28 May 2009

Wait---the professor didn't dismiss it as a weird question?

Certain questions have a tendency to keep me up at night, and one of them came up in my ancient history class this morning (ancient history for an accounting major? Hey, I don't make the rules).

Namely, while we were discussing the Epic of Gilgamesh, the main characters in the story, Gilgamesh and Enkidu, were discussed by name, which led me to wonder something. Sumerian cuneiform wasn't an alphabet. It wasn't even a syllabary (think Japanese katakana, where for example four characters are used to represent 'ka-ta-ka-na'.) So how were we able to translate the names? I could understand concrete nouns (pictographic writing systems are great for stuff like 'bird' or 'human' or even 'king'), but abstract nouns? Proper nouns? Abstract verbs? How in the world did we figure those out from an ancient language that was long dead and didn't have a Rosetta Stone like Egyptian did to translate into a more recent, known language?

The thought went a step further. Let's take the word 'cat' for example. The concept it represents (a fuzzy little feline friend) is all well and good, but why do we pronounce it 'cat'? Why does the C make a hard "kuh" sound, why does the A sound like 'aaaaa', why does the T sound like 'tuh'? Five thousand years from now, when the archaeologists and linguists of 7,000 CE have the same separation of time from our civilization have the same separation of time that we have from the Sumerians, they might decide that 'cat' was pronounced 'tok' (to write it in modern phonetics). For all we know, 'Gilgamesh' wasn't that king's name at all. Maybe it was 'ooga-booga-bunga-Hobbes.' It wasn't a writing system that lent itself to pronunciation, and by the time anyone bothered to study Sumerian the language (which is not believed to have been in the same Semitic language family as Akkadian or any of the modern Near Eastern languages) was long dead. So where are we getting these names from? Their language could've sounded like Greek or Latin or Klingon for all the actual auditory records we have of its existence.

And people wonder why I have trouble sleeping at night. My professor suggested I make that linguistic question the subject of my term paper. He might be on to something.

1 comment:

  1. Ha. I very briefly worked as an adjunct professor of humanities at a small and dying liberal arts college out here in San Francisco. And, "That would make an interesting paper topic" was me-code for "I have no idea how to answer your question, but it's a good'un."

    So, yeah: good question.


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