The Sumerian language was spoken in ancient Mesopotamia, and seems to have been the first language written in the cuneiform script. The slight uncertainty about this is that the first texts contained no grammatical elements such as suffixes on nouns and prefixes on verbs, but as soon as these began to appear, in about 2600 BC, it is clear that the language is Sumerian. As a spoken language it died out in about 2000 BC, though it continued in use as a written language, rather like Latin in Renaissance Europe. No languages related to Sumerian, living or dead, are known—distant relationships have been suggested but never widely accepted. The antecedents of the Sumerians are unknown, but it is plausible that they came from further east in Asia.

The pronunciation of Sumerian is somewhat problematic because there are many monosyllabic words having the same vowels and consonants, but quite different meanings. They may simply be homonyms (same sound, different meaning), or they could have had different tonal qualities, as in Chinese. Our knowledge of the various consonants and vowels is mainly through Akkadian, using lists of words showing the pronunciation and translation into Akkadian.

Sumerian is a language of the agglutinative type, meaning that words are built up from a sequence of units each expressing a well-defined grammatical meaning. For example case markers (more than one) may be attached to a noun, and various grammatical markers are attached to a verb. The verb comes at the end of the clause. A modern example of an agglutinative language is Turkish, but it is completely unrelated to Sumerian.

Sumerian is also an ‘ergative’ language, meaning that the subject of an intransitive verb is in the same case as the direct object of a transitive verb—the so-called the ‘absolute’ case. The subject of a transitive verb is said to be in the ‘ergative’ case. See the separate page on ergativity for an example.

For more details on the Sumerian language, see Wikipedia, and the Electronic Text Corpus at Oxford.