Sunday, June 17, 2007

Ugaritic inscription

Last weekend I got a chance to indulge my longstanding passion for ancient Semitic languages at the Louvre. The Ugaritic collection was, as you might expect, especially good; I took many photographs, including this particularly clear one here, a ceremonial axe from the 13th or 12th century BC. Since the Ugaritic alphabet only contained some 30 letters, it's easy enough to read the inscription (turn it 90 degrees counterclockwise), although no word dividers are present:

xrṣn rb khnm

which the museum caption translates as "la hache du Grand Prêtre". xrṣn is presumably "axe"; I can't find it in my small dictionary, but it looks like it might be related to xurāṣ "gold" (itself cognate not only to Hebrew ḥarūṣ, but also to Greek chrysos, a Semitic loanword.) rabb- means "great one", identical to Arabic ربّ "lord" and cognate to Hebrew rav "great one; rabbi". kāhin- is "priest", identical to the Arabic كاهن "soothsayer" and cognate to Hebrew kohen "priest" - yes, the same word from which the surname "Cohen" comes from. -īm is the oblique plural, identical to Hebrew -īm (which however is no longer inflected for case) and cognate to Arabic -īn. Once you start looking, it's so easy to spot the connections between Semitic languages; no wonder people a thousand years ago noticed.


bulbul said...

According to Aistleitner's Wörterbuch der Ugaritischen Sprache

1089 ḫrṣn: PN. (PU III ḫu-ra-ṣa-na). 49.1: ḫrṣn rb khnm


PN - Personenname
PU III - Le Palais Royal d'Ugarit III

It would therefore appear that - at least according to Aistleitner - ḫrṣn is the name of the head priest. Nothing on the subject in Segert. Hm.
Any chance you could share the photos with us? :o)

Tim May said...

You're right, it's quite easy to read... I was able to transcribe it into Unicode without much difficulty (except that the final m is below the preceding n rather than next to it, which made me think they were one character, and the doesn't look quite like the one in my font).


Well, that was fun.

bulbul said...

OK, took a second look at Segert and turns out he quotes a similar inscription:

KTU 6.6 rb khnm

Also, that axe thingie is apparently called an adze. According to OED, etymology unknow, but it dates back to Old English.

all I see are question marks (Win XP, Firefox What font are you using?

Alex said...

Wouldn't xrṣn be cognate to Hebrew garzen (GRZN), "axe"?

bulbul said...


good catch, but Ugaritic [ḫ] corresponds with Hebrew [ḥ], while Hebrew [g] corresponds with Ugaritic [g].
This article, (section 2, paragraph A10), on the other hand, quotes a source which agrees with you, another one which supports the "personal name" theory and a few other sources arguing that GRZN is a loan word.
Semitic philology, you gotta love it :o)

Lameen Souag said...

Thanks everybody! Looks like that innocent label hid a whole can of worms... If the vocalisation ḫu-ra-ṣa-na is right, then it does look related to "gold" - but the garzen idea is interesting (though z-ṣ would also be irregular.) In response to popular demand (is "popular" the right word?), I'll see if I can post a couple more of these.

Tim May said...

The font I have installed is called Andagii. You can see a list of fonts supporting the Ugaritic block here (there aren't many).

The browser I normally use won't display it even with the font available, but it works in Firefox.

bulbul said...


thanks, it works now. Ugaritic in my browser, who woulda thunk it? :o)

Dave (Balashon) said...

Klein has the following cognates to the Hebrew garzen (גרזן):

Egyptian: grdn
Ugaritic: hrsn
Akkadian: hassinnu
Aramaic: חצינא
Arabic: kurzan, kurzum, kyrzim

This article also discusses the axe, and makes a connection to garzen:

How come we can't decipher the Indus script?

David Marjanović said...

Thanks a lot for that link! It saved my day!

Given a piece of Etruscan writing, we have no difficulty pronouncing the words, but no idea what most of the words mean (think of a trained politician reading off a TelePrompTer).


I remember reading a Scientific American article many years ago on a supposed deciphering of the Indus script. It looked entirely plausible -- the language was Dravidian, the number system had 8 as its base (in the modern Dravidian languages 10 is literally "many" and 9 is "many minus one"), and the inscriptions consisted mostly of names and titles (this almost fits the heraldry hypothesis). Unfortunately, however, the article didn't mention at all how the decipherment was made, and everything I've read since claims that the Indus script is completely undeciphered. Does anyone know what is going on here?

While I am at it, I'm amused to learn that Fischer's decipherment of Rongorongo is considered "wrongo, wrongo" by "critics". Does anyone know details?

And when Fischer's decipherment of Rongorongo is mentioned, why isn't that of Linear A + the Cretan "hieroglyphs" + the Phaistos Disk mentioned? Because that one is well documented and easy to understand in hindsight. If it is wrong, which I find difficult to imagine, can't it at least serve as a bad example?

MMcM said...

Indus Script: This page has a quick summary and links to longer papers from two sides: Parpola (who also wrote this book, giving a Dravidian theory along the lines of the Fairservis SciAm article you remember from the 80s) vs. Farmer et al. (also linked to by the TSD article above).

Michael Sheflin said...

bulbul is correct, the translation says H_RSN, Chief Priest. H_RSN, in addition to on that axe appears also as a PN in KTU 4.278 and as H.RZ.N in KTU 4.63. In these latter two cases, the names appear following "bn" pretty much indicating that it is a PN.

Anonymous said...

Hey speaking of Ugaritic, check this out: The Phaistos Disk is of Ugaritic origin, and gives us a royal genealogy on the recto side and a mythical flood narrative on the verso side, with a war story thrown in for good masure. For more on this, please see: