Ancient writing systems in the Mediterranean

A critical guide to electronic resources


edited by: Paolo Merlo (translation revised by Melanie Rockenhaus)

  • Introduction
  • Ancient Writing Systems

The Ugaritic language is an ancient Semitic language. It is conventionally called Ugaritic as nearly all the evidence of this language has been discovered in the excavations of the ancient Syrian kingdom of Ugarit (Ras Shamra). The name of the city of Ugarit is attested in alphabetic texts as ˀugrt, and in the cuneiform texts most frequently as u-ga-ri-it. The epigraphic evidence of the Ugaritic language is clearly dated: ca.1300-1190 BC, which is the last historical period of the existence of the kingdom of Ugarit.

The exact position of Ugaritic among the Semitic languages is a matter of debate; the Ugaritic language is usually included in the group of the Northwest Semitic languages as the most ancient representative for which it is possible to reconstruct a grammar (cf. the section "linguistic relationship").

The Ugaritic language is written in a cuneiform alphabet that, in general, represents only the consonants and not the vowels (abjad). Only the consonant alif (the glottal stop) has three different signs when it is combined with different vowels (cf. Sign list). For this reason the vocalization of the forms – especially the verbal ones – often remains uncertain and is a matter of debate among experts.


Identification and decipherment

The relatively small number of signs (30) allowed researchers to assume immediately that this new writing system was an alphabetic one. A few months after the discoveries it was supposed that this new language was a Semitic one. As an identical sequence of signs was found in some bronze objects belonging to a particular lot of items, it was supposed that the first sign of the sequence was the preposition l, meaning ‘to’ and the following signs were interpreted as a personal name (the owner of the object). Later other prepositions and simply words were identified.


Phonological notes

The Ugaritic consonantal repertory consists in 27 different consonants. This rich consonantal repertory (larger than other known 1st-millennium Northwest Semitic languages) is generally considered evidence of antiquity, also because Ugaritic retains the graphic notation of some "Protosemitic" consonants that have merged into other graphemes in later Northwest Semitic languages. For example, in the noun "summer", the Protosemitic emphatic interdental *ṭ is rendered in Ugaritic with {qẓ}, whilst in Hebrew and old Aramaic it has merged into the sign {ṣ} in the word {q(y)ṣ}. Some other preserved phonemes of the Ugaritic language, later no longer separately preserved, are /θ/ and /ʃ/, - written in Ugaritic respectively with the signs {t}and {š}, or /‘/ and /ʁ/ - expressed by the signs {} and {ġ}. }. The distinction between these couples of similar consonants was lost in the Phoenician (and Hebrew) alphabet, merging respectively into the only two signs {š}, and {ˁ}.


Linguistic relationships

In modern linguistic classification theories for the Semitic languages, Ugaritic is placed among the Northwest Semitic languages, within the wider family of Central Semitic. Significant isoglosses shared among Ugaritic and the other Northwest Semitic languages (Phoenician, Hebrew, Aramaic, etc.) are, for example, the change of the first -w to y or the regressive assimilation of l to q in prefix forms of the verb l to q in prefix forms of the verb lqḥ. These features are opposed to Arabic. Within the Northwest Semitic languages, Ugaritic has more lexical similarities with the so-called "Canaanite" languages (Phoenician, Hebrew, etc.) than with Aramaic (cf. Kogan 2010).



Ugaritic was the local language of the kingdom of Ugarit at the end of the Late Bronze Age (end of 14th–beginning 12th cent. BC). The great majority of the texts in Ugaritic language have been discovered at Ugarit. Only a small number of texts in Ugaritic script were uncovered outside the city of Ugarit, in the western Mediterranean region (Tell Sukas, Kamid el-Loz, Sarepta, Taanach, Beth-Shemesh) and on Cyprus.

Ancient Writing Systems

  1. Ugaritic