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More on Possible Linguistic Connections of the Sumerians

Igor M. Diakonoff St. Petersburg, Russia

[Editor's Note: The following article was sent by ASLIP Council Fellow Igor M. Diakonoff to former MT Editor Harold C. Fleming early in 1999. Since this was only shortly before Diakonoff' s death, this has, regrettably, become,.this esteemed scholar's last word for Mother Tongue.]

In Mother Tongue III (December 1997, p. 54) I published an article "External Connections' of the Sumerian Language." It was followed by two articles on kindred topics: John D. Bengtson, "The Riddle of Sumerian: A Dene-Caucasic Language?" (p. 63), and Allan A. Bomhard, "On the Origin of Sumerian" (p. 75).

In a discussion of the sort which started between Bengtson, Bomhard, and myself, one should, to my mind, make it clear to the readers, what the exact topic is. Do we investigate linguistic kinship, or historic connections? Or, perhaps, do we select a group of languages connected by common history, or, perhaps, only by a number of borrowings? Being a historian as much as (or more than) a linguist, I raised the question: where did the Sumerians come from, because the territory that they inhabited in historical times in southern Iraq could not have been occupied earlier than from about 3000 BCE, since, at least until late in the IVth millennium, it was completely under water. The Sumerian legend brought them from Dilmun, i.e., from Bahrain, an island mostly barren, in the Persian Gulf. Obviously, rocky Dilmun could not have been the primary place of origin of such an important people as the Sumerians, so we should look for their initial habitat farther to the east of Bahrain. I Thus we arrive in southern India, the oldest known inhabitants of which are the groups of tribes speaking Munda languages. The next step in our explanation was to find lexical elements common to Sumerian and Munda. Now the Munda languages themselves are not quite obviously similar. For comparison, I have selected the Kherwari branch, its most important dialects being Santali and Mundari. These dialects seem to be the most archaic, and at the same time nearer to each other than the rest of the Munda languages, whose difference from the Kherwari might be due to some non-Munda neighboring linguistic influences. I have found 34 lexical items which are common to Sumerian and Kherwari.
1. The territory to the north of the Persian Gulf was inhabited by Elamo-Dravidian speakers, including the Brahui- not akin to Sumerian or to Munda. The territory to the south of the Gulf was mostly desert.



Several of them correspond to items on Swadesh's 100-word list. I concluded my article with the words: "I do not presume to have found the final solution, but I have made a start in looking for the needed answer." Professor John D. Bengtson is one of the brilliant linguists of our time. He easily operates with languages of all possible families and grades of kinship, but, to my mind, he sometimes neglects the problem of historical probability. In his article, Bengtson practically disregards my Munda evidence, and argues that Sumerian is a DeneCaucasian language, i.e., belongs to a linguistic macro-family supposedly including Basque + (North) Caucasic2 + Burushic + Sino-Tibetan + Yeniseian + Na-Dene, including Chipewyan (i.e. Ojibwe).3 This list raises serious doubts, or, at least, requires serious corrections. Then Bengtson lists some Sumerian glosses which, he suggests, may be connected to lexical elements in various parts of the world: 1. BLOOD: Sumerian guru, gurun, kurun : Na-Dene: Chipewyan -gai ['white'], gay-! 'reddish'. (Why not compare Russian krov' ?) 2. To BREAK: Sumerian pat' (sic!)4: Burushic phalt-. 3. FEMALE BREAST: Sumerian ag;in. Bengtson compares the Yeniseian (Kott) xanti. Obviously, he could not discover anything less dissimilar. There is absolutely no evidence of historical contacts between Sumer and Siberia. 4. BURN: Sumerian tab compared with Tibetan thab 'hot (springs)', Chipewyan -t'a 'it is hot, roasted' .s 5. COLD: Sumerian te(n) 'be cold', en-tena 'cold, chill, frost' .6 6. DAY, SUN: Sumerian u4 (d) 'day', utu 'sun': Basque uda 'summer', Tibetan od 'light, shine, brightness'. It seems the word must come from a proto-proto-language, including an area from Spain to Tibet. Sapienti sat! 7. BEND, BEND DOWN (figurative for 'die'): Sumerian gam. The usual Sumerian word for 'die' is ug. Bengtson's comparison to Sumerian gam is Tibetan agum 'to die' (elegant). How does one die elegantly? 8. DRINK: Sumerian nag : different Na-Dene languages have -mi, -naah-, naan, -na!J, etc. Hurray! But;-86ffY to note it, Bengtson's Na-Dene languages are from'America.
2. NB: There are several (sometimes distantly related) linguistic families in the Caucasus. In Daghestan, both Caucasic and non-Caucasic languages are present. A single Daghestani language does not exist. 3. [Diakonoff confuses Ojibwe (= Chippewa, an Algonkian language spoken around the Great Lakes of North America) with Chipewyan, a Na-Dene (Athabaskan) language spoken in northwestern Canada. Bengtson was citing the latter. Ed.] 4. A Sumerian phoneme *t' does not seem to be proved. Read pad. [The form actually cited by Bengtson was pad.r, following Thomsen and Boisson. Ed.] 5. [The words actually cited by Bengtson were Tibetan thab 'fireplace', Tlingit t' ay 'heat, hot springs', Chipewyan t'i: 'it is hot, to be roasted'. Ed.] 6. [Diakonoff omitted the proposed Na-Dene cognates, e.g., Chipewyan -t:m to freeze; ice', Beaver es-t;Jne 'ice'. Ed.]


