The language of Troy
On 7 May 2014, the society for ancient Near-Eastern studies, Ex Oriente Lux (“Light from the East”), organized a lecture in Leuven about “the languages of Anatolia and of Troy” by Dr. Alwin Kloekhorst, who teaches at Leiden University in the Netherlands.
The Troy described as the centre of a war with the Greek invaders by Homeros in ca. 700 BCE, was archaeologically discovered in the far northwestern corner of Anatolia at the end of the philhellenic 19th century by Heinrich Schliemann. He misidentified the Homeric layer, as there were nine cities built on top of each other. Of these, the city of the epic Ilias has later been found to be the 7th layer, corresponding to the period 1250-1180 BCE.
Language is very important for a people’s ethnic identity, witness the separatism by Russian-speakers in Ukraine today. So we would be better off if we can at least determine the language of the Trojans. Unfortunately, we have as yet only circumstantial evidence, but Dr. Kloekhorst whole point was precisely that it is sufficient for an educated guess. What complicates matters is that Troy was a port and a trade city, so it had many foreigners speaking other languages, and its elite may have followed the oft-reported fashion of adopting names, titles and perhaps even the whole language of a prestigious neighbouring empire.
Apart from Homer’s literary evidence, no doubt embellished and adapted, the only hard historical evidence about Troy’s language is to be found in the central Anatolian site of Ḫattuša, the Hittite empire’s capital. There, 30.000 clay tablets were found, in an unknown language but in the well-known cuneiform script. In 1915-16, the Czech Bedřich Hrozný deciphered the text. Faced with the line: Nu NINDA-an e-ez-za-at-te-ni wa-a-tar-ma e-ku-ut-te-ni, where NINDA is a Sumerian logogram for “bread”, he noticed a likeness with Old High German ezzen, “eat”, with Germanic water, and with Latin aqua, “water”. Today, linguists would call his approach simplistic, but he happened to be right. After most of the corpus has been deciphered, we translate this sentence as: “Ye shall eat bread and drink water”.
He assumed and declared that it was an Indo-European language, now a matter of consensus. Thus, the verb “to be” has the conjugation e-eš-mi, e-es-ši, e-es-zi, etc., which is obviously similar to the conjugations in Sanskrit, Greek and Latin. Similarly, remark the similarity (along with the same meaning) between kuiš, kuin, kuit and Latin quis, quem, quid. On linguistic grounds, he dismisses the Anatolian homeland theory as something that could only have been thought up by people unfamiliar with linguistics, contradicted by the linguistic data on the ground.
Among these inscriptions, one is the text of a treaty between the Hittite empire and the king of Troy, Alakšandu, written in Hittite. It mentions Troy as Wiluša (later Greek *Iluha, whence Ilion, whence the epic’s title Ilias) and also as Truša, whence Troy. Other geographical names include Aḫḫiyawā, “Achaea”, i.e. Greece; Millawanda, i.e. Milete, then the only Greek city on the Anatolian west coast; and Lukkā, i.e. Lykia in southwestern Anatolia. Troy was probably not native Hittite, for it was too distant and according to the records, it repeatedly needed to be subdued. But the elite clearly knew some Hittite.
Other languages discovered in the capital included Palaic, a related language spokes on the north coast of Anatolia; its deep southern sister Luwian; Hatti, the region’s original language dating from before the Hittite conquest; and its southeastern neighbour Hurritic, an unrelated language spoken in what is now Syria. Meanwhile, in Greece Mycenian Greek was spoken, written in the Linear B script. The name Alakšandu points to the Greek name “Alexander”, so there was Greek influence, but Troy was not part of Aḫḫiyawā and so Greek was not the commoners’ language.
Apart from cuneiform, there was also a hieroglyphic script used for the Luwian language. Probably they existed since ca. 2000, but they were written on perishable wood. Since ca. 1400, they were written on tablets, and turn out to combine logographic and phonetic signs. A famous inscription used to be in Aleppo: the storm-god riding a bull, trident in hand, with hieroglyphics mentioning the “lightning-god” and the “storm-god”. The inscription of Ivriz says: “This is the great storm-god of Warpalawa”. This script was found all through southern Anatolia till the vicinity of Milete. Western inscription carried only names, so that still need not prove Luwian was spoken; until a full text in Luwian was discovered. And indeed, the western country of Arzawa was also called Luwiya.
