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Hittite language

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Title: Hittite language  
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Hittite language

𒉈𒅆𒇷 nešili
Region Anatolia[1]
Era attested 16th to 13th centuries BC
Hittite cuneiform
Language codes
ISO 639-2 hit
ISO 639-3 Variously:
oht – Old Hittite
hit – (Classical) Hittite
htx – Middle Hittite
nei – Neo-Hittite
Linguist list
oht Old Hittite
  hit (Classical) Hittite
  htx Middle Hittite
  nei Neo-Hittite
Glottolog hitt1242[2]

Hittite (natively nešili "[in the language] of Neša"), also known as Nesite and Neshite, is the extinct language once spoken by the Hittites, an Indo-European people who created an empire centred on Hattusa in north-central Anatolia (modern-day Turkey). The language is attested in cuneiform, in records from the 16th (Anitta text) down to the 13th century BC, with isolated Hittite loanwords and numerous personal names appearing in an Old Assyrian context from as early as the 20th century BC.

By the Late Bronze Age, Hittite had started losing ground to its close relative Luwian. It appears that in the 13th century BC Luwian was the most widely spoken language in the Hittite capital Hattusa.[3] After the collapse of the Hittite Empire as a part of the more general Bronze Age collapse, Luwian emerged in the Early Iron Age as the main language of the so-called Neo-Hittite states in southwestern Anatolia and northern Syria.

Hittite is the earliest attested Indo-European language. It is the best known of the Anatolian branch.


Hittite is the modern name for the language, chosen after the identification of the Hatti (Khatti) kingdom with the Hittites mentioned in the Bible (Hebrew Kheti), although this identification was subsequently challenged. The terms Hattian or Hattic,[4] by contrast, are used to refer to the indigenous people who preceded them, and their non Indo-European Hattic language.

In multi-lingual texts found in Hittite locations, passages written in the Hittite language are preceded by the adverb nesili (or nasili, nisili), "in the [speech] of Neša (Kaneš)", an important city before the rise of the Empire. In one case, the label is Kanisumnili, "in the [speech] of the people of Kaneš".

Although the Hittite empire was composed of people from many diverse ethnic and linguistic backgrounds, the Hittite language was used in most of their secular written texts. In spite of various arguments over the appropriateness of the term, Hittite remains the most current term by convention, although some authors make a point of using Nesite or Neshite.


The first substantive claim as to the affiliation of the Hittite language was made by Jørgen Alexander Knudtzon[5] in 1902 in a book devoted to two letters between the king of Egypt and a Hittite ruler, found at El-Amarna in Egypt. Knudtzon argued that Hittite was Indo-European, largely on the basis of the morphology. Although he had no bilingual texts, he was able to give a partial interpretation to the two letters because of the formulaic nature of the diplomatic correspondence of the period.[6] His argument was not generally accepted, partly because the morphological similarities he observed between Hittite and Indo-European can be found outside of Indo-European, and partly because the interpretation of the letters was justifiably regarded as uncertain.

Knudtzon was shown definitively to have been correct when a large quantity of tablets written in the familiar Akkadian cuneiform script but in an unknown language was discovered by Hugo Winckler at the modern village of Boğazköy, the former site of Hattusa, the capital of the Hittite Empire.[7] Based on a study of this extensive material, Bedřich Hrozný succeeded in analyzing the language. He presented his argument that the language is Indo-European in a paper published in 1915 (Hrozný 1915), which was soon followed by a grammar of the language (Hrozný 1917). Hrozný's argument for the Indo-European affiliation of Hittite was thoroughly modern, though poorly substantiated. He focused on the striking similarities in idiosyncratic aspects of the morphology, unlikely to occur independently by chance and unlikely to be borrowed.[8] These included the r/n alternation (see rhotacism) in some noun stems and vocalic ablaut, both seen in the alternation in the word for water between nominative singular, wadar and genitive singular, wedenas. He also presented a set of regular sound correspondences. After a brief initial delay due to the disruption caused by the First World War, Hrozný's decipherment, tentative grammatical analysis, and demonstration of the Indo-European affiliation of Hittite were rapidly accepted and more broadly substantiated by contemporary scholars such as Edgar H. Sturtevant who authored the first scientifically acceptable Hittite grammar with a chrestomathy and a glossary. The most up-to-date grammar of the Hittite language is currently Hoffner and Melchert 2008.


