A not so dead language

October 18, 2019

Up until (and including large parts of) college, I found languages incredibly challenging.  Despite going to Saturday school for most of my life, I didn’t dare take the AP Chinese Language exam and instead eked out a three on AP French (a pass is a pass, I insisted to my parents). I recall being frozen with dread when a family friend attempted the most basic French conversation with me; I imagine they were impressed I managed to score a three.

Needless to say, I had resigned myself to monolingualism by the time college applications came around. I knew I wanted to see more of the world so a domestic university was out, but I also knew a real language barrier would make my studies more difficult so I remained trapped inside the Anglosphere. Thus I took up the study of history in London and went in thinking to myself: history is alright, as long as I stick to modern events inside the Anglosphere I will never be forced to learn another language!

I quickly discovered that history courses pertaining to modern events in the Anglosphere were the most popular ones and I, a lowly first-semester student, was to be shuttled off into the least popular set of courses: ancient Near Eastern history (and philology). Philology is the study of dead languages and studying the language was fundamental to understanding the history as it meant working directly with the primary sources. And so I was introduced to Hittite—the language, the people, and the culture—in the fall of 2012.

Hittite is the oldest attested Indo-European language and it was written and spoken in Anatolia (modern-day Turkey) some three thousand years ago. I also credit it with catapulting me out of involuntary monolingualism and into a wider and far more vibrant world. Learning Hittite made me realize that I, as a learner, could not learn a second (or third) language like Rosetta Stone advertised. I wanted to feel comfortable with the basic building blocks of the language and that meant understanding why adjectives go before nouns, why are verbs in the middle, why is “I walked mile” incorrect, and so on and so forth.  Whenever I (or another classmate) would ask this sort of grammatically-minded question in high school French, the teacher would try her best to answer it while moving the rest of the class along. In Hittite, these sorts of questions are the bread and butter of the curriculum—because it’s a dead language and we have no idea how it really sounded, we can thus concentrate on the finer details.

Plus, up until Hittite, Saturday school was the smallest class I had been in with 15 (begrudging) participants.  My middle and high school classes featured somewhere between 30 to 40 students and college lectures were 100 at least.  Hittite remains one of the smallest classes I’ve had the pleasure of taking with six students in the Introductory course and three in the Intermediate/Advanced.  There’s a huge difference in the amount of attention a professor can give to you in a class of 100 versus a class of 400 and this ability to dial a professor (so to speak) came as a boon in my academic development.

I am therefore over the moon that Brandeis—the Near Eastern and Judaic Studies department and Professor David Wright in particular—is offering Hittite this coming semester.  It’s a wonderful language and a lot of fun to learn with very accessible material that will make both ancient civilizations and modern languages a lot more familiar to any prospective students.  If you’ve hung up your hat on multilingualism, come on over and try it out; you may discover philology to be a kinder cup of tea. Plus, with Hittite, you will never go through the half-hysterical, half-frantic “Hello, my name is ____, I am _____ years old, I like _____ and I live in _____” routine because… owing to the state of the preservation of the language, we just don’t know how the Hittites would have expressed such statements! Truly, a blessing in disguise.

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