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Dead Language Comes Alive on Computers at Davidson


October 19, 2000
Contact: Bill Giduz 704/894-2244 or bigiduz@davidson.edu

by Alexandra Obregon '00

How do you learn a language that hasn't been spoken in several millennia? At Davidson College, 21st century computers are proving to be the key to mastering Hittite--the language of an ancient classical civilization that thrived over four-thousand years ago.

This fall, students in professor Dirk French's new course, "Beginning Hittite," are learning the grammatical structures of the Hittite language with the help of a computer program developed by French to facilitate understanding of the complex symbols of the cuneiform writing system.

In a class that combines ancient and modern technology, students integrate knowledge of the language and culture with an appreciation of how Hittites actually communicated. So while students receive their assignments on computer disks, they turn in their homework on clay tablets--much like Hittites themselves might have done.
Clay Tablet

"The funniest thing about the class is the students' friends seeing them sitting around punching holes in clay and turning in their reviews on clay tablets," said French.

W. R. Grey Professor of classics at Davidson, French has been a scholar of classical languages for a long time, but this is the first time that he's had a "market" for Hittite among his students. Interest for the subject arose during the classics department's study abroad program, which French led last spring. Students visited the ruins of the great Hittite centers in central Turkey, and became intrigued by the history and culture of the ancient Hittite civilization, which thrived during the second millennium BC.

Junior Michael Clifton recalled, "We joked with Dr. French that he should teach Hittite, and now that joke is one of my toughest and most interesting courses!"

For French, teaching Hittite is indeed no joke. In order to conduct the course with the aid of computers, he developed an intricate filing system using the Macintosh program Hypercard 2.0 to catalogue the 325 different cuneiform symbols that make up the Hittite alphabet. Since no Hittite font exists for a word processor, French manipulated the published "old akkadian" font based on a similar form of cuneiform used by ancient Akkadian societies to produce the graphic-based font that the students work with.

Within the program, students have an index from which they can reference the various Hittite characters, and a notebook on which they copy and paste the symbols to create words and phrases. With a few clicks of the mouse, students can quickly finish their assignments without having to draw the symbols out by hand. The Hypercard program also allows French to test his students on symbol recognition, arrangement, and translation, in a way that gives them instant feedback and corrects their errors as they go along.

Students practice writing Hittite with a wooden stylus on tablets made of polymer clay commonly used by artists for small-scale sculptures. They agree that learning Hittite would not be impossible without computers, but they would need a lot more clay!
Hittite Student
Robert Leacock practices "writing" Hittite.

In their assignments, students translate original ancient texts including legal codes, a political apologia, a personal letter, and a treaty between a Hittite King and a neighboring ruler. With the exception of some mythological tales, Hittites did not produce extensive literature. The existing texts, however, reveal much about Hittite culture and everyday life.

Living in what is now Turkey, Hittites were contemporaries of the ancient Greeks that Homer tells about in his epics, The Odyssey and The Iliad. They are also mentioned in parts of the Old Testament. Their capital, Hattusas, was one of the largest ancient cities of classical antiquity, and theirs was the first civilization to learn how to use and manipulate iron.

The Hittite language, one of the four classical languages along with Sanskrit, Latin, and Greek, is the most antique of the Indo-European family of languages, from which virtually all tongues spoken in Europe and the Americas evolved. Thus, it contains odd grammatical and phonological features which many linguists believe illustrate the earliest stages of language development. The Hittite people picked up the cuneiform writing system from Babylonian traders from Mesopotamia, who maintained bazaars near Hittite settlements.

Students of Hittite may get funny looks when writing an assignment on a clay tablet, and many wonder about their interest in studying a "dead" language. French and his students agree, however, that the study of Hittite offers a unique perspective on that civilization's history, and gives students a more complete understanding of modern languages and their development.

"The main point in studying ancient languages is to satisfy one's curiosity about the lives, thinking, and culture of people who inhabited this planet before us," said French. "Such study is a kind of linguistic archaeology."

As Clifton stated, "While a language may be classified as dead because it is no longer used, the study of the language allows us to understand the thought processes and ideas of an ancient people, so in that sense, it is very alive."

Also participating in French's "Beginning Hittite" course are Nick Blackwell, Katie Broer, Sarah Jacob, Robert Leacock, Sean O'Reilly, Matt Paramore, and Jarrett Welsh.

Davidson is a highly selective independent liberal arts college for 1,600 students. Since its establishment in 1837, the college has graduated 23 Rhodes Scholars and is consistently ranked among the top liberal arts colleges in the country by "U.S. News and World Report" magazine.

Hittite Class
Dr. French and his students take a moment to pose with their tablets. They are (top, l-r) Sarah Jacob, Michael Clifton, Katie Broer, Matt Paramore, Robert Leacock, Jarrett Welsh, (bottom l-r) Nick Blackwell, and Sean O'Reilly.

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