Emesal: The Language of Women and Lamenters in Cuneiform Literature in the Early Second Millennium BC in Mesopotamia

Tablet HE 84, EPHE Collection © Guichard, EPHE – PSL

by Michaël Guichard

Was the mysterious language of the women and lamenters of Sumer actually spoken? This blog post explores the role of Emesal in the linguistic history of Sumer.

The states that flourished in Mesopotamia between the third and first millennia BC used a script that is today called cuneiform. The culture of reference was bilingual: the traditional basis of the scribal training system and the literature or liturgy were in the Sumerian language, an idiom isolated from the country of Sumer, south of the alluvial plain of the Tigris and the Euphrates. It gradually died out during the third millennium BC and then survived as a religious and scholarly language, much like Latin in the Middle Ages did in the West. Akkadian, which represents an extinct branch in the family of Semitic languages, established itself as a written administrative and communication language especially in the second millennium BC. Sumerian and Akkadian had already cohabited for a long time, which had profound reciprocal repercussions both linguistically and scripturally. At the beginning of the second millennium BC, Mesopotamian scribes were predominantly Semitophone and learned Sumerian at school when education was not provided at home. Sumerian, however, was not only written, it was also spoken and sung. Meanwhile, the texts of this period distinguish two branches of Sumerian: on the one hand, the so-called standard language (Emegir), characteristic of commemorative inscriptions, hymns or epic poems, as well as administrative and legal texts, and on the other hand, a variant restricted to a more limited corpus of texts. It is only in sources from the first millennium BC that this form is referred to as Emesal. Even though at the end of the nineteenth century AD the expression was wrongly translated as “language (eme) of women (sal)”, it did have a connection with the feminine sphere. The issue was, however, highly debated and the most diverse opinions were expressed on a subject which still continues to fascinate, particularly at a time when the question of gender is particularly sensitive.

The scribes late on established a trilingual glossary found in Nineveh composed of three tablets, the first devoted to divine names, the second to nouns classified thematically and the third containing ready-made expressions. The incipit summarizes the principle dimir (Emesal) = diĝir (standard Sumerian) = ilu (Akkadian) = ‘god’. This shows that in the compiler’s mind, Emesal was a language in itself.

The grammar of Emesal was aligned with that of Emegir. The difference between the two was purely lexical. The word for ‘queen’ in Emesal is gašan but in the other variant it is nin or ereš; ‘wood’ is mu instead of ĝiš; and ‘man’ is mulu instead of lu[2]. In a large number of cases, Emesal stands out just by a phonetic modification. The verb dug[3] ‘to be good’ becomes zeb and šeg ‘brick’ was pronounced šeb. While a series of phonetic transformations are observed such as ĝ becoming m at the beginning of a word or between vowels, no general rule has yet been established.

The exact definition of Emesal gives rise to hesitation: is it a dialect, a style, or even a genrolect or sociolect? This language was excluded from official and normative discourse and even absent from magical texts. It is only materially attested from the beginning of the second millennium BC. As a result, its exact age has given rise to contradictory opinions. For some scholars, Emesal represents a recent development of the language. For others, who are the majority today, it already existed in the third millennium BC. We can mention in particular two distinct reasonings which are not irreconcilable. One reasoning is based the principle that since Emesal appears in compositions surely dating back to the twenty-first century BC, even if we only have them as more recent manuscripts, this implies that the language was already present at that time. Another proposal would be that Emesal reflects a local dialect which could be found in the city-state of Lagaš in the middle of the third millennium BC. Though these leads remain hypothetical, the existence at the beginning of the third millennium BC of the title munus nuNUNUZ.ZI.NANNA for the high priestess of Ur, an Emesal form meaning “faithful wife of the (god) Moon”, speaks in favour of its very old age and even of a strong link with the sphere of female worshipers in Sumer. It should be added that the language must first have been transmitted orally. The use of writing was secondary and resulted from cultural transformations and changes in scribal practices that occurred at the beginning of the second millennium BC.

It is true that a body of literature in the Sumerian language formed in the first half of the third millennium BC and continued to evolve thereafter, but only scraps of it have reached us, with exceptions such as the tablets of Abu Ṣalabikh and Fara from around 2600 BC. The so-called Paleo-Babylonian period (between 2000 and 1600 BC) is that of a literary blossoming, but it partly includes the heritage of the kings of Ur.

