Found in Translation: Why Would You Learn to Read Ancient Hittite?

Ido Kenan
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Ido Kenan

Why should someone take private lessons in Hittite with you?

“It’s something a bit different. I’m working on a master’s degree in ancient history, and that’s where it all began. Studying the languages that were written then gives you a glimpse into the way things were long ago. When you read the texts yourself, you can feel who the people were, what they wrote, what kind of civilization they lived in. You can sense the culture yourself through the words, through the writings.”

What can you tell us about the language?

“Hittite is an Indo-European language, and therefore it has an etymological affinity with other languages from the same family − like Sanskrit, ancient Greek and English. To understand the Hittite text, you need to have some knowledge of other languages. The tablets written in Hittite contain elements from the languages of neighboring peoples that were absorbed into Hittite, such as Akkadian, Sumerian, Luwian and Hurrian.”

Can one also learn to speak and write the language?

“These were not spoken languages. Mostly they were used by writers to compose texts. I teach morphology and syntax − conjugations, verbs, a little vocabulary. Writing the cuneiform figures is very difficult and complicated, so we convert them into Latin letters.”

Are there texts with fictional content such as plays or poetry?

“Many of the Hittite texts come from the archive of Hattusa, the capital of the Hittite empire, in central Anatolia in Turkey. Many tablets were found there that offer a glimpse into their world − administrative texts, prayers, cultic rituals. There are no texts meant purely for entertainment. There is one text that lists all these different functionaries who failed at their jobs and the punishments they received. It’s hard to say if it was written for amusement or as a kind of warning to others.

“There were rituals in which people had specific roles − singers, musicians, even jesters, but an actual play with a stage and an orchestra and masks did not come about until ancient Greece, I believe.”

A bronze artifact symbolizing the universe, used by Hittite priests more than 4,000 years ago.Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Inbal Ma’ayan Iticovici.