I had never heard of namburbi, but it’s such a fine word I had to post it. Wikipedia sez:

The NAM-BÚR-BI are magical texts which take the form of incantations (Akkadian: namburbȗ). They were named for a series of prophylactic Babylonian and Assyrian rituals to avert inauspicious portents before they took on tangible form. At the core of these rituals was an appeal by the subject of the sinister omen to the divine judicial court to obtain a change to his impending fate. From the corpus of Babylonian-Assyrian religious texts that has survived, there are approximately one hundred and forty texts, many preserved in several copies, to which this label may be applied. […]

The Sumerian rubric, NAM-BÚR-BI, which devolved from the broader class of counter-rituals, literally means “(ritual for) undoing of it (i.e of the portended evil)” or “apotropaeon,” where the Sumerian possessive suffix BI was originally a reference to a preceding omen apodosis. The impending catastrophe identified in the apodosis was to be averted by the implementation of an apotropaic ritual. In addition to dissolution NAM-BÚR-BI, it is also a generic name for rituals, NAM-BÚR written phonetically as nappulu in late Babylonian sources. In a few ritual descriptions of the 1st millennium BC, the caption NAM-BÚR-BI is found with its general, rather than the more specific “apotropaic ritual” context.

I don’t know what it means to say “NAM-BÚR written phonetically as nappulu” — are they implying that that’s the sound represented by the cuneiform spelling? I don’t know why they start off using “NAM-BÚR-BI” (in small caps, which I’m too lazy to reproduce) and then later in the article switch to “namburbi” (multiple authors and no copyediting, I suppose). And the last paragraph is absurdly speculative: “The profound psychological effect of the release ritual cannot be underestimated. For the private individual it would have had a deep impression, akin to absolution, but to a monarch it may have altered his behavior.” But it’s an interesting topic and a great word. Thanks, Ariel!


  1. ə de vivre says

    About the small caps: Small caps are used to represent transliterations of cuneiform signs without taking a position of their specific reading. Transcribed Akkadian is traditionally set in italics, and transcribed Sumerian is all over the goddamn place. However, given the Akkadian spelling, it’s pretty clear that the Sumerian reading was something like ‘namburbi’ (or ‘namburbe,’ depending on your opinions about the reading of the Sumerian third-person, non-human possessive enclitic. In any event, Akkadian speakers weren’t so great at pronouncing /e/ in all environments, and it looks like the Akkadian form dropped the enclitic anyhow).

    About the word: It looks like ‘nambur(be)’ wasn’t used much in Sumerian texts (or it’s used in texts that haven’t been publicly catalogued). The ePSD only has one instance of ‘nambur,’ which it glosses as ‘solution.’ The verb ‘bur₂’ means ‘to spread, to free, to reveal,’ and ‘nam’ is a prefix that turns things into abstract nouns (pretty similar to the ‘-ity/-ité’ suffixes in English/French). So ‘nambur’ literally means something like ‘state of revealing/freeing,’ which corresponds pretty well to ‘solution’ or ‘undoing.’

    It’s not too surprising that a clearly Sumerian loan word is so rare in its source language. Many ritual texts only started being written down in the 18th century BC, during the reign of Hammurabi’s successor, Šamsu-iluna. This corresponds to a massive depopulation in the cities of southern Mesopotamia, the traditional stronghold of the Sumerian language. The most plausible interpretation is that previously oral traditions were written down as the institutions that assured the transmission of those traditions were destroyed. This period is also when there seems to be a final shift away from Sumerian as a ‘living’ language (‘living’ either in the sense of transmitted as a community language or in the sense of unbroken transmission by formal teaching at a very young age). It’s not a stretch to imagine that Sumerian-speaking religious officials performed namburbe rituals, but it was only when the language of literate officials shifted to Akkadian that anyone bothered writing down how exactly one goes about performing a nappulu.

