Hittite language

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𒉈𒅆𒇷 nešili
Hittite Cuneiform Tablet- Cultic Festival Script.jpg
Region Anatolia[1]
Era attested 16th to 13th centuries BC
Hittite cuneiform
Language codes
ISO 639-2 hit
ISO 639-3 Variously:
oht – Old Hittite
hit – (Classical) Hittite
htx – Middle Hittite
nei – Neo-Hittite
oht Old Hittite
  hit (Classical) Hittite
  htx Middle Hittite
  nei Neo-Hittite
Glottolog hitt1242[2]

Hittite (natively 𒉈𒅆𒇷 nešili "[in the language] of Neša"), also known as Nesite and Neshite, is the extinct language once spoken by the Hittites, an Indo-European-speaking people who created an empire centred on Hattusa in north-central Anatolia (modern-day Turkey). The language is attested in cuneiform, in records dating from the 16th (Anitta text) to the 13th century BC, with isolated Hittite loanwords and numerous personal names appearing in an Old Assyrian context from as early as the 20th century BC.

By the Late Bronze Age, Hittite had started losing ground to its close relative Luwian. It appears that in the 13th century BC, Luwian was the most widely spoken language in the Hittite capital of Hattusa.[3] After the collapse of the Hittite Empire as a part of the more general Late Bronze Age collapse, Luwian emerged in the Early Iron Age as the main language of the so-called Syro-Hittite states in southwestern Anatolia and northern Syria.

Hittite is the earliest-attested of the Indo-European languages and is the best-known of the Anatolian languages.


Hittite is the modern name for the language, chosen after the identification of the Hatti (Ḫatti) kingdom with the Hittites mentioned in the Bible (Hebrew חתים Ḥettim), although this identification was subsequently challenged.[4] The terms Hattian or Hattic,[5] by contrast, are used to refer to the indigenous people who preceded them, and their non Indo-European Hattic language.

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".[6]

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 and the strength of association with the Biblical Hittites. The alternative term Nesite, derived from nesili, never caught on.[7]


The first substantive claim as to the affiliation of the Hittite language was made by Jørgen Alexander Knudtzon[8] in 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.[9] 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 Hattusa, the capital of the Hittite Empire.[10] 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.[11] These included the r/n alternation in some noun stems (the heteroclitics) 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 most up-to-date grammar of the Hittite language is currently Hoffner and Melchert 2008.


Hittite is one of the Anatolian languages. It is known from cuneiform tablets and inscriptions erected by the Hittite kings. The script formerly known as "Hieroglyphic Hittite" is now termed Hieroglyphic Luwian. The Anatolian branch also includes Cuneiform Luwian, Hieroglyphic Luwian, Palaic, Lycian, Milyan, Lydian, Carian, Pisidian, and Sidetic.

Hittite lacks some features of the other Indo-European languages, such as a distinction between masculine and feminine grammatical gender, subjunctive and optative moods, and aspect. Various hypotheses have been formulated to explain these contrasts.[12]

Some linguists, most notably Edgar H. Sturtevant and Warren Cowgill, have argued that it should be classified as a sister language to Proto-Indo-European, rather than a daughter language. According to this Indo-Hittite hypothesis, the parent language (Indo-Hittite) lacked the features not present in Hittite, and Proto-Indo-European later innovated them. Other linguists, however, have taken the opposite point of view, the Schwund ("loss") Hypothesis, that Hittite (or Anatolian) came from a Proto-Indo-European possessing the full range of features, but simplified. A third hypothesis, supported by Calvert Watkins and others, viewed the major families as all coming from Proto-Indo-European directly. They were all sister languages or language groups. Differences might be explained as dialectical.

According to Craig Melchert, the current tendency is to suppose that Proto-Indo-European evolved, and that the "prehistoric speakers" of Anatolian became isolated "from the rest of the PIE speech community, so as not to share in some common innovations."[13] 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.[14]

In Hittite there are many loanwords, particularly religious vocabulary, from the non-Indo-European Hurrian and Hattic languages. The latter 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 texts from Hattusa were often written in Hattic, Hurrian, and Luwian, 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.


Hittite was written in an adapted form of Peripheral Akkadian cuneiform orthography from Northern Syria. 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, d, g, ḫ, k, l, m, n, p, r, š, t, 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 Akkadian unvoiced/voiced 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 Labiovelar Laryngeal
Plosives p  b t  d   k  ɡ kʷ  ɡʷ  
Nasals m n        
Fricatives   s       h₂, h₃
Affricate   ts        
Liquids, Glides   r, l j   w  
  • 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 based on an interpretation that doubling consonants in intervocalic positions represents voiceless consonants in Indo-European (Sturtevant's law, cf. Sturtevant 1932, Puhvel 1974) so that voiced stops are represented by single consonants (*yugom = i-ú-kán) and 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, so the discovery of laryngeals in Hittite was a remarkable confirmation of Saussure's hypothesis.

The preservation of the laryngeals, and the lack of evidence that Hittite shared certain 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 – see Classification above.


The oldest[15] attested Indo-European language, Hittite lacks several grammatical features exhibited by other early-attested Indo-European languages such as Sanskrit, Latin, Ancient Greek, Old Persian, and Avestan. Notably, Hittite does not have the Indo-European gender system opposing masculine–feminine; instead it has a rudimentary noun-class system based on an older animate–inanimate opposition.



Hittite inflects for nine cases: nominative, ergative, accusative, dative-locative, genitive, allative, ablative, instrumental, and vocative; 2 numbers: singular, and plural; and 2 animacy classes: animate (common), and inanimate (neuter).[16] Adjectives, and pronouns agree with nouns in animacy, number, and case.

The distinction in animacy is rudimentary, generally being made only in the nominative case, and the same noun is sometimes attested in both animacy classes. There is a trend towards distinguishing fewer cases in the plural than in the singular. The ergative case is used when an inanimate noun is the subject of a transitive verb. Early Hittite texts have a vocative case for a few nouns with -u, however, the vocative case was no longer productive by the time of the earliest discovered sources, being subsumed by the nominative in most documents. The allative was subsumed in the later stages of the language's development 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.

In its most basic form, the Hittite noun declension functions as follows, using the examples of pisna- ("man") for animate and pēda- ("place") for inanimate.

  Animate   Inanimate
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 -


Hittite's verbal morphology is uncomplicated compared to other early-attested Indo-European languages such as Ancient Greek and Sanskrit. Hittite verbs inflect according to two general conjugations: mi-conjugation, and hi-conjugation; two voices: active, and medio-passive; two moods: indicative, and imperative; and two tenses: present, and preterite. Verbs have two infinitive forms, a verbal noun, 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").


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. Here the example is given using the verb suwāie-, "to look."

Active voice[edit]
Indicative Imperative
Present suwāiemi

Preterite suwāieun


Hittite has subject-object-verb word order,[17] split ergative alignment, and is synthetic. Adpositions follow their complement, adjectives and genitives precede the nouns they modify, adverbs precede verbs, and subordinate clauses precede main clauses.

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 is appended.


See also[edit]


