Hittite Online

Series Introduction

Winfred P. Lehmann and Jonathan Slocum

Hittite is the oldest recorded Indo-European language, but it had remained completely unknown during the period in which Indo-European linguistics developed because its records are on clay tablets that were excavated only at the end of the 19th century. Even then, it was not identified as Indo-European until 1915, when Bedřich Hrozný made the discovery through his reading of tablets that had been brought to Vienna from the Istanbul Museum. Since the tablets were written in the cuneiform script, which is described in Lesson 1 Grammar point 2, they were easily read. After Hrozný documented their language as Indo-European in a book of 1917 entitled Die Sprache der Hethiter, many texts were published, some of them in cuneiform script and others in transcription. But it was not until 1951 that a comprehensive grammar was produced, A Comparative Grammar of the Hittite Language by Edgar H. Sturtevant.

As the texts were published, notable differences were recognized between Hittite and the other Indo-European languages. In the phonological system, sounds transcribed as h were found where the other languages had a long vowel, as in Hittite pahs- 'protect', Latin pāscō 'feed', and also initially where they had an a-vowel, is in Hittite hanza 'in front of', Latin ante 'before'. In 1878 Ferdinand de Saussure had proposed such consonants, and in the following year Möller labeled them laryngeals with a term taken from Hamito-Semitic linguistics of the time.

In the morphological system there are only two gender classes of nouns, common and neuter. And the verb is far simpler than that of Sanskrit or Greek, languages on which the reconstructed language, Proto-Indo-European, had been largely based. There are only two tenses: present and preterite; only two finite moods: indicative and imperative; and only two conjugations, one with first person singular ending in -mi, the other in -hi. After the implications of these for reconstructing the parent language became clear, they led to far-reaching changes in the presentation of Proto-Indo-European and the early Indo-European languages.

Among the phonological changes is the assumption of laryngeals in various positions that had been lost in the previously known Indo-European languages, but had left traces in vowels and other consonants. Under the assumption of such consonants in the so-called laryngeal theory, the roots that did not fit the typical structure of Indo-European roots, e.g. *sed- 'sit', *nem- 'take', *leg- 'pick up', previously had had comparable structure. For example, the roots *dhē- 'place', *stā- 'stand', *dō- 'give' were now posited with laryngeals rather than with long vowels: *dheh₁-, *steh₂-, *deh₃-. And the voiceless aspirated stops of Indo-Iranian, ph, th, kh were assumed to have developed from p t k plus a laryngeal. The laryngeal theory has been widely discussed, accepted in various forms, and even rejected by some scholars; but as illustrated by examples here, it is the basis for explaining many features of Proto-Indo-European and its dialects.

In the morphological system, efforts were made to account for a gender system of the two nominal classes in contrast with the three in the other languages. In the view of most scholars the twofold system was assumed to be earlier, but a minority assumed that the feminine was lost in the Anatolian languages. The greater simplicity in the verbal system, especially the position of the hi-conjugation, required especial attention. This corresponds in many ways to the perfect of Sanskrit and Greek; but with its function also in the medio-passive of Hittite it has been identified as a stative inflection. The twofold conjugations would then be based on active:stative opposition.

On the basis of its earlier attestation and differences from Proto-Indo-European as it had been reconstructed, Edgar Sturtevant and others assumed Hittite to be a sister language of Proto-Indo-European and labeled the language at that stage Indo-Hittite. The Indo-Hittite hypothesis then became dominant and has remained so for some scholars. But they failed to take into account the basis of the reconstructed Indo-European in our handbooks, such as Brugmann's Grundriss. It cannot be noted too often that Brugmann stated specifically in 1897 that his reconstructions did not represent a historically earlier language but that they were rather compilations of the data; he left the historical presentation to the future. After much discussion of the evidence for or against assumption of Indo-Hittite, it is now widely held that Hittite is not a sister language of the earlier common language from which the other dialects developed, but rather that it was recorded earlier and therefore maintained some features that were lost in the other dialects.

This position has strong support from the increased knowledge of Active/Stative languages. In such languages, nouns and verbs fall into one of two classes, either active/animate or stative/inanimate. Reconstructed Proto-Indo-European in its earlier form, of which elements are maintained in the Anatolian languages, fits the Active/Stative pattern. Both nouns and verbs belong to either of the two classes. The twofold gender distinction maintained in Hittite reflects the animate:inanimate structure in its contrast between common and neuter inflection. In the verb, the mi-conjugation reflects the earlier active inflection while the hi-conjugation reflects the stative inflection.

This understanding has affected the view of the language family in general. It is now clear that Sanskrit and Greek, with their large number of verbal inflections, developed these after the disruption of the Indo-European family. Among their new developments is the augment, which is found only in Indo-Iranian, Greek, and Armenian. Even in the Homeric language it is not yet used in all forms that require it in Classical Greek. Moreover, Germanic with its much simpler verbal inflection is closer to that of the proto-language and more similar to Hittite than are Sanskrit and Greek. We account for the similarity by assuming that Germanic, like Hittite, was one of the first to leave when the various languages split away from the parent language and that both maintained many of its features, which were later modified in Indo-Iranian, Greek, Latin, and other dialects.

The Source of the Hittites and their Dominance in Central Anatolia

It is generally assumed that the Hittites entered Anatolia some time before 2000 B.C. While their earlier location is disputed, there has been strong evidence for more than a century that the home of the Indo-Europeans in the fourth and third millennia was in what is now southern Russia and the Ukraine. The Hittites and other member of the "Anatolian" language-speaking family, then, came from the north, possibly along the Caspian Sea but perhaps more likely via the Balkans. The dominant inhabitants in central Anatolia at the time were the Hatti (from whom the word "Hittite" was later derived). There were also Assyrian colonies in the country; it was from these that the Hittites adopted cuneiform script.