    About the pronunciation: A few things are going on here with the transition from Sumerian to Akkadian. (1) Sumerian sounds represented as voiced stops were actually pronounced as unaspirated voiceless stops, so ‘bur’ would have been pronounced [pur]. (2) Within a word, Akkadian nasals assimilate to following stops, so Sumerian [mp] would be loaned as [pp]. In later stages of the language, geminate stops were dissimilated as a nasal-stop sequence, but this. Incidentally, there’s some evidence that Sumerian unaspirated voiceless stops were allophonically voiced in certain environments, particularly intervocalically; the fact that the Akkadian form uses an unvoiced stop suggests that Sumerian stops were not voiced between a sonorous voiced consonant and a vowel. (3) There’s a lot of l~r alternation both within Sumerian and in Sumerian–Akkadian loans. Either Akkadian got the word from a dialect of Sumerian that pronounced it [nambul], or Akkadian-speakers heard the tapped Sumerian [r]* as [l].

    *Most people suppose that Sumerian /r/ was tapped because intervocalic coronal stops are often written as ‘r.’ Akkadian ‘r’ is often supposed to be uvular /ʀ/ or /ʁ/ or velar /ɣ/, because Sumerian words written with an ‘ḫ’ sometimes show up in Akkadian written with an ‘r.’

  2. ǝ, what does the final -bi mean?

  3. I was hoping this post would drag you out of hiding, ǝ! Thanks for all that highly relevant information; I know feel I know more or less what’s going on.

  4. David Marjanović says

    Akkadian ‘r’ is often supposed to be uvular /ʀ/ or /ʁ/ or velar /ɣ/, because Sumerian words written with an ‘ḫ’ sometimes show up in Akkadian written with an ‘r.’

    Oh wow. Babylon, Paris avant toute lettre !

    what does the final -bi mean?

    “the Sumerian third-person, non-human possessive enclitic”

  5. ə de vivre says

    The enclitic ‘-bi/-be’ primarily signifies a third-person, non-human possessor. ‘Nambur-be’ means ‘its [presumably the thing to be undone’s] nambur.’ When Gudea wakes from a prophetic dream, for example, he says, “šag-be nu-zu,” or “I don’t know [nu-zu] its [-be] meaning [šag].”

    In Old Babylonian* Sumerian ‘-be’ also acquires a more discursive meaning, signalling the topic of a sentence or even acting as a demonstrative/definite article-type-thing. This comes from a construction known as the ‘anticipatory genitive.’ Unmarked possessive constructions go ‘possessum possessor-ak,’ e.g., ‘the temple’s courtyard’ would be ‘kisal e-ak,’ literally ‘courtyard house-genitive.’ This construction is more ambiguous, and could also mean something like ‘temple courtyard’ as a kind of courtyard rather than a courtyard belonging to a specific temple. It can also express relations like genitives of composition, like ‘bad sig-ak,’ a wall of brick.

    The anticipatory genitive is used when the possessor and possessum are definite and the possessor topicalized, often with the possessor followed by a list of possessums (possessa?). For example, ‘e-ak kisal-be,’ literally something like ‘of the temple, its courtyard,’ can only refer to a genitive relationship where a specific courtyard is the property of, or at least a distinct part of, a temple. The idea is that the specificity requirement for possessa in an anticipatory genitive was eventually generalized to the ‘-be’ clitic regardless of whether the noun was actually in a possessive construction.

    *That is, the last hundred or two years before Hammurabi and his Amorite dynasty establishes Babylonian hegemony in Mesopotamia. The Old Babylonian period ends with the sack of Babylon by the Hittites, but it starts right after the fall of the Ur III dynasty. This leaves you with a-hundred-plus years of spare change in the OB period between Ur III and the rise of the Amorites where the social situation was really quite radically different than what came later in the actual Babylonian part of the OB period. It’s confusing, but slightly less so than the Early Dynastic period which is usually divided into ED I/II, ED IIIa, and ED IIIb.

  6. ə de vivre says

    I realize now that Christopher Woods has almost the exact opposite explanation for -be. In his view, -be was first a distal deictic marker that evolved into clitic pronouns that agree with the possessor’s gender (and later into verb argument agreement affixes): distal -be became the non-human gender marker and proximal -ane became the human gender marker. Under this explanation, the demonstrative meaning of -be would be prior to the genitive meaning. This explanation has the advantage of following well established typological patterns, but I’m not sure there are any unambiguous uses of demonstrative -be before the OB period.

