While Sumerian is the oldest recorded language, our knowledge of it is relatively recent. In deciphering Akkadian, scholars had suspected that cuneiform, the system used to write Akkadian, originated elsewhere, proof of that only came in 1879 when Paul Haupt first published his deciphering of Sumerian.
Even after Haupt’s original publications, Sumerian was badly understood until Samuel Noah Kramer published large amounts of texts written in Sumerian in his Sumerian Mythology, a landmark work which helped usher in Sumerian culture and myths to the wider public. Today, our knowledge of Sumerian is imperfect but complete enough to understand the overall sense of any given sentence. Disagreements still occur over some more minor points. Unfortunately, there are still plenty of books that
Sumerian is written in cuneiform, a writing system made from pressing wedges into soft clay, but most of the reference works discussed here use transliterated Sumerian. The writing system is variably represented through means of letters, numbers, font weight, and italics for readability purposes. A section on how to read cuneiform is forthcoming.
Because Sumerian was deciphered through Akkadian, and because the two languages co-existed and share a literary landscape, it is often advised to learn Akkadian first.
For a brief overview of the Sumerian language, the ETCSL has good pages on its grammar, literary output, and writing system. It cannot replace a proper textbook or history, but it is still a fantastic online resource and a great entryway into studying the Sumerians.
PRIMERS & TEXTBOOKS
An Introduction to the Grammar of Sumerian, by Gábor Zólyomi. Eötvös University Press. 2017.
Zólyomi’s grammar is the best introduction to Sumerian for new students of the language. Its chapters are divided into lessons intended for study during an academic semester, and it is ordered in a way to help students learn a language. It also offers up exercises and includes an answer key. Best of all, it can be found free online. The only complaint is that it lacks an actual discussion on cuneiform, although it is not alone in doing so.
A Manual of Sumerian Grammar and Texts, by John L. Hayes. Undena Publications. Second revised and expanded edition: 2000.
A serious alternative to Zólyomi’s grammar is Hayes’ Manual. The big draw of Hayes’ is that it introduces students to cuneiform right away, yet it still retains enough of the transcriptions as an aid for those who are less interested in the writing system. Hayes generally geared his grammar toward those who have already learned Akkadian or other Semitic languages, but it is also useful for those interested in Sumerian for its own sake. [NB: A third edition was published in 2019, but we yet to acquire and review it.]
Sumerian Grammar, by Dietz Otto Edzard. Brill. 2003.
Edzard’s grammar is a brief (under 200 pages) reference grammar of Sumerian. While it does not cover cuneiform, it does otherwise offer a compact treatment of Sumerian for quick reference, which perhaps makes it a more useful tool for students translating texts for the first time than some of the more in-depth and advanced grammars.
Introduction to Sumerian Grammar, by Daniel A. Foxvog. Self-Published. Third edition: 2016.
Foxvog’s introduction, which originated as a teaching tool and so precluded self-study, is still a good resource for some of the finer nuances of Sumerian grammar. In its third and final revision, Foxvog’s Introduction is also still freely found online, making it, along with Zólyomi’s grammer, an excellent in-depth resource to get started on Sumerian. The major reason to consult Foxvog, even if you use the other grammars above, is that he includes a discussion on cuneiform. There is also a self-published paperback version found on Amazon.
A Descriptive Grammar of Sumerian, by Bram Jagersma. Ph.D. Dissertation. University of Leiden. 2010.
Jagersma’s grammar is the culmination of his doctoral work at the university of Leiden. Despite being a doctoral thesis produced at a Dutch University, it is written in English. It is the most complete modern reference grammar available for Sumerian. As the book focuses on the linguistic principles behind Sumerian, all cuneiform is transliterated. Advanced students and scholars will still find this critical for any research on the Sumerian language and its literature.
Pennsylvania Sumerian Dictionary:
This is best Sumerian-English dictionary for everyone right now, and fortunately can be found online: ePSD: The PSD Sign List.
Lexique sumérien-français. (compiled by Pascal Attinger, 2015).
For those who know or can work with French, this is the best quick lexicon of Sumerian. It is also online.
An Annotated Sumerian Dictionary. by Mark Cohen. Eisenbrauns. 2023.
This dictionary was just released in March 2023. It is the only single-volume Sumerian reference dictionary in English.
A Sumerian Reader, by Konrad Volk. Studia Pohl. New revised edition: 2012.
Volk’s Reader contains a series of cuneiform drawings of Sumerian tablets, introducing the reader to proper primary texts. This is a great resource for actually reading Sumerian once you have a handle on both the grammar and the cuneiform writing system. It was re-released as A Sumerian Chrestomathy, which might be found more inexpensively than the original.
A true treasure, the ETCSL, compiled and hosted by the University of Oxford, contains an exhaustive catalogue of Sumerian texts, from personal letters to mythical poems. It contains the Sumerian original in both unicode (but not cuneiform) and ASCII and has translations for the majority of the documents. It can be found online here.