Review of William M. Schniedewind and Joel H. Hunt, A Primer on Ugaritic
Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 8 (2008) - Review

William M. Schniedewind and Joel H. Hunt, A Primer on Ugaritic: Language, Culture, and Literature (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007). Pp. xv + 226. Paper, US$40. ISBN 978-0-521-70493-9.


Learning an ancient language can be an intimidating task, particularly if that language uses a writing system different than one’s own.  To make matters worse, the style of language in most grammars is in itself a challenge to decipher.  In contrast to many introductory Semitic language grammars, this volume is surprisingly readable.  The presentation is clear, accessible, and largely jargon-free.  Because of the thoughtful arrangement and composition of this primer, students will be able to learn the language more quickly and enjoyably.

The book begins by orienting the reader to the field of Ugaritic studies.  First, Schniedewind and Hunt describe the location and geography of the city/state Ugarit.  After this they survey the excavation and discovery of the city as well its history.  Then, they include discussions not always found in grammar primers; they introduce life in ancient Ugarit as well as Ugaritic religion.  These inclusions are surely welcome since they provide a measure of context for the language.  Language does not exist in isolation from culture and social settings and the inclusion of these dynamics gives the language-learner awareness for these factors.  The last section of the first chapter surveys the major genres of Ugaritic literature as well as some areas in which Ugaritic and biblical studies interact. 

            Chapters 2 through 6 present an inductive study of the Ugaritic language through five genres of literature: school texts, letters, administrative texts, legal texts, and literary texts, respectively.  Each chapter contains texts presented first in Ugaritic script and then unvocalized transcription as well as grammatical and discourse-level discussions.  This grammar gives students ample opportunity to learn the Ugaritic writing system as well as to practice their comparative Semitic skills by vocalizing texts.  However, if a professor does not wish to stress these aspects, the structure of the book is accessible enough to facilitate this decision. 

Schniedewind and Hunt are to be commended for their brilliant decision to introduce students to the Ugaritic writing system in a similar manner as did the teachers within the scribal schools of ancient Ugarit some three thousand plus years ago.  The first Ugaritic text that students encounter is an abcedary.  Then, the texts move up in difficulty until one reaches selections from the Baal Cycle, Aqhat, and the Birth of the Goodly Gods.  The pedagogical format that this volume adopts is likely very similar to that of the scribal curriculum of ancient Ugarit.  Furthermore, it is contrary to many approaches to teaching Ugaritic today in which students start out reading literary texts.  There is much to commend Schniedewind and Hunt for this decision: this approach will expose students to all of the major genres of literature, it will help lower the intimidation of beginning students by gradually raising the difficulty level of the texts, and finally, what could be more thrilling than learning Ugaritic in a manner similar to that of ancient scribal students?

The final sections of the book include a “Grammatical Prcis” which presents a formal deductive grammatical survey, a glossary that includes plenty of Semitic cognates alongside English glosses, and resources for further study.

Schniedewind and Hunt have produced such a fine work that there are only a few minor suggestions for improvement.  In a description of the long imperative form they note: “Scholars think that the final –h of the longer form was originally ‘emphatic,’ though the precise nuance of this emphasis remains ellusive” (p. 52).  The descriptive “emphatic” lost favor a long time ago amongst grammarians because it is such a broad term that it does not add anything to a semantic description.  Instead, the authors should have discussed the fact that in almost every language there are many ways to indicate various gradations of imperatives.  Sometimes these gradations are conveyed orally through placement of stress or lengthening syllables while at other times different morphological forms are used.  The long imperative in Ugaritic is just one more form on the imperatival grade.  The reason why grammarians have such a hard time assigning an exact meaning to the form is because the precise nuances of imperatives, like almost any form for that matter, depend on many factors such as body language of the speaker, tone of voice, and context.  Therefore a long imperative could indicate greater focus upon the urgency of the command or it could just be a way of expressing playful banter.

Also, in their “Resources for Further Study” section Schniedewind and Hunt cite Dennis Pardee’s review of Josef Tropper’s Ugaritische Grammatik that appeared in Archiv fr Orientforschung 50 (2003/2004).  However, they do not mention that this four hundred and four page review was never actually published in a hard copy and it is only available electronically.

Schniedewind and Hunt have produced a very fine grammar that will surely be a welcome mainstay in all levels of introductory Ugaritic courses whether they are undergraduate or graduate programs.  This grammar would be a perfect text for the first semester of an undergraduate course.  For a PhD level class the instructor would certainly need to supplement this volume with materials mentioned in the “Resources for Further Study” section.  Furthermore, additional reading texts would need to be provided since the accelerated pace of graduate studies would probably exhaust the texts included in this book before the end of the semester. 

Charles Halton
Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion