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Cuneiform alphabets from Syria and Palestine.

This review article continues the stimulating discussions that the reviewer held with the authors at the hospitable Ugarit-Forschung, an institute devoted to Ugaritic studies, during his stays in Munster in 1983(1) and 1987.

1. The Book

1.1. An introductory chapter is devoted to the general problems of "alphabetology," especially to the invention and spread of alphabetic writing systems. Aspects of research on the alphabet and its cultural importance are traced from Plato, through J.-J. Rousseau, J. G. Herder and O. Spengler, to J. Derrida. The role of the cuneiform alphabets in the history of writing is rightly assessed as important.

1.2.1. The second chapter, dealing with the cuneiform alphabet of Ugarit, is devoted mostly to evaluation of previous research. The relative age and priority of cuneiform and linear Phoenician alphabets have been discussed since the decipherment of Ugaritic writing, especially after the alphabet tablets became known. The origin of the Ugaritic cuneiform alphabet was explained by derivation from the syllabic cuneiform script, by free formation of signs from basic elements, by imitation of Egyptian hieratic script, and by analogy to Phoenician linear script. Various attempts to clarify the relationship between various alphabets - Ugaritic cuneiform, Canaanite/Phoenician linear, and South Semitic - are presented, with due attention to the last one, to which studies have been devoted by W. Rollig. A. G. Lundin and J. Ryckmans. The authors do not deem any of these opinions and theses fully convincing.

1.2.2. The relevant materials relating to the long alphabet of Ugarit are conveniently presented in two tables. The forms of letters written with wedges and their linear reconstructions are shown together with letters from representative western and southern linear alphabets, and the sequence of the Ugaritic alphabet is compared with that of the Phoenician/Canaanite alphabet. Detailed comparison of all 30 letters of the Ugaritic alphabet with the linear letters leads to the conclusion that 12 letters are related only to those of the western alphabets, 7 letters only to those of the southern alphabets, while for 8 letters corresponding forms can be found in both of these linear alphabets.

1.2.3. The short cuneiform alphabet is dealt with in a more detailed manner (pp. 145-275). All texts found in Ugarit and its harbor and elsewhere are presented in autograph and transliteration, with detailed information about their discovery, graphics, and interpretation, and ample references to previous publications.

1.3.1. The first group consists of these texts: KTU 4.31 (1933), 1.77 (1934/1935), 4.710 (1959/1960/1961), 7.60 (1937/1938). They are written from right to left; the forms of some letters differ from the standard forms of the long alphabet. The elements of the short alphabet can be observed in some school texts written in the long alphabet, in alphabet tablets and in writing exercises such as KTU 5.7 (1957), 5.11 (1959), 5.22 (1963).

1.3.2. Texts in the short alphabet, mostly on vessels, all of them brief, were found in following localities: Hala Sultan Tekke, Cyprus (1981/1982); Tell Nebi Mend/Qades, Syria (1975/1976); Kamid el-Loz/Kumidi, Beqa Valley, Lebanon, KTU 6.2 (1967/1973) and (1977/1983); Sarafand/Sarepta, south of Sidon, Lebanon (1970-1972/1975); Tabor Valley/Wadi Bire KTU 6.1 (1945) and Tell Ta annak, KTU 4.767 (1963/1964); and Bet Semes/Rumeileh, west of Jerusalem, KTU 8.1 (1933/1933), to which a special chapter (pp. 277-96) is devoted. All these texts are presented in autograph, transliteration, and translation.

1.3.3. The texts in the short alphabet, for which only 21 letters are attested, are written mostly from right to left, only a few from left to right. This feature and also the occasional use of some letters of the long alphabet, show that the tradition of the latter was also known outside of Ugarit. These observations lead the authors to the conclusion that in Ugarit the short alphabet was supplanted by the long alphabet, which expressed the richer consonantism more adequately (cf. pp. 268-75).

1.3.4. The alphabet tablet of Bet Semes is analyzed according to similar criteria, with even more attention to detail (pp. 277-96). While previous interpretations attempted to find a connected text here, A. G. Lundin, in a communication presented on May 16, 1987 in Louvain-la-Neuve,(2) has demonstrated that this tablet contains an alphabet of 23 letters arranged according to the sequence of the southern alphabet, as reconstructed by J. Ryckmans.(3) It was written about 1300 B.C., from right to left around the perimeter. It contained, according to Dietrich and Loretz, 28 letters; one is now missing and seven are damaged. The shapes of the letters are mostly similar to those of the Ugaritic long alphabet.

1.4. The conclusion of this careful study: the short alphabet of 21/22 letters coexisted with the newly created long alphabet of 30 letters. The difference between the underlying consonant systems can be used as a partial foundation for dialect geography. In Palestine the shorter consonantism and alphabet prevailed, in Ugarit the longer ones. The historical events around 1200 B.C. brought about the end of the cuneiform writing tradition in the west, which had been introduced to northern Syria centuries before. The Bet Semes alphabet is evidence of a tradition that served as one model for the Ugaritic long alphabet, the northwestern alphabet of 22 letters being the other one. Conclusions are also drawn about the origin of the ruling class of Ugarit: they were Arabs who arrived in the middle of the second millennium B.C. with their linear script and adapted it to the cuneiform technique (pp. 310-11).

