Since I joined the CREWS Project last November, I’ve been teaching myself Ugaritic. Over the last few weeks I’ve had the chance to put that knowledge to work. It’s traditional among Cambridge’s classical linguists to spend the last term of the academic year learning a language outside the usual repertoire of Greek and Latin. This year it was my turn to lead the group in Ugaritic.
In terms of structure, Ugaritic works a lot like other West Semitic languages, such as Hebrew or Phoenician. The most obvious difference comes in the writing system. We’ve looked at this before – Ugaritic used a cuneiform alphabet, usually written left-to-right, instead of the right-to-left linear alphabetic systems of Phoenician and Hebrew. Ugaritic also represents something of a halfway house between those purely consonantal systems and a full alphabet that represents both consonants and vowels. All these writing systems have signs for the glottal stop – the sound that replaces ‘t’ in the Cockney pronunciation of ‘bottle’. At some point, though, Ugaritic gained two additional glottal stop signs, distinguishing between the three based on which vowel follows. This gives it a repertoire of three vocalic signs, but they can only be used in conjunction with glottal stops. Thus, ‘Ugarit’ is written:
Only the first vowel can be written because it is the only one preceded by a glottal stop.
Even with these vocalic signs, the lack of generally utilised vowels introduces a huge amount of ambiguity into Ugaritic and makes it very challenging to teach and learn, especially for classicists used to being able to learn paradigms and verb conjugations. In Ugaritic, very many of the different forms look identical. In spoken language, vowels would have distinguished between them, but in the written forms available to us, it can often be difficult to tell exactly what part of speech a word is – often even whether it’s a noun or a verb.
From my point of view, teaching Ugaritic was a very useful learning experience. It helped me pin down some aspects of the language in my mind and forced me to get my head around some of the ambiguities so that I had a hope of explaining them to others.
But I wasn’t just interested in the language in the abstract. For the final session, I wanted to give people a chance to try writing Ugaritic in clay for themselves. This is something I’ve done a fair bit of experimentation with over the last few months, as you’ll know if you’ve been following my posts here and on my own blog. Writing cuneiform can give you a much better appreciation of the writing system and the practicalities of being a scribe.
The first thing we learned is that the moistness of the clay makes a big difference. The first batch of clay we tried had slightly dried out and some people found it much easier than others to produce a smooth tablet and to impress neat wedges into it (we were using the square ends of chopsticks as styli).
Like trainee Ugaritian scribes (and like me, the first time I attempted this), most people started off by writing out the alphabet, making abecedaries. Several of these have been found at Ugarit, and they’re believed to be training exercises. A few of us attempted something slightly more complicated. This is my attempt at replicating an Ugaritic letter, KTU 2.13. This was written from an Ugaritian king to his mother, describing an audience with his overlord, the Hittite great king.
As you can see, I managed to replicate the tablet fairly well, albeit at a bigger scale. Ugaritian scribes must have used something smaller than chopsticks as styli! I did make one mistake, though. When inscribing the back of the tablet, I flipped it horizontally, on the long edge, like a modern book. In fact, I should have flipped it vertically. I’ll make sure I get it right next time! As well as writing on the front and back of their tablets, Ugaritian scribes also sometimes continued on to the sides if they ran out of room. I had to do a bit of this in replicating the letter, and as I neared the end, this made the tablet increasingly tricky to hold without smudging the existing writing.
I hope the others found these sessions as useful as I did. To end, here are some more photos of our clay play day:
~ Philip Boyes (CREWS Project Research Associate)