Hittite is one of the Anatolian languages. It is known from cuneiform tablets and inscriptions erected by the Hittite kings. The script formerly known as "Hieroglyphic Hittite" is now termed Hieroglyphic Luwian. The Anatolian branch also includes Cuneiform Luwian, Hieroglyphic Luwian, Palaic, Lycian, Milyan, Lydian, Carian, Pisidian, and Sidetic.

Hittite lacks some features of the other Indo-European languages, such as a distinction between masculine and feminine grammatical gender, subjunctive and optative moods, and aspect. Various hypotheses have been formulated to explain these contrasts.[9]

Some linguists, most notably Edgar H. Sturtevant and Warren Cowgill, have argued that it should be classified as a sister language to Proto-Indo-European, rather than a daughter language, formulating the Indo-Hittite hypothesis. The parent, Indo-Hittite, lacked the features not present in Hittite, which Proto-Indo-European innovated.

Other linguists, however, have taken the opposite point of view, the Schwund ("loss") Hypothesis, that Hittite (or Anatolian) came from a Proto-Indo-European possessing the full range of features, but simplified. A third hypothesis, supported by Calvert Watkins and others, viewed the major families as all coming from Proto-Indo-European directly. They were all sister languages or language groups. Differences might be explained as dialectical.

According to Craig Melchert, the current tendency is to suppose that Proto-Indo-European evolved, and that the "prehistoric speakers" of Anatolian became isolated "from the rest of the PIE speech community, so as not to share in some common innovations."[10] Hittite, as well as its Anatolian cousins, split off from Proto-Indo-European at an early stage, thereby preserving archaisms that were later lost in the other Indo-European languages.[11]

In Hittite there are many loanwords, particularly religious vocabulary, from the non-Indo-European Hurrian and Hattic languages. Hattic was the language of the Hattians, the local inhabitants of the land of Hatti before being absorbed or displaced by the Hittites. Sacred and magical texts from Hattusa were often written in Hattic, Hurrian, and Luwian, even after Hittite became the norm for other writings.

The Hittite language has traditionally been stratified into Old Hittite (OH), Middle Hittite (MH) and New or Neo-Hittite (NH; not to be confused with the "Neo-Hittite" period, which is actually post-Hittite), corresponding to the Old, Middle and New Kingdoms of the Hittite Empire (ca. 1750–1500 BC, 1500–1430 BC and 1430–1180 BC, respectively). These stages are differentiated partly on linguistic and partly on paleographic grounds.


Hittite was written in an adapted form of Peripheral Akkadian cuneiform orthography from Northern Syria. Owing to the predominantly syllabic nature of the script, it is difficult to ascertain the precise phonetic qualities of a portion of the Hittite sound inventory.

The syllabary distinguishes the following consonants (notably dropping the Akkadian s series),

b, p, d, t, g, k, , r, l, m, n, š, z,

combined with the vowels a, e, i, u. Additional ya (=I.A 𒄿𒀀), wa (=PI 𒉿) and wi (=wi5=GEŠTIN 𒃾) signs are introduced.

The Akkadian voiced/unvoiced series (k/g, p/b, t/d) are not used to express the voiced/unvoiced contrast in Hittite though double spellings in intervocalic positions represent voiceless consonants in Indo-European (Sturtevant's law).


The limitations of the syllabic script have been more or less overcome by means of comparative etymology and an examination of Hittite spelling conventions, and accordingly, scholars have surmised that Hittite possessed the following phonemes.


Front Central Back
Close i   u
Mid e    
Open   a  
  • Long vowels appear as alternates to their corresponding short vowels when they are so conditioned by the accent.
  • Phonemically distinct long vowels occur infrequently.
  • All vowels may occur word-initially and word-finally, except /e/.