1.5. A rich but selective bibliography (pp. 313-40) is arranged chronologically. The book is provided with indices of persons, subjects and geographical names, words, and texts. A welcome addition is provided by W. Rollig showing sites where Ugaritic cuneiform texts and ancient Canaanite inscriptions were found.

1.6. The book under review makes substantial contributions to two fields, Ugaritology and alphabetology.

1.6.1. Texts in the short cuneiform alphabet attested in Ugarit and other places in Syria-Palestine are among the most difficult Ugaritic texts because of their rather peripheral character, from the viewpoint of both geography and content. Nor have they attracted as much attention as other kinds of Ugaritic texts. The careful reedition and fresh interpretation of these texts have closed a major gap in Ugaritic studies.

1.6.2. The contribution of this book to the history of the alphabet is equally outstanding. It evaluates the significance of the earliest known evidence for the south Semitic alphabet sequence. The standard Ugaritic long alphabet was developed by combining the southern alphabet of 28 consonant letters with the northwestern alphabet of 22 letters (p. 309). The writing technique imitated that of cuneiform script on clay tablets. Combining these observations with information about the development of languages of these texts leads to an historical conclusion: the people who invented and used the Ugaritic alphabet came from the Arabic countries in the south.

1.6.3. This book offers much in the interpretation of difficult texts written in the short alphabet as well as in judicious evaluations of previous research, and also in synthesizing various detailed observations. Its many new insights will significantly stimulate further research.

1.7. Researchers in the history of alphabets will find here important material, otherwise not easily accessible to non-specialists, presented clearly and reliably; they can employ many of its conclusions. Relationships between technically different scripts, linear and cuneiform, and between "long" and "short" alphabets and their linguistic backgrounds deserve to be further studied in broader perspective.

1.7. 1. One of the many strengths of the book is its limitation to Ugaritic material. Other sources are taken into consideration only when they directly contribute to the study of Ugaritic topics. This approach gives the book its unity and coherence. When the reviewer takes the liberty to introduce some more distant evidence and even some analogies from other areas, it is an acknowledgement of the importance of data and ideas presented in the work for other fields of research.

2. Some Marginal Notes

2.1. An argument for the free formation of Ugaritic letters (i.e., without linear or syllabic models, cf. pp. 38-41) is the use of the simplest combinations of wedges for most letters, as shown in a survey of forms published in 1958.(4) Only few of these simple forms correspond to syllabic cuneiform signs.(5)

2.2. The last three letters of the Ugaritic alphabet (cf. pp. 40-41) do not fit into this pattern. The last one imitates the West Semitic linear letter s.(6) The elements on the left and right of the central vertical wedge can be written differently; in most common forms there are three wedges, rarely four. Similarly the two preceding letters nos. 28 and 29 are written with few exceptions with three parallel wedges and one at a right angle to them: i has three horizontal wedges and one vertical wedge below, u three vertical wedges and one horizontal wedge below.

2.2.1. These three last signs also differ from the preceding 27 letters; they express - at least basically - syllables / i/, / u/, / su/.(7)

2.2.2. An excursus (pp. 119-23) is devoted to letters 28 and 29, i and u (cf. pp. 118-19). Dietrich and Loretz agree with the consensus explanation that the forms were borrowed from the corresponding syllabic signs, I (103)(8) and U (169) (p. 120). The shapes of both signs were simplified in accordance with the other letters. This foreign origin corresponds to that of the letter no. 30, s, taken over from the Canaanite/Phoenician linear alphabet (cf. p. 291, n. 42; cf. supra, 2.5). This observation supports the supposition that the last three letters of the Ugaritic alphabet were added later - most probably, according to the ancient tradition (cf. supra 2.2.1.), at the same time. Dietrich and Loretz assume that the letter s was added first and later the newly introduced letters i and u were put in front of it (p. 123). In another statement about the sequence of these letters (p. 122), they assume that i-/ i/ was introduced first, while u-/ u/ was a subsequent development based on i-/ i/. Another possibility may be presented for further discussion: did the Ugaritic script reformer realize that from a phonetic viewpoint the glottal stop is a zero sound? A special graphic marker would then be redundant. If that were the case, the vocalic element should be appropriately indicated. A common marker for all vocalic values could hardly serve this purpose; separate signs for three basic vocalic values had to be introduced. The phonological value and function of the glottal stop/aleph was retained for the combination vowel glottal stop /V+ /, indicated mostly by the sign i, /- i/, /- a/, /- u/.(9)

2.2.3. The opposition between sibilants indicated by letters s and s needs to be further discussed (p. 132). This reviewer has collected further evidence for the syllabic character of the last letter of the Ugaritic alphabet, s-/su/ and, on the basis of graphical similarities, has argued for a foreign origin for the last three signs, i, u, s for their basically syllabic character, / i/, u/, /su/.(10)

3. The Alphabet of Bet Semes

3.1. Because of crucial importance of this tablet (dated archaeologically to ca. 1300 B.C.) with letters arranged according to the southern alphabet, its sequence is presented here (cf. p. 258):(11)
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Author:Segert, Stanislav
Publication:The Journal of the American Oriental Society
Article Type:Bibliography
Date:Jan 1, 1993
Words:1933
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