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.
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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.
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This is consistent with the Ugaritic myth of a great battle between Baal, the sky god, and the sea god, Yam (compare Hebrew yam, sea). It also makes sense in terms of biblical Hebrew, in which ki means “when”; timhotz means “you will smite”; livyatan is Leviathan, the great monster of the depths; beten means “stomach” (on which snakes crawl), and peten, a species of snake, is possibly a cognate of batnu. And the fearsome figure of the naḥash b’riaḥ, the serpentlike sea dragon that God will slay, according to Isaiah, in the end of days, is clearly related to the Ugaritic bariḥu. One sees here the closeness not only of the two languages, but also of the world of myth and legend inhabited by their speakers.

By means of their occasional references to historical personages and events, as well as by the archaeological strata they were found in, it is possible to date the texts from Ugarit to 1400–1200 B.C.E. But while this is indeed several hundred years earlier than the likely dates for the oldest parts of the Hebrew Bible, it is not a reason to think that Ugaritic “predates” Hebrew as a language. The age of a spoken language cannot be equated with the age of its earliest surviving texts, and all languages have histories that extend much further back in time than does the written evidence for them. Hebrew and Ugaritic are sister tongues, jointly descended from a proto-northwest-Semitic that has left no written traces, and neither can be said to be older or younger than the other.

Finally, Mr. Bilek would like me to recommend some reading matter on Ugaritic. Although most of what is available in English consists of highly technical articles with titles like “Final Diphthongs and Triphthongs in Ugaritic Nominal Forms” and “The Ugaritic Voiced Postvelar in Correspondence to the Emphatic Interdental,” a comprehensive overview was provided by the renowned Semitics scholar Cyrus Gordon in his 1965 Ugaritic Textbook. It’s a good place to start.

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


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