From Hebrew to Ugaritic and Back Again

On Language

By Philologos

Published July 14, 2010, issue of July 23, 2010.
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The Massachusetts Institute of Technology announced on June 30 that three linguists, working under its auspices, have developed a successful computer system for deciphering the ancient language of Ugaritic. At the coming annual meeting of the Association for Computational Linguistics, the three will present a paper on a new computer system that, “in a matter of hours,” learned to read from scratch a long-dead language that is close to biblical Hebrew. In fact, the MIT press release stated, since the system calls for a second, known language to which the language to be deciphered is related, Hebrew was chosen for this purpose.

Cuneiform Conundrum: An Ugaritic tablet, now known to be a list of ancient gods.
WIKI CoMMoNS
Cuneiform Conundrum: An Ugaritic tablet, now known to be a list of ancient gods.

At this point, some of you must be muttering: “But Ugaritic was deciphered long ago! Who needs a computer model to do it all over again?”

You would be right about the first part. Ugaritic was first discovered in 1929, when a French archaeological excavation digging at the site of Ras-e-Shamra in northern Syria, identified with the second-millennium BCE city of Ugarit, found a large number of clay tablets written on in a hitherto unknown language and cuneiform alphabet. After cracking the alphabet and establishing fairly quickly that this language belonged to the family of northwest Semitic, which also includes Aramaic and ancient Canaanite, Moabite and Edomite, scholars were eventually able to determine its grammar and much of its vocabulary.

But that’s just the point. Ugaritic was chosen for the new computer model’s first experiment precisely because it had been deciphered, thus making it possible to compare the computer’s results with those of earlier linguists. And when the cuneiform texts from Ugarit were fed into the MIT computer, which had been given a full knowledge of Hebrew, it took less than a day for the computer to come to the same conclusions at which previous scholars had needed generations to arrive.

This is a quite remarkable achievement. Imagine that German had ceased to be spoken centuries ago, and been forgotten until written texts of it were discovered in an alphabet that at first no one could read — and imagine that, based solely on German’s known kinship with English, a computer determined within hours not only how to read these texts, but also what they meant. If this can be done with Ugaritic, it should also be doable with other ancient written languages that scholars have not figured out, such as Etruscan, Minoan Linear A and proto-Elamite. True, the MIT computer would have to process these languages without knowing their family affiliation; yet, given its speed, it could presumably be fed with modeled representatives of relevant linguistic groups and decide on its own which, if any of them, is akin to the language under investigation.

Yet it is not just Hebrew that throws light on Ugaritic; Ugaritic throws light on Hebrew, too. Not only do the Ras-e-Shamra texts, which antedate the earliest parts of the Bible, demonstrate that many stylistic features of biblical Hebrew have earlier northwest Semitic antecedents, but they also sometimes enable us to understand puzzling biblical passages.

An interesting example is provided by Proverbs 26:23. In Hebrew, the verse reads, “Kesef sigim metsupeh al ḥeres, sefatayim dolkim velev ra,” which is translated by the King James Version as “Burning lips and a wicked heart are like a potsherd covered with silver dross.” This translation is based on the traditional rabbinic reading of the verse, which interprets sigim to mean “dross” — that is, a cheap metal alloy — as it does in verses in Isaiah and Ezekiel.

And yet, although mixing silver with cheaper alloys was a known technique in biblical antiquity, silver-plating pottery was not — nor, to the best of my knowledge, was it anywhere. There is no reason that it should have been, since pottery breaks easily when dropped or struck (this is precisely what produces potsherds), and who would want a vessel with a thin silver exterior clinging to a shattered interior?

It’s here that Ugaritic comes to the rescue. In the Ras-e-Shamra texts is a word having the consonants s-p-s-g (Ugaritic cuneiform writing, like ancient Hebrew, did not use vowels) and meaning “a pottery glaze.” If we take the Hebrew kesef sigim, alloyed silver, and combine its consonants into a single word, we get k-s-f-s-g-m, of which the final m is the Hebrew plural, the f is a de-voiced p and the initial k could be the Hebrew proclitic k’, “as” or “like.” Such a word would probably have been pronounced k’safsagim, and the verse could then be read to mean, “Burning lips and a wicked heart are like glazes on a potsherd,” which makes a lot more sense.

Indeed, reflecting the 25 years of Ugaritic scholarship that preceded it, the Revised Standard Version of the King James, first published in 1952, has “Like the glaze covering an earthen vessel” instead of “Like a potsherd covered with silver dross.” Today, if MIT is to be believed, it hardly would have been necessary to wait 25 years. Twenty-five minutes would be more like it.

Questions for Philologos can be sent to philologos@forward.com


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