    That said, -be has other, only semi-productive functions, as an adverbizer for example. The -be clitic could very well be either several morphemes that have become homophonous or a single morpheme that’s had time to transform into multiple meanings whose original connection has become opaque.

  7. That seems very similar to Bulgarian -en -na -no : respectively male, female, and neuter gender “anticipatory genitive” functionally.

  8. I think that in traditional Bulgarian philology they are analyzed as adjectives, not adverbs.

  9. I discover from Wikipedia that the Sumerian name of Uruk is 𒀕(𒆠) unug(ki); is the n > r change regular for Akkadian? And why do we call it Uruk rather than Unug, since it was after all a Sumerian city?

  10. ə de vivre says

    I was going to say that there are other examples of n ~ r alternations in Sumerian–Akkadian loans, but I can’t seem to find any evidence of it right now. Alternations of n ~ l and l ~ r are attested, so maybe there’s some two-stage phonological shenanigans going on here.

    We’ve known how to pronounce Akkadian (well, sort of, at least) longer than Sumerian. But if you want to start a push to use the Sumerian form, ŋeštugzu daŋal ḫemeš! (may your ears be wide)

  11. In news (of Sumerian), the joke quoted on this page (the WikiP page “Bar joke” has since been edited into something else):

    One of the earliest examples of bar jokes is Sumerian (c. 4500–1900 BC), and it features a dog: “A dog walked into a tavern and said, ‘I can’t see a thing. I’ll open this one’.”

    was the topic of a Twitter thread which was threadreaderapped.

    The author of the thread argues, based on his analysis of the grammar and knowledge of Sumerian scribal shortcuts, that a more accurate translation should be:

    A friendly dog walks into a bar.
    His eyes do not see anything.
    He should open them.

    It’s a “man walks into a bar and hurts his head” tier dad joke, basically. The “pun” in Sumerian is centred on the fact that the verb “to see” also literally means “open (one’s) eye”.

    Those who know Sumerian can comment on the analysis if they feel so moved, but I also wanted to post a speculative question: The joke would work just as well if it had been a man rather than a dog, so is it possible that “dog” was also slang or a pun of some sort? Either meaning a person of implied low intelligence (“a dummy”, “a foreigner”, “a beggar”), or alternatively, a person who is supposed to have oversight/responsibility, who is understood to be closing their eyes to implied wrongdoing (some sort of inspector or police officer equivalent, or a priest, maybe. A bribed bureaucrat? ).

  12. “a person who is supposed to have oversight/responsibility, who is understood to be closing their eyes to implied wrongdoing (some sort of inspector or police officer equivalent, or a priest, maybe. A bribed bureaucrat? ).“

    That seems like the most reasonable interpretation to me.

  13. From another era… William F. Albright and Thomas O. Lambdin (p. 149 of “The Evidence of Language” in I.E.S. Edwards et al., The Cambridge Ancient History (1970), vol. I, part I) on the name Uruk:

    there is no reason whatever to doubt that there has been some phonetic change in really old names like those of Uruk (Biblical Erech) which was Unu(g) in late Sumerian. Uruk for Unug is very possibly influenced by the ordinary word uru for city. It can also be explained in other ways.

    Then they do not elaborate on these other ways. Sigh.

  14. David Marjanović says


    There are fifteen different signs pronounced gir?

    Everything can be overdone, I guess.

  15. Let me introduce you to Chinese!

  16. David Eddyshaw says

    Kusaal has eight distinct words which are (sometimes or always) not pronounced at all.

  17. Now imagine a language where all the words are silent…

  18. David Eddyshaw says

    Ommmmm …
    [in Lotus Position, clapping with one hand]

  19. David Eddyshaw says

    [I have achieved satori due to LanguageHat yet again]

  20. Note: the satori tax will soon come into effect; hopefully the financial burden will be balanced out by the improvement to Your Languagehat Experience made possible by the proceeds.

  21. David Marjanović says

    Let me introduce you to Chinese!

