What Speaks to You: Spotlight on Hittite

UChicago's Hittite program gives students an unparalleled glimpse into the history of language.
Professor Theo van den Hout
Photo by: 
Gordon Lew, College Visual Media Editor, Class of 2015
The Hittites are really wacky, and also very human—you just get this sense of them as real people with emotions and problems

The University of Chicago offers over 50 languages every year, making the Language Competency Requirement the most open-ended component of the Core curriculum. And while old standbys like Spanish and Mandarin continue to fill up every year, some students verge off the beaten path. In “What Speaks to You,” we’ll showcase some of the University’s uncommon language courses, as well as the passionate students and faculty they bring together.

Ancient Greek too new for you? Try Hittite. Dating back to 2000 BCE, Hittite is the closest documented relative of Proto-Indo-European—the common ancestor to modern tongues as diverse as English, Russian, and Hindi. Before abruptly dying off in 1200 BCE, Hittite was the language of a powerful empire in ancient Anatolia (modern-day Turkey). With no daughter languages spoken today, Hittite lives on in preserved cuneiform tablets, fragments of which can be found in our very own Oriental Institute.

Since the 1940s, the University of Chicago has been at the forefront of Hittite research. As a result, students in the College have the chance to get up close and personal with some of the biggest names in the field. In addition to leading the Chicago Hittite Dictionary project, Professor Theo van den Hout teaches courses in Elementary and Advanced Hittite to a handful of students each year.

When he arrived at the University in 2000, Professor van den Hout brought with him a new way of teaching Hittite. His “more user-friendly” technique brings traditional methods of teaching Greek and Latin to the Ancient Near East: in his textbook The Elements of Hittite, he lays out the basic principles of the language over 10 lessons, each featuring sample exercises taken from real Hittite literature.

Photo by Gordon Lew

Though small, UChicago’s Hittite courses tend to attract a mix of students, from undergraduates majoring in Near Eastern Languages & Cultures (which Professor van den Hout chairs), to Divinity School students, to aspiring linguists and archaeologists. This quarter, third-year NELC major Jane Gordon is the only College student enrolled in her five-person Elementary Hittite sequence.

Today, Gordon is considering an academic career in Hittitology, yet she had never heard of the language before coming to UChicago. Her interest was sparked during a Civilizations course on ancient Anatolian literature, which got her hooked on the culture.

“The Hittites are really wacky, and also very human—you just get this sense of them as real people with emotions and problems,” she says.

This fall, she dove into the language sequence, and thus far it hasn’t disappointed. In particular, she loves puzzling out the often surprising idioms and metaphors found in preserved Hittite texts—a sentence like “you became a wolf” is not a literal reference to shapeshifting but rather a figurative way of expressing someone’s expulsion from society.

Studying Hittite thus offers an exciting glimpse into its original speakers’ ways of thinking. But in illuminating the past, it also provides unique insight into the present: as the oldest known member of the Indo-European family, Hittite helps reveal the history of our own modern languages. And that, as Professor van den Hout puts it, “is great fun.”

Tagged: language, hittite, What Speaks To You