John Halloran has had a presence on the internet since 1996. He’s the scholar who maintains the Sumerian Language Page. On that page one can find his online lexicon (dictionary) of Sumerian. That material was recently printed in hard copy book form and has been favorably peer-reviewed. In short, John is a good source for information about Sumerian words.
Recently some of my PaleoBabble posts have received comments to the effect that my criticisms of Zecharia Sitchin’s Sumerian “translations”. A commenter appealed to Dr. Halloran as a source against my criticisms. I asked the commenter if he still had the correspondence, since I doubted that Dr. Halloran would object to my criticisms. He didn’t, so I thought I’d just ask. Below is my email to John Halloran with verbatim material from the commenter (whose comments are still here on the blog as well). Below my email is John Halloran’s response.
My email (July 7, 2010):
Dear Dr. Halloran
Thanks for taking the time to read this email. I’ll be brief.
My name is Mike Heiser. I’m not a Sumerian specialist, though I have studied some Sumerian independently. My field (PhD) is Hebrew Bible and Semitic Languages. I blog regularly at a site called PaleoBabble (www.paleobabble.com) on weird ideas and beliefs associated with the ancient world. One item that crops up with some frequency is the ancient astronaut idea, specifically the work of Zecharia Sitchin. I have a site devoted to rebuttals of Sitchin (www.sitchiniswrong.com), but from time to time I need the input of a specialist. Hence my email.
Recently a visitor and commenter to my PaleoBabble blog referenced an email exchange with you wherein he reported that you said a few things that I suspect either he misunderstood or that you never said. Could you please give the following a thumbs up or down or explain? I’ve promised to blog this on my site in my ongoing effort to alert people to the fact that Zecharia Sitchin is wrong — aliens from space aren’t behind the Sumerian civilization (or any other). Here are excerpts from the commenter’s email with notes at my initials (MSH):
1. “I wrote to John Halloran a proffessor on Sumerian at the university of Los Angelos some time ago, asking him about Sitchin and yourself, and also on true expertise regarding Sumerian. It was interesting to receive an answer stating that there is probably no “expert” on Sumerian on this planet due to the fact that the understanding of Sumerian is based on ancient Hebrew of which a large part of the vocabulary is lost to us. . . What I remember and feel safe to state is this; my question was, ‘how accurate are Sitchin and Heiser in their debate and books regarding the Sumerian language, and history as far as our heritage is concerned? His reply was this; Most authors writing historical novel type books tend to dramatise their work in order to create better sales. He also stated that so far he himself had not at that stage come accross any mention of spacecraft in the sumerian history, he also stated that so far the researchers have not yet concluded their studies on Sumerian although a 140 years of research has been done we might eventually understand the language and be able through that to fully comprehend the Sumerian history. Which is an indication that no ‘total’ expert on the language exists.”
MSH: I’m guessing this was about the fact that scholars lack a perfect knowledge of Sumerian. It would be silly to say there are no Sumerian language experts. The commenter seems to want to say that, since we can’t know every detail perfectly, no one can really comment with authority in opposition to Sitchin’s ancient astronaut interpretations of the Sumerian epics. Would you agree or disagree?
2. “If this is true then yourself and Sitchin is mostly improvising regarding that language and this can then leed to the ‘assumption’ that the readers can form their own opinions regarding what is known regarding the history as stated by anybody in connection to the Sumerian tablets! Which will make your “bone” with Sitchin totally unnecessary (sic). I have wondered since I noticed your dispute why the two of you do not rather get together and share your opinions in an effort to give this world a more studied idea on Sumerian. The man do have 40 plus years experience on the investigating side of it, compare that with your expertise in ancient languages and we might all be surprised at the outcome!”
MSH: Personally, I don’t Sitchin knows squat about Sumerian (e.g., he thinks “SHU.MU” is a rocket ship). His “translations” are not as valid as those who are experts in Sumerian; I’d say they are not valid at all. Would you agree or disagree?
3. “On John’s website on the Sumerian Language page their is question and answer section, in this section a question was asked regarding Akkadian words relating to Sumerian, the answer was that Akkadian, Phoenician, Egyptian and Hebrew are all sister languages, and that some words or vocabulary might have been borrowed from Sumerian, although none of the sister languages are a sister language to Sumerian, this could have happened in all the sister languages, apparently Sumerian survived for two thousand years after the race became extinct, and this could be the cause of the borrowing! Is it possible? I do not know, I am not an expert on any language.”
MSH: The commenter seems to be under the delusion that lots of Sumerian words are related to biblical Hebrew words. I’ve read a good bit on the Hebrew language, and there are few words in the biblical Hebrew corpus that might be traced to Sumerian. Have you seen any scholarship that says otherwise? He also seems to think that the presence of loanwords speaks to some sort of “meaning interchange” or dependency. I’d chalk loanwords up to things like trade and migration. Any thoughts?
That’s it! I hope you can reply a bit to these. Some readers would benefit knowing that I’m not the only ANE-related scholar that thinks Sitchin’s ideas are bogus.
John Halloran’s response the next day (July 8, 2010):
Are you talking about Bill XXXXX [I’ve removed the last name – MSH]? I wrote very little to him, and certainly not what you are quoting. My most relevant message said:
I don’t find anything about Sumerian at that Hidden Meanings web site.
The Sumerians were hard-working farmers who pulled themselves up by their bootstraps. No aliens or UFOs required.
I have already said what I need to about Sitchen at my FAQ page. [MSH: see #s 15, 33, 34 for thoughts on Sitchin].
As an undergraduate I took 48 units of Hebrew classes, a class every week for four years, from Robert Hetzron at UCSB from 1971 to 1975. Off-hand, the only Hebrew word that I can think of which comes from Sumerian would be the word for ‘palace’. This is on page 148 of Ernest Klein’s Etymological Dictionary.
So what’s the lesson here? For one, that my skepticism of Sitchin’s Sumerian skills isn’t idiosyncratic. Second, that there really are not many words from Sumerian that are traceable in the Hebrew Bible. [John Halloran later told me in a follow-up email that there are 31 listed in Mankowski’s Harvard Semitic Monographs study, Akkadian Loanwords in Biblical Hebrew, pp. 231-232.] There are many more Akkadian words that show up in the Hebrew Bible, but that’s because both languages are Semitic, and because of the close interactions the Israelites had with the people of Mesopotamia after the Sumerian era (things like trade, migration, war, deportation, etc.). Lastly, although I do not expect that the commenter (“Bill”) could remember the email exchange with John Halloran if it was quite some time ago, this illustrates what I typically do with such claims or “references” — I want to see them. If they are not readily obtainable, I’ll ask those people. In other words, I do fact-checking. In the past I’ve done this with wacky internet lurkers who’ve told me about how a biblical scholar (whose name they knew I’d recognize) supported their claim that Ezekiel 1 describes a spaceship. Thanks for the name, now I’ll go ask the guy myself and publish his comments. Don’t name drop on me. Know that I will check. There’s no way a real scholar is going to support Sitchin’s ideas, mainly because he isn’t a Sumerian scholar (or scholar of any other ancient language) and the things he claims don’t exist in the texts. I’m not being mean — it’s just the truth.