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The peaks and troughs of Hittite

Hittite, the oldest known Indo-European language, has long been regarded as not exactly a language to stretch the grey matter.  But, Petra Goedgebuure considers this an under-estimate. 'The syntax of Hittite is much more complex than we thought. You only see this if you combine the grammar with the content of the text.'

Petra Goedegebuure: 'In fact, what I will be doing is re-interpreting these texts.'
A century ago, in Boğazköy, some 150 km east of Ankara, archives were excavated containing 30,000 fragments of hieroglyphics in an unknown language.  Ten years later the text was deciphered, and to the surprise of the academic world, it was an Indo-European language, which was given the name Hittite, after the Hittites in the Bible. The archives immediately gave the game away, because it was apparently the main city of the Hittite Empire:  Hattusa. Hittite texts are even today the oldest Indo-European texts which we have.

Insight into the culture
Petra Goedegebuure has been awarded a Veni grant from NWO to conduct research into the behaviour of Hittite conjunctions. She explains: 'Of course, those 30,000 clay tablets were not all whole.  If all the fragments has been neatly stuck together, there would have been about 10,000 complete texts.  That's a relatively small number in comparison with the Assyrian clay tablets.  But the texts are extremely diverse, which means they give us an excellent insight into the culture.  The detailed instructions to the civil servants teach us a great deal about how their society functioned.'

Rival to Egypt
The first Hittite sources date from 1650 BC, and the archive covers five centuries.  The most commonly held theory is that the Hittites entered the city 700 years before the archive was set up, after having arrived in Turkey via the Caucasus or the Bosphorus. The sources show us an empire which for a number of centuries was the greatest rival to Egypt. 

Monumental inscriptions
Goedegebuure: 'In about 1300 to 1250 there were two major powers in the Near East: Egypt and the Hittite Empire. The Hittite Empire was very important.  But after the central empire around Hattusa collapsed in the twelfth century BC and southern Turkey and northern Syria broke up into small town states, it was forgotten.  Homer, for example, writes nothing more about it. It is a forgotten empire, maybe because it didn't leave any impressive buildings behind, such as pyramids. The material remains have been overgrown or disappeared.  But there are some excellent small remains, and monumental inscriptions in the natural landscape.  Not in hieroglyphics, but in a modified kind of text, like pictograms.'

The Hittite Empire

Familiar grammar
At first, the decoders found the clay tablets rather exotic, with the result that it took some time before they realised that most of the words were really originally Indo-European, and not a remnant of a language which was spoken in the region before the arrival of the Hittites. But the grammar was immediately familiar.  The case system and the endings of the verbs in Hittite are very similar to Latin and Greek.  Anyone who has studied Greek would regard the verb system, with only two tenses, as relatively simple.

No brainteaser
But, according to Goedegebuure, it is not only the Hittites themselves who have been rather neglected; their language too isn't given the respect it deserves from the academic world.  'Superficially, Hittite is a relatively simple language, much more so than Sanskrit, Greek or Latin.  The syntax is relatively uniform, and seems straightforward.  For example, you don't have any embedded clauses, like in Latin.  The language isn't treated seriously: Hittite is by no means a brainteaser.'

Shifting pronouns
But that underestimates the complexity of 'her' language, as she discovered during her doctoral research into demonstrative and emphatic pronouns. She looked in particular at the place in the sentence where such words appear and to her surprise the sequence of words in Hittite is much more complex than was thought. 

'An emphatic pronoun can appear in different places in a sentence.  And where it is located seems to be very important for the information peak and therefore for the meaning of the sentence. The rhythm of the sentence can be deduced from the word order: the peaks and troughs which give an idea how this dead language must have sounded.  Nobody had previously discovered that a shifting pronoun could give a sentence a completely different meaning.  This is because I looked at it from a different angle: I was one of the first people to examine the structure of the information, rather than the form.'

The limitations of the sentence
Because her doctoral research had led to exciting new insights, Goedgebuure decided to further develop this - for Hittite - new approach.  But she soon became aware of the limitations of the sentence.  'How do sentences function within a text?' was her next question, and at the moment she is involved with the rhetorical structure of a whole text, which linguists call the discourse structure. 'What I want to examine is how this discourse structure influences word order in sentences and vice versa.'

