Deciphering the Ugaritic Language

The ancient city of Ugarit was located on the north coast of the Mediterranean Sea, in a place known today by its Arabic name Ras Shamra.

Because Ugarit was an international harbor, the city had a complex culture, with many languages and ethnic traditions in its society. The city of Ugarit was destroyed at the time of the invasion of the Sea Peoples in the early part of the 12th century B.C.

When excavation began at the site of ancient Ugarit, archaeologists discovered a library containing a trove of religious and economic texts written in the Ugaritic language. Among these texts were “The Legend of King Keret,” “The Legend of Aqhat,” and “The Baal Cycle.”

A study of The Baal Cycle revealed the basic tenets of Canaanite religion and shed light into the culture and religion of ancient Israel. Scholars also discovered an affinity between Ugaritic and ancient Hebrew.

Most people today have never heard of Ugaritic literature and how it sheds light into the religion and culture of ancient Israel. Those unfamiliar with the contribution of Ugaritic literature to biblical studies may wonder how scholars were able to decipher Ugaritic and how Ugaritic is related to Hebrew.

An article titled “Cracking the Ugaritic Code,” published in Forward, describes how scholars deciphered the Ugaritic language. Below is an excerpt from the article:

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.

You can read the article in its entirety here.

Today, students of the Bible know much about Canaanite religion, especially about the storm god Baal, the sea god Yam, the goddess Anat, and many other gods in the Canaanite pantheon because of the hard work of scholars who labored to decipher the Ugaritic language,

Claude Mariottini
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary

This entry was posted in Archaeology, Canaanites and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Deciphering the Ugaritic Language

  1. Wellington King says:

    Dear Dr Marottini,

    Thank you for the fascinating link. I’m curious how Ugaritic literature has influenced your understanding of Scripture, both as a scholar and a believer.

    Sincerely,

    Wellington King

    Like

    • Claude Mariottini says:

      Wellington,

      Ugaritic literature has almost nothing to say to my life as a believer. As a scholar, Uragitic literature has shed much light on Canaanite religion and Canaanite culture. Anyone dealing with ancient Israel appreciates the contribution Ugaritic literature makes to the study of the life, culture, and religion of ancient Israel.

      Thank you for your comment.

      Claude Mariottini

      Like

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