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Sunguam, J.T. (1924). Symbolism in The Sumerian Written Language. Psychoanal. Rev., 11(3):263-276.

(1924). Psychoanalytic Review, 11(3):263-276

Symbolism in The Sumerian Written Language

Joe Tom Sunguam

In antiquity there was a group of people living in Eastern Persia who to-day are called the Sumerians. It is believed that they were of Ural-Altaic stock and it is known that they spoke an agglutinative language.

At a period which the consensus of archeological evidence places at about 6,000 years B.C. these people entered the lower stretches of the valley of the Euphrates, where they built cities and entered upon some of the earliest pages of human history.

To the philologist their writing is of especial interest owing to the fact that it exhibits the complete gamut of the various stages of evolution through which a script may pass. It contains to begin with the pictogram, followed by the ideogram and the phonogram, with a few of the latter developing into strictly alphabetic signs.

In the earliest Sumerian writing a word was indicated purely by a crude picture of the idea it was intended to convey. Later, owing to the use of clay tablets which were inscribed with a pointed stilus, each word-picture became disintegrated into a series of little wedge-shaped strokes. This manner of thought recording is known as Cuneiform Writing, and subsequent to its invention by the Sumerians it was adopted by the Assyrians and Babylonians. These gifted scribes altered and amplified it in an extraordinarily ingenious fashion to fit the needs of their entirely differently constructed Semitic speech.

Sumerian writing contained less than 900 characters, each of which besides a meaning had a phonetic value equivalent to a single syllable. This small number of characters was quite insufficient to act as an adequate vehicle of their spoken language. To ameliorate this situation there were devised some very interesting devices.

One of the means used to increase the number of words that could be written with this limited number of signs is known as gunation. It consisted of adding to a character the pictogram for “hand”. This converted the original character into another one with a new meaning.

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