The Hittite writing system generally distinguishes three, sometimes four vowels: /a i u/ and sometimes /e/.

However, I've seen it suggested that the language actually had five vowel phonemes, distinguishing /o/ (the sign U) from /u/ (the sign Ú aka U₂).

It's an interesting suggestion, and seems plausible, but I've never seen evidence presented for it (it's just mentioned in passing in van den Hout's The Elements of Hittite).

So—what's the evidence for this theory? Is it generally accepted?


There is circumstantial evidence from Elamite, where "ú" is /u/, but "u" is /aw/. These readings are very clear from the Elamite representation of Old Persian proper names.

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  • Oh, fascinating! Do the Hittites consistently use U in some words and Ú in others? If so, that would seem to clinch it, but Arnaud's answer implies not. – Draconis Dec 5 '19 at 23:24

To begin with, I think we have to distinguish two facets: one is philology, that is to say reading and interpreting texts, the other is reconstructed phonetics.
From a purely philological viewpoint, the number of vowels does not matter much. Even the contrast being i and e can to some extent be ignored.
Reconstructed phonetics is an issue mostly for linguists, and especially comparatists. The underlying existence of [o] vs [u] in cuneiform is a question that also exists for Hurrian, the neighbor of Hittite. Because cuneiform has several signs for u: in Anatolia there are four signs u1/2/3/4 in use. Some people, especially German scholars, tend to think that the two signs u and u2 are a "proof" that the contrast [o] vs [u] existed in the language.
Personally, I'm quite sceptical for severals reasons. There's considerable instability in the way the four signs u1/2/3/4 are used. In other words, the phonological relevance of the different signs cannot be securely established. Besides, Armenian words of Anatolian origin do not support the existence of such a contrast.
As a general conclusion, the suggested contrast between [o] vs [u] thrives on an overinterpretation of the intrinsic fogginess of cuneiform. Places like Armenian where the fog is much lighter do not support the idea.

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  • The Armenian evidence is not very strong if there is a chance that they learned Hurrian words from the writing and couldn't tell a difference. Otherwise, multiple competing realizations might have led to errosion, like in the English morphology for example.. How do you explain the use of cuneiform Us in the first place? – vectory Dec 5 '19 at 11:13
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    An example is the conjunction u "and then", possibly imitated from Akkadian. In Hurrian it can be written either u or rarer u2. In Hittite it is generally written u3. This example shows that there is no clear distinction between the u1/2/3 signs. That's why I speak about overinterpretation of graphic variants. – Arnaud Fournet Dec 5 '19 at 17:03
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    @Arnaud, you have just mentioned one clear distinction at least, between Hittite and Hurrian at least. For Hurrian, there were different cult centers, though I trust you would recognize strict dialect divisions if there were any. I mean, L1 mistakes are a good source for evidence of actual phonetics. – vectory Dec 5 '19 at 22:29
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    In the ancient Near East reading and writing were a monopoly of professional scribes. – fdb Dec 5 '19 at 22:42
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    @ArnaudFournet: AFAIK the conjunction is also nearly exclusively written as u3 in Akkadian, and that sign is rarely used otherwise, to the point where it could almost be consider a logogram. Given the profusion of akkadisms in Hittite writing, I'm not sure we can really conclude anything about its pronunciation in Hittite — they may have just written it as u3 because the Akkadian scribes did, and for all I know they could have read it as something completely different. – Ilmari Karonen Dec 7 '19 at 22:15

Kloekhorst's Etymological Dictionary of the Hittite Inherited Lexicon proposes that /o/ and /u/ are separate phonemes in Hittite, but that the distinction doesn't appear in all environments: it's almost exclusively restricted to the position C_C.

As evidence, he analyzes plene spellings of /u/ in interconsonantal position; the vast majority of words are spelled consistently with U (ap-u-un "that", mu-u-ga- "invoke", lu-u-ri- "disgrace") or consistently with Ú (lu-ú-li- "pond", ku-ú-ša- "daughter-in-law", ta-pu-ú-s°- "side").

Other evidence for a distinction comes from the verbal prefix u- (<*h₂ou-) "hither". On some verbs it's spelled with U, on other verbs with Ú, but the choice of one or the other seems to be consistent for each verb: u-un-na- "drive this way" consistently has U, while ú-da- "bring this way" consistently has Ú. The distinction doesn't seem to be phonemic in this environment, but it's nonetheless shown consistently in spelling.

His conclusion, from

From the treatment above it is clear that the signs U and Ú, which are both traditionally interpreted as -u- only, in fact can be used to represent three different phonemes, namely /u/, /ū/ and /o/. Note that I do not distinguish a fourth phoneme, /ō/, for several reasons. First, the fact that the spelling of /o/ automatically requires the use of a plene vowel, namely the sign U, makes it graphically impossible to distinguish between a short /o/ and a long /ō/. Secondly, it is likely that /o/ behaves symmetrically to /e/, which does not show a phonemic distinction in length: when accented, /e/ is phonetically long in open syllables and monosyllabic words, but this lengthening is automatic and therefore subphonemic. I assume a similar behaviour of /o/.

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