CONSONANTS Bilabial Alveolar Palatal Velar Labiovelar Laryngeal
Plosives p  b t  d   k  ɡ kʷ  ɡʷ  
Nasals m n        
Fricatives   s       h₂, h₃
Affricate   ts        
Liquids, Glides   r, l j   w  
  • All voiceless obstruents and all sonorants except /r/ appear word-initially. This is true of all Anatolian languages.
  • Word-finally, the following tendencies emerge:
    • Among the stops, only voiced appear word-finally. /-d/, /-g/ are common, /-b/ rare.
    • /-s/ occurs frequently; /-h₂/, /-h₃/, /-r/, /-l/, /-n/ less often; and /-m/ never.
    • The glides /w/, /j/ appear in diphthongs with /a/, /aː/.
  • The voiced/unvoiced series are inferred from the fact that doubling consonants in intervocalic positions represents voiceless consonants in Indo-European (Sturtevant's law, cf. Sturtevant 1932, Puhvel 1974): i.e. voiced stops are represented by single consonants (*yugom = i-ú-kán), voiceless stops with double consonants (*k'eyto > ki-it-ta).


Hittite preserves some very archaic features lost in other Indo-European languages. For example, Hittite has retained two of three laryngeals (*h₂ and *h₃ word-initially). These sounds, whose existence had been hypothesized by Ferdinand de Saussure on the basis of vowel quality in other Indo-European languages in 1879, were not preserved as separate sounds in any attested Indo-European language until the discovery of Hittite. In Hittite, this phoneme is written as . Hittite, as well as most other Anatolian languages, differs in this respect from any other Indo-European language, and the discovery of laryngeals in Hittite was a remarkable confirmation of Saussure's hypothesis.

The preservation of the laryngeals, and the lack of any evidence that Hittite shared grammatical features possessed by the other early Indo-European languages, has led some philologists to believe that the Anatolian languages split from the rest of Proto-Indo-European much earlier than the other divisions of the proto-language. Some have proposed an "Indo-Hittite" language family or superfamily, that includes the rest of Indo-European on one side of a dividing line and Anatolian on the other. The vast majority of scholars continue to reconstruct a Proto-Indo-European, but most believe that Anatolian was the first branch of Indo-European to leave the fold.

Diffusion of Satem features in Indo-European

Sturtevant (1940), the father of the Indo-Hittite hypothesis, was the first scholar to note the lack of u after k representing earlier IE palatal *k or *g. Goetze (1954) and Wittmann (1969) posited in these positions a K to S shift incipient of the later Centum-Satem shift distinctive of the IE Satem group of languages. The diffusion hypothesis of the Satem features (spirantization of palatal stops before u as the focal origin of the Centum-Satem isogloss) has the advantage to motivate the existence of marginal Satem features in Greek and Tocharian, and of marginal Kentum features in Armenian.


Detailed information and declension tables can be found at Hittite Grammar.

The oldest[12] attested Indo-European language, Hittite lacks several grammatical features exhibited by other "old" Indo-European languages such as Sanskrit, Latin, Ancient Greek, Old Persian, and Avestan. Notably, Hittite does not have the IE gender system opposing masculine-feminine; instead it has a rudimentary noun class system based on an older animate-inanimate opposition.



The Hittite nominal system consists of the following cases: nominative, accusative, dative-locative, genitive, allative, ablative, and instrumental, and distinguishes between two numbers (singular and plural) and two genders, common (animate) and neuter (inanimate).[13] The distinction between genders is fairly rudimentary, with a distinction generally being made only in the nominative case, and the same noun is sometimes attested in both genders.

In its most basic form, the Hittite noun declension functions as follows, using the examples of pisna- ("man") for animate and pēda- ("place") for neuter.

