WASHINGTON — You have to go back 4,000 years, colleagues said, to find someone as fluent in Sumerian as Miguel Civil. A Catalonian-born professor with a purported photographic memory, he spent decades studying ancient cuneiform tablets, examining the last wedge-shape traces of what is probably the world’s oldest written language.
Dr. Civil, who was 92 when he died Jan. 13 at a hospital in Chicago, was a giant in the field of Sumerology, an expert in the Mesopotamian civilization that is credited with developing the first cities, sailboats, and irrigation systems, as well as the seven-day week and writing itself.
‘‘He was the most knowledgeable authority of Sumerian since 2000 B.C.,’’ said Christopher Woods, a fellow Sumerian scholar and director of the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago, where Dr. Civil taught from 1963 until his retirement in 2001.
‘‘There are hundreds of thousands of Sumerian tablets,’’ Woods added. ‘‘He had a complete mastery of these sources and a special genius at going beyond what the text said, making cultural connections that others were not able to do. . . . He was a master at getting into the heads of the ancients.’’
As a written language, Sumerian originated about 3300 BC, according to Woods. By 1800 BC, about the time Hammurabi ruled over Babylon, it had largely become a literary language, akin to Latin in the Middle Ages. Then it was lost to Western civilization, forgotten until the 19th-century discovery of Sumerian cities and culture in present-day Iraq.
Dr. Civil participated in excavations at the ancient city of Nippur and assembled texts that resembled literary jigsaw puzzles, piecing together hundreds of clay fragments stored at institutions around the world. He also served on the editorial board of the Chicago Assyrian Dictionary, a monumental nine-decade work of scholarship that was completed in 2010 with the publication of its 21st volume.
‘‘Civil was a brilliant linguist,’’ said Benjamin Foster, a Yale professor of Assyriology and Babylonian literature.
‘‘He took up many difficult problems, such as Sumerian phonology, grammar, and semantics, and pioneered the use of computer technology to place small fragments of Sumerian writing in their original contexts,’’ Foster added. ‘‘We all stood in awe of his breadth and depth of knowledge and his originality of thought.’’
The work was often exceedingly difficult; Sumerian is a linguistic isolate, a stand-alone language, like Basque or Etruscan. Scholars have spent weeks trying to parse out the Sumerian distinction between terms such as ‘‘window’’ and ‘‘door.’’
But Dr. Civil, colleagues said, seemed to have made his way through nearly every one of the tablets unearthed from Sumer, where scribes and other officials wrote down hymns, receipts, divorce records and the first known farmer’s almanac.
Although Dr. Civil spent his career studying a long-dead language, he often noted its connection to the present and the opportunity it afforded to take a broader view of human existence.
‘‘The recovery of the past represents a sheer enrichment of human thought,’’ he wrote in the foreword to Samuel Noah Kramer’s ‘‘In the World of Sumer.’’ ‘‘It is a sort of time travel in which, unlike in science fiction in which we encounter generally pitiful creations of an ethnocentric imagination in alien worlds, we make acquaintance with fellow humans who represent aspects of ourselves which temporal and cultural boundaries have made impossible to actualize.’’