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Umad Learns Sumerian

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Dawn lies on her bed amid a sea of books. Spiral notebook and photocopied cuneiform in front of her, Labat's Manuel d' Epigraphie Akkadienne and her blue Concise Dictionary of Akkadian to her left, Dalley's Myths from Mesopotamia and Huehnergard's dark green first year Akkadian grammar to her right. She begins transliterating the photocopied manuscript at line one, writing slowly, occasionally consulting Labat to check a sign value. She translates and parses as she goes.

e-nu-ma e-lis la na-bu-u2 sa2-ma-mu
When on high the heavens were not named

"G stat. 3mp" she writes above na-bu-u, because it is a stative in the G stem, third person masculine plural. It is important to parse every verb. She writes carefully, her notes in tiny, perfect handwriting.


There had been a Scooby meeting, sans Willow, after the whole Willow-going-evil-and-trying-to-destroy-the-world-and-kill-all-of-them thing. Not that Dawn was bitter about that. No, Willow threatening to revert her to green energy had rolled right off her back.

Everyone else had made all the decisions already, of course. Giles was taking Willow back to England with him, so she could get help or whatever.

"So she tries to kill us and she gets a free trip to England?" Dawn had said dryly. "I shoplifted, does that mean I get a weekend in LA?"

"Dawn," Buffy had said warningly, and she shut up while the rest of them talked details. She was sick of never having a say in things, of having everyone concerned about taking care of her. It was stupid and boring and she felt useless. Besides, if this was them taking care of her, they did a sucky job. It was time she took care of herself.


sap-lis am-ma-tu4 su-ma la zak-rat
And below, the earth's name had not been spoken

zakrat = from zakaru, G stative third person feminine singular
ammatu = strong, stable, a poetic word for the earth
zakaru sumu = to mention someone's name


She slipped downstairs after Buffy had gone up to bed. Giles was sleeping on their couch again, even though Willow and Tara's room was free. Guess it creeped him out – Dawn didn't blame him. She hated even having to walk by that room anymore.

She figured he might still be up, and he was, reading. He looked tired and still kind of beat up. Willow really did a number on him.

"Dawn," he said when he saw her. He smiled slightly. "Another cereal experiment?"

She shook her head. "I wanted to talk to you." He put his book down and focused on her, raising his eyebrows expectantly. She perched on the arm of the couch.

"I want to learn Sumerian," she said. "A ton of the stuff that's really old and important for research is in it, and I can never find translations."

He looked surprised. "You want to… for research?"

"Uh huh," she said.

"Not… er, not for magicks?" he asked.

She rolled her eyes. "Please. I'm not a moron."

He looked doubtful. "Dawn, Sumerian is a very difficult language. It isn't as though you can sign up for a course at the local community college. A definitive lexicon hasn't even been published."

"Really?" she asked.

He was staring into the middle distance, as though thinking very hard. His explanation was distracted, on exposition autopilot. "Well, they've put out the first two volumes. So if one needs information on words beginning with A or B, it's available, but otherwise one is rather at a loss."

"Cool," Dawn said.

His mouth twisted. "Dawn, why this sudden interest?"

"Well… you're leaving again," she said. That was a big fat duh – wasn't it obvious why she needed to learn this? "And you're taking Willow with you."


"C'mon, Giles, who's going to research if some big evil thing comes to town? Buffy? Xander? I mean, I love 'em, but they're not exactly the brightest crayons in the box, you know?"

"Dawn," he said, admonishingly. She looked down and sighed heavily. No one ever let her do anything.

"The two of them can't fight evil alone," she muttered. He looked at her intently, searchingly, as if he had never really seen her before. She began to fidget. "Well, they can't." He nodded slowly.

"All right," he said, after a moment. "I'll get you some books."


ZU.AB-ma res-tu-u2 za-ru-su-un
The first one, Apsu, their begetter

The signs are complicated, each one with several values. The second word begins with the sign SAG, which is the Sumerian logogram for "head." Here it isn't a logogram – it's syllabic. The syllabic values are sag, sak and saq, plus the values res and ris, because the Akkadian word for head is "resu". It all makes sense, in a convoluted sort of way – like putting together a puzzle, pieces fitting into each other, the system a harmonious whole. The sign means "res" here, because restu means "first" and the text is about creation, the first things.

Dawn herself is the Key, one of the primeval, first things. She tries not to think about that.


The next day Giles came back to the house with his arms full of books, so full that he had to ring the doorbell with his elbow. Dawn relieved him of a few from the top of the stack when she opened the door, and he managed to dump the rest on the dining room table.

There were three grammars of Sumerian, one of Akkadian, and many, many other reference books.

"Akkadian?" Dawn asked.

