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New professor Alwin Kloekhorst: 'The origin of your language also says something about you'

Where does Dutch come from? Newly appointed Professor Alwin Kloekhorst looks for an answer to that question in millennia-old languages from Anatolia, the Asian part of present-day Turkey. 'A new interpretation in one of the Anatolian languages can have consequences for dozens of other languages.'

'You may know that all European languages descend from one proto-language, Proto-Indo-European,' Kloekhorst explains. 'One of the goals of our field is, on the one hand, to figure out how all the languages that have emerged from it have developed and, on the other hand, to try to reconstruct that mother tongue.'

A thousand years of extra history

The Anatolian languages ​​occupy a unique position. 'Anatolian is truly a special branch of the Indo-European language family,' Kloekhorst explains enthusiastically. 'It probably split off first from Proto-Indo-European, preserving various features that have been lost in other languages. If you look very closely at it, you see that Proto-Indo-European must have looked different from what we thought until now.'

This also has consequences for other languages, including Dutch: 'A change in our reconstruction of Proto-Indo-European means that the history of all the languages ​​stemming from it is also different from what we thought to date,' Kloekhorst says. 'People always find that very interesting because it often has repercussions for the language they speak themselves. The origin of your language does say something about where you come from. With my research into Anatolian, I’m suddenly adding a thousand years of history to that.'

This is partly because the Anatolian languages have so far not been fully researched. 'Take, for example, Hieroglyphic Luwian, an Anatolian language written in a relatively recently deciphered hieroglyphic script,' Kloekhorst says. 'Actually, research into this language only really started in the past twenty years. We already had various publications of inscriptions in this language, but it wasn’t until 2000 that these texts were compiled into one edition with one transcription system. That has made further research much easier.' However, even this edition is not perfect, Kloekhorst says. 'During fieldwork, it sometimes happens that some signs of an inscription are barely visible, but when you try to follow the lines of the signs with your fingers, you suddenly feel: something is written here differently from what we thought.'

Extra weight

Kloekhorst thinks that his appointment as professor will add extra weight to this kind of research. 'It's nice to receive recognition that Anatolian can be studied at this level. In terms of research, not much may change, but internationally, you do gain more visibility. With a chair in a particular field, you are more visible, and it encourages PhD students to come here. I hope it also means that we can do more teaching about Anatolian languages. It would be nice if we could make it a standard part of the bachelor's programme here in Linguistics.'

Alwin Kloekhorst was appointed to the chair in Anatolian Linguistics from 1 November, funded by the VIET Foundation.

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