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ANE – Ugarit / 2 – End

Original Date
May 26, 2009

The Ugaritic Language

Some human languages are commonly written by using a combination of logograms (which represent morphemes or words) and syllabaries (which represent syllables) instead of an alphabet. Egyptian hieroglyphs and Chinese characters are two of the best-known writing systems with predominantly non-alphabetic representations. By 2700 BCE Egyptian writing had a set of some 22 hieroglyphs to represent syllables that begin with a single consonant of their language, plus a vowel (or no vowel) to be supplied by the native speaker. These glyphs were used as pronunciation guides for logograms, to write grammatical inflections, and, later, to transcribe loan words and foreign names. However, although seemingly alphabetic in nature, the original Egyptian uniliterals were not a system and were never used by themselves to encode Egyptian speech[1] . In the Middle Bronze Age an apparently “alphabetic” system known as the Proto-Sinaitic script is thought by some to have been developed in central Egypt around 1700 BCE for or by Semitic workers, but only one of these early writings has been deciphered and their exact nature remains open to interpretation. Based on letter appearances and names, it is believed to be based on Egyptian hieroglyphs. [2]

This script eventually developed into the Ugarite alphabet (based onto engraved cuneiform representation) Proto-Canaanite alphabet (based on designed written codes), which in turn was refined into the Phoenician alphabet [3] . Note that the scripts mentioned above are not considered proper alphabets, as they all lack characters representing vowels. These early vowelless alphabets are called abjads, and still exist in scripts such as Arabic, Hebrew and Syriac.

The Ugaritic alphabet is a cuneiform abjad (alphabet without vowels), used from around 1500 BCE for the Ugaritic language, an extinct Northwest Semitic language discovered in Ugarit, Syria in 1928. It has 30 (31)? letters. Other languages (particularly Hurrian) were occasionally written in it in the Ugarit area, although not elsewhere. Clay tablets written in Ugaritic provide the earliest evidence of both the Levantine and South Semitic orders of the alphabet, which gave rise to the alphabetic orders of the Hebrew, Greek, and Latin alphabets on the one hand, and of the Ge’ez (old Ethiopic) alphabet on the other. The script was written from left to right (Phoenician, Greek, Latin) or right to left (other Semitics including Ugaritic).

At the time the Ugaritic alphabet was in use (ca. 1500-1300 BCE), Ugarit was in the very center of the literate world, which by then included Egypt, Asia Minor, Cyprus, Crete, and Mesopotamia / Elam. Ugaritic combined the most advanced features of the previously known hieroglyphic and cuneiform systems, both of which had been developing toward more syllabic and less logographic writing systems, into an abjad [4] .

Scholars have searched in vain for graphic prototypes of the Ugaritic letters in Mesopotamian cuneiform. Recently, some have speculated that Ugaritic might represent some form of the Proto-Semitic alphabet, [5] the letter forms distorted as an adaptation to writing on clay with a stylus. There may also have been a degree of influence from the poorly-understood Byblos syllabary that is sometimes called “pseudo-hieroglyphic[6].

Abcedary Ugarit

The Ugaritic Alphabet

Originally the claim was that ancient Ugarit’s tablets contained a script of only twenty-seven different characters. This proved to be archaic Hebrew, dated about 1400 BCE., hence one of the earliest alphabetic writings yet known.   As you can see above are thirty (one?) characters, all of them consonantal, except that three or four of them indicate the type of vowel occurring after aleph, whether a, i [or, e], or u. This very early dialect of Canaan, contains several consonants not in any of the Northwest Semitic scripts:

  • In the Arabic (such as rough heth, z as in Arabic nazara, “to see”; th as in thalathun “three”).
  • Not in Arabic (such as zh like the English s in pleasure).

These shapes of characters form by wedges have no similarity to the signs of the Sinaitic letters or the Akkadian syllabary.  They have no pictographic origin whatever. After the destruction of Ras Shamra the Ugarit alphabet declined in favor of the Phoenician.

