Introduction

The Alphabet

The Ugaritic language is most commonly written in a cuneiform alphabetic script. The Ugaritic alphabet has 30 letters, transliterated as follows:

a͗ b g ḫ d h w z ḥ ṭ y k š l m ḏ n ẓ s ʿ p ṣ q r ṯ ġ t ı͗ u͗ s̀

The letters are written in cuneiform, a wedge-based writing system. There is some slight variation in the forms of the letters, but otherwise the forms of the letters are fairly standardized. The variation comes mostly in the addition of repetitive wedges in letters where the repetition does not change the identification of the letter. For example, one sometimes finds the letter n with four or more consecutive wedges. The letter chart below shows a somewhat idealized form of each letter. When one views the tablets, one discovers immediately that the spacing of wedges varies greatly. Sometimes the wedges overlap more than other times. Sometimes the stance of the wedges varies slightly. This sort of variation should not be surprising. This is a form of handwriting after all! Interestingly, the letter ṯ is usually formed with two inverted overlapping isosceles triangles; however, sometimes the scribe impressed the stylus to create the first wedge, then by twisting it in the clay created a sort of tri-lobed sign.

The order of the letters is determined from ancient scribal exercises called abecedaries. The order presented below, from left to right, is one common order. However, there is evidence for an alternative order of letters (RS 88.2215). In addition to 30 letters, Ugaritic also employs a small wedge to separate words (see the paragraph below).

The idea of an alphabet, otherwise known as the alphabetic principle, was not invented at Ugarit. In some fashion, an alphabet was in use since c. 1800 BCE in the Sinai Peninsula. This so-called Proto-Sinaitic writing system was likely an alphabetic adaptation of the Egyptian hieroglyphic writing system. This early alphabet seems to have been used to record a Semitic dialect, possibly an early Canaanite dialect. It seems very likely that the cuneiform alphabet from Ugarit was an adaptation of a linear alphabet known to the scribes at Ugarit.

Notes on Writing

In most cases, cuneiform was written by impressing a stylus into clay, making the formation of triangular wedges quick and easy. When the medium was stone or some other hard material, the Ugaritian craftsman drew the outline of the letter without indicating much overlap of wedges. The shapes in the chart above represent one form of each letter when impressed in clay, preserving the natural overlap of wedges. For example:

{ṯ} is formed with two wedges impressed directly on top of one another.

{ġ} is formed with three wedges, one horizontal on top of two angled wedges.

{ı͗} is similar to {h} with the addition of a small horizontal wedge near the bottom left.

Pronunciation

ʾ – Like a slightly furtive version of whatever vowel follows.

ḫ – Pronounced at the back of the throat, roughly like German ich.

ḥ – Somewhat lighter or airier version of ḫ, possibly mixed with the sound of k.

ṭ – Slightly more emphatic than simple t.

š – Like sh in ‘show.’

ḏ – Similar to th in English ‘the’, but not like the th in ‘thanks.’

ẓ – Similar to ḏ, but emphatic.

ʿ – Pronounced at the back of the throat, like an emphatic version of the following vowel.

ṣ – Like the combination ts.

ṯ – Like th in ‘thaw’ or ‘thanks.’

ġ – Like ʿ but articulated even further back in the throat, almost a growling sound, possibly similar also to ḫ.

s̀ – For simplicity’s sake, pronounced like s, but possibly heard as z.

In addition to comparison to other Semitic languages, there is also a tablet from Ugarit (RS 19.159) that gives the equivalences between the Ugaritic alphabetic letters and Akkadian syllabic signs. Some of the more surprising equivalences are ḥ and ku; ġ and ḫa; and s̀ and zu.

The Word Divider

Ugaritic uses a small vertical wedge to divide words, but it occurs inconsistently and unpredictably. The word divider is transliterated with a period or small dot {.}. It is conventional to include the word divider in a transliteration but not in a vocalization: e.g. bnš . b . bt, /bunušu bi bêti/, ‘the man is in the house.’

