Ideas

Ideas | Jack Cheng

Why is Wonder Woman reading Sumerian?

Gal Gadot in the 2017 film WONDER WOMAN, directed by Patty Jenkins.
Warner Brothers
Gal Gadot in “Wonder Woman.”

Note: This article contains no spoilers about the film “Wonder Woman,” unless you count the fact that Wonder Woman can read Sumerian to be a spoiler, in which case, the whole movie has already been spoiled for you by the title of this article. Sorry.

In an inconsequential scene of exposition near the middle of “Wonder Woman,” Diana, Princess of Themyscira, glances at the notebook of the fiendish chemist Dr. Poison and recognizes that some of the notes are written in Sumerian.

As someone who took a year of Sumerian language courses at Harvard, I took notice.

Sumerian, you’ll recall, is the first known written language. With characters composed of little wedge shapes or cuneiform (from the Latin cuneus, meaning wedge), the language was first used in ancient Sumer in southern Mesopotamia about 5,000 years ago.

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It’s curious that Dr. Poison was taking notes in Sumerian for a number of reasons. First, Sumerian is wedge-shaped because scribes would press styluses pressed into clay to make their marks. Sumerian on paper is a bit unnatural, although it does make for a good secret code.

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Second, anyone who had mastered Sumerian by the early 20th century (or the early 21st century) would have been among a small company of scholars and could have gotten tenure at a university. Perhaps this is Dr. Poison’s backstory that will come out in the DVD extras: although she mastered Sumerian as a young woman, the misogynist creeps in Tübingen denied her a professorship, leading her to develop chemical weapons. It’s basically the Unabomber origin story.

Third, in my year of studying Sumerian, I don’t recall many chemical terms in my Sumerian dictionary. Sumerian was first developed as a system of agricultural accounting: “I gave you three bags of grain; you owe me one sheep.” What was Dr. Poison writing in her notebook? “Mix goat with three bowls of barley and two bowls of water, add heat, result: methamphetamine!”

To be fair, since the Sumerians invented beer, they must have known something about chemistry.

Perhaps Dr. Poison was writing her formulas phonetically in Sumerian. Or rather syllabically, because Sumerian is a syllabic language: Instead of characters standing for a single phoneme like our “a” or “t,” each Sumerian character represented a syllable, like “dù” or “àm,” so she could have written chemical names by combining syllables, creating a neo-Sumerian scientific dialect. Flipping through Hayes’ “A Manual of Sumerian Grammar and Texts” to see if I could find signs that sound out “ammonia,” I couldn’t find a syllable with a long “o” sound. Which brings up another problem with using Sumerian for note taking: No one knows what Sumerian sounded like.

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An anecdote from my year of Sumerian: My professor, Piotr Steinkeller, was fine with my plan to take just two semesters of his class and responded with his typically dry wit: “One year of Sumerian is good; you’ll learn a little Sumerian. If you take two years of Sumerian, you’ll realize you know nothing.” In other words, in that second year, I would be exposed to all the unresolved conflicts between Sumerologists and it would blow my mind.

Sidenote to my anecdote: Probably the best use of Sumerian in pop culture is in Neal Stephenson’s novel “Snow Crash,” where he compares human brains to computers and posits Sumerian as an assembly language — the operating system — for our brains. A few wrong lines of Sumerian coding and your brain would crash. Maybe that’s what Professor Steinkeller teaches in second year Sumerian.

Wonder Woman uses languages purposefully throughout the film. A facility with modern languages illustrate the intelligence and worldliness of its characters. Diana and Sammy face off and run through a number of languages that demonstrate a depth of experience. This was a clever use of actress Gal Gadot’s linguistic talents, (although, her Chinese was so bad that I didn’t realize it was Chinese until I read the subtitles and realized what she was trying to say; but Chinese is hard).

Sumerian is used in popular culture simply because it represents the deadest of dead languages. To give her a sense of history and timelessness, Diana works in the Louvre among Assyrian sculptures and reads cuneiform script. Small touches that delight the part of the audience that recognizes these references.

Meanwhile, on Twitter, Gal Gadot playfully teased Chris Hemsworth about their silver screen alter egos, asking whether he thought Thor could beat Wonder Woman in a fight.

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The real question is: can Thor read Old Gutnish?

Jack Cheng is a writer and archaeologist. Follow him on Twitter @jakcheng