Bedřich Hrozný – Re-Discoverer of the Hittite Language

Bedřich Hrozný

The Hittites Empire dominated a swath of the Near East for some 600 years in ancient times. It was a vastly precocious civilisation with better tools, more modern methods of warfare, and the newfangled commodity of iron. As is the way with empires however, the Hittites collapsed and all that the great trading civilisation had recorded of its world was left in oblivion until a Czech orientalist deciphered their forgotten language and became the first to hear their words in 3000 years. This week’s Czechs in History by Christian Falvey is devoted to the Father of Hittitology, Bedřich Hrozný.

The young Bedřich Hrozný was an outstanding student, well-learned in some 10 languages, Semitic and European. He had proven his meddle in gruelling archaeological expeditions in Turkey and Palestine, and had shown an aptitude for discovery after finding, translating and publishing 5000-year-old recipes for brewing Sumerian beer. These accomplishments proved the prerequisite to what was to become his greatest achievement – the decipherment of the Hittite language in 1915. Jay Jasanoff, a professor of Indo-European linguistics at Harvard University, is a leading scholar in Hittite language:

“The Hittites were an ancient people of Asia Minor who were discovered rather late in the game. Their ancient capital was excavated at the very beginning of the 20th century and it yielded an enormous trove of tablets written in the Hittite language. Now, the writing system they were written in was the cuneiform system of ancient Mesopotamia, the writing system that the Babylonians for example used. So we could read the letters - or the equivalent of the letters - which mostly stand for syllables, and some of the signs which stood for notions like ‘king’ or ‘land’ or things like that, but the language itself that was spelled out by these signs was completely unintelligible; it was a new language, one that we didn’t know before. And Hrozny’s achievement was to make sense of the language, to figure out what it was.”

Either with miraculous timeliness or foreseeing the outbreak of war, Hrozný travelled to Istanbul to retrieve copies of the Hittite tablets, and upon return was promptly conscripted into the wartime Austrian Army where his fortunate post as a clerk allowed him ample time for decoding the writing.

Working with texts from a Semitic region, Hrozný had hardly considered that the impenetrable language could have been of any other origin, until he began working with a particular set of rhymed lines that read

Hittite tablet

At this point Hrozny was inspired to follow a new train of thought. Recognising the Babylonian sign for bread, “ninda”, he considered the probability of the next word, “ezza”, to mean “eat” and thus its potential as a cognate of the Greek “edein”, Latin “edere” and German “essen”. Then seen like this, the other words leapt out – “nu”: now, “watar”: water – leaving Hrozný with his first successfully deciphered sentence: “Now you will eat bread and drink water”. Jay Jasanoff again:

“What he did was notice in a couple of critical passages where some of the context was known because the words were expressive of sense rather than being phonetic signs so for example the word for bread the word for god and so on were given and he found a couple of contexts in which he was able to make brilliant guesses as to what the surrounding context meant and he plugged values into the words which proved to be correct, and showed that Hittite was a member of the Indo-European language family - that’s the family to which almost all the languages of Europe belong as well as Sanskrit and its decedents in India and Modern Persian – so he was able to establish that Hittite was another Indo-European language and an extremely old one, in fact older than Sanskrit and Greek and the other early members of the family.”

And thus Bedřich Hrozný – whose name incidentally translates as Friedrich Terrible – of the small town of Lysá nad Labem came to be the only person in communion with a vanished Anatolian empire. He could read Hittite. The obvious question then remains, what did he read?

“The importance of the Hittites lay in part in their being equal partners and competitors of the Egyptian Empire who were unknown until Bedřich Hrozný deciphered their language. Another thing we discovered thanks to the decipherment of Hittite was the Hittite code of laws, which we can say was progressive in comparison to other similar codes of the day in that it imposed primarily monetary penalties or retribution rather than punishments of death or mutilation as was common at the time.”

The Hittite code of laws was first published in 1922 by Hrozný himself, and his translation revealed a breathtakingly detailed treatment of crime and punishment from one of mankind’s earliest sets of written law. With almost the same exhausting scrupulousness of modern law, the code regulated every aspect of life from the sacred to the banal. Since any list of what people must not do is a perfect indicator of what they actually do do, Hrozny’s translation of the Hittite legal code gave a vivid insight into the life of a society that had not been seen or heard of for more than 3 millennia.

“- If someone kills a person in a quarrel, the killer shall produce the body and give four people from his household in recompense whether the slain person is a man or a woman. - If a free man kills a snake whilst speaking another's name, he shall pay forty shekels of silver. If the offender is a slave, however, he shall die.

- If someone injures a person and makes him ill, he shall care for him in his illness. In his place, he shall provide a person to work his estate while he recovers. When he recovers, the assailant will give him six shekels of silver, and he will also pay the doctor's fee himself.”

In addition to the priceless code of laws, the thousands of available Hittite tablets offered a trove of letters, personal and official, detailed instructions for religious ceremonies, and contracts – among business partners to be sure, but also among nations; they are some of the first international treaties known to history. One tablet from 1283 BC, specifying the terms of peace between the Hittites and the Egyptians under Ramesses II, is on display in the United Nations in New York as an example of one of the earliest known international peace accords. The Hittites proved to be avid and willing negotiators. Marek Rychtařík of the Institute of Comparative Linguistics:

“Once when a Hittite king was concluding a treaty with a vassal Caucasian ‘state’, so to speak, the king’s daughter was married off as a part of the treaty but it was apparently necessary to contractually stipulate that there was to be no consorting of a sexual nature with the betrothed princess’s sister. This was likely because polygamy was self-evident to the vassal state but forbidden by the Hittite code of laws, and so the Hittite king could not have allowed such an arrangement, and that had to be treated directly in the treaty.”

The open door to a lost civilisation took Hrozný’s interests far afield. Here is the professor speaking on Czech Radio in 1932 on “the tenet’s of Kikkuli’s system of horse training, a system used by the ancient Indo-European nations in the second millennium before Christ in the ancient Orient”. Hrozný found his good fortune fading in the 1930s however. He was vexed in his attempts at deciphering writing systems of Crete and India and the hieroglyphic writing of the Hittites, and doggedly resisted the ultimately correct decipherments of his colleagues once they had beaten him to the punch.

Again however he found himself in an important place at an important time in 1939, when he was appointed rector of Charles University prior to the German occupation and the closing of the universities that same year.

“Bedřich Hrozný’s personal bravery is attested to by an incident that occurred in 1939 when he had just become the rector of Charles University and faced off the invaders in the course of protecting the university. A group of students were hiding on the campus and Bedřich Hrozný – whose language skills included impeccable German – warned the German officer in charge of finding them that they had no legal right to pursue students on the campus. By doing this he was able to protect the students for the time being.”

Hrozný continued to teach privately throughout the occupation, however a major stroke in 1944 left him unable to reassume his academic duties following the liberation of Czechoslovakia in 1945. His work however remains critical to the study of the history, anthropology and linguistics of the Near East and to fields of European-wide significance today. Professor Jasanoff:

“The discovery of Hittite meant that we found the oldest attested Indo-European Language, there’s a whole field which concerns itself with reconstructing the common parent of the Indo-European language family on the basis of its oldest decedents and in that way tracing the history of all of the languages, including the modern ones, like English or French or Czech for that matter. And what Hittite did was supply another extremely important early voice of testimony of what the parent language of the family looked like so that the whole field of Indo-European linguistics has never been the same since Hittite was discovered.”

The episode featured today was first broadcast on May 13, 2009.