Writing in entangled languages

The otherwise unrelated ancient languages of Sumerian and Akkadian share a writing system. This led to cultural mixing and exchange that make their relationship hard to define.

Illustration by August Tao

Illustration by August Tao

In 2000 BCE, the cities of Sumer and Akkad were flourishing in what is now Iraq. Though close geographically, sharing space on the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, these two Mesopotamian nations represented different cultures and empires. Sumer was founded first, around 4500 BCE, and is widely regarded as one of the first known civilisations on the planet. By the third millennium BCE, Sumer coexisted peacefully with Akkad, a neighbouring power to the northwest. In the beginning, this relationship allowed for interchange between Sumer and Akkad—of people and ideas, and also language.

The people of Akkad spoke a language called Akkadian. Though there are no speakers around today, Akkadian was a Semitic language, meaning that much of its structure and even some of its vocabulary may be familiar to speakers of modern day Semitic languages like Arabic or Hebrew. Sumerian, the name we give to the unrelated language spoken in Sumer, dates to the late fourth millennium BCE. This name actually derives from an Akkadian word—the Sumerian word for their own language was eme-gi7, which means 'native tongue'. Unlike Akkadian, Sumerian was a language isolate—no later languages trace their lineage back to Sumerian.

Though these languages were very different, the mixing of speakers between Akkad and Sumer in the third century created bilingual cultures. Speakers freely used both Sumerian and Akkadian in daily life—at least until the Akkadian empire united both cultures. Under one rule, a preference for Akkadian began to assert itself until it became the dominant language of the region by 1800 BCE, though the Akkadian language still retained many Sumerian loan words, or words borrowed completely from this other language. But another product of this shared bilingual culture was the shared cuneiform script used for both Sumerian and Akkadian.

Cuneiform writing began with little wedge-shaped indentations pressed into wet clay with a cut reed. Based on a small vocabulary of upright, sideways, slanted, and triangular marks, this writing system generates a complex catalogue of hundreds of signs. Cuneiform was a Sumerian invention and one of the first writing systems ever created. Akkadians adopted this script afterward as a way of writing its own completely different language, but this is perhaps not surprising since written scripts were so new that there was likely no other writing system that Akkadian could have borrowed.

This Sumerian clay tablet is a ledger, recording exchanges of silver. It dates to approximately 2500 BCE.   Gavin.Collins/Wikimedia Commons  (public domain)

This Sumerian clay tablet is a ledger, recording exchanges of silver. It dates to approximately 2500 BCE. Gavin.Collins/Wikimedia Commons (public domain)


Despite their shared use of a script, the way that these languages used cuneiform differed. Ultimately, the relationship between Sumerian and Akkadian as written languages is a tangled one, filled with word and sign borrowing at different levels, ultimately creating a language that relies on knowledge of both tongues. Untangling this relationship may help us identify whether we can view Sumerian as a sidekick language to the dominant vernacular. At the end of its lifespan, Sumerian continued to augment Akkadian but no longer stood on its own.

Two ways to read cuneiform

The Sumerian language associated words with each individual cuneiform sign. An image that represents an entire word is called a logogram or logograph, and may be more familiar from the modern day Han characters used to write Chinese. In Sumerian, for example, the cuneiform sign below may be interpreted DINGIR, meaning the word ‘god.’ (By convention in the field, when a cuneiform sign represents a Sumerian logogram, its translation is represented in all capitals.)

This logogram represents    DINGIR   , the Sumerian word for god, but it could also stand for syllable  an  in Akkadian.

This logogram represents DINGIR, the Sumerian word for god, but it could also stand for syllable an in Akkadian.


Unlike Sumerian, the Akkadian language linked each sign to a syllable. As in modern syllabic scripts, a word is created by combining sounds into complex arrangements, much as we do with letters—but is still decidedly different than the alphabets we’re used to. Syllabic scripts may be familiar, however, from the hiragana and katakana scripts used with Japanese. For example, the cuneiform sign we saw above may be translated in the syllabic Akkadian cuneiform script as the sound an. (By convention in the field, when a cuneiform sign should be interpreted as an Akkadian syllable, it is written in lowercase italic letters.) This can be used in conjunction with other signs to create full words.

Mixing of Sumerian and Akkadian can also be seen in the writing system. Sometimes Akkadian makes use of Sumerian logograms, translating signs not as the expected syllables but rather as entire words. For instance, the above sign for an could actually be read in Akkadian as the Sumerian DINGIR. So in Akkadian, the symbol might be read as a syllable or as a logogram, as one part of a word or the entire word itself. In Akkadian texts, no indication is given to the reader on which way to interpret the sign. Akkadian writers used the Sumerian DINGIR sign to indicate the names of deities, a common need in this culture, so any literate Akkadian speaker would frequently run across this symbol as DINGIR.

Even more interesting are the instances where the original Sumerian logogram creates the meaning of the Akkadian syllabic sound. For instance, the logogram called Sumerian E2 (below) means ‘house’ in Sumerian and signifies the syllable bid in Akkadian. The Akkadian word for house is bītum, so this sign probably took on the syllabic meaning of bid from the first syllable of bītum. Here, the established Sumerian logogram gives us the Akkadian meaning and also the syllabic variation.

This logogram    can mean ‘house’ in Sumerian and the syllable  bid  in Akkadian.

This logogram can mean ‘house’ in Sumerian and the syllable bid in Akkadian.


In some instances, we find Akkadian words that clearly come from original Sumerian ones. The Akkadian word for scribe, for example, is ṭupšarrum, which comes from the Sumerian word for scribe, DUB.SAR. These two words are represented by different signs, however, using established logograms for the Sumerian but relying on the syllable signs for the Akkadian version. Here the Akkadian term is a clear cognate to the Sumerian word, but in sound rather than look.

If this sounds complex to you, that’s because it is. The relationship between Sumerian and Akkadian is anything but straightforward. Though we can say with certainty that the cuneiform script was originally used to write Sumerian, we find that Akkadian borrows not only the script but sometimes whole words as well. In addition, modern linguists can’t predict if the Akkadian word will be a Sumerian loan word or a syllabic translation of an Akkadian word. This is likely a result of the shared cultural milieu between the two cities of Sumer and Akkad that created a shared language environment. If the majority of the population was comfortable operating in two different languages, it is perhaps unsurprising that their languages started to blend.

These inscription in Akkadian cuneiform are on display at the Louvre in Paris.   John S. Y. Lee/Flickr  (CC BY-SA 2.0)

These inscription in Akkadian cuneiform are on display at the Louvre in Paris. John S. Y. Lee/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

As a PhD student studying Akkadian texts, the use of cuneiform for Akkadian has always felt at once intuitive and shoehorned. The examples we have of written Akkadian seem to indicate writers who intuited when it was okay to use logograms instead of syllabic interpretation. This created an end product that, while confusing to us, reveals an ease of use for actual speakers. However, the intellectual leaps that the language takes in order to use or borrow from Sumerian betray that the script was not intended for Akkadian at all. To interpret this paradoxical situation, it may help to view Sumerian as a language sidekick, allowing Akkadian writers to play with their language and create multiple meanings or shorter lines of text. It was a tool available to the well-trained author. In fact, an old Sumerian proverb tells us that “A scribe who does not know Sumerian, what (kind of) scribe is he?

The end of Akkadian

While Akkadian became the lingua franca of ancient Mesopotamia after Akkad united the two cultures, Sumerian retained a cult status even into the late period of Akkadian culture. It continued to be used in religious and scholarly areas, much as Latin continued to be used as a way to communicate science in Europe long after the last native Latin speaker had died. Sumerian gained association with the astronomical texts produced in these scholarly environments. Many of the names for constellations were written using Sumerian logograms. For example, astronomers would talk about the group of stars we call the Pleiades as MUL.MUL, where MUL is the Sumerian word for star and the repetition indicates plurality. So Akkadian speakers called the group ‘The Stars,’ but did so in Sumerian signs.

Eventually, however, other powers rose in the region. Persian and Greek conquests of Mesopotamia led to the disappearance of Akkadian as a spoken language. However, written Akkadian remained the script of Mesopotamian astronomers and astrologers, whose knowledge of celestial phenomena was respected even as their cities were being overthrown.

However, astronomy remained a bastion for the use of Sumerian logograms in Akkadian until the final days of the language. In fact, it was the Akkadian-writing astronomers who established the zodiac and the practice of reading horoscopes that passed into Greco-Roman culture and eventually to the modern day.

Because some of the final texts written in Akkadian were astronomical ones, the last surviving version of this language was that of the scholarly elite, and this scholarly late Akkadian was peppered with loads of Sumerian loan words. This same phenomenon is visible in the technical jargon of academia—to establish themselves as part of a discipline or genre, authors will often make use of specific esoteric words, often borrowed directly from Latin and Greek. Part of this may be for specificity, but often it helps the author identify themselves with a culture in much the same way that late Akkadian writers made use of Sumerian loan-logograms to further identify with a scholarly culture. Regardless of the reason why, in its final form, cuneiform seems to have started to return to its language of origin.

The relationship between Sumerian and Akkadian is unique, beginning from a shared bilingual culture and resulting in one language that contained the ghost of the other. Thinking of Sumerian as a sidekick to Akkadian seems initially to fit, because Sumerian died out as a spoken language while Akkadian was still in its prime and became a tool for writers of Akkadian to expand the vocabulary of the cuneiform script. But such a metaphor ignores Sumerian’s early primacy and late Akkadian’s heavy dependency on Sumerian logograms. In fact, Sumerian is so integral to understanding Akkadian that it seems unfair to relegate the language to sidekick status. While languages may be in conversation with each other, it seems dismissive to view one language as solely defined by its use in a wholly different one.

Regardless of whether Sumerian should be considered a sidekick, it’s clear that the two languages are in a strange and curious relationship with each other throughout their history. In general, learning Akkadian necessitates learning some Sumerian. In this sense perhaps more than any other, Sumerian is a sidekick not to the language of Akkadian but to the student of Akkadian in the present day who relies on knowledge of Sumerian for good translations. Much like the scribes of millennia ago, a modern-day student of Akkadian who does not know Sumerian, what kind of student is she?

Edited by Diana Crow and John Back