Hittites and The Riddle of the Scripts



Behind the decipherment of ancient inscriptions lies a tradition of some one hundred and fifty years. The two momentous triumphs in this field are linked with the names of Georg Friedrich Grotefend, the brilliant German schoolmaster, and Jean-Francois Champollion, the child prodigy who at sixteen already knew eight languages. In both cases one element in the script was already known. For Grotefend, who deciphered the cuneiform script, this element was admittedly pure hypothesis at first (his assumption that certain signs represented three known names of Persian kings), but it proved to be correct at the very first test, and the way was then open for further deciphering. For Champollion, the unraveller of the Egyptian hieroglyphics, the known element was contained in a readable Greek text. On the trilingual Rosetta Stone, Champollion identified the name of Ptolemy, mentioned in the Greek text, with a group of hieroglyphic signs that were emphasised by being framed in a ring, and thus he determined the first few letters-the basis for further interpretation. From Champollion's day on, however, a text in two languages - what archaeologists call a bilingual - has remained the dream of all philologists when confronted with newly discovered scripts. Rarely has such a dream been so beautifully fulfilled as it had been for Champollion. On the other hand, such staggering luck is no longer necessary-techniques have been refined greatly in the past century. Insignificant hints which would have meant nothing to the pioneers of deciphering now furnish vital information. And with each new decipherment has come a growth in understanding of the network of interrelationships linking the ancient languages with one another. It is curious that the most important of these networks among ancient languages was detected long before the first decipherments, in the year 1786, to be precise. And it was discovered not in the traditional centres of Near Eastern studies - England and Germany - but in India. The man with phenomenal linguistic gifts who first perceived this critical system of interrelationships, and thereby made the most fruitful discovery in the history of philology, was at the time Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of judicature in Calcutta. In his leisure hours he was concerned not so much with comparing languages, as with collecting and translating Hindu and Mohammedan legal lore.

His name was William Jones; he was born in London in 1746. He studied ancient languages and history at Harrow, and specialised in Persian, Arabic, and Hebrew. It was probably his transfer to India that stimulated him to study Sanskrit, the Hindu language of literature and scholarship. As he worked with Sanskrit, he perceived in the languages he knew a concealed skeleton. Behind the individual features of numerous languages he discerned their true face, their family resemblance. The busy colonial magistrate had no time to work out his discovery in detail. But there were others to build on the basis of his ideas.

Franz Bopp, a German linguist (1791-1867), proved conclusively that there existed a group of languages which, because they included the languages of India, central and western Asia, and most of Europe, could be called 'Indo-European' - languages bearing astonishing resemblances to one another in vocabulary and form, and which were therefore related.

Naturally the first reward of the early Indo-European philologists was mockery. It seemed on the face of it ridiculous to claim kinship between Afghan and Icelandic, Sanskrit and Russian, Frisian and the language of the Gypsies, or Latin and Old Prussian. After all, the geographic area supposedly covered by this linguistic group ranged from India over the Near East to the westernmost point of Europe. It was an area broken by deserts, mountains, and seas, populated by widely differing races.

The Indo-European philologist is still confronted by a great many problems. For example the 'original home' of this linguistic group has by no means been definitively established -it is now held to have been somewhere between southern Russia and central Europe. But the basic fact of its group existence, of close and more binding kinships among the members of the group as against other language groups of the white race (Hamito-Semitic, Caucasian, Dravidian, and the isolated Basque language), is no longer open to doubt.

In addition to the tried and tested methods which had led to the decipherment of dead languages and scripts throughout the nineteenth century, Indo-European philology now contributed a new key with which to unlock the enigma of the Hittite clay tablets from Boghazkoy. Oddly enough, the man who first used this key was not an Indo-European philologist. He was an Assyriologist - linguistically speaking, a student of the Semitic group of languages, for Babylonian Assyrian is reckoned among the East Semitic tongues.

After Winckler's death, the German Orient Society of Berlin had handed over the collection of Hittite cuneiform material from Boghazkoy to a group of young Assyriologists, in order that they might arrange and transcribe it. From the start there were two diametrically opposite personalities in this group: the rather ponderous, grave German Ernst F. Weidner, and the lively, gifted Czech Friedrich (or Bedrich) Hrozny - born in Poland in 1879.

When the First World War broke out, the Germans promptly put such useless creatures as students of ancient languages into uniform. Weidner, a great hulk of a man, was assigned to the Heavy Artillery. While he was slowly working his way up to the rank of corporal, his rival Hrozny fell into a feather bed. Drafted into the Austro-Hungarian army, he found a tolerant superior in Lieutenant Kammergruber, an easy-going Viennese who took a liking to the young professor and who, as far as lay within his powers, gave Hrozny the freedom to pursue his researches. Hrozny gratefully acknowledged that his first paper, 'The Solution of the Hittite Problem', ‘was only given its definitive form during the author's military service'. In fact he tells us that his second paper was also completed during this period. When we consider that these articles were far from easy to write, that they represented scientific pioneering of the highest type, we can well imagine that the thirty-five-year-old scholar's military service was not especially burdensome. He was even given the opportunity to spend weeks in Constantinople examining cuneiform Hittite material which at that time was scarcely accessible to any other European scholar. 

But we certainly do not want to imply that Weidner, sweating over his cannon, might have, but for that, outstripped the more fortunate Czech - especially since we know now that Weidner was on the wrong track. And it would be foolish to maintain that Hrozny deciphered the Hittite language solely because he had more time at his disposal than his rival. Hrozny was a man who had already done a great deal in his field; at the age of twenty-four he had participated in excavations in northern Palestine and had published highly esteemed reports on cuneiform texts, while at the age of twenty-six he had been appointed to a professorship in Vienna.

So it is evident that Hrozny tackled his task equipped with phenomenal knowledge. He was also blessed with enormous scientific audacity. His approach was altogether unbiased; he did not want to let the suggestions of others predetermine his conclusions and was thoroughly prepared to be surprised himself. He would work directly from the evidence, even if his observations should contradict all the established views.

We know on his own testimony that at the beginning of his labours he had not the faintest idea what kind of language would be revealed to him.

Again and again in the history of such discoveries as Hrozny’s there comes a climax at which the innumerable false starts and fresh insights, the endless patient labour of formulating, comparing, and rejecting, culminate in a single idea which proves to be the crucial one. And this idea, the fruit of so much toll and searching, is as a rule strikingly simple.

The starting point of Hrozny’s work was the usual determination of proper names. The second point was the perception that the Hittite texts contained what were called ‘ideograms'.

The Babylonian-Assyrian cuneiform writing in the Boghazkiy texts had in its earliest form (like all other scripts) been picturewriting which later developed into a syllabic script. A large number of the earlier pictures had been retained in this syllabic script. Such ideograms had been taken over by the Hittites and could be ‘read’ by scholars of cuneiform writing - that is, they could be understood without knowledge of the language.

An example will make the matter clear. As readers of English alone, we can see the numeral ‘10’ in an English, German, and French text and understand it immediately. The fact that a Frenchman may call this figure dix and a German zehn in no way affects our understanding.

In this fashion, with the aid of ideograms, Hrozny read the words 'fish’ and ‘father'. And then, in the course of wearisome examination of the closest details, he groped his way forward from word to word, from form to form-until one day he discovered (simply by changes in the form of words and despite the fact that he could not yet arrive at the meaning of a single sentence) that Hittite displayed grammatical forms typical of the Indo-European linguistic group. In particular he recognised a participial form.

This discovery was extremely confusing. There already existed a large number of theories about the Hittite language. But with the exception of a single scholar, who afterwards recanted, it had occurred to no one that Hittite might be an Indo-European language. There was no objective basis for this idea, for to assume that Indo-Europeans had been dominant in inner Anatolia in the middle of the second millennium BC was to contradict all that historians of the Near East had learned.

No wonder, then, that Hrozny was wary of this conclusion. It looked to him as though he was being deceived by accidents of language. But as he worked on, he was reluctantly forced to note more indications pointing to the membership of Hittite in the Indo-European family of languages.

But then came the day when Hrozny, setting over a certain text, took a deep breath and, conscious of the boldness of his own thesis dared to think: 'If I am right about the interpretation of this line. there is going to be a scientific storm.’ But the sentence he was reading seemed clear and unambiguous. He had only one choice: to say what it was he saw - even if it overturned the views of all specialists in ancient history.

