Such is one geologist’s suggestion, according to a LiveScience story by Tia Ghose:

“This was not a single summer or winter, this was 200 to 300 years of drought,” said Matt Konfirst, a geologist at the Byrd Polar Research Center. … Several geological records point to a long period of drier weather in the Middle East around 4,200 years ago… “As we go into the 4,200-year-ago climate anomaly, we actually see that estimated rainfall decreases substantially in this region and the number of sites that are populated at this time period reduce substantially,” he said. Around the same time, 74 percent of the ancient Mesopotamian settlements were abandoned… The populated area also shrank by 93 percent… After around 2000 B.C., ancient Sumerian gradually died off as a spoken language in the region. For the next 2,000 years, the tongue lingered on as a dead written language, similar to Latin in the Middle Ages, but has been completely extinct since then, Konfirst said.

This is fascinating stuff to read about, but I’m a little perplexed about the focus on the language. Why not “Drought May Have Killed Sumerian Civilization”? Not that I’m complaining; I like language.
Completely unrelated to Sumerian, but I want to pass along the news that two of my favorite Russian-Americans, Boris Dralyuk and Irina Mashinski, have won the 2012 Joseph Brodsky/Stephen Spender Prize for their translation of Полевой госпиталь (“Field Hospital”) by Arseny Tarkovsky, one of my favorite less-famous modern poets. Сердечно поздравляю!


  1. Well, the civilization stayed alive. Sumerian culture continued long after the Sumerian language died. It’s not even particularly clear when Sumerian stopped being a living language. Akkadian was used in the same culture from at least 2600 BCE, so it co-existed with Sumerian in the same culture for at least several hundred years before replacing it.

  2. Yeah, good point.

  3. “the Byrd Polar Research Center”: they must have been delighted some years ago when someone made a decent case that Byrd had lied and had never flown over the North Pole.
    Addendum: I see from WKPD that the widespread conviction that he was a liar stretches far further back than I had known.
    Anyway, Sumeria – serves the buggers right for releasing so much CO2 into the atmosphere.

  4. “Sumeria”? Bloody hell. Sumer.

  5. Trond Engen says

    I think Sumerian died of draught. That’s a real killer.

  6. Trond Engen says

    There seems to be broad agreement among archaeologists that the Sumerian technological achievements led to population increase, which in turn led to massive deforestation in the region, and then to drought.
    (Sorry for the sudden change in personality, but I’m back on my laptop with a keyboard that lends itself to more than goofy oneliners.)

  7. marie-lucie says

    Since Matt Konfirst is identified as a geologist, his pronouncements about the Sumerian language are unlikely to come from his own research on the language but from reading about the topic in more informed sources. What he says about it seems to match scholarly opinion in general (as far as I know), but he should not be considered a source about the fate of the language, as the reporter seems to do.
    I was curious to see whether the prolonged Sumerian drought was related in time to the drying up of the Sahara, but the Sahara seems to have been affected much earlier.

  8. David Foster Wallace (why not just “David Wallace”?) is right some of the time; but from that excerpt, it looks like he just hated all words that have come into fashion with a new twist to their previous meaning and like Nancy Mitford he just called the new version pretentious. Sometimes I’d rather say utilise; it’s a change from “make use of”.
    I’d still like to read the book in my bathroom, though.

  9. (why not just “David Wallace”?)
    To honor his mother Sally Foster, perhaps. Americans, we like us our three-barreled names.
    John Woldemar Cowan

  10. marie-lucie says

    What a wonderful name, JC, a name for all occasions: John like 25% of American males (so I read somewhere), Woldemar probably well under the 1%.

  11. In that case he should have cut out the ‘David’ and been plain Foster Wallace or possibly Wally Foster. It always irritates me when I write or speak their names that Frank Wright inflated it with a ‘Lloyd’ and Mies with a gratuitous (the word Foster uses) ‘van der Rohe’. We’d all like to have special names, but it ain’t gonna happen, it uses too much electricity. If he’d stuck with Wally Foster, he would have saved us typists the equivalent weight in carbon of seven empty double-decker buses. No wonder the Sumerians and Grecians are dying from the drought.

