A Manual of Ugaritic
Dr. Richard S. Hess' review of "A Manual of Ugaritic. Linguistic Studies in Ancient West Semitic Volume 3" by Pierre Bordreuil and Dennis Pardee.
Bordreuil, Pierre and Dennis Pardee. A Manual of Ugaritic. Linguistic Studies in Ancient West Semitic Volume 3. Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 2009. ISBN 978-1-57606-153-5. xii + 355 pp. Hardback, $69.50.
It may seem strange to review a grammar of a dead languge such as Ugaritic in a biblical and theological studies review journal. After all, Ugaritic does not appear in the Bible, nor is the city of Ugarit mentioned there. Yet the discovery of Ugarit, an ancient city in modern Syria situated near the Mediterranean Sea, and the excavation of thousands of cuneiform tablets from the site since 1929 led to an ongoing revolution in the study of the Old Testament. For the first time, a major and culturally related site with its language was identified that dates before much (or some would say all) of the Bible. Although the Dead Sea Scrolls continue to garner much more popular interest, the hard work of deciphering and studying the ancient texts from this site have arguably given us a deeper and better picture of the biblical world and the ancient languages that Israel spoke and wrote.
Like every scholarly discipline, this study of Ugaritic has gone through various phases of maturing into a discipline in its own right. There are professorships, journals, handbooks, and monographs devoted exclusively to the study of this language and its culture. The last generation has seen the appearance of two editions of a comprehensive publication of all the Ugaritic texts (in need of further augmentation with the continuing discovery of more tablets at the site), a handbook that summarizes the research in most areas of the field, a relatively up-to-date two-volume dictionary of the Ugaritic language, major commentaries on some of the key literary texts, and methodologically rigorous incorporation of relevant material into all significant dictionaries and grammars of biblical Hebrew as well as exegetical commentaries on every book of the Old Testament. The serious student of the Old Testament is poorly served who does not have firsthand acquaintance with this language and its textual treasuries.
Years ago when I began my study of Ugaritic the primary vehicle was the Ugaritic Textbook by Cyrus Gordon. This major work has been updated by a variety of grammars and introductions. The work of Bordreuil and Pardee appeared in 2004 in French and has now been updated with corrections and translated into English. A section on the “Peculiarities of Poetic Texts” was also added. Half of the work is a grammar that also introduces the history and culture of Ugarit. The length and detail of this work forms an ideal introduction on the graduate level. It equips the student with the necessary understanding of the language. An alphabetic list of the signs is not presented here but one can consult the abecedary on p. 154 easily enough. Otherwise, there is a survey of the morphology, syntax, and some stylistic features of Ugaritic.
The second part of the book consists of hand copies of fifty-five tablets (or portions of larger tablets) followed by a transliteration, translation, vocalization, and set of grammatical notes for each of the texts. The work concludes with a cross referencing list of these texts and a glossary. A DVD included with the work has photos and hand copies of the texts. The photos are presented digitally and with such detail that they can be projected on the screen of a class and used to allow students some experience at reading directly from a tablet.
Like so much of ancient Near Eastern studies, Ugaritic emerged as a discipline of interest and important in tandem with its connection with the Bible. The decision of the authors to use the Ugaritic alphabet, rather than a modified Hebrew alphabetic sequence, in the glossary is but one example of the desire to recognize that Ugaritic is an independent discipline. This decision also means that the teacher (or user) will need to make many of the connections with biblical Hebrew and its society without the assistance of the grammar. However, this should not dissuade the user from using this excellent resource for the study of Ugaritic and for gaining practice by reading through the texts found in it.
Richard S. Hess, Ph.D.
Earl S. Kalland Professor of Old Testament and Semitic Languages