Cracking the Ugaritic Code

Hebrew and Sister Tongue Grew From Ancient Semitic Language

Written in Stone: The story of how the Ugaritic code was cracked bears some similarities to that of the Rosetta Stone, shown here in 1932 at the British Museum.
Getty Images
Written in Stone: The story of how the Ugaritic code was cracked bears some similarities to that of the Rosetta Stone, shown here in 1932 at the British Museum.

By Philologos

Published August 18, 2013, issue of August 23, 2013.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

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.”


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • “'I made a new friend,' my son told his grandfather later that day. 'I don’t know her name, but she was very nice. We met on the bus.' Welcome to Israel."
  • A Jewish female sword swallower. It's as cool as it sounds (and looks)!
  • Why did David Menachem Gordon join the IDF? In his own words: "The Israel Defense Forces is an army that fights for her nation’s survival and the absence of its warriors equals destruction from numerous regional foes. America is not quite under the threat of total annihilation… Simply put, I felt I was needed more in Israel than in the United States."
  • Leonard Fein's most enduring legacy may be his rejection of dualism: the idea that Jews must choose between assertiveness and compassion, between tribalism and universalism. Steven M. Cohen remembers a great Jewish progressive:
  • BREAKING: Missing lone soldier David Menachem Gordon has been found dead in central Israel. The Ohio native was 21 years old.
  • “They think they can slap on an Amish hat and a long black robe, and they’ve created a Hasid." What do you think of Hollywood's portrayal of Hasidic Jews?
  • “I’ve been doing this since I was a teenager. I didn’t think I would have to do it when I was 90.” Hedy Epstein fled Nazi Germany in 1933 on a Kinderstransport.
  • "A few decades ago, it would have been easy to add Jews to that list of disempowered victims. I could throw in Leo Frank, the victim of mob justice; or otherwise privileged Jewish men denied entrance to elite universities. These days, however, we have to search a lot harder." Are you worried about what's going in on #Ferguson?
  • Will you accept the challenge?
  • In the six years since Dothan launched its relocation program, 8 families have made the jump — but will they stay? We went there to find out:
  • "Jewish Israelis and West Bank Palestinians are witnessing — and living — two very different wars." Naomi Zeveloff's first on-the-ground dispatch from Israel:
  • This deserves a whistle: Lauren Bacall's stylish wardrobe is getting its own museum exhibit at Fashion Institute of Technology.
  • How do you make people laugh when they're fighting on the front lines or ducking bombs?
  • "Hamas and others have dredged up passages form the Quran that demonize Jews horribly. Some imams rail about international Jewish conspiracies. But they’d have a much smaller audience for their ravings if Israel could find a way to lower the flames in the conflict." Do you agree with J.J. Goldberg?
  • How did Tariq Abu Khdeir go from fun-loving Palestinian-American teen to international icon in just a few short weeks? http://jd.fo/d4kkV
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.