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By Bram Jagersma

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Many regions are poorly documented. On the available evidence we can identify two main dialects during the second half of the third millennium BCE. In this grammar we will call them Northern and Southern Sumerian, following an old tradition to call the downstream area closer to the Arabian Gulf ‘South’ and the upstream area ‘North’. Strictly looking at the compass, we could just as easily call them Western and Eastern Sumerian. The relationship between these two main dialects changes across time and so do the linguistic properties in which they differ.

We have, of course, no way of knowing which language their occupants actually spoke. But even if they spoke a language that was a direct ancestor of Sumerian and gave their settlements perfectly transparent names in this language, both this language and its place names would have changed beyond recognition during the following millennia. What we do know about these early place names, however, is that similar ones are found across the entire area of Mesopotamia. Place names with final -ar or -ur are found in both northern Mesopotamia (Nagar, Assur, Gasur) and in the south (Sippar, Nippur).

That the rather uniform scribal traditions hide a great deal more from us is obvious from occasional slips into nonstandard spellings. g. ECTJ 81 3; N; 24). Such differences in pronunciation must have been common but are only rarely reflected in the written language. While the dominant written language during the Ur III period was a variety of Southern Sumerian, this changes during the subsequent, Old Babylonian period. The first centuries of the second millennium have yielded a great many unilingual Sumerian texts.

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A descriptive grammar of Sumerian by Bram Jagersma

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