Letter: 'Dead' languages are the key to civilisation

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The Independent Online
Sir: The debate over the future of the School for Oriental and African Studies lurches on from one disastrous crisis to another, through a welter of misinformation ('We need a Kyrgyz speaker - now', 23 July).

The director of Soas sees the case for maintaining the teaching of Hittite and 'a whole bunch of hieroglyph-strewn languages' as less compelling even than that for Sanskrit, and threatens that the school might have to lose some classical languages in the horse-trading that he foresees. 'Dead' Oriental languages, in particular those of the ancient Near East, are the keys to the history and culture of civilisations of which not only Western European culture and its derivatives, but also the nations of the modern Middle East, are the inheritors.

Hittite is the earliest known language of the Indo-European family, from which most modern European, Indian and Iranian languages are descended; and the written medium of a half-millennium of the world's cultural heritage. Soas is almost the only place in Britain where it can be studied.

In addition to its role of teaching the 'cost-effective' languages of vast multitudes of the world's non-European population, and modern 'minority' languages, the school has a distinguished record of study and research in Oriental cultures to which the only access is through 'dead' languages. It would indeed be a serious loss if this were not to continue.

Incidentally, Hittite is written in a type of cuneiform script, as also are Akkadian, Sumerian, Ugaritic and Old Persian. The term 'hieroglyphic Hittite' is sometimes used to refer to the writing of a related language, Luwian. Otherwise 'hieroglyphic' is used only of Egyptian or Mayan writing.

Yours faithfully,

JEREMY BLACK

Wolfson College,

Oxford

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