"The other major language of Mesopotamia. It's Semitic, related to Hebrew and Arabic rather than to Sumerian, but it and Sumerian share the cuneiform writing system and a common, continuous culture. Most learn the two languages together. You will find that it is also important for research." Giles ran a hand through his hair, sounding a bit breathless from carrying the books. Dawn fingered one of them, old and battered. Its spine was coming off. "That one's out of print," Giles said. "I had to get it secondhand."

She thought of him going from store to store, searching for books for her. Deciding which ones would work best, poring through stacks of dusty volumes in used bookstores. She smiled slightly, glancing up at him. "Thanks, Giles."


mu-um-mu ti-amat (GEME2) mu-al-li-da-at gim-ri-su2-un
Tiamat, the life-giving force, the one giving birth to all of them

muallidat = from waladu, D participle feminine singular in the bound form


Dawn finds Akkadian easier than Sumerian, more straightforward. They know more about it, how it works. There are fewer debates about what each morpheme means.

She makes flashcards of the cuneiform signs, memorizes their values. The syllables on each card become like little nursery rhymes – this one is "be-bad-bat-mid-mit-til-ziz", that one "tar-kud-kut-qud-qut-has-hash-haz-hats-sil-shil". They become rhythmic, pick up the relentless beat of memorization and the music she always has playing while she studies. With syllables and bass lines pounding in her head there is no space to think of Tara, of Willow, of Spike, of Anya, of Giles. Just logograms and determinatives and the ergative case.

Buffy sometimes knocks on her door, calling her for dinner or whatever. She seems to think that Dawn spends her days dancing and singing along to the music that's always playing, maybe painting her nails and taking the quizzes in Seventeen. Buffy gets these nostalgic looks and says things like, "I wish I still got a summer vacation."

Dawn smiles sweetly at her and recites verb paradigms in her head. The irregular verb alaku, Gt stem, preterite tense: ittalak, tattalak, tattalka, attalak, ittalku, ittalka, tattalka, nittalak. He went away, you (masculine singular) went away, you (feminine singular) went away, I went away, they (masculine plural) went away, they (feminine plural) went away, you (common plural) went away, we went away.

Sunu kalama ittalku. All of them went away.


Xander comes over after work most days. Sometimes he picks up pizza or Chinese on the way over, sometimes he and Buffy attempt to cook.

Dawn comes downstairs and perches on the island, watches them try to figure out which spice tastes like what.

"The only one I know for sure is cinnamon," Xander says. "Why did your mom have this massive spice rack, anyway? Does an instruction manual come with this thing?"

Buffy laughs. It is good to hear her laugh. "Here's garlic. You know garlic, right?"

"Yeah, okay, I'll give you that one. That stuff is seriously overrated when it comes to vampire repulsion, though. And my resentment over that little fact almost puts me off garlic altogether."

Dawn dreams that night that Buffy and Xander are married and it was always just the three of them, a little family. There never was a Watcher or a sex-toy pet vampire or favorite lesbian aunt types or an ex-ex-vengeance-demon-ex-fiancee. Or a deadbeat dad, or a mom with a brain tumor. She dreams that she was always a real girl, that she had existed for exactly 16 years, not for all of time or for a year and a half, whichever way you wanted to look at it. That she was born because a mommy and daddy loved each other very much.

When she wakes up she wants to pummel something and is glad she lives in a house where there's a punching bag in the basement.


A.MES-su-nu is-te-nis i-hi-qu-u2-ma
They (Tiamat and Apsu) were mixing their waters together

ihiquma = from hiaqu, G Durative 3mp plus the conjunction ma
– Tiamat is the salt water and Apsu the sweet water – sexual imagery – boy would Buffy be pissed if she knew I was reading this - hahahaha


She works on translations for hours every day, makes Buffy take her out patrolling at night. She will be ready when they need her.

Everything she does makes her more real, every mark of her pencil on the paper. The monks may have created her old diary and all her baby pictures and school transcripts, but they did not create the pages of parsings and translation scattered over her bedroom floor. They did not create the emails of questions she sends off to Giles, did not create her UCSunnydale library card. They did not create whatever she is going to do next.


e-nu-ma DINGIR.DINGIR la su-pu-u ma-na-ma
When no gods whatsoever were yet visible

su-ma la zuk-ku-ru si-ma-tu2 la si-i-mu
They were not named, they were not yet fated with fates

ib-ba-nu-u2-ma DINGIR.DINGIR qe2-reb2-su2-un
The gods were created in their midst



zakaru = to speak; to name; to call into existence; to give purpose


No one is ever going to turn her back into green energy, because she will be ready. She has no past, but she has a future (probably), and no one will take it away. Not Willow, not anyone, and these dead languages are her talisman against dissolution, against bleeding away into nothing.

Besides, the rest of them don't think about it, but one of these days life or death is going to come down to having someone who can read cuneiform. And she'll be ready.