Bedřich Hrozný (1879–1952) deciphered the language of the Hittites in 1915 as a result of his work on clay tablets from the royal archives of ancient Hattuša (modern Boğazkale, Turkey)—the Hittites’ one-time capital.a
The now-extinct Hittite language flourished between c. 1700 and 1200 B.C.E. and was spoken by the Hittites, who migrated into Asia Minor by the 19th century B.C.E. When the Hittites began expanding into the southern Levant in the mid-14th century, it caused regional conflicts, including a struggle with the biggest power of the day—Egypt under Ramesses II. The end of the Hittite Empire shortly after 1200 was abrupt—likely a result of the general turmoil in the eastern Mediterranean caused by the “Sea Peoples.”
The Hittite language belongs to the Anatolian branch of the Indo-European language family, which encompasses almost all the languages of Europe, including English. Older than Sanskrit and Greek, it is in fact the earliest attested Indo-European language. Hittite has survived on thousands of clay tablets. Although the script of these tablets is the Mesopotamian cuneiform that scholars had been able to read since the mid-19th century, their language was not decoded until Hrozný came along.
Bedřich Hrozný was born on May 6, 1879, in Lysá nad Labem, a small town in the Central Bohemian Region of what is today Czechia (the Czech Republic). Son of a Protestant pastor, he was expected to follow in his father’s footsteps. He even started a degree in theology but instantly switched to ancient Near Eastern languages, which he studied in Vienna, Berlin, and London. In 1905, Hrozný was appointed the first lecturer in cuneiform studies at the University of Vienna. In researching cuneiform texts from Asia Minor, he became familiar with clay tablets recently excavated in what was later recognized as ancient Hattuša. Inscribed by unknown people in an unknown language, those texts became a door to a lost civilization when Hrozný cracked their code in 1915, despite his conscription in World War I.
“Now you will eat bread and drink water.” Containing the word uātar (“water”), this was the first sentence Hrozný deciphered—three millennia after the once-mighty Anatolian empire vanished.
After the establishment of the independent Czechoslovakia in late 1918, Hrozný moved from Vienna to Prague, where he chaired Charles University’s newly founded Department of Cuneiform Studies. He became the university president shortly before World War II and was appointed to the newly established Czechoslovak Academy of Sciences in 1952.
Alongside his philological work, Hrozný carried out archaeological excavations, including of the ancient city of Kanesh (modern Kültepe, Turkey), where he discovered private archives of cuneiform tablets inscribed in Akkadian.
Hrozný died on December 12, 1952, and is buried in his hometown, Lysá nad Labem, where you can also visit his recently renovated museum.
Thanks to the efforts of Bedřich Hrozný—whose name incidentally translates as Frederick Terrible—the Hittites got their voice back, and their ancient language has become essential in reconstructing the common parent of the Indo-European language family.
Who deciphered the language of the Hittites?
Answer: Bedřich Hrozný
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