Ugarit and the Origins of Alphabet: Writing in Ancient History

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Pre alphabetic writing was complex. It was such a specialized skill in ancient societies that it restricted literacy to scribes.

This all changed with the advent of the alphabet, a system which limited the number of symbols in use, making it easier to use and therefore more accessible.

Clay tablets in Ugarit provide the earliest examples of a written alphabet known to archaeologists. Does this mean that Ugarit was the site of the world’s first alphabet?

Pre Alphabetic Writing: Sumerian Cuneiform and Egyptian Hieroglyphics

Cuneiform (a series of symbols impressed into clay tablets with the end of a stylus) and hieroglyphics were the earliest forms of writing. Based on finds dating to the 3500 BC at Kish, an ancient Sumerian site in modern Iraq, cuneiform is assumed to predate the Egyptian format.

Both systems were based on a series of pictographic symbols to express ideas. Hieroglyphics used pictures. Cuneiform, on the other hand, developed over time to include a series of triangular symbols.

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These systems were complex because of the numbers of symbols involved. By 500 BC, Egyptian hieroglyphics employed several thousand symbols whilst cuneiform used hundreds. To complicate things further, each symbol could be interpreted as a word, a syllable or a specific speech sound depending on the language that was employing them.

The complicated nature of the two systems meant they could only be interpreted by specially trained scribes.

The Advantages of Alphabet

The term ‘alphabet’ refers to a limited number of letters listed in a set order, each having a specific and fixed sound. The numbers of symbols were limited, which meant that the system was easier to use and more accessible to the general population.

The first list of letters that can be deemed alphabetic date to between the 14th and 12th centuries BC. They were discovered in Ugarit in modern Syria.

Ugarit’s Alphabet

Ugarit’s alphabet was found on a finger-length clay tablet 5.5cm x 1.3cm. It consisted of 30 cuneiform symbols based on a ‘one sound, one sign’ system. Consisting of 27 constant and 3 vowels, the alphabet was written from left to right. Dated to no later than the 12th century BC, this is the earliest example of a written alphabet, which has led to speculate that the system was developed in Ugarit.

Ugaritic Texts

Around 5000 clay tablets have been found in Ugarit to date. They are remarkably diverse in terms of subject matter and language. As well as those written in Ugarit alphabet script, there are records written in the Akkadian, Sumerian and Hurrian languages as well as in Egyptian and Hittite hieroglyphs and Sumerian, Minoan and Hurrian cuneiform.

The tablets give an oversight of life in Ugarit and the eastern Mediterranean in general. Many are letters between the King of Ugarit and foreign monarchs, as well as bureaucratic and political records, written in Akkado-Babylonian the language of diplomacy in the region. Tablets found in Ugarit’s temples describing the mythology of the Ugaritic religion, also employed the Ugaritic alphabet as well as regional cuneiform.

The most remarkable fact about these texts is they were used extensively throughout Ugarit’s population. Tax and commercial records have been found in the homes of merchants and it was even feasible for private citizens to have their own libraries including dictionaries and encyclopedias.

On one of the tablets from Ugarit is the world’s oldest musical composition. It includes 3 verses written in Hurrian and 6 lines in Akkadian. The inclusion of the names of Mesopotamian musical notes, indicate that this was poem accompanied by music.


The First Alphabet?

How the Ugaritic alphabet developed is unknown. Some scholars believe it was a unique innovation, a genuine attempt to simplify cuneiform whilst others believe that because Ugarit’s alphabet was unique to the city, it represented a localized development from earlier Semitic alphabetic systems. Others believe it was influenced by Phoenician alphabet, the precursor of the systems later used by the Greeks and Romans-in other words the ancestor of alphabets today.

However, the earliest known inscription of the Phoenician alphabet is 500 years later that that of Ugarit. Although the Ugaritic alphabet did not spread in its original form, its principles, such as the fixed set of symbols including vowels and consonants did continue.

Ugarit was also the ideal location for such an innovation to occur. It was a nexus of international trade and its records show the numerous different languages and systems of writing its merchants were exposed to. It was the perfect place for someone to experiment with ways to record information in a simpler form.

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© Copyright 2014 Natasha Sheldon, All rights Reserved. Written For: Decoded Past

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