The language of threatening letters to King David
July 29, 2003 2:21 PM   Subscribe

Czech linguist Bedrich Hrozny first identified Hittite in 1915. It's an extinct Indo-European language that I thought would be of limited interest when I mentioned it in a previous post. However, I've been urged to share some related links, like this one which explains why Hittite is a black sheep in the IE family, this one, which contrasts the phonetics of Hittite and its relatives, a morphology page with many examples in Hittite and a short description of the relationship between Hittite and Sanskrit. If you haven't gotten your fill, there's Translated Hittite texts
posted by Mayor Curley (20 comments total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Oh. I thought those people were just being sarcastic...
posted by jonson at 2:26 PM on July 29, 2003

When I was a senior in High School, I did a term paper on "The Decline and Fall of the Hittite Empire" (I was a strange kid).

Thanks for the links, esp. the IE one.
posted by goethean at 3:02 PM on July 29, 2003

Speaking of IE (Indo-European, of course), I was recently surprised to learn that some scholars reject the Aryan invasion of India. George Feuerstein has something on it in one among the many articles that he has written
posted by goethean at 3:07 PM on July 29, 2003

very, very cool. this is why I still read MeFi. Thanks!
posted by Grod at 3:12 PM on July 29, 2003

Awesome! Thanks Mayor Curley!
posted by bshort at 3:27 PM on July 29, 2003

Nothing in there about bicycle tire sizes.... I'll get my coat.
posted by jamespake at 3:47 PM on July 29, 2003

I've always wondered how the Aryan invasion was factored in the various Indian texts. Because going by the Indian dates, those events would've occurred prior to the dates of the Aryan invasion, yet there was no mention of a migration/invasion of a new land. I am glad people are exploring this possibility.
posted by riffola at 3:52 PM on July 29, 2003

The whole idea of an invasion is hard to prove in many places. I've always liked the Altai Hypothesis, because it seems to make the case for a more reasonable diaspora from a central Asian location.
posted by Mayor Curley at 4:13 PM on July 29, 2003

Dammit, Curley, you've been holding out on us for all this time! Things like this are the reason I still read MeFi. Keep 'em coming!
posted by The Michael The at 4:31 PM on July 29, 2003

Wow. So I've been going around for the past 19 years believing that the Hittites were just a made up culture populated by people that worshipped Zuul.

posted by bemmett at 4:32 PM on July 29, 2003

Damn, Mayor, this is great! Brings back the months I spent sweating over Hittite historical phonology long, long ago. And for those of you who might sneer: "We joked with Dr. French that he should teach Hittite, and now that joke is one of my toughest and most interesting courses!" Don't miss the Hittite Home Page; you can see a photo of a cuneiform text, a copy of it, a transliteration, and a translation (unfortunately into German) here. To give a quick idea of the importance of the language to Indo-European: around a hundred years ago linguists were beginning to postulate the existence of one or more "laryngeal" consonants to explain certain peculiarities of the early IE languages; then Hittite was found and deciphered, and lo and behold there were the laryngeals! It was like physicists saying a certain particle must exist and then finding it experimentally. Very exciting.

I have to say, though, that from my conservative point of view some of the Mayor's links are on the speculative side. For instance:
*wi-ro- man (derived from *wei@- vital force)
Well, maybe it's an extension of *wei@- and maybe it isn't; I don't like suppositions stated as fact. And the idea that PIE might have existed as late as 1000 BC is silly; look at Mycenean Greek, which is clearly much later than the proto-language. But I realize that with my attitude it's hard to make any progress. Anyway, great post!

(Oh, and the Altai hypothesis does sound interesting strictly in terms of location—makes a lot of sense.)
posted by languagehat at 6:54 PM on July 29, 2003 [1 favorite]

languagehat: question: how do linguists know anything at all about the pronounciation of dead languages?
posted by signal at 7:13 PM on July 29, 2003

I'll field this one-- the only danger is if they send us to that terrible Planet of the Apes!

Really, It's a very educated guess, based on what's transpired with the language's relatives. Phonetics follows remarkably predictable laws over the course of a language's use. With a language like Hittite, which has no ancestors, it's more based on conjecture than with, say, Latin, but it's not a stab in the dark. You can look at the time period and what Hittite's relatives were doing at the time and compare it. Written scripts from the same family give clues as to similarity. The two big variables are voice and aspiration.

That's not nearly adequate. Languagehat, how does one break this down further without explaing Grimm and Werner?
posted by Mayor Curley at 7:35 PM on July 29, 2003

[this is fabulous]

Thanks for bowing to the popular demand.

And after addressing the problem of pronunciation of dead languages, let's go over the reconstruction of IE....
posted by jokeefe at 7:43 PM on July 29, 2003

[this is good]
posted by plep at 8:53 PM on July 29, 2003

My German's a little rusty, but the text languagehat refers to is roughly:

Thus speaks his majesty, the high king of the country of the Hatti: [to the high king] [to the king of the land of Egypt, my brother, say: may all be well with you; with your wives, your sons, your nobles and your country may all be well.

You wrote to me with the following words: "The affairs you have written to me about, I have have heard. You have turned yourself to me, your brother, again.
... I will be [your good friend]"
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 9:17 PM on July 29, 2003

Well, with Hittite it's written in a script (cuneiform) that was already known from Akkadian and Sumerian, so the phonetic values weren't much of a problem... except that sometimes the cuneiform symbols had Akkadian values instead of Hittite, and sometimes they had Sumerian ones (the Akkadians borrowed the writing system from the Sumerians, and the Hittites got it from the Akkadians complete with Sumerian borrowings)—it's as messy a writing system as, say, Japanese (which has characters read in two different Chinese-derived ways as well as native Japanese). For a rough English analogy, the symbol & can be read "and" or the original Latin "et" (in &c "etcetera"). Oh, and syllables were often written with two or more symbols (so that, say, "wet" might be written "we-et"). But once you get that figured out, it's pretty straightforward!

Here's a thrilling account of Hrozny's decipherment and discovery that it was an IE language; this sidebar is interesting:
The name "Hittite" was given to this language by modern scholars as being the official language of the Land of Hatti, and has been universally accepted; but it is strictly speaking incorrect. For the word hatilli - properly, 'in Hittite' - is used in the texts to introduce passages in a totally different language. When this was discovered, scholars searched the texts for the true name of the official language. It is now generally agreed that the true name of the language is "Nesite" or "Nesian", the language of Nesa or Kanesh, but despite this the name "Hittite" is now so well established that it will probably never be abandoned.
Now, you kids pipe down and let me go to bed—it's after midnight, for Pete's sake!
*shuffles off muttering*
posted by languagehat at 9:25 PM on July 29, 2003 [1 favorite]

--Yes, an excellent post with edifying commentary, to boot.
posted by y2karl at 3:27 PM on July 31, 2003

editfying comments are so annoying. all those little whirlpools, sucking and gurgling away...
posted by quonsar at 4:11 PM on July 31, 2003

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