  12. It always irritates me when I write or speak their names that Frank Wright inflated it with a ‘Lloyd’ and Mies with a gratuitous (the word Foster uses) ‘van der Rohe’.
    What about David Lloyd George?
    Or, since we’re talking Middle East in this thread, the strangely named Flinders Petrie?

  13. “Let us utilize the fowls of the air. Let us utilize the produce of rthe vine. Will you utilize a little, brother?” Maybe Wallace couldn’t see the word without thinking of this.

  14. J.W. Brewer says

    m-l, I’m not sure what your source for 25% is, as John wss the first name of 3.271% of the US male population as of the 1990 census (second in frequency only to James, which had 3.318%. The percentage is no doubt lower by now as older John-heavy generations have been dying off and newer John-lite generations been getting born – year-by-year it dropped out of the top 5 names for newly-born boys in 1973 (after quite possibly being in the top 5 continuously for Anglophone North Americans since the settlement of Jamestown) and by 2011 had dropped to 27th-most-popular for newly-born boys, a mere 0.5433% of the total (down from #2 and 3.7753% of total in 1965 when I was born). Numbers would necessarily be at least moderately higher in percentage terms if you could aggregate in those with a different first name but John ss a middle name, but I’ve never seen any good data on that. The SSA website alas says “Woldemar is not in the top 1000 names for any year of birth in the last 132 years. Please enter another name.” But for all I know it’s more popular as a middle name . . .

  15. Or, since we’re talking Middle East in this thread, the strangely named Flinders Petrie?
    One look at that beard and you know Flinders was a better choice than William Matthew.
    Looking at that Wikipedia article, I feel it incumbent upon me to pass this tidbit along:

    When he died in 1942, Petrie donated his head to the Royal College of Surgeons of London while his body was interred in the Protestant Cemetery on Mt. Zion. However, World War II was then at its height, and the head was delayed in transit. After being stored in a jar in the college basement, the label fell off and no one knew who the head belonged to.

  16. marie-lucie says

    JWB, I remember reading about the 25% on several occasions, but it could well have been an urban myth, or whatever such exaggerations are called. But the name is indeed widespread.

  17. J.W. Brewer says

    Well, 25% of my great-great-grandfathers (i.e. two out of eight) were named John, although one of those two was born in Scotland and the other possibly in Ontario. I doubt they were a perfectly representative statistical cross-section of men born into Anglophone cultures circa 1830 (one of others was born into a German-speaking culture so you’ve arguably got John at 2/7 rather than 1/4 of the relevant sample), but I expect the John-percentage was higher the farther you go back, just because naming in Anglophone cultures used to be much more concentrated (as measured by how high a percentage of all boys were given one of the ten-most-common, or 25-most-common, or what have you names). So e.g. in 1880 (the earliest year in the SSA database, and even then it may be slightly distorted by any onomastic disparities as to which males in that cohort had already died before Social Security was introduced in the 1930’s, since it’s the existence of Social Security cards/numbers that gives the SSA its massive names database), over 8% of US-born boys were named John.

  18. For what it’s worth, one of my two grandfathers on my father’s side was a John and one of the four great-greats; the ones on my mother’s side were Norwegian, so they don’t count.

  19. John Emerson says

    I have at least 4 John Emerson ancestors, as well as a Hepzibah and a Mehitabel.

  20. Only one, and he was probably born Jan or Johannes.

  21. If 25% of American men were named John, I could hardly avoid having many in the same school class with me, and yet through 17 years of schooling it happened only three times that there was another John. At present, my department at work boasts out of about 25 people two Matthews, a Marc, a Mark, and three Johns, but we are not all in the same places. (It’s been said that we only need a few Lukes to round out the gospel choir.)
    I was named after both my grandfathers, but I use my middle name only on books, so that librarians will bless me rather than curse me. When my father’s brother first saw me as a baby, he shook his head and said, according to family legend: “John Cowan. Here we go again.