A debate exists as to whether the Phoenician or Ugaritic alphabet was first. While many of the letters show little or no formal similarity, the standard letter order (preserved in the Latin alphabet as A, B, C, D, etc.) shows strong similarities between the two, suggesting that the Phoenician and Ugaritic systems were not wholly independent inventions. It was later the Phoenician alphabet that spread through the Aegean and on Phoenician trade routes throughout the Mediterranean. The Phoenician system became the basis for the first true alphabet, when it was adopted by Greek speakers who modified some of its signs to represent vowel sounds as well, and as such was in turn adopted and modified by populations in Italy, including ancestors of the Romans). Compared with the difficulty of writing Akkadian in cuneiform—such as the Amarna Letters, from ca. 1350 BCE— the flexibility of an alphabet opened a horizon of literacy to many more kinds of people. In contrast, the syllabary (called Linear B) used in Mycenaean Greek palace sites at about the same time was so cumbersome that literacy was limited largely to administrative specialists.

Ugaritic Literature – An Overview

Apart from royal correspondence to neighboring Bronze Age monarchs, Ugaritic literature from tablets found in the libraries include mythological texts written in a narrative poetry, letters, legal documents such as land transfers, a few international treaties, and a number of administrative lists. Fragments of several poetic works have been identified: the “Legend of Kirtu,” the “Legend of Danel“, the Ba’al Cycle (tales) that detail Ba’al-Hadad’s conflicts with Yam and Mot, and other fragments. The discovery of the Ugaritic archives has been of great significance to biblical scholarship, as these archives for the first time provided a detailed description of Canaanite religious beliefs during the period directly preceding the Israelite settlement. These texts show significant parallels to Biblical Hebrew literature, particularly in the areas of divine imagery and poetic form. Ugaritic poetry has many elements later found in Hebrew poetry: parallelisms, meters, and rhythms. The discoveries at Ugarit have led to a new appraisal of the Old Testament as literature.


A  Conclusion about Ugarit

Ugarit was a fusion of Canaanite, Levantine, Anatolian, Babylonian and Egyptian culture – During the second half of the 14th. century BCE, Ugarit, on Syria’s Mediterranean coast, experienced a period of great peace and prosperity. Ugarit’s merchants traded for Mesopotamian and Lebanese timber, Mycenaean pottery, Egyptian ivory, Cypriot copper and Anatolian tin. This was one of the Bronze Age’s most effervescent cities: Its citizens carved delicate ivory figurines, made elaborate inlaid furniture, adapted the Semitic alphabet for cuneiform characters and recorded numerous Canaanite myths, songs and stories. Ugarit’s golden age ended around 1300 BCE, when an earthquake struck the region and a tidal wave and fire engulfed the city. A century later, invading Sea Peoples from the Aegean disrupted the city’s commercial routes and forced much of its population to migrate to other sites. The Sea Peoples eventually conquered Ugarit and set the city ablaze.
Where those people disappear? Our opinion – only South to Canaan. They speak the language and knew the customs. Archeological evidences discovered from the North of modern Israel at Hatzor, Meggido, Afek to the South of modern Israel, Anathot, Beth-Dagon etc., are undoubted. A part of the people of Ugarit establish the intellectual and experienced forefathers category of the Israelite nation. The syncretism between those cultural-reach newcomers with the Habiru and Shasu  wanderers entering in Canaan, facilitate the nascence of the Israelites. The other part of the Ugaritians merged to other invaders – the Philistines.

The Claremont Marzeah Tablet


[1]  Peter T. Daniels and William Bright (Eds.) The World’s Writing  Systems. NY, NY. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press. 1996 , pp. 74. .
[2] Coulmas, Florian.Writing systems of the world. Oxford, England. 1989, p. 140.
[3]  Daniels and Bright (1996), The World’s Writing  Systems pp. 92-94.
[4] Colin McEvedy, The Penguin Atlas of Ancient History (1967) p. 36
[5]  [ANE] cuneiform alphabet and picto-proto-alphabet
[6]  Stanislav Segert., A Basic Grammar of the Ugaritic Language: With Selected Texts and Glossary ,University of California Prress 1985   – p. 19
[7]  based on Gibson, John C.L. (1977). Canaanite Myths and Legends. T. & T. Clark.


ANE Articles from Theophyle's English Blog - Ancient Near East

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