It took some time for the Hittites to establish themselves, as is clear from some of the texts included here: for several centuries there were disparate Hittite and related Anatolian language groups, usually centered around various cities; but then strong rulers with their center in Hattusa (Turkish Boğazköy) succeeded in bringing these together and conquering large parts of central Anatolia to establish the Hittite kingdom. The Hittite period of dominance is divided into three periods, labeled the Old Kingdom from about 1650 B.C. to about 1500 B.C., then a Middle Kingdom about which there is relatively little information, and finally a New Kingdom continuing from ca. 1400 B.C. to the early 12th century. In this time frame, Hittite and Luvian and Palaic were the "big three" Anatolian languages, all being recorded in cuneiform inscriptions.

An early ruler in the second half of the 18th century, Anitta, left records indicating his achievements, such as capturing Hattusa (Boğazköy), but he did not create an empire or found a dynasty. The period after him was characterized by power struggles. Then the Old Kingdom was etablished by Labarna (ca. 1680-1650 B.C.). As the later Proclamation of Telepenus (ca. 1525-1500 B.C.) indicates, in the Old Kingdom beginning with the rule of Labana and his successor Hattusilis I (ca. 1650-1620) the chief aim was to gain control over the various Hittite groups and consolidate the kingdom. The grandson and successor of Hattusilis, Mursilis I (ca. 1620-1590), conducted raids as far as Babylon. Telepenus' proclamation goes on to indicate that he expected and maintained cooperation and peacefulness during his reign. But from the century after his death we have few records; hence little is known about this period, labeled the Middle Kingdom.

Then during the New Kingdom, roughly 1400-1180 B.C., the Hittites reached their greatest status under Suppiluliumas I (ca. 1380-1340). Suppiluliumas rebuilt the capital at Hattusa and reorganized the government; he also carried out campaigns against peoples in south and southwest Anatolia and established a Hittite presence in Syria that led to conflict with Egypt. During the rule of Muwatallis II (ca. 1306-1282), there was a tremendous battle between the two countries at Kadesh on the Orontes River; the result was chaos and carnage, but both sides proclaimed victory -- after hastily withdrawing from the area. Later, under Hattusilis III (ca. 1275-1250), the two countries arranged a peace treaty and a dynastic marriage. Then during the rule of Tudhalija IV (ca. 1250-1220), problems arose especially with the country of Ahhija [or Ahhijawa], often equated with the Achaeans i.e. Mycenaean Greeks. Early in the next century the kingdom was utterly destroyed and its capital city, like Troy before it, was burned.

Vestiges of Hittite power survived for a while in Syria, and other Anatolian languages were attested throughout the first millennium B.C., but the Hittite language died out and Anatolia remained fragmented for four centuries. The Hittites were mentioned as a people in Joshua 3:10, which is the source of the name now applied to them; and Uriah, husband of the beautiful Bathsheba and commander of a division of David's army, is identified as a Hittite in 2 Samuel 11:3 and elsewhere. Yet the identity of the Hittite people was lost to history until their magnificent library was dug out of the rubble and ash of Boğazköy.

The Hittite Documents

Among the Hittite documents, those dealing with religious concerns make up a greater share than those dealing with statecraft. But more of the statecraft texts are presented here for several reasons, among them that they provide information on the second millennium B.C. in the Middle East and also because the religious texts are much alike, following the same general pattern. Examples of the three types of religious texts are illustrated in the last three lessons: prayer, ritual, and festival.

Among the prayers, the most frequent type was the arkuwar; the petitioner treats the situation as though he has been accused of some crime for which he may make confession, even admitting of his blame. Presumably the god will then make a judgment. In the mugawar the petitioner simply calls on the mercy of the god to abandon his hostility.

The rituals are highly structured, as described in the introduction to Lesson 9. They are performed by a priest or priestess, known in the lesson and in other descriptions of rituals as Old Woman. She takes the worshipper through the various steps that will remove his shortcoming and restore him to a healthy condition.

While prayers and rituals concern individuals, festivals concern the entire community. They are performed especially at the crucial occasions for success in agriculture, at the time of sowing in spring between the middle of March and the middle of June, and at the time of reaping in the fall, between September and November. Festival texts deal with liturgies, lists of the items to be used in the ceremonies, the food and drinks for the god and his worshippers, and their involvement through song, dance, and also sports. They often included processions to holy sites. Reliefs on monuments at some of the most important sites, as at Alaca höyük and Yazılıkaya, may reflect these. They as well as many other accounts indicate the importance of festivals for the Hittites.

Brief Bibliography
  • Bryce, Trevor. The Kingdom of the Hittites. Oxford: Clarendon, 1998.
  • ---. Life and Society in the Hittite World. Oxford University Press, 2002.
  • Friedrich, Johannes. Hethitisches Elementarbuch I. Kurzgefaßte Grammatik. Heidelberg: Winter, 1960.
  • Kimball, Sara. Historical Phonology of Hittite. Innsbruck: Institut für Sprachwissenschaft der Universität, 1994.
  • Luraghi, Silvia. Old Hittite Sentence Structure. London: Routledge, 1990.
  • Macqueen, J. G. The Hittites and their contemporaries in Asia Minor. London: Thames and Hudson, 1986.
  • Melchert, H. Craig Anatolian Historical Phonology. Amsterdam & Atlanta, Georgia: Rodopi, 1994.
  • Puhvel, Jaan. Hittite Etymological Dictionary. Berlin: Mouton, 1984.
  • Sturtevant, Edgar H. A Comparative Grammar of the Hittite Language, Rev. ed. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1951.

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