6 Facts You Didn’t Know About Ancient Sumers and Their Language

The ancient civilisation of Sumer was located in modern-day Iraq and is said to be responsible for the world’s first writing system – the cuneiform. However, what you might not know is that the Sumerians were the firsts in many things, such as:

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World’s First Legal System

Code of Hammurabi.

Code of Hammurabi. Source: Wikimedia

Most of the world (with the exception of common law countries) uses Roman Law due to its universal applicability. However, the Romans weren’t the first people to come up with a codified legal system. The ancient Sumerians were the world’s first people to have a code which was rigorously applied throughout the society in order to regulate its structure. The laws were written using cuneiform – keep reading to find out more.

World’s First Maths

Sexagesmial System.

Sexagesmial System. Source: Wikimedia

Sumerian mathematics was based on a complex sexagesimal numbers system developed around 4,000 BC. The Sumerians were probably the first people to realise the potential of using fingers to count. The system used a counting method which engaged twelve knuckles on one hand and five fingers on the other. The Sumerians created the world’s first set of measurements and multiplication tables using that very system. They were also the world’s first founders of Geometry and the first people to calculate area of a triangle.

World’s First Schools

List of Sumerian Deities Taught in Schools.

List of Sumerian Deities Taught in Schools. Source: Wikimedia

The Sumerians were very religious people and their places of worship also served as world’s first schools. The pupils learned the writing system and Mathematics. The writing system, or cuneiform, took a few years to learn and the scribing students had to know all the particularities of grammar and hundreds of symbols used in the Sumerian written language. The teacher was known as “ummia”.

World’s First Writing System

Cuneiform Script

Cuneiform Script. Source: Wikipedia

We don’t actually know for certain whether Sumerians were the world’s first people who could write but the Sumerian writing system is the oldest one in the world, so it’s a pretty safe bet that they were. The system was known as “cuneiform” script; instead of paper, which wouldn’t be invented by China for a while yet, the Sumerians used clay tablets and a stylus to write with. At first, the cuneiform used hieroglyphics (pictures) but eventually, they turned into several hundred symbols that made up a script. Interestingly enough, the script featured both consonants and vowels. The Sumerian language is believed to have had a solid and complex grammar structure which took years to learn.

World’s First Bilinguals

Akkadian Script

Akkadian Script. Source: Omniglot

The Akkadian language, which is another language isolate spoken around the time of the Sumerian Civilisation, also used the cuneiform writing system. The two languages had many other things in common, such as proper names. Since both Sumerian and Akkadian were spoken in more or less the same geographical area, bilingualism was very common in the Sumerian times. The two languages are known to have heavily influenced each other and linguists today even refer to them as “sprachbund” – language crossroads. Eventually spoken Akkadian replaced spoken Sumerian sometime around 2,000 BC, but Sumerian still remained a sacerdotal language, achieving the same cultural status as Latin in Europe.

World’s First Bible

Extract from The Epic of Gilgamesh.

Extract from The Epic of Gilgamesh. Source: Wikimedia

There are numerous historical accounts that make it clear that The Bible has incorporated many elements of the world’s first ever work of literature – The Epic of Gilgamesh, written by the Sumerians in their language. For example, The Epic details the story of the Garden of Eden, referring to it as “The Garden of Gods” where the First Man was created. The story of Noah’s Ark is also based on a legend of the Great Flood, which is a big plot point in The Epic of Gilgamesh.

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