Clausal Syntax in the Sumerian Language

Patrick M. Niedzielski
Honors Thesis presented to the permalink

Sumerian is a language isolate that was spoken until about four millennia ago in southern Mesopotamia. It is known through thousands of inscriptions written in the cuneiform writing system dating back to the Uruk IV period (4th millennium B.C.). Sumerian is a nonconfigurational language with a highly synthetic sentence-final verbal complex carrying much of the grammatical information in the sentence. Having had very little formal morphosyntactic treatment within linguistic theory, but having a fairly large corpus of texts preserved and a strong scholarly tradition within Assyriology, Sumerian presents itself a fruitful source of syntactic study.

In this thesis, I argue for an analysis of the syntax of Sumerian as underlyingly configurational, with the verbal complex morphologically realizing the C′ of a clause. All free nominals obligatorily move to vacate the C′ to allow the verbal complex to be realized as a single phonological word, either to higher adjunct positions, yielding the apparent nonconfigurationality of constituents preceding the verbal complex, or by undergoing movement to a dedicated and configurational focus position.

The evidence for this analysis comes in two parts. First, I analyze the A-syntax of Sumerian and show that the split-ergative nature of cross-referencing in the verbal complex and the Dimensionalkasussystem of oblique cross-referencing morphemes can all be explained by syntactic analyses that roughly mirror the morphological structure of the verbal complex. I argue that the apparent asymmetries between the verbal complex and syntactic structure must be explained by morpho-phonological, not syntactic, processes. Then, I analyze two A′ processes in Sumerian, namely V-to-C movement in imperatives and wh-movement in questions, to give further evidence for the claim that free nominals obligatorily vacate from their lower positions into higher positions in the left periphery.

Committee: Michael Weiss (Chair), John Whitman, Jonathan S. Tenney