Subscribe to our Voices Dispatches email to receive a comprehensive overview of the top opinions from the week.
Join our Voices newsletter for free, sent out weekly.
New archaeological findings in the Middle East are shedding light on the use of previously unknown linguistic strategies by an ancient civilization to promote multiculturalism and maintain political stability.
The groundbreaking findings are also providing new insight into the functioning of early empires.
Ongoing excavations in Turkey are revealing fascinating evidence about the Hittite empire’s imperial civil service. It appears that there were entire departments solely or partially focused on studying the religions of the empire’s subject peoples.
During the second millennium BC, historical records show that Hittite rulers instructed their government officials to document the religious practices and customs of subjugated peoples in their native languages, using Hittite script. This was done in order to preserve these traditions and integrate them into the empire’s diverse and all-encompassing religious system.
Experts in ancient languages have found that Hittite government officials kept and documented religious records from five distinct ethnic groups.
The most recent instance was discovered a mere two months ago. It was revealed to be in a Middle Eastern language that was previously unknown and had been forgotten for approximately 3,000 years.
In the ruins of the ancient Hittite capital, Hattusa (now called Bogazkoy), approximately 30,000 clay tablet documents have been discovered over the course of several decades. This site is located about 100 miles east of Ankara, the modern capital of Turkey.
The majority of the documents were written in the main language of the empire, Hittite. However, around 5 percent of them were written, either fully or partially, in the languages of the minority ethnic groups within the empire. These groups included the Luwians (from south-eastern Anatolia), Palaians (from north-west Anatolia), Hattians (from central Anatolia), and Hurrians (from Syria and northern Mesopotamia).
The newest minority language to be found, documented by government recorders (and previously unrecognized by contemporary experts), is being referred to as Kalasmaic. This is due to its apparent use by a subordinate group in a region known as Kalasma on the outskirts of the empire’s northwestern boundary.
The finding indicates that even lesser-known languages within the empire were being documented, analyzed, and safeguarded through written records. This also suggests that there is a chance for other small, previously unknown Middle Eastern languages to be uncovered, as they may have been recorded on clay tablets from the Hittite empire. These tablets are currently being excavated at Bogazkoy by archaeologists.
The scribes of the empire’s civil service used a Hittite adaptation of cuneiform, the oldest writing system in the world originating from Mesopotamia, to transcribe their manuscripts. This system involved arranging wedge-shaped lines into groups that represented syllables.
During ancient times, the area that is currently known as Turkey was abundant in various languages.
The variety of languages in an area is frequently influenced by its topography. Regions with numerous mountains and secluded valleys are more likely to have a greater number of distinct languages that emerge and persist.
Currently, there are only five minority languages that have been identified in the Bronze Age Hittite empire. However, due to the mountainous terrain, it is possible that there were actually at least 30 languages spoken during that time.
The Caucasus mountains region, located near the former Hittite Empire, is home to approximately 40 languages that are still spoken today.
The Hittite language is the oldest recorded Indo-European language in the world.
The oldest writings can be traced back to the 16th century BC. This language belongs to the Indo-European family and shares similarities with many contemporary European languages, such as English, as well as several Asian languages, including Iranian and various Indian ones. Surprisingly, even though there is a span of 3,000 years between them, ancient Hittite and modern English share numerous words.
Watar was for instance Hittite for “water”. Duttar was the main part of the Hittite word for “daughter”. “Wine” was wiyana, while card was “heart/cardiac” and newa was their word for “new”.
The study of the ancient scriptoria in Bogazkoy will provide linguistics scholars with a deeper understanding of the development of ancient Indo-European languages from the Bronze Age, which are distantly connected to English.
Professor Andreas Schachner from the German Archaeological Institute in Istanbul is currently leading the excavations. The clay tablets are being studied by paleo-linguists from Wurzburg and Istanbul universities.
According to Daniel Schwemer, a professor of cuneiform script at Wurzburg University, the history of the Bronze Age in the Middle East is not fully comprehended. However, the recent discovery of clay tablets is aiding scholars in expanding their understanding.
The ongoing excavations at Bogazkoy are producing approximately 30 to 40 new cuneiform tablets or fragments annually. This site, known as Hattusa in ancient times, holds great significance as the heart of the Hittite empire (1650 BC to 1200 BC) and served as the capital of one of the earliest and most expansive imperial political systems in the world. Consequently, it was also home to one of the earliest and most prolific document-producing administrative bodies.
The Hittite empire spanned from the Aegean Sea in the western region to present-day northern Iraq in the eastern region, and from the Black Sea in the northern area to Lebanon in the southern area.
The civilisation fundamentally changed human history – because its technological innovations (especially the invention of iron, the development of sophisticated ultra-lightweight war chariots and the creation of a substantial civil service) enabled an expansion of warfare and government and the creation of ever-larger empires.
Ongoing excavation efforts at Bogazkoy are providing significant insights into the functioning of Hittite civilization, and its role in shaping human history.