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Hittite (natively "[in the language] of Nešamarker") is the extinct language once spoken by the Hittites, a people who created an empire centered on Hattusamarker in north-central Anatoliamarker. The language is attested in cuneiform, in records from the 16th (Anitta text) down to the 13th century BC, with isolated Hittite loanwords or names appearing in an Old Assyrian context from as early as the 20th century BC.

Dialects derived from Hittite may have been spoken after the Bronze Age collapse in various parts of Anatolia and northern Syria, in the so-called Neo-Hittite states of the Early Iron Age.

Hittite is the earliest attested Indo-European language, rediscovered only more than a century after the Proto-Indo-European hypothesis had been formulated. Because of marked differences in its structure and phonology, some 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. Other linguists, 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. Still others claim 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.


"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 Nešamarker (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 Hittitelanguage was made by Jørgen Alexander Knudtzon (1902)in a book devoted to two letters between the king ofEgypt and a Hittite ruler, found at El-Amarnamarker in Egyptmarker.Knudtzon argued that Hittite was Indo-European, largely on the basis of themorphology. Although he had no bilingual texts, he was able to give a partialinterpretation to the two letters because of the formulaic nature of the diplomaticcorrespondence 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 Boğazköymarker, the former site of Hattusasmarker, 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, , r, l, m, n, š, z,
combined with the vowels a, e, i, u. Additional ya (=I.A ), wa (=PI ) and wi (=wi5=GEŠTIN ) 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

  • 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

Liquids, Glides      

  • 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 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 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 reminiscent of noun class systems in non-Bantu Niger-Congo languages.


The Noun

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). 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. A handful of nouns in earlier text form a vocative with -u, however, the vocative case was no longer productive even by the time of our earliest sources, its function was 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.

The Verb

When compared with other early-attested Indo-European languages, such as Ancient Greek and Sanskrit, the verb system in Hittite is relatively morphologically 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").

Mi Conjugation
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 Suwāyemi










Preterite Suwāyeun







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.


See also




Introductions and overviews

  • Goetze, Albrecht (1954). Review of: Johannes Friedrich, Hethitisches Wörterbuch (Heidelberg: Winter). Language 30.401-405.[44023]
  • Sturtevant, 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.

  • 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.

Journal articles

External links

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