Hacking Sumerian. A Database Approach to the Analysis of Ancient Languages

Posted on 27 November 2017

Talk: Ainsley Hawthorn (LMU Munich), Hacking Sumerian. A Database Approach to the Analysis of Ancient Languages.

Permalink: http://hdl.handle.net/11858/00-1780-0000-002E-C436-2

Date: Monday, 27 November 2017

Time: starting at 17:00 c.t. (i.e. 17:15)

Venue: DAI, Wiegandhaus, Podbielskiallee 69-71, D-14195 Berlin (map)


The world’s oldest written dialects test the limits of our linguistic imaginations. In some cases, limited primary source materials and a dearth of bilingual evidence leave the scholar with few strategies for decipherment. Even when primary texts are plentiful, early written languages may present additional challenges. For Near Eastern isolates like Sumerian and Elamite, each of which is unrelated to any other known tongue, comparative evidence from cognate languages cannot be used to bridge gaps in our comprehension of either language’s grammar, semantics, or phonology, to name only one example. This presentation will use the Sumerian wordfield of vision as a case study to explore how database compilation and analysis can illuminate obscure aspects of ancient languages. While a variety of bilingual documents, including royal inscriptions and lexical lists, pair Sumerian texts with their translations in Akkadian, a more fully understood Semitic language related to Arabic and Hebrew, many grammatical and semantic features of Sumerian remain enigmatic. The case study to be presented in this seminar concerns an analysis of more than 700 instances of verbs of vision compiled from Sumerian literary texts (Reference to author’s work). Each vocabulary instance was tagged with its morphological and grammatical features, as well as aspects of its context, such as the identity of the verb’s subject and object. Sorting the vocabulary instances according to these attributes revealed characteristics of each verb’s usage that had previously been overlooked, leading to improved definitions for many of the verbs examined in the study and uncovering ideological and theological principles governing their use. Database technologies allow scholars to search for patterns across a much wider range of information than is feasible using traditional methods. Rather than being at odds with literary and linguistic research, data mining and database approaches allow for new observations that are missed in smaller datasets (Hayles 2007 and Kirschenbaum 2007), and database-oriented research is becoming more common in the study of modern languages (for example, Ktori et al. 2008). The proliferation of online text corpora like the Perseus Digital Library and the Electronic Text Corpus of Sumerian Literature allow for more comprehensive and sophisticated linguistic studies of ancient languages than ever before. This presentation offers a methodology for database-driven lexical analysis that is adaptable to other ancient languages and asserts that databases should be an integral part of our philological toolkit.


Hayles, N. Katherine. “Narrative and Database: Natural Symbionts.” PMLA 122 (2007): 1603-608.

Kirschenbaum, Matthew G. “The Remaking of Reading: Data Mining and the Digital Humanities.” In The National Science Foundation Symposium on Next Generation of Data Mining and Cyber-Enabled Discovery for Innovation, Baltimore, MD. 2007.

Ktori, Maria, Walter J.B. van Heuven, and Nicola J. Pitchford. “GreekLex: A Lexical Database of Modern Greek.” Behavior Research Methods 40 (2008): 773-783.