Saturday, May 24, 2008
On the Decipherment of Ugaritic
Above is the sign list for the Ugaritic language. (Scanned from: Craigie, Peter C. Ugarit and the Old Testament. (Mich., Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company): 1983, pg. 47) How did scholars manage to decipher this unknown language?
The first person to make an attempt was Virolleaud, a French linguist who was given the tablets dug up at Ras Shamra. His method was as follows. He first noted that words were divided by a small vertical wedge (not on the sign list). This enabled him to recognize that the words were short; most were only three or four letters long. Thus, the language was unlike Greek. He then compared the inscription on an axe head and on a tablet, and found that they started with the same sign. Virolleaud deduced this must be a preposition, probably "to". The preposition "to" in Hebrew, Aramaic and Arabic is a single letter "l". Thus, he ascribed the letter "l" to the sign above.
He then began to look for the word "king"; it was known at the time that Ugarit had a monarchy. The word in almost all of the Semitic languages is spelled "mlk". So, Virolleaud looked for a word with "l" in the middle and two signs on either side. He successfully found a series of signs that fit the bill, and thus identified two other Ugaritic signs. He also found a word with a sign that was the same as the "m" at the beginning (mlkm). The suffix -m in some Semitic languages indicates the plural, just like adding -s in English does.
Virolleaud also identified the name "Baal", one of the gods in Ugarit. Another scholar, Hans Bauer, made great strides in the decipherment. His method was primarily statistical; he knew the common prefixes in the Semitic languages and, after compiling the prefixes in Ugaritic, made probable guesses as to which ones were which.
The question of vowels arises. Ugaritic only designates three vowels; the rest are left unexpressed. This would provide no problem for a native speaker of the language. Take this famous English sentence, sans vowels:
n smll stp fr mn n gnt lp fr mnknd
If you read Neal Armstrong's famous words, you were right. We can get around vowels due to our being a native speaker; we can make judgements regarding the probable vowels because we know the words already. The same held true for native speakers of Ugaritic, and other ancient Near Eastern languages. Hebrew is probably the best example of this; vowels weren't designated at all in writing for quite a long time. In the case of Ugaritic we can only make tentative guesses on the basis of comparative work with other Semitic languages. Scholars will look at cognate words in which the vowels are known and then reconstruct them in Ugaritic from there. Obviously there is room for debate here; ultimately we will never really know.