    Yabbut Chinese writing is supposed to be morphemic. Sumerian is supposed to be at least partly syllabic.

    Kusaal has eight distinct words which are (sometimes or always) not pronounced at all.

    Impressive. In Bavarian only the clitic forms of two words merge into their surroundings without a trace.

  22. So I traced the history of the “Bar joke” WikiP page, and found that on March 14 of this year, the text and link were changed.

    It used to go to The Electronic Text Corpus of Sumerian Literature (ETCSL) project, Faculty of Oriental Studies, University of Oxford, where the text matches what @LinManuelRwanda has. It now points to Gordon, Edmund I. “Sumerian Animal Proverbs and Fables: ‘Collection Five’ (Conclusion).” Journal of Cuneiform Studies 12, no. 2 (1958): 43–75. (also available on University of Chicago Press Journals, but I don’t have access to UChiJourn, and I do have access to JSTOR)

    I note that the texts have different transliterations:


    73. ur-gir₁₅-re ec₂-dam-ce₃ in-kur₉-ma
    74. nij₂ na-me igi nu-mu-un-du₈
    75. ne-en jal₂ taka₄-en-e-ce

    Sumerian Animal Proverbs and Fables:

    ur-gerₓ-re éš-dam-šè i(!)-ni-tu-ma
    níg-na-me igi nu-mu-un-du₈
    ne-en kíd(!)-en-e-še

    I’m not sure what’s going on there. In some cases it looks like a different transliteration system is being used (“éš” vs “ec”; ), but in other places there seem to be completely different characters being transcribed. Are the texts actually that different? Or did Sumerian scholarship change between 1958 and whenever the ETCSL was compiled?

  23. ə de vivre says

    That Sumerian bar joke seems to be making its way across the internet. I first heard of it on Comedy Bang Bang of all places.

    The easy part:

    “Gir15” means that it’s the 15th most common sign with the value “gir.” I don’t remember what exact corpus was used for the frequencies, but it was mostly Akkadian, so Sumerian often has a lot of high-numbered signs. And when new pronunciations were discovered for Sumerian, the subscripts were kept. For example, the sign GAL2 has the original reading “gal₂,” but in Sumerian it’s only ever used with the reading “ŋal₂” (or “ĝal₂,” if you prefer) There aren’t any more frequent signs with the same phonetic value, but it was deemed too complicated to give all the signs with “ŋ” their own subscript numbers. I’m not sure how new readings are numbered (except that ad hoc ones are given a subscript “x”), but I’d guess it’s done inconsistently.

    My line-by-line read of the “dog joke”:

    ur-gir15-re eš2-dam-še3 in-kur9-ma
    ur gir-e ešdam-še i-n-kur-m?-a/i-ni-kur-m?-a

    Ur gir (“dog,” and more specifically, a domestic dog; gir₁₅ means something like “civilized,” as in the native name for Sumerian, eme-gir) is in the ergative case, so if it’s the subject of kur*, then it should mean “the dog caused [someone/thing] to enter.” But that reading doesn’t jive with the verbal prefixes. The noun morphology would also fit “[someone/thing] caused the dog to enter the tavern,” but again, this doesn’t match the verbal morphology.

    *“To enter” is intransitive in Sumerian.

    niĝ2 na-me igi nu-mu-un-du8
    niŋnam-e igi nu-mu-ni-du-u/nu-mu-n-du

    This line presents fewer translation difficulties. It means “[s/he] did not see anything” (possibly in the imperfect aspect; I’ll leave it to the reader to come up with an idiomatic way to translate this distinction into English). However, the verbal morphology represents a human-gender noun seeing another human-gender noun**, but the semantics we’ve been assuming would have a non-human noun (the dog) seeing (or rather, failing to see) a non-human noun (anything at all). That said, native Akkadian speakers struggled with Sumerian gender, and often used the human gender for most nouns, and often only used non-human gender for agreement with non-specific NPs like “someone” or “anything.” If our scribes are native Akkadian speakers, then it’s reasonable posit gender agreement errors.

