April 17, 2006

A World With Few Vowels

Aydin Örstan is a very smart guy. He can catch a carpenter bee in mid flight. He can make snails and slugs seem to be the most interesting things on the face of this earth. He speaks Turkish and English and I'm not sure what else but he needs a small lesson in Ugaritic and if Aydin needs one, I'm guessing a few of my other regular readers need one too. Commenting on a recent post Aydin said,

I went to school with a Bn Ymlk!

I am assuming these names are missing the vowels. Otherwise, how would you even pronounce something like that?

I gave half a response in my reply to his comment. But perhaps a little more should be said about how Ugaritic is written. With one exception, it is written without vowels just like ancient and most modern Hebrew and Arabic. Representations of vowels in Hebrew and Arabic writing are relatively recent inventions. Here is a picture of a tablet with the canonical Ugaritic alphabet written on it. I've used it a couple of other times.

Alphabet Tablet KTU 5.6

It is in the more common of the two alphabetical orders known at Ugarit. It reads,

KTU 5.6 Transliteration

Like most Uragitic texts, this tablet reads from left to right. The š and the l on the first line cannot be seen in the picture because they are on the right-hand edge of the tablet. It's also hard to see the t at the end of the second line. The student scribe who wrote this tablet made the r, the last clearly visible sign in the second line, somewhat elongated.

"Look! Look!," you say, "I see three vowels, one at the beginning and two near the end of the text." Well, no you don't. You see three alephs each with a different vowel associated with it. We don't write this consonant in English except in some strange words. Say "coop." Now say "co-op." Notice what happened in the back of your throat before the second "o" on co-op. That closing of the glottis is a written consonant in Ugaritic, Hebrew, Arabic and all other Semitic languages that are normally written with an alphabet. And while Hebrew, etc, have only one aleph, standard Ugaritic had three. The short cuneiform alphabet that I am studying seems to have used only the first aleph regardless of the vowel that follows it.

By the way, I would prefer to use an 'i rather than an 'e for the "aleph plus i-vowel" but it's in the free font set that I use to transliterate the alphabet and I am too cheap to purchase one that is better. Because the commonly used Unicode fonts do not include the Ugaritic alphabet I have needed to make further compromises when I represent the alphabet as web readable text rather than an image (like the one above) or in a PDF file.

As far as I know, only one Ugaritic dictionary or glossary lists Ugaritic words in the order on this tablet. And even in that one case all the words that begin with aleph, regardless of the following vowel, are put together at the beginning of the glossary. Most dictionaries and glossaries use a modified version of that commonly used in Hebrew dictionaries and place the letters not found in Hebrew (or at least not written as separate letters in Hebrew) where someone who was familiar with a Hebrew dictionary and knew a little Arabic would likely expect them.

If you want to see the cuneiform letters lined up with their transliterations, you can find it at Omniglot.

So how can we tell how Ugaritic was pronounced when only the aleph was written with a vowel? Well, four things come into play if you want to pronounce an Ugaritic word and have any hope that it sounds even close to what was spoken in Ugarit in the Late Bronze age. What follows is only an outline of a rather complex process with lots of room for scholarly disagreement about the outcome.

First, by carefully observing words that have an aleph one can begin to see patterns in the use of the vowels. This is particularly helpful in verbs but can be useful, when combined with other evidence, in nouns also. The case endings of nouns are good examples of how this works. A singular noun ending in an aleph will display its case ending by indicating the final vowel.

Second, several Ugaritic words are represented in the Akkadian syllabary. There is a four language dictionary from Ugarit that used the Akkadain syllabary to represent words that also appear in alphabetic texts. In addition, at least one Ugaritic tablet (KTU 10.1) was written totally in the Akkadian syllabary as opposed to the Akkadian language. In addition to Ugaritic words written in the Akkadian syllabary there are related words that appear in Hittite texts, other Akkadian texts and even Egyptian that help us understand how words in the language sub-family to which Ugaritic belongs were pronounced.

Third, once in a great while a scribe used the y and even the aleph to tell us something about an associated vowel. This is quite rare but always helpful. Scholars refer to such usages as mater lectainis. Some scholars have thought that the w and the h were also used as mater lectainis but there are no unambiguous examples.

Fourth, comparative Semitics, the discipline that studies the Semitic languages as a group, has over many decades, even centuries, identified grammatical principles that help in the reconstructing of how Semitic languages, including Ugaritic were pronounced. Using these principles scholars can make learned judgments on how Ugaritic was pronounced based how what is know about Hebrew, Akkadian, Aramaic and other Semitic languages.

Finally, there are some words that we have no idea how to pronounce. Many personal names and place names that are not known in Akkadian texts fall into this category.

Not all texts written in alphabetic cuneiform use this exact alphabet. Texts using what I call "the short cuneiform alphabet" are written using very similar letters, just fewer of them. In addition, there are variations on all of the letters. Some scribes preferred to make the letters slightly different from some other scribe and once in a while, scribes made mistakes. The most common mistake is adding or omitting a wedge in a letter. For example, the l normally has three vertical wedges but every so often a scribe will make it with four.

I hope this helps.

Posted by DuaneSmith at April 17, 2006 07:30 PM | Read more on Ugarit |

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Thanks for the lesson. If I am remembering it correctly Egyptian hieroglyphics also omit the vowels.

Posted by: Aydin at April 18, 2006 07:37 AM

You are correct about Egyptian Hieroglyphics. However, Coptic, a late version of Egyptian, uses a modified Greek alphabet that represents the vowels and some Egyptian words are reproduced in Greek by classical authors. In addition, some scholars think that the various options, what we might call spelling options, for representing consonant clusters in Hieroglyphics also reflect the use of vowels.

Posted by: Duane at April 18, 2006 08:22 AM

Here are further thoughts with a working link this time.

Posted by: Aydin at April 18, 2006 07:09 PM

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