It’s become a tradition for Cambridge classical linguists to get together in Easter term and attempt to read inscriptions in languages most of us know nothing about, so this term Philip Boyes has been leading sessions on the ancient Semitic language Ugaritic. Related to modern languages like Hebrew and Arabic, and other ancient Near Eastern languages like Phoenician, Ugaritic was spoken in an area of what’s now northern Syria. The written evidence comes from several archives of clay tablets in the city of Ugarit – these cover a wide range of genres, from administrative texts to letters to poetry. At first glance, Ugaritic looks pretty much exactly like a lot of other writing from the ancient Near East, since it’s a cuneiform script – made by pressing the end of a wedge-shaped stylus into the clay. Unlike most other cuneiform scripts, however, which are usually complicated mixtures of signs standing for syllables and for whole words, the Ugaritic script is quite straightforward – 30 signs each standing for a single sound.
This is very similar in structure, though not in appearance, to the Phoenician script which would later give rise to the Greek alphabet, and thus eventually to the Latin alphabet which is the basis for all modern European writing systems. Unlike the Greek and Latin alphabets, though, the Ugaritic and Phoenician scripts generally only represented consonants – the reader has to infer the vowels, which was presumably easy for a native Ugaritic speaker, but makes things quite difficult when you’re a linguist trying to figure out what a particular inscription means. As you might have noticed from the list of signs above, though, Ugaritic does have three signs representing vowels: the signs transcribed ‘a, ‘i, ‘u represent a glottal stop (the sound in the middle of “butter” in Cockney English) plus the relevant vowels. For this reason, Ugaritic is often referred to as the first alphabet, even though it doesn’t represent all vowels in the way that the Greek and Latin alphabets would later do.
As has also become traditional, we finished off the series of reading groups with a Clay Play Day, where we all tried to replicate actual Ugaritic tablets with some air-drying clay and some chopsticks (you can more or less get a cuneiform-shaped wedge by using the wrong end of the chopstick, if anyone wants to try it themselves!) The tablet at the top of this post is my attempt to copy an Ugaritic abecedarium, i.e. the alphabet written out in order, presumably as a practice exercise or a model for students to copy, and here’s another picture of Ugaritic writing in action: