The Wide Swath of the Ancient World, and Then Me

Ancient languages, twin gods, and the underworld. AVCAT Scholarship recipient Sarah’s love for study was inspired by her veteran father.

by Sarah Wessels
sarah wessells headshot

One might say what engendered my interest in Hittite and Proto-Indo-European linguistics first started with the notion the world was much bigger than I had ever thought. A well-travelled veteran dad does that. From the Sinai in Egypt to North Korea, Chinese jewellery and handmade Egyptian pottery, these places occupied my childhood eye.

When it became apparent to me in my university studies that linguists had got together to do some linguistics and reconstructed Proto-Indo-European, my world was totally rocked, in the only way that something as cool and as ancient as that can do. I am fascinated by the nature of human experience and where we can find the oldest expressions of it.

Here is a diagram provided by M. L West in his seminal Indo-European Poetry and Myth.

Language family. (West, M.L. 2007. Indo-European Poetry & Myth. Oxford. Pg. 20

Language family. (West, M.L. 2007. Indo-European Poetry & Myth. Oxford. Pg. 20

This illustrates the language families descended from PIE, of which English is a member of the Germanic category. Under Anatolian is Hittite, the earliest recorded extant Indo-European language: evidence in favour of the emergence of the ‘Mature’ Indo-European families as well as the contested laryngeal theory. It is Hittite in particular that stands out. It is Hittite in particular that is a primordial echo of the language we speak today as a majority language in Australia.
As early as 1600BCE in the Bronze Age, Hittite was a language found in north-central Anatolia, or modern-day Turkey. Ḫattuša was the capital of the empire. Cuneiform was the script used to write Hittite, inscribed into clay with a reed.

Example of Hittite cuneiform. Source:

Example of Hittite cuneiform. Source:

Sumerian first utilised cuneiform to which Akkadian borrowed, as did Hittite. Despite the apparent proximity to Semitic languages in the Near East, both Avestan—the progenitor of modern-day Persian or Farsi—and Hittite were more closely related to Sanskrit, Ancient Greek, and Latin than any others nearby.

This perspective on history is a lesson in assumptions. One would assume for all the differences none of these languages and cultures could bear relation. But it is interesting where the commonalities that in mytheme these relations are able to be seen. Twin god motifs, inherited conceptions of the underworld, Kerberus the dog guarding the underworld—Zeus, Thor and Odin, Tarḫunna. Hesiod himself, the ancient Greek poet, appears to have drawn from the same well that the Hittite Kumarbi poem did.

It is fascinating to me because I feel humbled—that there is a deep, echoing common thread between an ancient peoples in Anatolia and myself. It is an important feeling to be reminded that we stretch beyond how small we think the world is.

Sarah was awarded an AVCAT RSL Queensland Scholarship in 2017, she is undertaking a Bachelor of Arts at the University of Melbourne.

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