oldest written language in existence is said to be Sumerian. The first
records in Sumerian have been traced to 3100 BC, in southern Mesopotamia.
Although the Semitic Akkadian language replaced Sumerian as a spoken
language a millennium later, it continued being used as a written language
right up to the beginning of the Christian era. Surprisingly, it never
extended beyond the original areas it was used in. The number of people who
spoke and wrote the language was totally out of proportion when considered
with the influence that the language had on the ancient civilizations,
especially that of Mesopotamia.
There are four distinct periods in the development of the Sumerian
language. These include Archaic Sumerian, Old or Classical Sumerian, New
Sumerian, and Post-Sumerian.
The first period, Archaic Sumerian covers the period from 3100 BC to
about six hundred years down history. As mentioned earlier, the earliest
records of Sumerian writing have been traced to 3100 BC. School texts have
been traced back to this period. Archaic Sumerian is the least understood of
the four classifications, mainly because there are very few sources
available for studying it.
The Old or Classical period of Sumerian lasted from about 2500 to 2300
BC. It is represented by business, legal and administrative records,
letters, incantations and royal inscriptions. Historians say that the
writing is more explicit than that of the Archaic Sumerian period, so much
that it was possible to reconstruct grammar and vocabulary.
During the rule of a dynasty referred to as the Sargonic dynasty, there
was a setback in the use and development of the language. During this
period, the Akkadian language was used extensively, while
Sumerian was restricted to a small area in Sumer. It was revived
during the third dynasty rule of Ur for a brief period of time. This
period is known as the New Sumerian period. It came to an end around
During the period when Babylon was made the capital, the Sumerians lost
their political identity and Sumerian gradually disappeared as a spoken
language. The written form of the language survived and it continued to be
used for a long time. This was the last stage in the development of the
language and is referred to as Post-Sumerian. In this period, the language
was extensively attested in legal and administrative texts, as well royal
inscriptions. The latter was usually bilingual that is in Sumerian and
Sumerian literature that was orally passed down was recorded for the
first time during the Old Babylonian (Post Sumerian) period. The literature
includes mythological documents, epics, hymns, rituals and incantations, and
proverbs and so on. The literature
that now survives is copies made from originals. The originals are now lost.
several centuries, Sumerian was taught in schools. Tablets traced to periods
later than seventh century AD contain cuneiform or wedge-shaped writings
that show Sumerian words transcribed in Greek.
The language disappeared during the time of Christ. When cuneiform
writing was deciphered and studied in early nineteenth century, three
languages written in cuneiform were discovered. These were Semitic
Babylonian, Indo-European Persian and Elamite. When the texts written in
Babylonian were scrutinized by scholars, they became aware of the existence
of a language different from Babylonian. The new language was initially
called by different names. When knowledge and awareness grew, the new
language was identified and rechristened as Sumerian. However, the
linguistic affinity has not been established yet.