  22. marie-lucie says

    My mother’s father (who was from a village in Southern France) was one of a long line of men called Pierre Loup. He spent his working life in Paris, coming back for vacations, and in the village he was referred to as Pierre Loup de Paris as he had more or less distant cousins also named Pierre Loup. His son, my uncle, was another Pierre Loup, who was the last of that line since he only had one daughter. She would probably have been another Pierre Loup if she had been a boy.

  23. marie-lucie says

    At one point in my studies I was one of 48 girls in a class. Among them were 4 named Françoise, 4 Michèle, 4 Monique and 4 Nicole. There were at least two named Christine, and of course a number of Marie-somethings. All these names are very old-fashioned nowadays, while many names which sounded hopelessly out of date when I was a child, like Caroline, Mélanie, Aurélie or Zoé, are now quite common.

  24. J.W. Brewer says

    Doesn’t everyone have an ancestress named Mehitable (or some spelling variant thereof)? OK, maybe not marie-lucie.

  25. m-l, do you know about Bigorne et Chicheface? I was just reading about them in a very good book about French country-house architecture (actually it said Bigorne et chiche fache), and I don’t remember them being discussed here.

  26. John Lydgate (1350?-1451?) wrote an English poem about them under the names of “Bycorne” and “Chichevache”, with stage directions. Here it is:

