Pronouncing Sumerograms as Sumerograms?

Lots of times, we who read and copy Akkadian texts pronounce the sumerograms instead of normalizing them into Akkadian. It’s convenient, when in teaching or learning, or when dictating. Is it logical to suppose that the ancient scribes also did so?

Explanation about sumerograms in Akkadian, for the non-specialists out there:

Akkadian is the language of Assyrian and Babylonian texts, during more or less the 2nd and 1st millennia B.C.E. The writing system for Akkadian was borrowed from a completely different language, Sumerian. Consequently, while most of the signs used to spell Akkadian represent syllables (not single sounds, as with an alphabet), the scribes would often represent an entire Akkadian word by using the Sumerian sign that had represented that word in Sumerian. So, a phrase spelled entirely with syllabic Akkadian characters like this (from Code of Hammurapi §102):

šum-ma tam-ka-ru-um a-na ša-ma-al-le-em ka-as-pa-am a-na ta-ad-mi-iq-tim it-ta-di-in-ma…

This represents the spoken phrase, šumma tamkarum ana šamallêm kaspam ana tadmiqtim ittaddin-ma… (“If a trader has given silver to a trading agent as an advance…”). But, in practice, such a phrase would employ many sumerograms along with the syllabic signs: here, DAM.GAR3 for tamkarum, ŠAMAN2.LA2 for šamallêm, and KUG.BABBAR for kaspam. As a result, the actual spelling turns out to be:

šum-ma DAM.GAR3 a-na ŠAMAN2.LA2 KUG.BABBAR a-na ta-ad-mi-iq-tim it-ta-di-in-ma…

The point of all this is that, in reading the text, you pronounce the Akkadian words, not the sumerograms that represent them. So, šumma tamkarum ana šamallêm kaspam anaetc. But, when we scholars are talking about the text, asking how it is written, we might pronounce the sumerograms as sumerograms, so our hearer understands what’s happening on the tablet: “shumma dam gar-three ana shaman-two-la-two kug babbar ana…etc.”

Does that make sense? There is reading what the text says, when you pronounce the sumerograms as the Akkadian words they represent; then there is talking about how the text says it, where you pronounce the sumerograms as sumerograms.

Getting on with things:

My question concerns whether some texts suggest that ancient scribes—at least sometimes, presumably among themselves—pronounced sumerograms as sumerograms, rather than as the Akkadian words they represent.

Take a text I came across in Lesson Eighteen in Huehnergard’s grammar.[1] Line four of the tablet contains the sumerogram AD.TA.NI, when expected is AD.A.NI (AD represents “father,” and A.NI represents “his/her”). So why is the sign TA used instead of A? Physically, the signs are not remotely alike and could not be confused one for the other. Well, in Akkadian, the dental consonants are not always carefully distinguished: so, the sumerogram AD also can represent, not only the sound /ad/, but also /at/ or /aṭ/. I would—hesitantly—wonder if the spelling AD.TA.NI reflect a rapid pronunciation of the sumerograms: /at-ta-ni/ for /at-a-ni/.

This had been in the back of my mind since I came across it recently, when lo! and behold, I find this note to the 75th Amarna letter: [2] “Very hesitantly, it is proposed that KU.TI.TI is a syllabic writing for GU2.(UN).DI6.DI6, ābilāt bilti, lit. ‘bearers of tribute.’”

If Moran is “hesitant,” then I’m hesitant enough to stand behind him even more hesitantly. But, again, why shouldn’t the ancient scribes have found it convenient, as we do, to pronounce the sumerograms from time to time, especially in the context of teaching, learning, dictating, and taking dictation?

Does anybody know of more data on this? Are the Assyriologists all taking this kind of thing for granted, such that it’s no big deal? Anyone?

BACK TO POST The text is the adoption of a slave, from Vorderasiatische Schriftdenkmäler der Königlichen Museen zu Berlin; vol. 7,8.
BACK TO POST William L. Moran, The Amarna Letters; Baltimore: University of John Hopkins Press, 1992), page 146, EA 75 n. 7.

[Pronouncing Sumerograms as Sumerograms? was written by G. Brooke Lester for Anumma.com and was originally posted on 2010/08/24. Except as noted, it is © 2010 G. Brooke Lester and licensed for re-use only under CC BY-NC-ND 3.0.]

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3 Responses

  1. Mark Geller has an article on the Graeco-Akkadian texts, and I think for most of those Sumerograms, they are actually spelled out (normalized) rather than pronounced as a Sumerogram. Although, I am not sure witnesses from the very edges of Akkadian may not have represented scribal practice in the majority of Scribal training.

    Mark Geller “The Last Wedge” ZA 87: 43-95.

  2. For what it is worth, I think “hesitant” is the correct approach to this issue.

    • Duane, if you hadn’t chimed in, I was going to send you a note. Thanks. I do think that this is something to let sit on a back burner while getting on with more promising projects, though I’ll keep my radar up for more of this kind of evidence.

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