Without Sumerian You are no True Human!

A scribe who does not know Sumerian, what kind of scribe is he?

The motto of this text is actually a quotation from a proverb collection and highlights the importance of the knowledge of Sumerian for Mesopotamian scribes. Sumerian is one of the oldest languages we know. To the best of our knowledge, it was spoken in southern Mesopotamia in the 4th and 3rd millennia, but it ceased to be a vernacular around 2000 BC. In the second and first millennium BC, people mostly spoke Akkadian, a Semitic language, but nevertheless the scribes continued to study Sumerian until the very end of cuneiform in the first centuries AD. To master all the secrets of Sumerian was the ultimate pride of a scribe and the main pillar of the scribe’s professional identity.

According to the conviction of Mesopotamian scribes, one could only become a true member of humanity nam.lú.ùlu through the study of Sumerian. This is expressed in numerous proverbs and school texts, in which lazy students of Sumerian are scolded and are encouraged to intensify their study. This might remind the reader of the Italian Renaissance when it was the study of Greek and Latin that distinguished a true human being from his more mundane fellow beings. The Renaissance humanists and the scribes of ancient Mesopotamia were both convinced that a focus on learning, on the study of old languages and old texts, would turn their students into decent human beings. As the students might have complained about all the effort they were supposed to invest in studying a language which was useless for their everyday jobs as administrators, they seemingly needed to be convinced why studying Sumerian was important. This reminds us of a discussion of our own time, as it was often debated why it is necessary to study Hebrew, Greek or Latin in Humanistic schools. The almost complete disappearance of Hebrew and Greek from schools might indicate that we live in an age which is shaped by administrators, not humanists.

This is not the right place to bemoan the decline of our knowledge of dead languages, it should suffice to hint to the 4.000-year-old school texts and proverbs, to demonstrate that every time had its own feeling of decay and was afraid that the youth is only going for fun and entertainment, instead of being a devoted student. In a school text usually labeled as “The father and his lazy son”, the father scolds his offspring for being lazy with his studies, tries to explain how much effort he invested to make such an education possible for his son and gives him the following advice:

Don’t stand in the marketplace! Don’t run around in the streets! Be modest, pay respect to your supervisor!

However, as we learn later in the text, the son does not heed the advice. He hangs around in the marketplace and in the streets, he likes to meet dubious people, like clowns and dancers and even likes to dance himself! The father is afraid that his son will not achieve the goals of scribal education, that he will not become a true member of humanity and that all his efforts will finally be in vain and tries hard to convince his son to study hard and to resist all the temptations of the marketplace.

During a pandemic, this blog might remind its readers that there is enough to do if times are boring. If you want to become a true human being, start to learn Sumerian! In case you feel that it is not worth the effort, the ancient schoolmasters would have scolded you like this:

[du]b-sar-me-en mu-ní-za nu-zu / igi-ní-za sig-ga
You’re a scribe and you don’t know your own name! Shame on you! (Proverb 2.37)

dub-sar hu-ru a-ga-aš-gi4 é-dub-ba-x
A fool of a scribe, the most awkward one in school. (Proverb 2.40)

dub-sar šu nu-a nar mili nu-a
A scribe without a hand, a singer without a voice. (2.43)

kindagal eme-gi7 ba-an-zu-a
A barber who knows Sumerian. (2.55)