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Sumerian and writing systems [was Re: Basque Gender Marking]

From:Thomas R. Wier <trwier@...>
Date:Thursday, September 30, 2004, 4:39
From:    Tamas Racsko <tracsko@...>
> On 28 Sep 2004 "Thomas R. Wier" <trwier@UCH...> wrote: > > The same cannot be said of Sumerian: especially early on, it was > > often the case that *no* grammatical elements were written down, > > just (some of the) verbal and nominal roots deemed important to > > remember the oral text, since Sumeria was still an *oral* culture. > > I this case I wonder whoever could have ornamented later those > roots with particles resembling now case endings, modd markers etc. > If they were Sumerians, did they really think that these particles > should be inserted into the oldish root-only texts in an artificial > way differring as much as possible from the real spoken language? > Or were they Accadians and did they invent a conlang from the root- > only Sumerian texts differing as much as possible from Semitic > structure?
Who knows? It's clear that by the mid-2nd millennium, Sumerian was a dead as a spoken language, preserved in written form for certain religious and cultural reasons. Since a large amount of the extant Sumerian sources come from precisely its period of obsolescence, it's very difficult to tell what is and is not the case.
> The theory you cite could descibe the source of _all_ scripts > including also very early logographic Chinese, Egyptian. Every pre- > writing culture was oral. If we deny that Sumerian cultural-regal > centres could invent (gradually) a "high-fidelity" writing system > despite their ordinary oral culture, we must deny the same in case > of every other nation.
Not so: you are excluding the (likely) possibility that a language without writing would borrow the principles of writing from a neighboring language which had used it for centuries and had developed beyond mere logograms to syllabograms. E.g., Hittite certainly borrowed cuneiform and mainly used syllabograms. Many people also believe that the Egyptians borrowed the idea of writing from Mesopotamia, though not the form. In any event, it is certainly true that, in the very earliest stages of cultures like the Chinese or Mayans, writing developed more or less in the same way that Thomsen describes for early Sumerian. (Here we are more certain that they were not inspired by outside influence to develop writing.)
> However if Thomsen is true than Sumerian was much more > polysynthetic that it could be deduced from its written form. > Because Thomsen's thesis "more and more grammatical elements and > phonetic complements were gradually added" says that the written > form was less complex, i.e. more analytical, more "isolating".
I think this is a reading of Thomsen that she herself would strongly disagree with. ========================================================================= Thomas Wier "I find it useful to meet my subjects personally, Dept. of Linguistics because our secret police don't get it right University of Chicago half the time." -- octogenarian Sheikh Zayed of 1010 E. 59th Street Abu Dhabi, to a French reporter. Chicago, IL 60637