hieroglyphic hittite

Hittite language

Hittite or Nesili is the extinct language once spoken by the Hittites, a people who created an empire centered on ancient Hattusas (modern Boğazkale) in north-central Anatolia (modern Turkey). The language was spoken from approximately 1800 BC (and probably before) to 1100 BC. There is some attestation that Hittite and related languages continued to be spoken in Anatolia and Northern Syria for a few hundred years to around 700 BC following the collapse of the Hittite empire and the last of the Hittite cuneiform texts.

Hittite is the earliest attested Indo-European language, rediscovered only a little more than a century after the Proto-Indo-European hypothesis had been formulated. Because of marked differences in its structure and phonology, some modern linguists, most notably Edgar H. Sturtevant and Warren Cowgill, argued that it should be classified as a sister language to the Indo-European languages, rather than a daughter language, formulating the Indo-Hittite hypothesis. Many scholars, however, continue to accept the traditional 19th century view of the primacy of Proto-Indo-European and interpret the unusual features of Hittite as mainly due to later innovations.


"Hittite" is a modern name, chosen after the (still disputed) identification of the Hatti kingdom with the Hittites mentioned in the Hebrew Bible.

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.


The first substantive claim as to the affiliation of the Hittite language was made by Jørgen Alexander Knudtzon (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. 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 Hattusas, the capital of the Hittite Empire. 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. 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 1951 revised edition of the Sturtevant grammar is still authoritative today.


Hittite is one of the Anatolian languages. Hittite proper is known from cuneiform tablets and inscriptions erected by the Hittite kings. The script known as "Hieroglyphic Hittite" has now been shown to have been used for writing the closely related Luwian language, rather than Hittite proper. The later languages Lycian and Lydian are also attested in Hittite territory. Palaic, also spoken in Hittite territory, is attested only in ritual texts quoted in Hittite documents. The Anatolian branch also includes Carian, Pisidian, and Sidetic.

In the Hittite and Luwian languages there are many loan words, 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 Hittite texts were often written in Hattic, Hurrian, and Akkadian, 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. Just as the notion of a Middle Kingdom has been largely discredited, Melchert (Middle Hittite revisited) argues that MH as a linguistic term is not clearly delineated and should be understood as referring to a period of transition between OH and NH.


Hittite was written in an adapted form of Old Assyrian cuneiform orthography. 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, ḫ, 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 Assyrian 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 Labialized
Plosives p  b t  d   k  g kʷ  gʷ  
Nasals m n        
Fricatives   s      
Affricate   ʦ        
Liquids, Glides w j      

  • 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 all 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 Kentum-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, Albanian and Tocharian and of marginal Kentum features in Armenian.


As the oldest attested Indo-European language, Hittite is interesting largely because it lacks several grammatical features exhibited by other "old" Indo-European languages such as Sanskrit, Latin and Ancient Greek. Notably, Hittite doesn't have the IE gender system opposing masculine : feminine; instead we have a rudimentary noun class system based on an older animate : inanimate opposition reminiscent of noun class systems in non-Bantu Niger-Congo languages.


The Hittite nominal system consists of the following cases: Nominative, Vocative, Accusative, Genitive, Allative, Dative-Locative, Instrumental and Ablative. However, the recorded history attests to fewer cases in the plural than in the singular, and later stages of the language indicate a loss of certain cases in the singular as well. It has two grammatical genders, common and neuter, and two grammatical numbers, singular and plural.

Hittite verbs are inflected according to two general verbal classes, 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").


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 are appended.




Introductions and overviews

  • Bryce, Trevor (1998). The Kingdom of the Hittites. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-924010-8.
  • Bryce, Trevor (2002). Life and Society in the Hittite World. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-924170-8.
  • Fortson, Benjamin W. (2004). Indo-European Language and Culture : an Introduction. Malden: Blackwell. ISBN 1-4051-0316-7.Dictionaries
  • Goetze, Albrecht (1954). Review of: Johannes Friedrich, Hethitisches Wörterbuch (Heidelberg: Winter). Language 30.401-405.
  • Surtevant, Edgar H. (1931). Hittite glossary: words of known or conjectured meaning, with Sumerian ideograms and Accadian words common in Hittite texts. Language, Vol. 7, No. 2, pp. 3-82., Language Monograph No. 9.
  • Puhvel, Jaan (1984-). Hittite Etymological Dictionary. Berlin: Mouton.Grammar
  • Hrozný, Bedřich (1917). Die Sprache der Hethiter: ihr Bau und ihre Zugehörigkeit zum indogermanischen Sprachstamm. Leipzig: Hinrichs.
  • Jasanoff, Jay H. (2003). Hittite and the Indo-European Verb. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-924905-9.
  • Melchert, H. Craig (1994). Anatolian Historical Phonology. Amsterdam: Rodopi. ISBN 90-5183-697-X.
  • Patri, Sylvain (2007). L'alignement syntaxique dans les langues indo-européennes d'Anatolie. Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz. ISBN 978-3-447-05612-0.
  • Rose, S. R. (2006). The Hittite -hi/-mi conjucations. Innsbruck: ISBN 3851247043.
  • Sturtevant, Edgar H. A. (1933, 1951). Comparative Grammar of the Hittite Language. Rev. ed. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1951. First edition: 1933.
  • Sturtevant, Edgar H. A. (1940). The Indo-Hittite laryngeals. Baltimore: Linguistic Society of America.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
  • Hrozný, Bedřich (1915). "Die Lösung des hethitischen Problems". Mitteilungen der Deutschen Orient-Gesellschaft 56 17-50.
  • Sturtevant, Edgar H. (1932). "The Development of the Stops in Hittite". Journal of the American Oriental Society 52 1-12.
  • Sturtevant, Edgar H. (1940). "Evidence for voicing in Hittite g". Language 16 81-87.
  • Wittmann, Henri (1969). "A note on the linguistic form of Hittite sheep". Revue hittite et asianique 22 117-118.
  • Wittmann, Henri (1964, 1973). "Some Hittite etymologies". Die Sprache 10, 19 144-148, 39-43.
  • Wittmann, Henri (1969). "The development of K in Hittite". Glossa 3 22-26.
  • Wittmann, Henri (1969). "A lexico-statistic inquiry into the diachrony of Hittite". Indogermanische Forschungen 74 1-10.
  • Wittmann, Henri (1969). "The Indo-European drift and the position of Hittite". International Journal of American Linguistics 35 266-268.

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