The Ugaritic language belongs to the West Semitic language group and is probably a late manifestation of one of the Amorite dialects; its phonetic inventory is closest to that of the Old Arabic and Arabian languages. It is the only West Semitic language written in a cuneiform script, alphabetic in character rather than syllabic and apparently invented in the first half of the second millennium BCE, in imitation of alphabetic linear scripts. The language has only been known since 1929, when the first texts were discovered at the site of Ras-Shamra on the north Syrian coast. The script was essentially deciphered within a year by scholars working independently, although subsequent refinements were necessary and minor corrections continue to be made. Texts in the Ugaritic language are presently attested only in the area of Ugarit, but brief and/or fragmentary texts using the Ugaritic writing system are attested from Kamid el-Loz in Phoenicia to Beth-Shemesh in Canaan (Dietrich and Loretz 1988: 205–296).

A vigorous debate was originally waged over the proper assignment of the language within the Semitic language group, with no real consensus ever reached. The historical and linguistic links with the peoples grouped under the general heading “Amorites” makes the description given above plausible, although much more Amorite data is required to demonstrate the link. Paucity of data also impedes the description of relationships with the later West Semitic languages. At this stage it is only possible to say that linguistically the best parallels are with the Arabic and Arabian families of languages, while literally the closest ties are with Hebrew.

The basic writing system, like all the later Northwest Semitic alphabetic systems, is consonantal, with no provision for noting vowels. The reconstruction of the vocalic aspect of the language must rely, therefore, on four types of data: (1) the existence of three 'aleph signs, a distinctive feature of the Ugaritic alphabet (see below); (2) Ugaritic words in polyglot vocabularies (“dictionaries” written in syllabic script with columns for Sumerian, Akkadian, Hurrian, and Ugaritic); (3) Ugaritic words appearing in Akkadian texts, either alone or as glosses to an Akkadian word; and (4) comparative Semitics.

The language is characterized by a conservative phonology and morphology. The basic alphabet consists of twenty-seven signs (as compared with twenty-two in Phoenician/Hebrew), at the end of which three signs have been added: one sibilant ({sÀ} = no. 30) and two supplementary 'aleph signs ({ả} = no. 1, {ỉ} = no. 28, and {ủ} = no. 29). Although the two 'aleph signs were apparently added in order to give three signs that could be used in the writing of languages that permitted vowel-initial syllables (e.g., Hurrian and Akkadian), the three signs are used in Ugaritic texts in a quasi-syllabic fashion to represent consonant + vowel: {ả} = /'a/ or /'ā/; {ỉ} = /'i/, /'ī/, or /'ê/; {ủ} = /'u/, /'ū/, or /'ô/). The Ugaritic alphabet has signs for all of the consonantal phonemes known from Arabic, with the exception of /ḍ/, which has shifted to /ṣ/; usage of certain signs, in particular {ḏ} and {ẓ}, however, shows that there is not a perfect match between graphs and phonemes.

Nominal morphology is characterized by a full case system, the productive use of three grammatical numbers (singular, dual, and plural), the retention of the feminine singular ending -t, and the absence of a definite article. The most striking features of morphosyntax are the retention of the case vowel in the construct state (e.g., ksủ ṯbth = /kussa'u ṯibtihu, “the throne of his dwelling”) and the inconsistent use of “chiastic concord” with the numbers 3 through 10 (i.e., a masculine noun is modified by what appears to be a feminine form of the number and vice versa).

Ugaritic

UGARITIC. Tablet showing the Ugaritic alphabet. (Courtesy ASOR Archives)

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The verb system is similar to the other West Semitic systems. Striking characteristics are the use of a Š-causative stem, of which only remnants are found in the later West Semitic languages; infixed- or prefixed-t variants, with middle/passive functions, of each of the major transitive stems; the probable existence of an internal passive voice for each of the transitive stems; and a complete set of mood distinctions marked by suffixation in the imperfective system (-ø = jussive, -u = indicative, -a = volitive, and -an(na) = “energic”). The poetic texts preserve the archaic use of a ø-ending yqtl preterite.

Because the language is still relatively poorly attested, it is difficult to describe the lexicon in comparative Semitic terms and give proper weight to word classes. Three primary facts are clear: (1) the most basic terms are common Semitic (family terms, geographic terms, and names, etc.); (2) there are many lexical isoglosses with Arabic (though the number would certainly be reduced if there were more Hebrew and Phoenician texts); and (3) the primary verbs of movement (e.g., “walk,” “ascend,” “descend”) are closer to the Phoenician/Hebrew camp than to Aramaic or Arabic—although, as would be expected, Ugaritic has its own peculiarities (e.g., tb῾ as the primary verb for “to depart”).

For purposes of grammatical and literary analysis, the Ugaritic corpus must be divided into two classes, poetry and prose. Poetry is characterized by an archaic form of the language, particularly in verbal morphosyntax, and is attested only for religious texts. Most of these are major mythological texts dealing with divine society and politics and with relationships between humans and gods. In addition, there are several minor mythological texts, sometimes with a practical application; incantations; a prayer embedded in a prose text; and a funerary ritual—all in poetic form. Prose is used for letters; administrative texts of all types, including contracts; and for religious texts reflecting ritual practice.

[See also Ugarit; Ugaritic Inscriptions.]

Bibliography

  • Arnaud, D., et al. “Ras Shamra.” In Dictionnaire de la Bible, Supplément, vol. 9, cols. 1124–1466. Paris, 1979.
    Though becoming outdated, still the most complete overview of things Ugaritic, from archaeology to history to literature, compiled by multiple authors
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  • Bordreuil, Pierre, and Dennis Pardee. La trouvaille épigraphique de l'Ougarit, vol. 1, Concordance. Ras Shamra–Ougarit, 5. Paris, 1989. Nearly complete listing of all inscriptions found at Ugarit from 1929 to 1988 and at Ras Ibn Hani from 1977 to 1987,
    and of inscriptions thought to have come from Ugarit or that are in Ugaritic script. The body is arranged in order of field number and indicates find spot, physical description, and editio princeps. There are indices of museum numbers, of first and primary editions, of major text collections, and of find spots. The work's comprehensiveness makes it the simplest means of gaining access to a Ugaritic text and its primary publications; secondary bibliography, however, is not indicated
    .
  • Caquot, André, et al. Textes ougaritiques, vol. 1, Mythes et légendes: Introduction, traduction, commentaire. Littératures Anciennes du Proche-Orient, 7. Paris, 1974.
    Generally reliable translation of major myths and legends, with introductions and brief commentary in the form of footnotes
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  • Caquot, André, et al. Textes ougaritiques, vol. 2, Textes religieux, rituels, correspondance: Introduction, traduction, commentaire. Littératures Anciennes du Proche-Orient, 14. Paris, 1989.
    Translations of the prose ritual texts, letters, and minor texts with mythological motifs. Same format as the preceding entry
    .
  • Cunchillos, Jesús-Luis, and Juan-Pablo Vita. Banco de datos filológicos semíticos noroccidentales, part 1, Datos ugaríticos I: Textos ugaríticos. Madrid, 1993.
    The most complete collection of Ugaritic texts to date, in transcription, with citations of published collations where such exist
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  • Dietrich, Manfried, and Oswald Loretz. Die Keilalphabete: Die phönizisch-kanaanäischen und altarabischen Alphabete in Ugarit. Abhan-dlungen zur Literatur Alt-Syrien-Palästinas, vol. 1. Münster, 1988.
    The most complete study of abecedaries, of texts written in Ugaritic scripts containing fewer signs than the standard alphabet, and of texts in Ugaritic script from other sites. The conclusions drawn from connections with the South Arabian alphabet are dubious
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  • Gordon, Cyrus H. Ugaritic Textbook: Grammar, Texts in Transliteration, Cuneiform Selections, Glossary, Indices. Analecta Orientalia, 38. Rome, 1965.
    Although now outdated, this is the classic work on Ugaritic; the grammar and lexicon are still useful. The 1967 reprint includes a consecutively paginated eight-page supplement
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  • Herdner, Andrée. Corpus des tablettes en cunéiformes alphabétiques découverts à Ras Shamra–Ugarit de 1929 à 1939. Mission de Ras Shamra, vol. 10. Paris, 1963.
    Definitive edition, with photographs, hand copies, transliterations, and bibliographies, of the texts discovered during the pre-World War II campaigns at Ras-Shamra
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  • Segert, Stanislav. A Basic Grammar of the Ugaritic Language with Selected Texts and Glossary. Berkeley, 1984.
    Not so complete a tool as Gordon (1965), but the grammatical analysis is more up to date
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  • Tropper, Josef. “Auf dem Weg zu einer ugaritischen Grammatik.” In Mesopotamia-Ugaritica-Biblica: Festschrift für Kurt Bergerhof zur Vollendung seines 70. Lebensjahres am 7. Mai 1992, edited by Manfried Dietrich and Oswald Loretz, pp. 471–480. Alter Orient und Altes Testament, vol. 232. Kevelaer and Neukirchen-Vluyn, 1993.
    Overview, with personal views expressed, of important recent research on Ugaritic grammar
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  • Whitaker, Richard E. A Concordance of the Ugaritic Literature. Cambridge, Mass., 1972.
    Complete listing of all words attested in Ugaritic texts published though 1969
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Dennis Pardee