Was Luwian spoken in Troy? One lone Luwian seal has been found in Troy, but it may have belonged to a foreign visitor and it was found in a younger layer. Are any names Luwian? The name Priamos has been analysed as a rendering of Luwian Priya-muwa, “prominent in power”, but this is merely a possibility.
So, proof from the 2nd millennium is insufficient. Could proof from the 1st millennium be more decisive?
Ca. 1180 was a cataclysmic time for all of Anatolia, witnessing the fall of Troy (poetically reported on and interpreted by Homer) as well as of the Hittite empire, ethnicity and language. Then followed three centuries known as the “dark age”, when writing seems to disappear (also in Greece, where Linear–B falls into disuse). When ca. 900 BCE, new texts start appearing, they are in an alphabetic script, a novel idea introduced by the Phoenicians. The new language situation cannot simply be projected on the time before 1180.
Luwian hieroglyphics survive a bit longer, but are henceforth confined to the southeast, where statelets coexist, though their kings still claim descent from Hittite emperors. Later, their territories are assimilated into the Aramaic (Semitic) speech area. The Luwian dialects in southern and western Anatolia have become separate languages written in their own version of the alphabet. From east to west, they are Sidetic (8 alphabetic inscriptions, 3rd century BCE, among them a bilingual-Greek one); Pisidian; Lycian (5th-4th, 170 inscriptions, own alphabet); Carian (20 inscriptions in Caria, 150 by guest workers in Egypt, 6th-4th); and near the west coast, Lydian (118 inscriptions, 8th-3rd century; we were shown a rhyming metrical text). Originally, Lydian had been spoken in an area stretching to the northern coast, either bordering on or including the Trojan area. It could be a candidate.
Two intruding languages had been installed. The Greeks had settled in the whole western coast, henceforth called Ionia. In central Anatolia, occupying the central area of the Hittite empire, lived the Phrygians, known from the story of king Midas. They had their own version of the alphabet, written right to left, and their language was close to Greek. The historian Herodotos writes that they had come from the Balkans, where they were known as the Bryges. This entry must have come to either cause or fill the void created by the collapse of the Hittite empire, ca. 1180. Coming in after the fall of Troy, their language had not been spoken by the Trojans.
East of Troy, Lydian was recently discovered in the Daskyleion inscriptions. This town on the Dardanelles coast has yielded post-1180 Greek and Phrygian graffiti, as well as a few Lydian graffiti. The Lydians were still there. In Greek they were also called Maiones, a name related to Hittite Māša, the coastal country east of Troy. But evidence of their genuine presence, let alone predominance, in Troy is missing.
And indeed, there is one more candidate, probably unrelated to the Anatolian branch of the Indo-European family. Lemnos is an island between Troy and the Greek peninsula. Its language, Lemnic, resembles Etruscan. For a long time it was known through only one inscription, but it bears no resemblance to any known language except Etruscan. We also have some non-linguistic arguments. Herodotos mentions the Tursenoi as coming from Lydia, meaning northwestern Anatolia. The prominent linguist RSP Beekes proposes that the geographical situation of Etruscan in between the Indo-European languages Italic, Ligurian and Venetic shows it to be an incomer. Their country included the Umbro river after whom the Italic-speaking Umbrians were called, implying that during a conquest, they had driven the Umbrians from their homeland. Also in Etruria (roughly, present-day Tuscany), an archaeological rupture has been identified for ca. 1200 BCE. The Etruscan hero Tarchon corresponded to the Anatolian stormgod Tarhunt. There are also similarities between the Etruscan and Lydian scripts, and (uniquely) between their designs of graves. The “Tursenoi” had been located in the whole Troyan-Lydian area, including the nearby islands such as Lemnos, the only place where it survived into the classical age.
Finally, two decisive pieces of evidence. We have an explicit and elaborate literary testimony on the Trojan migration to central Italy after the fall of the city ca. 1180: the Aeneis, an epic by Virgil. He adapted it to a kind of creation story of Rome, but it really describes the migration of prince Aeneas and the surviving Trojans to Italy. Finally, one of the two Hittite names for the city of Troy (next to Wiluša) was Truša, a name cognate to E-trus-can and to Turs-enoi. So, the native language of Troy seems to have been a kind of Etruscan, a language isolate when it appeared in history. The population of the city and its surroundings underwent influences from its Anatolian and Greek neighbours, which gave a false lead to some inquisitive linguists, but linguistically it was quite distinct.