How to Read a Sumerian Text

Cuneiform writing from the Sumerian civilization in Iraq.
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Sumeria is in the Middle East around the southern portions of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in what is now Iraq and Kuwait. The Sumerian civilization is one of the oldest-known on Earth, dating back to the fourth millennium B.C. A great deal of Sumerian writing survives, including the well-known Epic of Gilgamesh and many legal and financial documents. To learn to read ancient Sumerian texts, consider whether you want to read them in their original language or in modern translation.

1 Learning the Sumerian Language

To learn to read Sumerian texts in their original language, you first need to learn cuneiform writing. Cuneiform is a system of wedge-like symbols and letters used to write the Sumerian language. Sumerian is composed of signs and symbols that can represent either a syllable or an entire noun. These letters and signs changed over history, so they are not depicted consistently in Sumerian texts. To learn Sumerian, you must learn these variations and the Sumerian vocabulary.

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2 Where to Learn Sumerian

Your best bet for learning the Sumerian language is a university that has a program in the history and languages of the ancient Near East, such as Cornell, the University of Chicago or the University of London. These courses will provide lessons in vocabulary and grammar, as well as primary texts in the Sumerian language to study.

To pursue independent study of Sumerian, you can review online dictionaries and alphabets. Online courses in Sumerian are rare. Ask professors in the field if they can recommend a Sumerian teacher for independent study.

3 Reading Sumerian Texts in Translation

However, you do not need to learn Sumerian language to appreciate and study Sumerian history and literature. Many modern translations of Sumerian writing can be purchased or viewed online. When reading these texts, keep in mind that they are ancient archaeological texts. Lines or entire sections of text may be missing or fragmented.

Jon Zamboni began writing professionally in 2010. He has previously written for The Spiritual Herald, an urban health care and religious issues newspaper based in New York City, and online music magazine eBurban. Zamboni has a Bachelor of Arts in religious studies from Wesleyan University.