This is what the whole list is like. I may add that Chipewyan (Ojibwe)7 is in North America, Burushic is in the Himalayas, Basque in Spain, Tibetan - in the heart of Asia. If Bengtson is right, we are beholding disconnected parts ofthe language of Adam and Eve, or, more realistically, Pithecanthropus. Referring to my own paper, Bengtson (p. 73) makes the following statement:" ... it is not that Sumerian and Munda are 'unrelated', but that the relationship is probably indirect, by virtue of the common origin of the Dene-Caucasic and Austric macrofamilies, and too remotes to shed any light on the immediate origin of the Sumerians." Unfortunately, no proof of Austric connections of Sumerian are presented to the reader. No Munda lexemes are quoted, nor is it mentioned, to what linguistic family they belong.9 ,

The second reaction to my paper is "On the Origin of Sumerian" by Allan R. Barnhard. I must say that I agree with most of his statements. The only point where we disagree is on pp. 84-85, where Barnhard says that "the evidence seems to indicate that Sumerian is related to the Nostratic languages as a group," that is to say, as I understand it, that it is a relative of Proto-Nostratic. T~e historian in me can hardly believe in the coexistence of a huge conglomeration of men and women all spaekin_j still undivided Proto- . Indo-European, or Proto-Na-Dene, or, of course, the still undivided Prato-Nostratic, or whatever, and a tiny long-lived people retaining their own non-Indo-European (or non Na-Dene) language, not included either in Na-Dene or Indo-European, but related to them, and intact for millennia. I have found 34 words common to Kherwari and Sumerian, and among them at least thirteen Kherwari words which belong to the Swadesh 100-word list. And I still believe this result is sufficient to hypothesize that the Sumerians had migrated to southern Iraq, after it became dry about 3000 BCE, from southern India, where they had contacted the Munda. As a historian, I have the right to ask my linguist colleagues: is there any evidence that the Sumerians arrived in Iraq from some other place? The ancient inhabitants of the Caucasus and the Near East are known not to speak Sumerian or any kindred language. Their neighbors to the East, the Elamites and the Brahui, are known to have spoken a language akin not to Sumerian, but to Dravidian; the neighbors of the Sumerians to the West spoke Semitic, or at least Afrasian. Allan Barnhard publishes a list of 142 lexemes found both in Sumerian and in PratoNostratic. Of course, the list shows differences in phonetics, but the kinship is pretty obvious. This proves only that Sumerian is a relative of Nostratic, but this does not disprove that the Sumerians, at a certain period of their history, were neighbors of the
7. [See note 3. Ed.] 8. Are Yeniseian and Chipewyan not too remote from Basque? [Bengtson meant taxonomic, not geographic, remoteness. Ed.] 9. [It is difficult to see what Diakonoff meant here. Bengtson was not proposing a special relationship between Sumerian and Austric, but Diakonoff apparently was. Ed.]

Munda. The Sumerian words which I found to be akin to Munda, in a number which should satisfy Sergei Starostin,lO are not included in Bomhard's list, for no reasons that I can see. Unless the words quoted by me are not Sumerian, but . . . Munda, at least originally. ***
10. [See, e.g., MTll, p. 121. Ed.]

I would like to quote some additional points to my discussion with Bomhard and Bengtson: Bomhard:
ak/g 'to make' gen, ginna 'small, child(?)'= dumu 'son, child' dib (not dab) 'to grab' dug4 -ga is a participle to dug/du 11 'to say, speak, sing', etc. (not a separate word) gU 'forehead', not 'head' (which is sag) kur 'mountain': the (?) is unnecessary gae 'I' (mae Jn Erne-sal) sal 'nakedness, vulva'

ki 'earth' (not gil> gU !) sum (not mu !) 'give' deb is Erne-sal for du 8 No. 20 shows no [semantic] connection between Sumerian and Sino-Tibetan su 'meat' seems wrong ka (not kaglk) 'mouth' er 'water' is unknown to me; some mistake?

No words beginning with *rare quoted, but cf. ra 'beat, kill'; Deimel, SumerischAkkadisches Glossar, cites about 50 words beginning with r-.