    **Our scribe is definitely making errors because of the compound verb (igi-du), but there are two plausible correct readings that differ only in aspect (perfect vs. imperfect).

    ne-en ĝal2 taka4-en-e-še
    nen ŋal taka-ene?-še?/taka-ene?-eše?

    This line is a real Sumerian shitshow. An imperative is possible, but not with the same glossing as @LinManuelRwanda. For one thing, the vowel harmony he references (a) was never attested in Nippur, where these tablets were almost certainly written and (b) had not been active in the places it was used for several hundred years. The “nominalising particle” (-e) he references doesn’t really exist. Some Sumerian grammars propose (although they disagree on almost all the specifics) an -e verbal suffix that derives participles (but that only applies to non-finite verbs, not imperatives) or makes verb roots imperfective, but neither fits here. I’m also skeptical that the proposed /i-ne-še/ (which he erroneously has as /i-n-eš-e/ would mean “open them.” The morphology of ŋal-taka isn’t clear (it doesn’t often appear in finite forms), but I’d expect the thing being opened to be in a different case, with the verbal prefixes /i-neː/.

    I wonder if the ETCSL translation isn’t barking up the wrong tree (the ETCSL is a great ressource, but its translations often don’t account for the actual morphology of the Sumerian words). The next proverb reads:

    ur-gir15 lugal-a-ni-ir na-ab-be2-a
    tukum-bi nam-sag9-ga-ĝu10 ba-ra-ĝal2
    i-bi2-za-ĝu10 nu-ra-ĝal2-e-še
    “A dog said to his master: ‘If my pleasure is of no importance to you, then my loss should not be either!’”

    Here, the proverb hinges on the relationship between the domestic dog and his owner. That might be the case here as well. I’d tentatively translate the first proverb as, “A dog [says to his master], when you went into the tavern, you didn’t see anything. Open them [your eyes], said [the dog].”

    Some evidence in favour of this interpretation:
    1. The elided verb of speaking explains why ur gir is in the ergative case.
    2. In OB Sumerian, written “a” can represent either just the nominalizer /-a/ or a sequence of nominalizer-locative /-a-a/. Under this interpretation, “in-kur9-ma” would be read as /i-ni-kur-m-a-a/, or ‘when you entered.”
    3. The final line is slightly easier to interpret: “nen ŋal taka-ene? eše.” Here, “e-še” would be the quotative particle /eše/, just as in the next proverb.
    4. It accounts for the verbal gender agreement in lines 1 and 2.

    This interpretation still has problems. For one, it can’t fully account for the morphology of the verbs in lines 1 and 3. But it’s not less problematic than the others, and it does have the advantage of taking the larger context of the proverb into account. Really, without a better idea of the semantics and morphosyntax of the verb ŋal-taka, I think speculation is the best we can do here.

  24. ə de vivre says

    After looking at the paper by Gordon, I think the reading of the first two lines as “A dog, having went to/entered a tavern, did not see anything [and said]” is pretty secure: (a) dogs take human gender in other canine-related proverbs in that collection, (b) the quotative -eše would mark the third line as the thing the dog says upon finding itself in this situation. The paper also has some interesting information about the -ma in “in-kur₉-ma.” The form i(!)-ni-tu-ma could be a phonetic spelling of tum, which is the imperfect stem of the verb “to take/bring.” Tum is sometimes spelled with the sign DU, which can also be read as du, “to come/go (imperfect),” which is pretty close semantically to the meaning “to enter.” Perhaps there was some confusion on the part of the scribes about the many readings of DU and the various suppletive forms of the verbs for coming/going and bringing/taking.

    This leaves only “ne-en ŋal₂ taka₄-en” to be explained. Of note, the sign GAL2 can be read as ŋal₂ (the ETCSL’s choice) or ig (door), which is where Gordon gets “ne-en ig kid₂-en e-še.” This is attractive because taverns have doors and nen ig (“this door”) is a plausible thing for an unseeing dog to interact with. The verb is still troublesome, however, since neither of the sign’s readings (taka₄ (“to abandon”) or kid₂ (“to break off, pinch off”)) really make sense as a thing a dog would do to a door.

