Harry Hoffner, scholar of ancient Near East, 1934-2015

Harry Hoffner, one of the founders of the Chicago Hittite Dictionary and a leading expert on the ancient Near East, died suddenly on March 10 in South Carolina. He was 80.

Hoffner, who retired in 2000, was the John A. Wilson Professor Emeritus of Hittitology at the University of Chicago.

With Hans Gustav Güterbock, Hoffner co-founded the Chicago Hittite Dictionary in 1976. The project, which continues at the Oriental Institute today, is a long-term effort to document the language of the Hittites, a people who lived in ancient Anatolia (present-day Turkey). 

Gil Stein, director of the Oriental Institute, said Hoffner was “one of the leading figures in the study of the Hittite language.”

“His work as editor of the Chicago Hittite Dictionary laid the foundations for the most important research tool for scholars studying the world’s oldest written Indo-European language. Scholars of linguistics and of the ancient Near East will always be in debt to him for his many contributions to these fields,” Stein added.

In addition to his work on the Chicago Hittite Dictionary, Hoffner authored several foundational books on the Hittite language and culture: Alimenta Hethaeorum, a study of Hittite food production; The Laws of the Hittites: A Critical Edition; and A Grammar of the Hittite Language, which his colleague Theo van den Hout described as “a landmark publication” for the field.

Van den Hout, who succeeded Hoffner as director of the Chicago Hittite Dictionary, remembered Hoffner as a careful and devoted scholar who held himself to the highest academic standards. As a colleague, Hoffner was kind and attentive, van den Hout said—he remembered Hoffner and his wife planning an outing to the Brookfield Zoo with van den Hout and his young children when they first arrived in the United States.

Hoffner received his BA from Princeton University in 1956 and a Master of Theology from Dallas Theological Seminary in 1960. He held an MA and PhD in Ancient Mediterranean Studies from Brandeis University. 

In retirement, Hoffner took wintertime visits to South Carolina, where he enjoyed walks and bike rides on the beach. A deeply religious man, Hoffner taught Bible study classes and was a member of the choir at College Church in Wheaton for two decades. 

Hoffner is survived by his wife of 57 years, Winifred; their three children, David, Karen and Lee; and two grandchildren, Samantha and Maija.