Common Neuter
Singular Plural Singular Plural
Nominative pisnas pisnēs pēdan pēda
Accusative pisnan pisnus pēdan pēda
Genitive pisnas pisnas pēdas pēdas
Dative/Locative pisni pisnas pēdi pēdas
Ablative pisnats pisnats pēdats pēdats
Allative pisna - pēda -
Instrumental pisnit - pēdit -

As can be seen, there is a trend towards distinguishing fewer cases in the plural than in the singular. Although a handful of nouns in earlier text form a vocative with -u, the vocative case was no longer productive even by the time of the earliest discovered sources, its function being subsumed by the nominative in most documents. The allative also fell out of use in the later stages of the language's development, its function subsumed by the dative-locative. An archaic genitive plural -an is found irregularly in earlier texts, as is an instrumental plural in -it. A few nouns also form a distinct locative without any case ending at all.


When compared with other early-attested Indo-European languages, such as Ancient Greek and Sanskrit, the verb system in Hittite is morphologically relatively uncomplicated. There are two general verbal classes according to which verbs are inflected, the mi-conjugation and the hi-conjugation. There are two voices (active and medio-passive), two moods (indicative and imperative), and two tenses (present and preterite). Additionally, the verbal system displays two infinitive forms, one verbal substantive, a supine, and a participle. Rose (2006) lists 132 hi-verbs and interprets the hi/mi oppositions as vestiges of a system of grammatical voice ("centripetal voice" vs. "centrifugal voice").


The mi-conjugation is similar to the general verbal conjugation paradigm in Sanskrit, and can also be compared to the class of mi-verbs in Ancient Greek.

Active voice
Indicative Imperative Infinitive Participle Supine
Present suwāiemi


Preterite suwāieun


Hittite syntax exhibits one noteworthy feature typical of Anatolian languages. Commonly, the beginning of a sentence or clause is composed of either a sentence-connecting particle or otherwise a fronted or topicalized form, to which a "chain" of fixed-order clitics is appended.

The basic word order of Hittite was usually verb-final.[14]


See also


  1. ^ Cuneiform Luwian ("Hittite")
  2. ^ Nordhoff, Sebastian; Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds. (2013). "Hittite". Glottolog 2.2. Leipzig: Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology. 
  3. ^ Yakubovich 2010, p. 307
  4. ^
  5. ^ [1] J. D. Hawkins, The Arzawa Letters in Recent Perspective, British Museum Studies in Ancient Egypt and Sudan, 14 (2009), pp. 73-83
  6. ^ Beckman, Gary. "The Hittite Language: Recovery and Grammatical Sketch." (2011), The Oxford Handbook of Ancient Anatolia 10,000-323 B.C.E., ed. S.R. Steadman and G. McMahon [2], pg. 518-519
  7. ^ Silvia Alaura: "Nach Boghasköi!" Zur Vorgeschichte der Ausgrabungen in Boğazköy-Ḫattuša und zu den archäologischen Forschungen bis zum Ersten Weltkrieg, Benedict Press 2006. ISBN 3-00-019295-6
  8. ^ Fortson (2004:154)
  9. ^ Melchert 2012, pp. 2–5.
  10. ^ Melchert 2012, p. 7.
  11. ^ Jasanoff 2003, p. 20 with footnote 41
  12. ^ Coulson 1986, p. xiii
  13. ^ [Hittite grammar (PDF)]
  14. ^


Introductions and overviews



Text editions

  • Goetze, Albrecht & Edgar H. Sturtevant (1938). The Hittite Ritual of Tunnawi. New Haven: American Oriental Society.
  • Sturtevant, Edgar H. A., & George Bechtel (1935). A Hittite Chrestomathy. Baltimore: Linguistic Society of America.
  • Knudtzon, J. A. (1902). Die Zwei Arzawa-Briefe: Die ältesten Urkunden in indogermanischer Sprache. Leipzig: Hinrichs. 

Journal articles

External links

  • Lehmann, Winfred P.; Slocum, Jonathan (2011). "Hittite online". Linguistics Research Center, University of Texas. 
  • Lauffenburger, Olivier (2006). "The Hittite Grammar Homepage". 
  • Hethitologie Portal Mainz (in German)
  • The Electronic Edition of the Chicago Hittite Dictionary - The University of Chicago
  • ABZU - a guide to information related to the study of the Ancient Near East on the Web
  • Hittite Dictionary
  • Hittite basic lexicon at the Global Lexicostatistical Database

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