃IŠ.nàd, G̃IŠ.ná: bed, couch ( = nú-a, 'to lie down' + nominative
  • G̃IŠ.kun4: ladder, stairs, threshold
  • G̃IŠ.kiri6: orchard, garden, palm grove (ki, 'place', + ru5, 'to send forth shoots, buds, or blossoms')
  • G̃IŠ.apin: n., seeder plow (a, 'seed', + bun, 'to blow')
  • G̃IŠ.zar: wagon shaft (Akkadian loanword, from serru(m) II)

In Sumerian nominative phrases, the head noun always came first, e.g. LUGAL 'king': LU 'man' + GAL 'big'. If we assume that the determiners were pronounced, then it follows that such words as 'ladder' or 'bed' were constructed as 'such-and-such tree/tool' where 'such-and-such' stands for attributes that help us distinguish, in my example, "lying-down tree/tool" from "ladder-like tree/tool", which sounds weird, just as weird as the analysis of the noun G̃IŠ.kiri6 'orchard' as "tree of blossom place" since orchard is actually a place, not a tree.

Also note the last word, G̃IŠ.zar 'wagon shaft' which was borrowed from Akkadian serru.

And now imagine an early Bronze Age language which is so logical that it groups together the bed, the ladder, the garden, the wagon shaft by adding the same morpheme to all such words. And even when borrowing a word for a new thing from a neighboring tribe, the speakers of the language (primitive illiterate peasants and fishermen) intuitively add the "tool" morpheme to it. As for me, it is more likely that it was the scribes who added that G̃IŠ sign for easier understanding of the written text than the Sumerian language originally was so logically classifying. In fact, the only known classification of nouns in Sumerian is as for animacy, there are two genders, animate and inanimate. This gender distinction goes through the whole system of the language, many noun cases are different for each gender, the verb agrees with both subject and object in that animacy. Now imagine that those determiners had been a thing in the Sumerian language. Wouldn't we have seen that logical system of categories reflected in the noun case and verb conjugation morphology? We can see nothing like that, though.


Another good indication is the use of determinatives in linguistically-unrelated languages that share the same writing system.

Classical Sumero-Akkadian cuneiform was used to write Sumerian (a language isolate), Akkadian (Semitic), Hittite (Indo-European), and a handful of others from various families. As far as we know, these languages don't have a common ancestor; they just happened to all be spoken in the same general area at a time when cuneiform was popular.

And yet all of these unrelated languages preface divine names with the DINGIR (DIŊIR) sign, names of professions with the LÚ sign, names of wooden objects with the GIŠ (ŊIŠ) sign, metal objects with URUDU, vessels with DUG, and so on.

Since these languages have practically nothing in common except the writing system, the simplest explanation is that these determinatives were a property of the writing system, not of the languages. In other words, there's no shared morpheme at the start of all words for wooden things across all these languages; there's just a scribal convention to write GIŠ in front of wooden objects, to make the reading easier.

(Sometimes the situation is less clear—it's entirely possible that names for regions actually did actually share a morpheme, for example, and we should read KUR Ḫatti "the land of Hatti" rather than KURḪatti "Hatti [place name]". But the fact that some signs are unspoken determinatives seems pretty certain.)

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.