Book Review: Beginning Hittite

Beginning Hittite, by Warren H. Held, Jr., William R. Schmalstieg, and Janet E. Gertz

If you are somewhat familiar with ancient studies, you will no doubt have some understanding of the self-education process by which people can learn a little bit about unfamiliar languages from the past [1].  This book is a basic book for the understanding of the extinct ancient language Hittite.  This book will be of the greatest interest for those who want to understand something of the language behind works that can be found in such places as ANET as well as the Tel Amarna letters.  If you know what these are, you likely have some interest in the Hittites already, and if so this is a book that may be useful to you.  I don’t ever plan on deciphering Hittite texts for fun or work, but as someone who is fond of studying languages this book definitely had some personal appeal to me that it will only have to someone who is fond of comparative linguistics.  Admittedly, that is a small group of people but this book is not made for wide audiences anyway so that is not so much of a problem.

This book is about 200 pages or so, including its material to read at the end.  The book begins with an introduction that discusses the issues of cuneiform writing, loan words from other languages (especially Sumerian), voicing, and the double writing of vowels and consonants (1).  After these introductory issues the book discusses the case system of nouns as well as various adjective forms (2).  A discussion of pronouns (3) and verbs (4) follows, giving tenses as a discussion of stem verbs.  This is followed by a lengthy discussion of cases, including the nominative, absolute, vocative, accusative, genitive, dative, locative, terminative, ablative, and instrumental cases as well as a loan preposition from Akkadian and a borrowing of the Semitic construct state (5).  After that there is a look at particles and conjunctions (6).  Some brief syntactic comments follow about word order, various clauses, and omissions of the copula (7) before the book ends with some Sumerian expressions (8) in Hittite, some reading selections, glossaries in Hittite, Akkadian, and Sumerian, sign lists, transliteration lists, abbreviations of texts, authors, and literature, and an index.  The result is a text that will be useful to those who are interested in learning something about the Hittite language and have an aptitude in linguistics.

Hittite itself has some unusual characteristics.  It is a case-heavy language with some similarities to Latin and Greek (which is not surprising), and it happens to be an SOV language as opposed to English, which is an SVO language in terms of its structure.  As a result the Hittite sentences one reads are very unusual for English speakers in how they are conceptualized.  Also presenting challenges in understanding the precise transliteration of words is the fact that the Hittite language is written using a syllable-based system in cuneiform that adds a lot of vowel sounds that are not pronounced, at least as far as we can tell based on reconstruction of the language.  All of this presents the learner with a bit of a challenge, especially as cuneiform is far from a straightforward matter (Ugaritic, a cuneiform-based Semitic language with marked similarities to Hebrew and Arabic, has similar difficulties).  When you set yourself to become familiar with ancient languages, though, this sort of matter becomes an issue.  Fortunately the book is written in a fashion where a lot of information is provided to those who want to learn it and pay attention to it, even if this is a book likely to be read by few.

[1] See, for example:


About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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