You are on page 1of 6

The Ugaritic Cuneiform and Canaanite Linear Alphabets Author(s): Robert R.

Stieglitz Source: Journal of Near Eastern Studies, Vol. 30, No. 2 (Apr., 1971), pp. 135-139 Published by: The University of Chicago Press Stable URL: . Accessed: 14/04/2013 02:59
Your use of the JSTOR archive indicates your acceptance of the Terms & Conditions of Use, available at .

JSTOR is a not-for-profit service that helps scholars, researchers, and students discover, use, and build upon a wide range of content in a trusted digital archive. We use information technology and tools to increase productivity and facilitate new forms of scholarship. For more information about JSTOR, please contact

The University of Chicago Press is collaborating with JSTOR to digitize, preserve and extend access to Journal of Near Eastern Studies.

This content downloaded from on Sun, 14 Apr 2013 02:59:58 AM All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions


ROBERT R. STIEGLITZ, Brandeis University

the various studies devoted to the relationship between the Ugaritic and the Proto-Canaanite script,1 only a few have noted the morphological alphabet resemblances between the script of Ugarit and the Canaanite alphabet, whose development can be traced from its earliest stages in which it utilizes pictographs to the more familiar Phoenician-Hebrew letters well attested throughout the first millennium B.C. Although several of the signs of Ugarit were seen to be similar, if not identical, to those of the later Phoenician-Hebrew script,2 most scholars believed these resemblances to be to the limited number of wedges used in the formation of the Ugaritic coincidental-due stressed the fact that the cuneiform alphabet of Ugarit is an invention signs-and unrelated to the Canaanite alphabet in its morphology.3 In discussing the Ugaritic alphabet it is sometimes overlooked that this script was also utilized in Canaan proper, not only at Ugarit. Furthermore, F. M. Cross, Jr. and D. N. Freedman4 had already called attention to the fact that not only was this alphabet utilized in Canaan5 but that the inventor of this script was acquainted with the Proto-Canaanite alphabet. They believe, however, that the Ugaritic script was not a conscious imitation of the Proto-Canaanite, and concluded that "resemblances between the 15th century Ras Shamrah alphabet and the later Phoenician alphabet are purely


In this paper we shall deal with these resemblances between the Ugaritic cuneiform and the later Phoenician linear system, and attempt to demonstrate that in the great majority of the signs there is an extremely close resemblance between the two corresponding signs. This fact, coupled with the correlation of the phonetic values for each sign, greatly decreases the possibility of coincidence and suggests, rather, development from a common Proto-Canaanite alphabetic system. We cannot deal here with the question of the original number of characters and their order in the Proto-Canaanite script. Instead, it is important to note that perhaps the best indication of the close relationship between the Ugaritic and Canaanite alphabets is provided by the order of the letters in both systems. If we eliminate from the thirtyletter Ugaritic script the five consonantal signs which disappeared in the later Canaanite
* I wish to thank Prof. C. H. Gordon for his helpful suggestions in the composition of this article. 1 For a general bibliography dealing with this subject, see S. Rin, "Did the Canaanite Alphabet Exist in the Period of Ugarit?" Leshonenu, 26 (196162), 56, n. 1. 2 Cf., e.g., Encyclopedia Biblica, I, 372 ff. There the following signs are compared: g, h, w, z, s2,


3 Cf. most recently G. L. Windfuhr, "The Cuneiform Signs of Ugarit," JNES, 29 (1970), 48-51. Early Hebrew Orthography: A Study of the Epigraphic Evidence. American Oriental Series, Vol. 36 (New Haven, 1952), p. 9.

5Since that publication another tablet, evidently an economic document, had been unearthed at the site of Taanach. See D. R. Hillers, BASOR, No. 173 (1964), 45-50; and F. M. Cross, Jr., BASOR, No. 190 (1968), 41-45, for the interpretation and reading of this tablet. It is significant that both administrative and nonadministrative documents in this script have already been found in Canaan (cf. Albright's new reading of the Beth-Shemesh tablet in BASOR, No. 173 [1964], 51-53). Cross and Freedman, loc. cit., have rightly termed the Ugaritic alphabet "the North Canaanite cuneiform alphabet." 6 Op. cit., pp. 9 f.