In the middle of a conflict
In a block of text made up of a string of sentences, one particular category of words plays a vital role.  These are the conjunctions, such as "and", "so", "but'" and "because".  Goedgebuure then decided to make conjunctions her new research field.  And she immediately found herself in the middle of a conflict.

'Everyone is at one another's throats about these conjunctions. Five different people means five different opinions.  Imagine that we couldn't agree in Dutch about what the differences are between "and", "but" and "so".  And who's right?  I don't yet know the answer, but the solution is in any event that you have to look at these phenomena within a sentence and in the whole text as parts of one cohesive system.'

What is actually being said?
Subjecting whole texts to syntactic study is a new direction in linguistics.  
Goedegebuure: 'The advantage is that you combine grammar with the substance of the text.  How is the syntax governed by the story line?  Hopefully, my research will give a better insight into how language, text and culture influence one another.  What it actually means is that I will be re-interpreting the texts.  What is really being said?'

Did changes in functions lead to changes in form?
Goedgebuure will be taking a new approach to all the genres and periods of her corpus, which spans 500 years. 'It's a good thing that my corpus isn't so large.  I know it through and through. And another thing to bear in mind is that in this 500 year period Hittite changed dramatically. I will also be looking at how it changed, and why.  Historical linguistics often looks at form phenomena.  But it is of course also nice to discover the reasons for such changes.  Have changes in function lead to changes in form?'

'Nu' does have a meaning
Goedgebuure has already found material about conjunctions at the start of sentences which indicates that she is looking in the right direction.  An example:  Nearly every sentence in Hittite starts with the conjunction 'nu', which is pronounced 'noe'.  Which is why nearly all Hittite scholars say it doesn't mean very much.  But I have discovered that 'now' definitely does have a function.  If it is omitted, the sentence gets a completely different nuance/meaning.'

Is there actually going to be a king?
As an example: 'You have the pronoun "kwi", which means 'who', like in Roman languages.  If you want to say in Hittite: 'I don't know who will be king after me,' there are two possible ways of doing this.  Firstly by representing 'who' as 'kwi', but sometimes you see "nu kwi", with that little conjunction in front.  And these two different methods do give a difference in meaning, as I have discovered.  With "nu kwi", it is in any event certain that there will be a new king. In other words, if the word "nu" is missing, there is an element of conditionality, or uncertainty.  It then means something like: "If anybody becomes king." I haven't come across any other Indo-European language which expresses this element of uncertainty in this way.  Of course, I will also be looking at possible influences from other languages.  The language of the people who were there before the Hittites, and other languages related to Hittite from the Anatolian region.  Do they have the same phenomenon, or is it typically Hittite?'

'I should also mention that this use of "nu" is only found in the oldest phase of the language.  But this immediately generates new question": why did the system later collapse, and how is this uncertainty expressed in later sentences?'

In 1275 a famous battle took place between the Hittites and Egyptians: the battle of Kadesh. After this a peace treaty was signed which is the oldest peace treaty in history.  It was drawn up in cuneiform script and in hieroglyphics. This is a fragment from the version in cuneiform script (held in Boğazköy) and the hieroglyphics version in the Temple of Carnac in Egypt.

In her new line of research, she spent a year and a half studying astronomy, which means I actually started in sciences.  But I was also interested in ancient history and cultures.  I realised that I didn't want to spend my life in a lab, and so I transferred to Semitic languages.  I knew nothing about the subject, but these were the oldest languages which you could study at my university (UvA).  Later, I was able to add Hittite, a language which intrigued me enormously, and eventually I obtained my doctorate in both fields.  Apparently, I had a good feel for grammar, which isn't so unusual for a scientist, but I am also interested in culture.  I love grammar, but want to get into the spirit of these people.'   

Goedgebuure is still often driven to take the statistics books from her astronomy background out of the bookshelves:  'I can't help asking sometimes whether what I have discovered is statistically relevant?'

(2 May 2006/HP)

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