Hands-On Hittite Class.

News from Illinois Computer Science:

Daniel Stelzer used a stylus to carefully form symbols in a piece of clay. The University of Illinois student was practicing writing the symbols in a class on Hittite, an ancient language that uses cuneiform, one of the oldest human writing systems. The U. of I. offered the class in Hittite for the first time this fall.

“I’m doing it partly because it’s so impractical. I think there should still be space at the university for studying things that are impractical, simply because they are interesting and open up a new world to your students,” said Ryan Shosted, a linguistics professor who is teaching the class.

Hittite is an extinct language – no one speaks it. It was used in the Bronze Age by people living in what is now Turkey. Hittite is an Indo-European language, from the same family as Russian, English, Irish and Hindi. The students in Shosted’s class study ancient texts and learn basic vocabulary and language structure, how to read and write Hittite in cuneiform as well as in the Roman alphabet, and about Hittite culture. They’ve translated texts about a priest floating a model boat down a river in order to cast away evil and about the ritual sacrifice of a sheep. […]

The class is a mix of 21st-century and Bronze Age technology. Many of the assignments are delivered online, but in class, the students work together on translation and grammatical exercises and they practice how to press cuneiform symbols into clay. They do some assignments in clay, take photos of them and upload them to an open-source learning platform.

“A hallmark feature of the class is giving students the opportunity to write in clay and have the Bronze Age experience to write how the Hittite scribes wrote,” Shosted said. “I think of it as half art class. I want them to make beautiful tablets, and I want it to look right.”

What a great idea! I took Hittite myself (almost half a century ago now), and I wish we’d had a chance to do that; all we did was the usual staring blearily at textbooks. (See this 2015 post for the Chicago Hittite Dictionary Project.) Thanks, Maidhc!

Comments

  1. David Eddyshaw says:

    I think there should still be space at the university for studying things that are impractical, simply because they are interesting and open up a new world to your students

    Preach it, brother!

  2. Richard Hershberger says:

    Impractical but interesting: I lived for a few years in Flagstaff, Arizona. I took Navajo at the local community college, just because. I knew I wasn’t likely to stay in Flagstaff forever, and I would never have this opportunity anywhere else. The professor was very good. English was his second language, but it was excellent. Yáʼátʼééh.

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