This content downloaded from on Sun, 14 Apr 2013 02:59:58 AM All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions



dialects (at least as separate graphemes), as well as the last three letters of the Ugaritic system (which are additions to the original order of the alphabet), we are left with twentytwo letters which are precisely in the same order as those of the Phoenician-Hebrew linear script.7 The only somewhat problematic letter is Ug. sign No. 25, since it stands in the position of the Canaanite v, whereas, for purely etymological reasons, one might perhaps prefer to have No. 13 in its place. This slight difficulty can be resolved if we remember that Canaanite v itself is a graphic conflation of several Proto-Semitic phonemes, one of which was Ug. /t/, i.e., Sign No. 25 (No. 13 represents /S/ and /*'/). In the Ug. pronunciation itself, the phoneme represented by Sign 25 is always rendered by the Akk. 8(-), regardless of its Proto-Semitic origin. This, therefore, may explain the position of Ug. /t/ and not /S/ in the corresponding slot to the later Phoenician V.8 We will limit our analysis to the factors of shape, position, and matching phonetic value. The first two of these factors are most important in dealing with a comparison of these two scripts because of the great difference in the mechanical execution and composition of the signs in the two systems. I: shape. The Ug. script employs two basic units to form its signs: (a) the plain wedge, and (b) the angle wedge (Winkelhaken). With these two units it must compose all its characters, whether they are imitations of some earlier Proto-Canaanite pictogram, or whether they are purely arbitrary and abstract signs. The linear system, which is subject to many more changes and variants than the cuneiform system, employs straight and curved lines and circles or elipses. If there is some conscious imitation of the various linear signs (we are assuming that such imitation would have taken place at the time the linear signs were still pictographic or semi-pictographic), one would expect that, because of purely graphic reasons, the angle wedge will be used in those places where the linear system utilizes either a circle or a near-circle. Furthermore, one may expect that the more complex a linear sign is, the greater the similarity would be between it and the corresponding cuneiform sign, if they were related-i.e., different developments from a common source. As for the noncircular signs, there one would expect a rough correspondence of a horizontal line to a horizontal wedge, a vertical line to a vertical wedge, etc. This brings us to the problem of the rotation of signs and their relative position. II: position. Although theoretically the cuneiform signs may be at any angle there are strong pressures-due to mechanical reasons and a desire for convenience-to maximize the number of horizontal and vertical wedges, and to limit other angular positions as much as possible. In the Ug. system, which is one of great economy and systematization, this tendency is quite evident. Since the direction of writing the cuneiform systems was by ancient convention from left to right, the Ug. system also follows this practice. Therefore, some of the Ug. signs appear to be mirror images of the linear signs, which are normally written from right to left. But strong influence by the later linear systems is already evident at Ugarit, where the mirror-written texts confirm the influence of the linear scripts.9 Until the position of the letters is fixed by convention, the letters may rotate when
7 Cf., e.g., C. H. Gordon, UT, pp. 11 ff. 8 Cf. S. Rin, op. cit., pp. 60 f. In this article she discusses the similarities in the use of the cayin-sign in both the Canaanite and the Ugaritic systems. See also her remarks in Leshonenu, 24 (1960), 110. 9 Cf. C. H. Gordon, UT, pp. 16, 23.

This content downloaded from on Sun, 14 Apr 2013 02:59:58 AM All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions



being transmitted from the pictographic stage to the cuneiform10 or to the linear system. Such rotation of signs may also take place in the transmission of a linear system from one group to another. Thus we may cite as an example the Phoenician-Hebrew aleph-sign which, when finally adopted by the Greeks as alpha, had been rotated by 90' clockwise. When we compare the Ug. signs to the later Phoenician-Hebrew letters, we find that there too some of the letters stand in the same relationship, i.e., they have been rotated, usually by 90' clockwise. This rotation is seen not only in the case of very simple signswhere it is possible to attribute the resulting similarity to coincidence-but also, this case rather much the of more in complex signs. being significant, The problem of sign-rotation presents little difficulty if we consider the divergences in the mechanical execution of the signs, and especially if we compare the similar developments in the evolution and transmission of other alphabetic systems." III: phonetic value. Statistically, the greater the number of correlations between the shape and phonetic value of the sign, the lesser is the probability of coincidence. In our analysis of the twenty-two Phoenician-Hebrew letters, most of which will be analyzed below, we found that twenty-one out of the twenty-two were either similar or identical to the corresponding Ug. sign.12 Our analysis of the Ug. cuneiform in comparison with the later Phoenician script is presented in a three-part table. Part A deals with those cuneiform signs which are predominantly vertical. Part B includes those signs which are horizontal (in the Ug. system.) Part C deals with the signs which are composed of plain and angle wedges (Ug.) and of lines and circles (Canaanite).
Phonetic value Ugaritic cuneiform Phoenician linear NonPhoenician13