  1. ^ [1]
  2. ^ Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds. (2017). "Hittite". Glottolog 3.0. Jena, Germany: Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History. 
  3. ^ Yakubovich 2010, p. 307
  4. ^ Bryce, Trevor (2012-03-15). The World of The Neo-Hittite Kingdoms: A Political and Military History. OUP Oxford. ISBN 9780191505027. 
  5. ^ "Oguz Soysal" (PDF). Oi.uchicago.edu. Retrieved 2017-01-17. 
  6. ^ Güterbock, Hans Gustav; Hoffner, Harry A.; Diamond, Irving L. (1997). Perspectives on Hittite civilization. Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago. p. 188. ISBN 9781885923042. 
  7. ^ Hout, Theo van den (2011-10-27). The Elements of Hittite. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 9781139501781. 
  8. ^ J. D. Hawkins (2009). "The Arzawa Letters in Recent Perspective" (PDF). British Museum Studies in Ancient Egypt and Sudan. 14: 73–83. 
  9. ^ Beckman, Gary (2011). S.R. Steadman; G. McMahon, eds. "The Hittite Language: Recovery and Grammatical Sketch". The Oxford Handbook of Ancient Anatolia 10,000-323 B.C.E.: 518–519. 
  10. ^ Silvia Alaura: "Nach Boghasköi!" Zur Vorgeschichte der Ausgrabungen in Boğazköy-Ḫattuša und zu den archäologischen Forschungen bis zum Ersten Weltkrieg, Benedict Press 2006. ISBN 3-00-019295-6
  11. ^ Fortson (2004:154)
  12. ^ Melchert 2012, pp. 2–5.
  13. ^ Melchert 2012, p. 7.
  14. ^ Jasanoff 2003, p. 20 with footnote 41
  15. ^ Coulson 1986, p. xiii
  16. ^ "Hittite Grammar" (PDF). Assyrianlanguages.org. Retrieved 2017-01-17. 
  17. ^ "The Telepenus "Vanishing God" Myth (Anatolian mythology)". Utexas.edu. Retrieved 2017-01-17. 


Introductions and overviews[edit]

  • 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. 
  • Melchert, H. Craig (2012). "The Position of Anatolian" (PDF). 


  • Goetze, Albrecht (1954). “Review of: Johannes Friedrich, Hethitisches Wörterbuch (Heidelberg: Winter)”, Language 30, pp. 401-5.
  • Kloekhorst, Alwin. Etymological Dictionary of the Hittite Inherited Lexicon. Leiden–Boston: Brill, 2008.
  • Puhvel, Jaan (1984–). Hittite Etymological Dictionary. 10 vols. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.
  • Sturtevant, Edgar H. (1931). “Hittite glossary: words of known or conjectured meaning, with Sumerian ideograms and Accadian words common in Hittite texts”, Language 7, no. 2, pp. 3–82., Language Monograph No. 9.
  • The Chicago Hittite Dictionary


  • Hoffner, Harry A.; Melchert, H. Craig (2008). A Grammar of the Hittite Language. Winona: Eisenbrauns. ISBN 1-57506-119-8. 
  • Hout, Theo van den (2011). The Elements of Hittite. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0521115647. 
  • 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. 
  • Luraghi, Silvia (1997). Hittite. Munich: Lincom Europa. ISBN 3-89586-076-X. 
  • 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 conjugations. Innsbruck: Institut für Sprachen und Literaturen der Universität Innsbruck. ISBN 3-85124-704-3. 
  • 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.
  • Watkins, Calvert (2004). "Hittite". The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the World's Ancient Languages: 551–575. ISBN 0-521-56256-2. 
  • Yakubovich, Ilya (2010). Sociolinguistics of the Luwian Language. Leiden: Brill. ISBN 9789004177918. 

Text editions[edit]

  • 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[edit]

  • 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. American Oriental Society. 52 (1): 1–12. doi:10.2307/593573. JSTOR 593573. 
  • Sturtevant, Edgar H. (1940). "Evidence for voicing in Hittite g". Language. Linguistic Society of America. 16 (2): 81–87. doi:10.2307/408942. JSTOR 408942. 
  • Wittmann, Henri (1969). "A note on the linguistic form of Hittite sheep". Revue hittite et asianique. 22: 117–118. 
  • Wittmann, Henri (1973) [1964]. "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). "The Indo-European drift and the position of Hittite". International Journal of American Linguistics. 35 (3): 266–268. doi:10.1086/465065. 

External links[edit]