Reading Ugaritic – By Ola Wikander

Ola Wikander on John Huehnergard’s An Introduction to Ugaritic

John Huehnergard, An Introduction to Ugaritic, Hendrickson, 2012, 250pp., $69.95

The Ugaritic language, spoken and written on the coast of Syria during the Late Bronze Age, provides modern scholarship with one of the best available windows into the world of ancient Northwest Semitic culture outside of the Hebrew Bible. Since the religious and literary texts preserved in Ugaritic deal, among other things, with the god Baal and his heroic exploits, they provide insight into the mythological ideas of Northwest Semitic cultural spheres other than the Israelite one(s). They have also proven some of the most important comparative evidence for analyzing the literary and linguistic structures of the Old Testament.

The modern study of the Ugaritic language began after the rediscovery of the ancient city state of Ugarit in 1928 and has been highly important for comparative Semitic philology. Ugaritic was written on clay tablets in an innovative combination of alphabetic writing and cuneiform that was perfectly suited for the language. However, the writing generally does not mark vowels, which creates many problems for modern students of the language. For example, the script does not in any way mark differences between verbal forms such as ragamtu (“I spoke”) and ragamta (“you spoke”), as both are spelled with the letters representing rgmt. The nature of the different vowels has been reconstructed though other means, such as comparative Semitic philology and contemporary transcriptions into other languages (mainly Akkadian).

For a prospective student of Ugaritic, things are not what they once were. They are better. When I started my Ugaritological studies during the late 1990s, the available beginner’s literature was sparse. I began, as have many, with Cyrus Gordon’s classic Ugaritic Textbook, which was not so much a textbook as a combination of grammar, glossary, and chrestomathy. I also used Stanislav Segert’s A Basic Grammar of the Ugaritic Language, which had generally the same format but was more up to date. Both of these books are very good, but not current. And neither of them is really a beginner’s handbook.

During the last few years, the situation has changed considerably. Josef Tropper and William Schniedewind and Joel Hunt have published textbooks of the language, and now John Huehnergard adds to the suddenly growing flora of introductions to Ugaritic with his An Introduction to Ugaritic. Although he notes in the preface that the sudden appearance of textbooks might make his work superfluous, this is certainly not the case. His work stands out because it was not intended as a book but began its life as a series of lessons used in his teaching for more than two decades, showing that his method has proven successful. Whereas the Schniedewind/Hunt book includes passages on Ugaritic culture, history, and archaeology, Huhnergard focuses on the linguistic and philological study of Ugaritic texts to teach only the necessary basics of the language in a brief period of time.

As usual in his works on Semitic grammar, Huehnergard’s explanations of grammatical points are clear and concise. He works through the material not in a “bit by bit” order based on lessons — introducing some verbal morphology, some nominal morphology, etc., in smaller chunks — but rather as blocks of grammatical knowledge. The verbs, by far the most complicated part of the morphology of Semitic languages, are all presented in one big section. This mode of presenting the material will no doubt suit some students better than others. But it does provide a clear picture of the material.

The book’s genesis as a collection of course materials rather than as a published work has had some impact on its contents. Parts are rather hasty in their presentation. This is certainly not due to lack of knowledge; Huehnergard has probably been used to explaining certain things orally in class rather than writing them down. For example, the chapter on phonology makes only scant reference to the possible pronunciations of the Ugaritic consonant signs and to the rationales underlying these reconstructions. Huehnergard gives only a working school pronunciation — that is, he teaches a pronunciation only for ease of use in a modern classroom or academic setting, without going into the intricacies of how the various consonants may have been pronounced in antiquity.

The section on phonology is generally short, and the inquisitive student may have to consult other literature for specifics. It is clear that Huehnergard presupposes a sound knowledge of biblical Hebrew on the part of the reader, and he apparently sees no reason to discuss issues like how the so-called emphatic letters were pronounced: Were they glottalized (as in South Arabian and Ethiopic) or velarized/pharyngealized (as in Arabic)? This is a major issue, which is not mentioned at all. The author merely suggests that the emphatic version of t be pronounced as an ordinary “t.” This is the way many Ugaritologists pronounce the phoneme today. But the ancient value of the sound was certainly not identical to an ordinary “t,” so it would have been nice to see an elaboration of the discussion in the interest of creating as good an understanding as possible of an ancient phonological system.

On a similar note, no explanation is given for letters such as ‘ayin, the “bleating” pharyngeal fricative sound common to many Semitic languages. Because Huehnergard assumes knowledge of Hebrew, he can assume readers will know (at least in theory) how to pronounce this and other difficult letters. However, given how many teachers of classical Hebrew today tacitly ignore or at least do not make a point of teaching the historical pronunciation of the ‘ayin (which is often treated as a silent letter in modern contexts), it would have been useful to include a discussion.

Another feature of the way the book treats Ugaritic historical phonology that sets it apart from other introductions consists in the assumption of a Proto-Semitic phoneme written as an underdotted /x/, the existence of which was suggested by Huehnergard himself in a 2003 article as a way of explaining certain unusual sound correspondences between West Semitic and Akkadian. Although I personally find his suggestion intriguing, it does not quite represent communis opinio yet. Still, I think it a good thing to introduce the student to this type of question at a rather early stage, as so much of our knowledge of how Ugaritic works as a language is in fact based on comparative Semitics.

The book contains a somewhat unusual but highly commendable feature: exercises that involve translating into Ugaritic. Learning to write in an ancient language that is no longer spoken may seem a superfluous and strange pastime, but it is in fact a good way of internalizing the linguistic structures. One certainly has to be impressed by the author’s effort in constructing good practice sentences. They provide a nice counterpart to similar exercises in Huehnergard’s classic A Grammar of Akkadian. A special section of the book contains practice exercises with useful vocabulary and references to the grammar part of the book, and this in a way provides some of the “bit by bit” approach eschewed in the main part of the book.

Another positive — and visually impressive — feature of the book is the collection of color photographs of Ugaritic tablets and scenes from Ugarit included at the end of the work. These are of high quality and provide a good and direct illustration of the physical form of the texts available to us. In a classroom setting, this type of concrete (though second-hand) access to the physical reality of the writing material is a real boon, as the student is then confronted with the problems, like physical damage to tablets, which are ubiquitous in Ugaritic studies. I believe that pictorial material also helps create closeness to the textual milieu studied and thus assists in keeping up student enthusiasm. On a similar note, John L. Ellison provides a useful appendix on Ugaritic palaeography, and the book contains a large bibliography, glossary, grammatical paradigms, and an index of texts quoted. The appendix again helps the student gain insight into the physical characteristics of Ugaritic writing as well as the risks of letters being mistaken for one another.

Baal Epic
Baal Epic, UnknownRama via Wikimedia Commons

The book also contains, as expected, a number of original texts for the student to try his or her hand at. A number of letters and administrative documents are included, and then the book finally moves on to what is probably the reason most students of Ugaritic take up the language in the first place: the narrative and religious texts, which constitute such a rich and fulfilling legacy both from a literary and religio-historical perspective. This section is smaller than the corresponding one in the Hunt/Schniedewind volume: two text passages are included (one from the Epic of Kirta — the story of a king whose dynasty has died out and of his quest to restore it — and one from the Baal Cycle, which is the largest of the Ugaritic texts, detailing the battles of the god Baal with his enemies, the gods of Sea and Death and the building of his divine palace), though one might have wished for more. Huhnergard’s presentation of these texts is useful and commendable because he has provided tentative vocalizations (reconstructed vowels), which allow readers to look at them as more than purely theoretical constructs. I, for one, believe it to be a highly useful exercise to try to read the texts aloud, feeling their (probable) rhythm and cadences, even for a language as ancient and scantily recorded as Ugaritic. It is time-consuming to provide well-reasoned reconstructions of Ugaritic vowels, but the student’s experience is richer for Huehnergard’s investment in this and on vocalization in general.

Huehnergard’s new Introduction constitutes a very good starting point for the aspiring student of Ugaritic. The available selection of Ugaritic textbooks has grown larger in recent years, and the varying approaches create a pedagogical diversity which I find highly stimulating. Huehnergard has produced a highly readable, thorough, and inspiring effort that will hopefully help spread the light of Ugaritology far and wide.

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