Ugarit was located on the Mediterranean coast in what is now modern Syria, almost directly east of the northernmost tip of Cyprus. The ancient site was an important port city that acted as an intermediary between the ancient Near East and the greater Mediterranean world, but despite this the first written records at Ugarit appear only in the middle of the 14th century BC, only about 150 years before the merchant centre was destroyed around 1190 BC. The tablets were found in several contexts, both in palatial and in private archives, giving a clear picture of the lives and activities of the kings and prominent merchant families of the city. The international correspondence also provides evidence for the activities of interregional politics, particularly with Egypt, Hattusha, Mittani and Assyria.

The Corpus

The excavations at Ras Shamra, the modern site of ancient Ugarit, have yielded over two thousand texts and fragments bearing the cuneiform script. One variety of cuneiform, so far attested in around 1100 published texts, is an indigenous, alphabetic writing system used almost exclusively to record the local Northwest Semitic language, Ugaritic. The other variety of cuneiform, found in approximately 960 published texts and fragments, is the syllabic-logographic script native to Mesopotamia and for the most part represents the Akkadian language, although other languages are also attested in this script at Ugarit: 70 lexical and literary texts in Sumerian; 30 literary texts and one letter in Hurrian; one text in Hittite; one text in Ugaritic. Of concern to us here are the syllabic texts written in Akkadian, of which we have the following genres of texts: economic, legal, letters, lexical, and literary.

The Writing System

The alphabetic cuneiform writing system invented at Ugarit is written from left to right, like the cuneiform script of Mesopotamia, and is comprised of thirty signs that are composed of three different types of wedges: horizontal 𒀸, vertical 𒁹, and angled 𒌋 (also called a Winkelhaken), and a word divider sign that is a smaller version of the vertical wedge 𒑰. The native Mesopotamian cuneiform writing system uses an additional two wedges in its repertoire: the downward diagonal wedge 𒀹 , and the upward diagonal wedge 𒀺.

The thirty Ugaritic cuneiform signs were, at some point, arranged into a fixed ‘alphabetic’ order:

͗a b g ḫ d h w z ḥ ṭ y k š l m ḏ n ẓ s ͑ p ṣ q r ṯ ǵ t ͗i ͗u ś

The last letter, ś, is rare and usually only occurs in loanwords (such as śśw from Indo-European ‘horse’) but can also interchange with s. It has been posited that ś represents s plus long or short /u/, in other words su or sū (Huehnergard 2002, 1). Another theory is that ś represents the evolution of the phoneme s, corresponding to Hebrew samekh, where the former expressed an affricate when the later had become, or was in the process of becoming, a fricative (Pardee 2007, 183; Tropper 1995, 505-528).

There are three signs that represent the glottal stop, or ‘aleph,’ and each is differentiated depending on the quality of the vowel that follows it; the vowel length, however, is irrelevant. Apart from the alephs, the Ugaritic writing system is devoid of vowels (except for a few cases in letters where y represents /ī/). It is possible that the variants of the glottal stop were introduced in order to write other languages, such as Akkadian or Hurrian, in which syllables can being with vowels, a phenomenon that does not occur in the ancient West Semitic languages (Pardee 2007, 183).

The facts that the last three signs ( ͗i, ͗u, and ś) appear to be variants of other signs already present in the Ugaritic alphabet ( ͗a and s) and that they were placed at the end of the alphabet suggests that there was already a fixed alphabetic order when these signs were added to the inventory (Pardee 2007, 183). Therefore, one can conclude that the Ugaritic alphabetic system was an adaptation of an older alphabetic system that consisted of twenty-seven consonantal signs. This older graphic system may have been borrowed relatively late by the Ugaritic scribes or it may have been used locally for some hundreds of years (Pardee 2007, 184).

There seems to be no pattern to the sign forms that were created or any correlation between them and their syllabic values. Therefore the Ugaritic abecedary has often been classed as an ad hoc invention (Windfuhr 1970, 51). Others have suggested that it could have been adapted from an earlier alphabetic script used in the region that has not yet been found in the archaeological record (Dietrich 1996, 36). In fact, because of the overwhelming graphical and phonetic similarities between the Ugaritic alphabetic cuneiform script and the later Phoenician linear alphabetic writing system (Stieglitz 1971, 135), it has been argued that there must have been an earlier Proto-Canaanite alphabetic writing system in use in this region that acted as a predecessor to both the Ugaritic and the Phoenician alphabets. This argument is based on the conclusion that twenty-one out of the twenty-two Phoenician signs are graphically similar or identical to the Ugaritic alphabetic signs. Therefore both the Sumero-Akkadian cuneiform writing system and the Proto-Canaanite script influenced the Ugaritic script. Mesopotamian cuneiform influenced Ugaritic’s method of formation, mechanical execution, medium of writing, and direction of writing. Proto-Canaanite, on the other hand, influenced the signs’ graphical forms and possibly the order of the letters (Stieglitz 1971). While this conclusion is not widely accepted, it is certainly intriguing and merits further investigation.

In conclusion, the cuneiform writing system at Ugarit can be seen as straddling the two prominent cultures of writing in the ancient Near East: alphabetic and syllabic-logographic cuneiform. Regardless of how or why Ugarit transitioned from an illiterate (or alphabetic) to cuneiform, it is significant that it occurred relatively late compared to the rest of the ancient Near East. The middle of the 14th century BC must have witnessed a shift in political power and pressure that coerced Ugarit to adopt the medium of clay and cuneiform for both international and local documentation.


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