The Problem Of The Placement Of Ugaritic Among The Semitic Languages -- By: John F. Brent

Journal: Westminster Theological Journal
Volume: WTJ 41:1 (Fall 1978)
Article: The Problem Of The Placement Of Ugaritic Among The Semitic Languages
Author: John F. Brent

The Problem Of The Placement Of Ugaritic Among The Semitic Languages

John F. Brent


A number of factors contribute to the difficulty of classifying Ugaritic within the Semitic languages. One major factor is the mobility of the Semitic peoples in earlier times. The wanderings of these people tended most likely to “spread out those who were close and bring together those who were far apart.”1 Our lack of precise historical information concerning these wanderings makes it all the more difficult to decide whether peculiar linguistic traits within a particular language are due to conservation of an archaic Proto-Semitic characteristic or a similarity resulting from a direct connection between two languages which later became widely separated from each other. Related to this as well is the question of the degree of conservation found in one language due to factors of isolation and preservation of archaic forms (especially in cultic literature) as opposed to the tendency in other languages toward rapid innovation.

One most significant difficulty in classifying Ugaritic is the range of opinion concerning which theory of linguistic differentiation best interprets the data. The two most prominent theories dealt with here are the “Family-tree Theory” (Stammbalim-theorie) and the theory of linguistic diffusion (Wellentheorie).

It is also important to note that in this discussion each scholar places emphasis upon his own selection of isoglossae and draws his own conclusions from them. Even if two different scholars choose the same group of isoglossae they are likely to draw two different conclusions from the data. In addition, some place great weight on seemingly insignificant isoglossae while others intend first to “weigh” the isoglossic evidence and to choose those which seem to be the most important.

Finally, the limited amount of available written material restricts a complete reconstruction of the linguistic situation which prevailed in the Ancient Near East. It is certain that further discoveries will greatly enlighten this type of reconstruction. One such recent discovery, Tell Mardik (Ebla), will undoubtedly be quite valuable.

The intent of the following survey is to concentrate mainly on the morpho-phonological isoglossae of Ugaritic and compare these, first of all, with the common Canaanite isoglossae using the two influential studies of Zellig Harris and Albrecht Goetze. Secondly, the additional studies of J. C. Greenfield, Stanislav Segert, Masao Sekine, and Eduard Ullendorff will be presented since they interact with and supplement the previous two studies.

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