The text which led Hrozny to this resolve was the sentence nu ninda~an ezzatteni vadar-ma ekutteni.

In this sentence there was only a single known word: ninda. It could be deduced from the Sumerian ideogram that this word meant 'bread'.

Hrozny said to himself. 'A sentence in which the word bread is used may very well (though it need not necessarily, of course!) contain the word "eat".' Since at this point the indications that Hittite might be an Indo-European language were already becoming overwhelming, he drew up a list of various Indo-European words for ‘eat'. Was it possible that he was dealing here with a Hittite cognate? English 'eat' was in Latin edo, in Old High German ... As soon as Hrozny wrote down the Old High German word he knew that he was on the right track. Ezzan certainly bore a strong resemblance to the Hittite ezzatteni.

The next significant word, which seemed to cry out for such cornparisons, was undoubtedly the Hittite vadar. Since it occurred in the same line as 'bread' and 'eat', it might very well be related to food. Hrozny, a veritable bloodhound on the trail of an Indo-European language, saw a similarity to the English water, German Wasser, Old Saxon watar. We need not go into the complicated grammatical considerations which led him to an interpretation of the Hittite sentence, but at this point he ventured a translation: 'Now you will eat bread, further you will drink water.'

Such a reading of the sentence was an amazing confirmation of the idea which had been suggested as early as 1902 by the Norwegian orientalist Knudtzon, whose theory, however, had been greeted with such universal scorn by the other experts that he had retracted it. Hittite after all was an Indo-European language!

Further conclusions followed. Since the archaeologists were able to establish the period at which the Boghazkoy texts originated as the fourteenth and thirteenth centuries B C, and since there were indications that many texts were copies of much older documents, some of perhaps the eighteenth century B C , Hrozny could lay claim to having deciphered possibly the oldest Indo-European language. His texts compared in age with the oldest parts of the Rig-Veda, the Hindu scriptures, which had begun to take shape in India around the middle of the second millennium BC. On 24 November 1915 Hrozny delivered a lecture on his decipherment to the members of the Near Eastern Society of Berlin. The following month this lecture was printed. But his book on the actual decipherment itself was first published in Leipzig in 1917. It was entitled The Language of the Hittites; Its Structure and Its Membership in the Indo-European Linguistic Family. The first sentences of the preface stated:

The present work undertakes to establish the nature and structure of the hitherto mysterious language of the Hittites, and to decipher this language ... It will be shown that Hittite is in the main an Indo-European language.'

In the 246 pages of his book, Hrozny presented the most complete decipherment of a dead language that had ever been given to the public. Hardly any of his statements were hypothetical or provisional; he presented definitive conclusions.

The excavator who finds golden treasure and the mummies of long dead kings is not the only one who experiences that moment of illumination when he seems to lay his hand on the very past. The same thrill can come to a man sitting bent over books in his study, pondering a single sentence, until suddenly he feels that shudder of awe which voices from immemorial tombs evoke. There is more to such a matter than dry philology. For does not 'water', uttered as a cry in a desert landscape, mean parching thirst? Vadar, water, Wasser-how staggering it is to realise that with three thousand years intervening, a Frisian living on the North Sea coast of Germany and a Pennsylvania Dutchman of eastern North America would understand a Hittite's cry of thirst!



The bronze tablet found at Boghazkoy in 1986, the finest surviving Hittite cuneiform inscription.

Pecularity of the Hittite method of writing may be mentioned here, namely "alography", the practice of writing a different word from that which was actually pronounced. Hittite texts are liberally interspersed with purely Akkadian and Sumerian words, the latter usually written by single signs, the use of which as "ideograms" can often be recognised only by means of context, for they maybe the same signs that are normally used for mere syllables. But these "foreign" words were probably not pronounced in reading; they merely conceal the corresponding Hittite word, which the reader was expected to substitute for them . This was undoubtedly intended as a kind of shorthand by the scribes.



Hittite gold dish decorated with a wild cattle hunt.

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.

Panche Hadzi-Andonov , AAI
 Copyright 2000 

All rights reserved.
Revised: August 21, 2000