Vowels

Ugaritic is a consonantal language in its written form. No vowels were written in alphabetic cuneiform. Ugaritic probably preserves six original vowels: /a/, /i/, /u/, /ā/, /ī/, /ū/. Two common diphthongs are /ê/ < ay and /ô/ < aw.  In rare cases, other vowels will be encountered, most notably as the result of a simplified triphthong.

The Root

Ugaritic words can be described according to their root, an abstract sequence of consonants and vowels. Nouns are usually characterized by two or three root consonants, one or two vowels, and sometimes various affixes. Verbs can be formed with the same root consonants as nouns, but show their own characteristic consonantal and vocalic patterns. For example the consonantal root DBḤ refers to sacrificing. The noun dabḥu, ‘a sacrifice’, places these consonants in a nominal pattern with one short internal vowel DaBḤu. (The final vowel is a case and number marker, not part of the nominal root. See Lesson 1.) The noun madbaḥu places these consonants in a different nominal root pattern, one that typically refers to the place where the action takes place. In this case, a madbaḥu is an altar, i.e. the place where sacrificing takes place. The root consonants DBḤ are attested in verbal forms also. One infinitive is formed according to the pattern DaBāḤu, ‘to sacrifice.’ A third-person masculine singular finite form of the verb dabaḥa means ‘he sacrificed.’ Not all consonantal roots are as productive as DBḤ.

In many cases, nouns and verbs of the same pattern fall into semantic or grammatical categories. So, it is valuable to be able to identify the abstract pattern of any given word. To generalize consonantal and vocalic patterns that are attested in various words, QTL represents a triconsonantal pattern wherein the letters QTL can represent any three strong root consonants. A generalized root pattern is supplemented with consonantal affixes and vowel patterns characteristic of the noun or verb in question, e.g. QaTāL- represents the pattern of the infinitive dabāḥu. The example madbaḥu would be represented as maQTaL-.

Not all Ugaritic roots preserve three strong root consonants. In many cases, one or two of the root consonants is weak, by which is meant they are prone to assimilate to adjacent consonants or to disappear for other reasons. These weak roots are described according to where in the root sequence the weak consonant falls. For example, a verbal root with a weak consonant as its first consonant is described as I-weak. One can specify further which type of weak consonant occurs in the first position. For example, I-y refers to verbal roots with {y} in the first position. II-w/y verbs are typically cited according to their two strong roots. Some of the more common weak roots are:

I-ʾ                   ʾḪD, ‘to grasp, take’; ʾRŠ, ‘to ask’,

I-h                   HLM, ‘to hit, strike’; HLK, ‘to walk, march’

I-y                   YDʿ, ‘to know’; YṢʾ, ‘to go out’; YTN, ‘to give’; and YṮB, ‘to sit’

I-l/n                NPL, ‘to fall’; LQḤ, ‘to take’; NSK, ‘to pour’

III-w/y             BNY, ‘to build’; MĠY, ‘to approach’; ŠTY, ‘to drink’

Double weak   ʾTW, ‘to come’, NŠʾ, ‘to lift, raise’

Some roots may be best describe as biconsonantal, i.e. having only two root consonants. Roots such as those listed below attested only two root consonants in Ugaritic. In related languages like Hebrew and Aramaic these biconsonantal roots appear as II-w/y.

Bicons.            Bʾ, ‘to enter’, ŠT, ‘to put’; QM, ‘to arise’; MT, ‘to die, be dead’; BN, ‘to understand’

A Note on Transliteration in the Exercises

It is conventional to place transliterated text within {curly braces} when emphasis is being placed on what is written. Vocalized text is typically placed within /forward slashes/. It is not necessary to do either when writing out answers to the exercises.

Exercises

A. Write the alphabet in order, first in transliteration, then in cuneiform. Memorize the order of the Ugaritic alphabet.

B. Transliterate RS 15.032, recto (pictured below; check your work)

Continue to Lesson One