Cracking the Ugaritic Code

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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.”

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.

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