Part A



13 In order to facilitate the illustration of the resemblances, I have included in several of the comparisons some of the letters from non-Phoenician systems. These examples, I believe, allow us to illustrate better the similarity between the Ug. and Canaanite example. 14 The /h/ of Ug., which corresponds graphically to Canaanite /h./, is already used polyphonously at Ugarit to represent both h/ and /h/ in the mirrorwritten texts (Gordon, UT, p. 16.). 15 Note that this is /A/ rather than /s/.

10 For a history and development of the Akkadian cuneiform see R. Labat, Manuel d'epigraphie akkadienne (4th ed. [Paris, 1963]). At Ugarit, rotation of similar signs eliminated sign confusion and increased efficiency. 11 Cf. the detailed study of J. Obermann, "The Archaic Inscriptions from Lachish: A Non-Phoenician System of the North Semitic Alphabet," Z'merican Oriental Society, Offprint Series, No. 9 (New Haven, 1938). 12 The sole exception is the lamed-sign, which I believe can be explained on purely internal grounds.

This content downloaded from on Sun, 14 Apr 2013 02:59:58 AM All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions



In Part B all the Ug. signs are horizontal, except for the last two, which are compound signs (horizontal and vertical). All the signs in this section are rotated at 90' compared to the Phoenician-Hebrew sign.
Part B Phonetic value Ugaritic cuneiform Phoenician linear NonPhoenician

In this section we compare three of the Ug. signs which employ the angle wedge with their Phoenician counterparts:
Part C c < 0

c (p

We see here that wherever the Ug. angle wedge is used the correspondinglinear sign has a circle. Note especially the I/t/where, in order to execute a circle with a cross inside it, the corresponding cuneiform has a Winkelhaken with a cross (composed of two wedges) just to the left, since it is impossible to inscribe the wedges upon the Winkelhaken without distorting the sign greatly. CONCLUSIONS

The Ugaritic cuneiform alphabet, unlike the Proto-Sinaitic and other early Canaanite illustrates the influence of several different writing systems. Whereas the Proto-Canaanite system was derived primarily from the Egyptian hieroglyphs,18 the Ugaritic system illustrates influence from both the Proto-Canaanite script and the Sumero-Akkadian system. This last system determined for the Ugaritic signs their
op. cit. (n. 11, above), pp. 28 ff. Note that the Egyptian words for water (mem < mayim) are mw, but also nwy (!). 17 Cf. E.B. I, 372 ff. 18 Cf. W. F. Albright, BASOR, No. 110 (1948), 14.

"1 There is some possibility that Ug. /w/ is not derived from the same prototype as that of the Phoenician /w/, but represents rather the proto-grapheme -C., which in several other derivative alphabets is utilized for /w/. Cf. J. Obermann, AJA, 44 (1940), 93 ff. (plate). On the Ug. /n/ and the Egyptian o* /n/, as well as the problem of mem/nun, see Obermann,

This content downloaded from on Sun, 14 Apr 2013 02:59:58 AM All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions



method of formation, mechanical execution, medium of writing, and the direction of writing. We have come to the conclusion that the Ugaritic cuneiformalphabet and the Canaanite linear alphabet are but two divergent executions of one and the same proto-system. It has already been noted that the order of the Ug. ABC cannot be correlated with either the graphic system or with the phonetic value of the signs.19 Hence the order of the Ugaritic alphabet, as well as that of the later (and shorter) Phoenician-Hebrew system, seems to be derived from the original order of the Proto-Canaanite script. If we combine the evidence regarding the original order of the letters with the names of the letters in both systems,20 and now, with the striking graphic similarity between the two scripts, we cannot escape the conclusion that the Ugaritic cuneiform and the Phoenician linear alphabets cannot be divorced in their history and development from the Proto-Canaanite script.
20 See T. O. Lambdin's detailed study in BASOR,

19 Cf. G. L. Windfuhr, op. cit., p. 51.

No. 160 (1960), 21-26. In this study (p. 22), Lambdin calls attention to the close chronological sequence

between the divergent dates of both the Proto-Arabic and the Ugaritic scripts from the Proto-Canaanite system.

This content downloaded from on Sun, 14 Apr 2013 02:59:58 AM All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions