Article by Alfredo Criscuolo, University of Catania

Language Family and Linguistic Characteristics

Thanks to the discovery of the city of Ugarit in 1928 (see Day 2002 for the story of the decipherment) and to excavations which have revealed some 2000 texts, we have come to understand the classical language of this civilisation (used for poetic and mythological texts), and, to a lesser extent, and in a less precise manner, the codified language of communication (used for the epistolary genre); here it is not correct to speak of a “spoken language”, as has been suggested by certain researchers.

Although the precise classification of this language may still be the object of discussion by certain Semiticists, we may position it in the Northwest Semitic branch, equally close to Aramaic and Canaanite. Over the course of research, specialists have identified several isoglosses between Ugaritic, Amorite, Aramaic, Arabic, and the Canaanite dialects. The large number of isoglosses in common with this last language has led experts to consider Ugaritic as a “North Canaanite” language (Tropper 1994). The evidence of several archaisms, which are characteristic of Ugaritic in relation to the Canaanite dialects, as well as other differences between them, lead us regard Ugaritic as representing an earlier linguistic stage than the Canaanite continuum, and not necessarily a direct antecedent. Although its position may not be known precisely, we may say with some confidence that Ugaritic attests one of the first stages of the North-West Semitic language group.

Writing System

Although a type of cuneiform, the Ugaritic script has nothing in common with the Mesopotamian tradition. In the same manner as Sumero-Akkadian, and under the influence of Akkadian scribes, texts were inscribed on clay tablets with a stylus, but the system of writing must be considered consonantal or “alphabetic”, rather than syllabic, due to the presence of three vowel signs in its graphemic inventory. Probably developed in approximately 1250 BCE, the Ugaritic script derived from the Proto-Sinaitic and Proto-Canaanite writing systems, adding to the 27 consonantal graphemes three vowel signs - {’a}, {’i} et {’u} - perhaps to better facilitate the writing of foreign languages used in administration, such as Hurrian and Akkadian (Pardee 2007; 2012). It is for this reason that, in the tradition of Ugaritic studies, the writing system has come to be known as “alphabetic cuneiform”.

Chronological and Geographical Extent

The town of Ugarit was destroyed in approximately 1185 BCE, and the written documentation extends for a period of fifty or sixty years before this date.
The town of Ugarit, the centre of a kingdom of the same name, is situated approximately 20km to the north of the modern town of Lattakia in Syria, on the coast of the Mediterranean sea. It has been calculated that the kingdom of Ugarit consisted of approximately 2,000 square kilometres.

Vectors of Cultural Influence

In the historical milieu of late Bronze-age Syria-Palestine, the state of Ugarit played an intermediary role among the cultures of the Near East. One of the most important commercial and military ports in the Mediterranean, the town of Ugarit is synonymous with cosmopolitanism: the documents of the archive, according to the current state of our understanding, attest eight different languages written in five distinct writing systems. The dominant language was Ugaritic, while Akkadian was the language of the politics of the period, and the vehicular language of the ancient Near East. It is perhaps interesting to note, in the context of research on the vocabulary of peace, that the first historical event documented in kingdom of Ugarit was the international treaty (in the Akkadian language) concluded by Niqmaddu II of Ugarit with Aziru of Amurru.

No less significant is the role of Ugaritic literature in the critical history of Biblical literature, most of all for the poetic texts, and the importance of its lexicon, which is very helpful for the comprehension of many biblical lexemes, which were still poorly understood before the discovery of Ugarit.

Text Corpus for the study of Peace

Today, we know nearly fifty poetic texts of a mythological character, and some 1,500 prose texts which relate to the religious domain (ritual and votive texts), omens (astrology and hepatoscopy), veterinary medicine, correspondence, administration, and teaching. The remaining texts, approximately 2,000 in number, are too fragmentary to be used.

Although no text will be ignored, our attention will be concentrated principally on mythological texts in which it is easiest to find subjects related to the domain of peace, such as friendship, hospitality, or, in the case of relevant content, the conflicts between gods. No less important for our research, is epistolography, the principal source of evidence of personal and international relationships.

Tools

For editions of texts are must rely on M. Dietrich, O. Loretz, J. and Sanmartín (2013); for the lexicon, Del Olmo Lete and J. Sanmartín (2003). For a general introduction to Ugaritic studies, see Watson and Wyatt (1999).

Foundational Texts

We will cite here only the most important among the mythological texts which have reached us:

  • The Baᶜal cycle (KTU 1.1-6). Although the exact sequence of tablets is not clear, and the texts are more or less mutilated, the sequence is generally coherent and the overall sense is comprehensible.
  • The legend of Keret (KTU 1.14-16). Despite lacunas, the sequence of tablets is clear, as well as the story.
  • The legend of Aqhat (KTU 1.17-19). Unfortunately we do not have the end of this text, but with the exception of several lacunas, this is the best preserved of the three. 

For a general impression of Ugaritic literature, see Caquot, Sznycer and Herdner (1974) and Caquot and Tarragon (1989).

Bibliographie

Caquot, A. and Sznycer, M. and Herdner, A. 1974. Textes ougaritiques. Mythes et légendes. Tome I, Les Éditions du Cerf. Paris.

Caquot, A. et de Tarragon, J-M. 1989. Textes ougaritiques. Textes religieux et rituels. Tome II, Les Éditions du Cerf. Paris.

Day, P. 2002. “Dies diem docet: The Decipherment of Ugaritic”. Studi Epigrafici e Linguistici 19, 37-57.

Del Olmo Lete, G. and Sanmartín, J. 2003. A Dictionary of the Ugaritic language in the alphabetic tradition Voll. I-II, (tr. de G. Del Olmo Lete et J. Sanmartín,

Diccionario de la lengua Ugarítica, Voll I-II. Editorial AUSA. Sabadell, Barcellona 1996-2000. edited by Wilfred G. E. Watson), Brill. Leiden.

Dietrich, M., Loretz, O. and Sanmartín, J. 2013. The Cuneiform Alphabetic Texts from Ugarit, Ras Ibn Hani and other places. Third, enlarged edition (AOAT 360/1). Ugarit-Verlag. Münster. 

Pardee, D. 2007. “The Ugaritic alphabetic cuneiform writing system in the context of other alphabetic systems” in: C. L. Miller (ed.). Studies in Semitic and Afroasiatic Linguistics presented to Gene B. Gragg (Studies in Ancient Oriental Civilization 60). Oriental Institute. Chicago. 181-200. 2012.

--- The Ugaritic texts and the origins of West Semitic literary composition. Oxford University Press. Oxford. 

Tropper, J. 1994. “Is Ugaritic a Canaanite language?” in: G. J. Brooke, A. H. W. Curtis and J. F. Healey (eds.). Ugarit and the Bible. Proceedings of the International Symposium on Ugarit and the Bible, Manchester, September 1992 (Ugaritisch-Biblische Literatur 11). Ugarit-Verlag. Münster. 343-53.

Watson, W. G. E. and Wyatt, N. (eds.) 1999. Handbook of Ugaritic studies, Brill. Leiden, 1999.

To cite this article

Alfredo Criscuolo, "Ugaritic", Les mots de la paix/Terminology of peace [on-line]. Translated by Korshi Dosoo. Uploaded 4/04/2016, accessed