began with excavation
s at the village of Boğazköy
in central Turkey, which turned out to be Hattusas
, the capital of the Hittite empire
, the land of Hatti
The principal decipherer of the Hittite language was the Czech scholar Bedřich Hrozný around 1915. In 1927 Kuryłowicz realized that Hittite vindicated the until-then theoretical hypothesis by Saussure of extra consonants, known as laryngeals, that were known in no Indo-European language but which were required to make sense of Proto-Indo-European phonetics.
For example, the word 'fire' is related to Greek pyr, and the Hittite word turned out to be paHHur. It is still not known exactly how the laryngeals were pronounced, but they were likely some sort of H sound.
A number of languages were discovered in the imperial archive, some related to Hittite and others not. Hittite texts were introduced with the word nešili (from the city of Kanesh); those introduced by luwili are in a language now called Luwian from it; and there is also Palaic.
A language called Hurrian may be related to modern North Caucasian languages. Another one was written in hieroglyphics and is known as Hieroglyphic Hittite, deciphered in the 1940s and found to be close to Luwian. Traces of another Aryan language among the Mitanni people were found in a text on horse-breeding. There is also a non-Indo-European language that might be that of an earlier people in the area who gave their name to the area, the Land of Hatti: because this language is preceded by the adverb hattili. This presents a slight problem in naming, so it's known as Hattic, Hattian, or even (ugh) Proto-Hittite. It would have been better if we'd called the nešili language Nesite instead of Hittite, but we're stuck with that now.
Another example of Hittite's Indo-European affinities is akwantsi 'they drink', which clearly contains a root related to Latin aqua, and an ending like the Latin 3rd person plural -ant. However, most of the vocabulary is non-Indo-European. Linguists call the family including it, Luwian, and their close kin Anatolian. It is believed to be the first branch to have split from ancestral Indo-European; in fact some say that Anatolian and Indo-European should be regarded as conjoint nodes of an older Indo-Hittite family.
Anatolian does not have the three genders of the other branches. In Hittite the two classes are animate and common. This is taken as evidence for the dating of the development of genders.
Also, Hittite's two conjugations end in -mi and -hi in the first person singular, where other branches have -o and in some cases (as with Greek) a residual -mi conjugation. This again allows us to look back deeper in time. It also shows that the -o familiar from Latin and Greek developed from a laryngeal.
One of the world's foremost Hittitologists was Professor O.R. Gurney, who died a few days ago (January 2001). His book The Hittites was published many years ago in Pelican and is still in print, revised, and an excellent introduction to the field.
If I had the book by me I could tell you more about their history and culture; but all I can remember is that their kings' names included Suppiluliumas, Mursilis, and Tudhiyas; and their weather god was Teshub. The correspondence of one of them with Pharaohs has been found in the royal archive at Amarna.
They defeated the Egyptians at the Battle of Kadesh, as anyone who was played Age of Empires will probably know.
There are tantalizing references in Hittite records which might be names known from the Homeric period, but none of them is established: Ahhiyawa is a western land which might be Achaea; and Ilium and Achilles might be mentioned.