    Also, it’s not really accurate the call this a joke. It comes from a collection of what are conventionally called proverbs (which aren’t exactly proverbs either), which were in fact example sentences used to teach the grammar of written Sumerian. Some are humorous and some seem to have a lesson to teach, but I wouldn’t assume this one is necessarily supposed to be funny.

  25. Thanks for all that! Man, it’s great having a Sumerianist in the house.

  26. David Marjanović says

    Oh yes!

  27. Owlmirror says

    @ə de vivre: Thanks for the analysis and commentary.

    I’m still wondering if perhaps “dog” meant, or stood for, something else; a slave or a servant, for example.

    Just as the fox in the fable “The Fox and the Grapes” may be a fox, but obviously stands for a certain kind of frustrated person.

  28. Owlmirror says

    (Probably overthinking this)

    I recalled (and the WikiP page for The Fox and the Grapes confirms that the interpretation exists) that the fox fable may have sexual frustration as an interpretation. Could that be what is going on here?

    This is attractive because taverns have doors and nen ig (“this door”) is a plausible thing for an unseeing dog to interact with. The verb is still troublesome, however, since neither of the sign’s readings (taka₄ (“to abandon”) or kid₂ (“to break off, pinch off”)) really make sense as a thing a dog would do to a door.

    If the suggestion that a brothel is meant rather than (or in addition to) a drinking-only tavern, maybe it makes sense that the dog leaves — “abandons” (by way of) the door? That is:

    1) The dog enters the brothel
    2) The dogs doesn’t see anyone (available) (or no-one is willing to see him?)
    3) The dog leaves (abandons the place), through the door, in disappointment.

  29. David Marjanović says

    may have sexual frustration as an interpretation

    To be fair, anything may have sexual anything as an interpretation if you’ve read too much Freud or, like him and/or his patients, think too much in metaphors.

  30. Lars Mathiesen says

    Bear in mind that these texts were for horny teenagers to copy. Never mind how remotely possible a sexual interpretation was, sniggers would ensue. (I presume we’re talking horny male teenagers since education for girls was not much done in ancient civilizations. Not that it would change anything in this case).

  31. David Marjanović says

    That only means it’s irrelevant whether a sexual interpretation was intended…

  32. ə de vivre says

    I’m still wondering if perhaps “dog” meant, or stood for, something else

    Probably is! When I downplayed this possibility earlier, I was thinking you meant that the word “dog” was denoting a human (in the way that a “cool cat” denotes a human being rather than a cat that represents a kind of human metaphorically). You’re almost certainly right that the dog in this saying is typifying some aspect of human behaviour. What exactly that is, it’s hard to say. “Ur” (dog) is a common element of theophoric names in the formula Ur-[divine name]-[genitive], or “dog/follower of [divine name].” So ur had some positive connotations. That said, looking at the other proverbs, there’s one with a dog talking to its butthole, so maybe dogs had other culturally legible roles to play.

    About the ešdam (tavern): It certainly was a sexy place (public sex acts were sometimes portrayed as affirmations of a city’s abundance). Sumerians seemed to enjoy drinking and having sex (Sumerians, just like us!). Julia Assante wrote a paper about terra cotta plaques with erotic drinking scenes from the Old Babylonian period, and for extra credit, it references lines from a namburbi incantation. There’s a more recent article about similar themes that, alas, I don’t have access too.

    Some more philological riffing:
    Against “ne-en ig” as “this door.” The form “ne-en” is pretty rare outside of grammatical texts, so it didn’t occur to me at first, but the form “ne-en” is exclusively used as an independent pronoun, and the true demonstrative forms follow the noun the modify.

    For “ig” rather than “ŋal₂.” “Ig” would echo “igi” (eye) in the second line. Sumerians loved puns (Sumerians, just like us!), and ancient language-learning materials were big on drilling all those confusing homophones and polysemous signs into young scribes’ heads.

    If these two points are true, however, this leaves us with three participants in the third line: “this one” (ne-en), the door (ig), and “I” (the -en suffix on the verb). I’m not sure how these three would enter into an abandoning or breaking-off event. This makes me suspect that this third line is a reference to some well-known phrase with the “obvious” parts elided, because why repeat what we all already know?

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