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Quick Facts
LocationWest Asia > Anatolia
Time1700 BCE to 1100 BCE

Anatolia, the region corresponding to the Asiatic part of modern Turkey, has been a hotbed of urban life from as far back as 9,000 years ago and is where one of the earliest cities of the world, Çatal Höyük, is located. However, literate urban societies did not appear in Anatolia until the 18th century BCE with the rise of the Hittite Empire centered at its capital of Hattusa.

The Hittites were one of the many nations that spoke the Anatolian branch of the Indo-European family of languages. The Hittite language was related to Luwian and Palaic, and possibly to later languages such as Lydian, Lycian, and Carian. Unlike Luwian, which had an indigenous writing system, Hittite adopted the Akkadian cuneiform to write their language. Approximately 375 cuneiform signs were adopted from Akkadian cuneiform. As in Akkadian, signs can be roughly categorized into phonograms, logograms, and determinatives.

Phonograms are signs used for their phonetic values. They can be a single vowel, a consonant followed by a vowel, or a vowel followed by a consonant. The following is the set of phonetic signs used in Hittite cuneiform.

Note that in the transliteration scheme, /z/ stands for the affricate sound [ts], where as /š/ can actually stand for both [s] and [š].

Hittite also adopted the spelling conventions that Akkadian employed in order to write syllables ending in a consonant, which is to write the syllable as two signs, the first sign a CV phonogram with the starting consonant and the vowel (or just a V phonogram if the word starts with a vowel), followed by the second sign a VC phonogram with the same vowel again followed by the ending consonant.

The following is an example of how isolated consonants are written. Note that the red text is the Hittite transliteration, the purple text is the phonetic representation, and the blue text is the English meaning.

To write consonant clusters, either a CV or VC sign is written used but its vowel is "silent" so that only the consonantal value is pronounced. Depending on the structure of the consonant cluster, the phonogram with the suppressed vowel can precede or follow a fully pronounced phonogram containing the vowel of the syllable.

In addition to phonograms, Hittite also employed a number of logograms. Many phonograms also serve as logograms, and many logograms have multiple meanings as well. This phenomenon is known as polyvalence, and it existed in all cuneiform scripts from as far back as Sumerian. Because the system is adopted from Akkadian, which in turn was adopted from Sumerian, two types of logograms exist in Hittite. Sumerograms are signs adopted from Sumerian, and in Akkadian they already served as logograms. In constract, Akkadograms are signs that originally phonetically spelled words in Akkadian but adopted into Hittite and treated as logograms. This means that even though the signs can be "read" phonetically one way in Akkadian, they are read as a word in Hittite.

Note: In the traditional transliteration scheme, logograms are written out in capital letters.

Quite often logograms are accompanied by phonetic complements, phonograms that serve to disambiguate the reading of logograms and/or to explicitly write out inflectional ending of the word. The following are some examples:

The Hittite Empire flourished until the 12 century BCE when internal political turmoil and external threats brought about its fragmentation and demise. The Hittite cuneiform script died with the Hittite Empire. Neo-Hittite city states which arose in northern modern-day Syria from fragments of the empire had rulers that were dynastically related to the old Hittite aristocracy but were ethnically Luwian and left inscriptions in the Hieroglyphic Luwian script. However, the Hittite language did not completely disappear, and might have evolved into, or at least contributed to, a later tongue known as Lycian.

Hittite and Historical Linguistics

Because of its great antiquity, Hittite and its close relative Luwian provided invaluable aid to the study of Indo-European linguistics. In particular, they were the only languages with evidence to support the laryngeal theory, which profoundly changed the understanding of Proto-Indo-European, the supposed mother tongue of all Indo-European languages.

A full treatment of the laryngeal theory would be too technical and too lengthy here, but suffice to say that the laryngeal theory concluded that atypical Proto-Indo-European roots (abstract, basic form of words) were actually typical Proto-Indo-European roots that contained "laryngeal" consonants. Some of these laryngeal consonants "colored" or modified the vowels they preceded or followed. All laryngeals eventually coalesced with the vowels and disappeared, leaving no trace in most documented Indo-European languages. It is still in intense debate how many laryngeals there were, but most linguists agree on three:

  • h1: neutral laryngeal, meaning it doesn't change the vowel
  • h2: a-coloring, turning vowel into /a/
  • h3: o-coloring, turning vowel into /o/

The original form of the theory was proposed in 1879 by Ferdinand de Saussure, but because of its purely analytical arguments and lack of evidence, it remained highly controversial. However, with the discovery of Hittite and its identification as an Indo-European language, scholars started to notice cuneiform signs representing /h/-like sounds appearing in places where the theory predicted laryngeals would appear. For example, consider Latin pōtare and Sanskrit pā-, both meaning "to drink". Because of the long vowel /ō/ (in Sanskrit /ō/ became /&\#x0101;/), the reconstructed PIE form would be *peh3, and in Hittite scholars found the word pahs which meant "to drink, to swallow". Similarly, we find the cognates Greek anti "against", Latin ante "in front of, before", and Sanskrit anti "near, in presence of". Because of the short /a/ vowel, the reconstructed PIE form would be *h2ent, which is quite similar to Hittite hants "front, face".

Eventually it became accepted that the /h/-like sounds in Hittite were in fact Proto-Indo-European laryngeals. Later it was discovered that some laryngeals also survived in Luwian. With two languages providing evidence, laryngeal theory became validated and accepted by modern linguistics.

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