Forward reader Raffi Bilek has some questions about Ugaritic, the ancient Semitic language, closely related to biblical Hebrew, that was unearthed in archaeological excavations begun in the late 1920s at the ancient site of Ugarit, along the Syrian coast north of Latakia. Mr. Bilek asks:
“How do we know that Ugaritic is so similar to Hebrew? How do we know that it predates it? How is it even possible to understand a previously unknown language when it is written in an unfamiliar alphabet?”
Let’s start with the last question. The Ugaritic alphabet was indeed an unfamiliar one. The texts, more than 1,000, excavated at Ugarit, were written in cuneiform characters incised with a stylus on wet and subsequently baked clay tablets of the kind commonly used for writing in the ancient Middle East, particularly by the Babylonians — whose language, Akkadian, was for a long time the scribal lingua franca of the region.
Yet the scholars who examined these characters quickly saw that though their combinations of wedgelike lines resembled those of Akkadian (which had already been decoded in the 19th century), they were original creations. The Babylonian characters, of which there are hundreds, are syllabic, each representing a consonant and a vowel (for example, ba, du, mi, etc.). The Ugaritic characters, numbering only 30, are modeled on the alphabetic system developed in Phoenicia and Canaan and stand for single consonants alone. As in biblical Hebrew, which adopted this system, too, the vowels are generally omitted.
How do linguists read and understand an alphabet never before encountered by them? It’s always a challenge, sometimes an impossible one, but Ugaritic was a relatively easy case to crack. Like the famed Rosetta Stone found in 1799 in Egypt, whose parallel texts in Greek and hieroglyphic Egyptian enabled scholars to decipher the latter, cuneiform tablets turned up at Ugarit with parallel texts in Ugaritic and Akkadian.
By comparing the proper names in them, which were the same in both languages, it was possible to figure out the Ugaritic characters — and in doing so, it became clear that Ugaritic was a language of the northwest branch of the Semitic family and that it was much closer in phonetics, vocabulary and grammar to Phoenician and Hebrew than it was to eastern-branch Akkadian. Since Phoenician and Hebrew were known tongues, Ugaritic usually could be figured out with their aid, though scholars often disagree to this day about exact meanings.
A single example will have to suffice. A Ugaritic hymn to the god Baal (who is also known to us from the Bible) begins with words that have been transcribed in vowelless Latin characters as ktmḥṣ ltn btn brḥ. Using their acquired knowledge of Ugaritic, scholars have vocalized this as ki-timḥṣ litanu batnu bariḥu and have come up with the suggested reading of “When thou smitest the Leviathan, the [primeval water] snake, the great sea dragon.”