    First ther shal stands an ymage in Poete wise, seyeny these iij balades.
    O Prudent folkes takithe heede,
    And remembrithe in youre lyves,
    How this story dothe procede,
    Of the husbandes and theyr wyfes,
    Of theyr accorde and theyr stryves,
    Withe lyf or dethe whiche to derayne
    Is graunted to these bestes twayne.
    Than shal be portreyed two bestis, oon fatte, another leene.
    For this Bycorne of his nature
    Wil nonother maner foode,
    But pacient husks never in his pasture,
    And Chichevache etithe wymmen goode:
    And bothe these bestes, by the roode I
    Be fatte or leene, it may nat faile,
    Like lak or plente of theyr vitaile.
    Of Chychevache and of Bycorne
    Tretithe holy this matere,
    Whos story hathe taught us beforn,
    Howe these bestes bothe in feere
    Have ther pasture, as ye shal here,
    Of men and wymmen in sentence,
    Thurghe suffraunce or thurghe impacience.
    Than shal be portrayed a fatte beste callid Bycorne, of the cuntrey of Bycornoys, and seyn these thre baladis folowyng.
    Of Bycornoys I am Bycorne,
    Ful fatte and rounde here as I stonde,
    And in manage bounde and sworne
    To Chivache, as hir husbonde,
    Whiche wil nat eete, on see nor londe,
    But pacient wyfes debonayre,
    Whiche to her husbondes be nat contrayre.
    Ful scarce, God wote! is hir vitaile,
    Humble wyfes she fynt so fewe,
    For alweys at the countre-taile
    Theyr tunge clappithe and dothe hewe;
    Suche meke wyfes I be-shrewe,
    That neyther can at bedde ne boorde
    Theyr husbondes nat forbere oon woorde.
    But my foode and my cherisshynge,
    To telle plainly and nat to varye,
    Is of suche folke whiche theyr livynge
    Dare to theyr wyfes be nat contrarye,
    Ne from theyr lustis dare nat varye,
    Nor withe hem holde no champartye,
    Al suche my stomack wil defye.
    Than shal be portrayed a company of men comyng towardis this beste Bycorne, and sey these foure baladis.
    Felawes, takethe heede, and ye may see
    How Bycorne castithe hym to devoure
    Alle humble men, bothe yow and me,
    Ther is no gayne may us socoure:
    Woo be therfor, in halle and boure,
    To al these husbandes whiche theyr lives
    Maken maystresses of theyr wyfes.
    Who that so dothe, this is the lawe,
    That this Bycorne wil hym oppresse,
    And devouren in his mawe,
    That of his wife makithe his maystresse;
    This wil us bryng in grete distresse,
    For we, for oure humylite,
    Of Bycorne shal devoured be.
    We stonden plainly in suche case,
    That they to us maystressis be;
    We may wele syng, and seyn, allas!
    That we gaf hem the soverante;
    For we ben thralle and they be free;
    Wherfor Bycorn, this cruel beste,
    Wil us devouren at the lest.
    But who that can be soverayne,
    And his wife teche and chastise,
    That she dare nat a worde gayn-seyn,
    Nor disobeye in no manner wise;
    Of suche a man I can devise,
    He stant under protectioune,
    From Bycornes jurisdiccioune.
    Than shal ther be a womman devoured in the mowthe of Chichevache, cryeng to alle wyfes, and sey these balad:
    O noble wyves, bethe wele ware,
    Takithe ensample [example] now by me;
    Or ellis afferme wele I dare,
    Ye shal be ded, ye shal nat flee;
    Bethe crabbed, voydithe humylite,
    Or Chichevache ne wil nat faile
    Yow for to swolow in his entraile.
    Than shal ther be portrayed a long horned beste, sklendre and leene, with sharp tethe, and on his body nothyng sauf skyn and boon.
    Chichevache this is my name,
    Hungry, megre, sklendre, and leene,
    To shewe my body I have grete shame;
    For hunger I feele so grete teene [trouble],
    On me no fatnesse wil be seene,
    By cause that pasture I fynde none,
    Therfor I am but skyn and boon.
    For my fedyng in existence
    Is of wymmen that ben meke,
    And liche Gresield in pacience,
    Or more theyr bounté for to eeke;
    But I ful longe may gon and seeke,
    Or I can fynde a good repast,
    A morwe to breke with my fast.
    I trowe ther be a deere yeere
    Of pacient wymmen now these dayes;
    Who grevithe hem withe word or chere,
    Lete hym be ware of suche assayes,
    For it is more than thritty mayes,
    That I have sought from lond to lond,
    But yit oon Gresield never I fond.
    I fonde but oon in al my lyve,
    And she was ded ago ful yoore.
    For more pasture I will nat stryve,
    Nor seche [seek] for my foode no more,
    Ne for vitaile me to restore;
    Wymmen bien woxen so prudent,
    They wil no more be pacient.
    Than shal be portrayed after Chivache, an alde man withe a baston [baton] on his bake, manasynge the best for devouring of his wyfe.
    My wife, allas! devoured is,
    Most pacient and most pesible,
    She never sayde to me amysse,
    Whom hathe nowe slayn this best horrible,
    And for it is an impossible
    To fynde ever suche a wyfe,
    I wil live sowle duryng my lyfe.
    For now of newe for theyr prow,
    The wyfes of ful highe prudence
    Have of assent made ther avow,
    For to exile for ever pacience,
    And cryed wolfes hede obedience,
    To make Chichevache faile
    Of hem to fyde more vitaile.
    Now Chichevache may fast longe,
    And dye for al hir crueltee,
    Wymmen hav made hemself so stronge
    For to outraye humylite.
    O cely [silly] husbondes, wo been yee!
    Suche as can have no pacience
    Ageyns yowre wyfes violence.
    If that ye suffre, ye be but [only] ded,
    This Bycorne awaitethe yow so sore;
    Eeke of yowre wyfes ye stand in drede,
    Yif ye geyn-seyn hem any more;
    And thus ye stonde and have don yore,
    Of lyfe and dethe betwixt coveyne,
    Lynkelde in a double cheyne.

    Transcribed by a patient husband at the house of his mistress, soon to return to the house of his wife.

  27. It says in the French Wikipedia article that “Chaucer y fait allusion dans les Les contes de Canterbury”, but it doesn’t say where. I imagine it’s just a name check, knowing Geoff.

  28. marie-lucie says

    Bygorne/Bicorne et Chicheface/Chichevache
    No, I had never heard about those interesting beasts.
    Chiche is a very old word meaning something like ‘meager’. Bygorne probably from bicorne ‘two-horned’ is a natural description for a cow, and Chichevache means ‘lean cow’. This cow is cannibalistic although it rarely gets to eat: the original may have been Chicheface (dialectally Chichefache) and referred to a carnivore, but Chichevache could have been influenced by the Biblical story of the seven fat cows and the seven lean cows which devoured the fat ones. Bygorne may have been created as the fat, overfed counterpart of the lean, perpetually hungry Chichevache. Their food, consisting of submissive wives and henpecked husbands respectively, is probably a later addition to a very old legend.