The Sumerian vocabulary of this period shows a great diversity of compositions. Nevetheless, Emesal is represented by a genre such as balaĝ, a name taken from the drum which accompanied it. Eršema ‘lamentation to (the sound of) cymbals’ represented another fairly close category. The percussion blows punctuated these sad songs. The clamour produced by the balaĝ, a sort of gong or bass drum, was compared to the cry of a dragon (ušumgal). The words of lamentation and their long litanies were intended to pity the deity who had caused the ruin of a temple in his wrath. The penitential prayer eršahuĝa ‘lamentation that soothes the heart’, had an individual character: the person praying, “the righteous sufferer”, addressed a divinity of his choice, possibly a personal god, a protector, in the hope of softening his irascible character.

Emesal thus appears to be the most appropriate means of lamenting in worship. It was the language that was most likely to touch the hearts of fickle gods because it was surely enriched with one’s own persuasive qualities.

But what especially stood out was the use of this language in hymns, epic stories or historical laments composed in standard Sumerian. Indeed, the goddesses there speak in Emesal. Thus, for example, in the Lamentation over the destruction of Eridu, which was provoked by Enlil, the head of the Sumero-Akkadian pantheon, while the exiled poliade god Enki remains prostrate, his consort, Damgalnuna, begins a lamentation in Emesal and pleads at length for a restoration of their sanctuary. This form is not limited to plaintive speeches, it is also used in love songs and is typical of the speech of any goddess with the exception of Innana when she takes on her virile aspect. Its use can be extended to all women, simple mortals, as illustrated by a recently published dialogue between two matrons from a city in Sumer. Two neighbours engage in an oratorical battle made up of sometimes very base insults. They argue so badly that they have to go before a judge. The content of their words above all reflects the ambient misogyny of the Mesopotamian academic community, which is responsible for it. But did the female inhabitants of Sumer really express themselves this way in the third millennium BC? The fact is that Emesal does not surface in the texts of daily life, particularly in the minutes which are meant to record the declarations of women.

This language is otherwise (and perhaps especially) typical of the prayers of gala lamenters. This is a category of cult agents associated with the temple. They are the main interpreters of cultic laments and can rightly be described as musicians (nar). Their profession is very ancient — lamenters sang in unison during royal burial ceremonies at Girsu around 2400 BC — and was originally open to both sexes before it was reserved for men (there are still female gala found in Diyala around 1800 BCE). But it was contradictorily proposed that the logogram used to express the term gala would evoke homosexual mores, which were otherwise licit. Although on the one hand, the lamenters were essential actors in the cult, on the other hand, they were objects of derision as shown by proverbs and satires which openly mock them because of their low social level, their weirdness and even their bigotry. However, we must set aside the leaders of the lamenters who belonged to the elite. After the middle of the second millennium BC, such singularities faded. Moreover, part of the standard Sumerian corpus has sunk into oblivion, while the liturgical corpus has grown. Emesal participated in the dramaturgy of the cult; its formerly gendered character was no longer decisive at all.

Overall, Emesal has been the subject of attempts at ethnographic and literary comparisons. One parallel was made with Prakrit reserved for the recitation of women of the gynoecium in Ancient Indian literature. Since Emesal is only attested as a religious and poetic language, it could have formed in a spiritual environment that was feminine or involved assuming a transgender persona (the gala) and ended up becoming an artificial way of demarcating feminine speech towards the end of the third millennium BC.

Michaël Guichard, Director of Studies at EPHE – PSL, Chair of History and philology of Mesopotamia

His research centers on editing the “archives” of Mari, with a particular emphasis on the extensive correspondence among vassals and cities in the Upper Habur region (Northern Syria). He is currently studying other documentations from Iraq (Ešnunna, Larsa) and the cuneiform collection of Hautes Études (the René Labat collection). The publication of an Akkadian epic poem, one of the oldest known to date, the Epic of Zimri-Lim, earned him the Saintour Prize from the Academy of Inscriptions and Belles Lettres in 2016. In 2020–2021, he taught Emesal at ILARA.



Cite this blog post
ILARA (2023, May 31). Emesal: The Language of Women and Lamenters in Cuneiform Literature in the Early Second Millennium BC in Mesopotamia. ILARA, the Institute for Linguistic Heritage and Diversity. Retrieved February 29, 2024, from https://doi.org/10.58079/q3ax

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