  29. marie-lucie says

    Correction: I see that I seem to have mixed up the two beasts’ kinds of food. Of course Chichevache is the one eating submissive wives, which are scarse, and Bygorne the one eating henpecked husbands, which are plenty.

  30. Yes, and there are lots of old pictures, which give some credence to the story having existed for some time. Well, it’s interesting that you hadn’t heard of it. Somewhere it said it was from Normandy so I felt sure you would have! Anyway, I’ll cut out your comments and stick them in my book (it’s a lovely book).

  31. marie-lucie says

    Well, it is true that I spent my formative years in Normandy, but my family does not have any roots there, so I have not heard of such things from a long line of story-telling ancestors. I don’t think I have even read a book of local legends (I read some from other provinces, but not from where I grew up).

  32. marie-lucie says

    Also, the variants in the two names show that the legend was known in several French-speaking regions, and it probably aggregated new details as it went on. If the names are mentioned in Chaucer, they did not necessarily come from Normandy, since after the conquest the original invaders were joined by French speakers from other regions.

  33. Trond Engen says

    the ones on my mother’s side were Norwegian, so they don’t count
    Hey! But I’ll take the occasion to mention that Norsk lingvistisk tidsskrift just came out with an issue dedicated to immigrant languages, mostly the Norwegian language in America. Should I try to pursuade them (or bribe them) to send you a copy?

  34. Trond Engen says

    That’s like ‘persuade’, but with a strong pursonal touch.

  35. Alas, ashamed as I am to admit it, I don’t read norsk. But thanks!

  36. Marie-Lucie: Chaucer was exposed to both Italian and Provençal literary traditions (there no real community of native speakers of either language in Medieval England), so if he mentions some names/themes known in French sources that needn’t imply that said names/themes were brought by native French speakers to England: manuscripts circulated far more freely and widely than individuals in those days.
    Trond: a cat-owning former colleague of mine –err, I mean, a former colleague of mine who was under the care of a cat– used “pursuade” or “purrsuade” in writing to refer to a purring cat’s, as opposed to a human’s, way of making someone do something (typically involving a food dish, in the case of the cat). When the cat was shedding, this then became “fursuade”.

  37. marie-lucie says

    Etienne: according to, Bigorne et Chicheface sont des animaux fantastiques du folklore en Anjou, en Normandie, mais aussi en Auvergne.
    The majority of attestations, both written and pictorial, are from Northern and (less so) Central France, but also reputedly from England, Germany and the Netherlands (the latter perhaps through English sources). I don’t see anything from farther South. (Among the references to the article is one about an ancient Spanish folk tradition called la bigornia, a kind of carnival or Saturnalia which does not seem to involve the same Bigorne).

  38. Trond Engen says

    I don’t read norsk. But thanks!
    I knew about speaking and writing, but I wasn’t sure about reading. I’ll start quotimg it in short snippets until you give in. (Or, it just struck me: Was that “thanks, I still want it” raher than “thanks for asking”.)

  39. No, it was “thanks for asking” (“thanks” is a marvelously confusing cross-cultural term).

  40. Trond Engen says

    There’s no lexical meaning to it, only pragmatics. Difficult when you’re lacking social skills!

  41. Marie-Lucie: I wasn’t claiming that these animals derive from Provence or Italy. Rather, what I was claiming was that Chaucer’s knowing of this Northern French tradition needn’t imply that its transmission to Chaucer had anything to do with the communities of French speakers in England.
    The very fact that Chaucer has been demonstrably influenced by Provençal and Italian literature shows that a learned channel is certainly possible as a source for those Northern French traditions. I hope that is clearer.
    *Sigh* Doctors make the worst patients, so I guess two linguists can’t communicate.

  42. All right, Etienne, I misunderstood you. But is there any evidence for these traditions having come from elsewhere?

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