14 Jun 2007

Latin 'pulcher': Is it really an Etruscan loan?

The Latin word pulcher meaning "beautiful" is really bugging me lately but I haven't yet spent enough time looking into its origins. The usual story that one will see published is that it comes from Etruscan mlaχ and then it's just left at that, without further explanation. So far this is what I've collected in my database on the Etruscan adjective and noun:

malaχ [ETP 118], mlaχ [TLE 27, 42, 62] (na.) // mlaχas [TLE 66], mlakas [ETP 28; TLE 62] (gen.) // malakasi [ETP 118] (dat.)

As you can see it has a few variants but this is not really due to dialect so much as diachrony. At around 500 BCE, syncope occured due to a strong stress accent in Etruscan and caused vowels in unstressed syllables to become reduced in length and quality or even to disappear altogether, which is why we see both old Etruscan malaχ and Neo-Etruscan mlaχ as above. The problem I have with these popular Latin-Etruscan etymologies is that they're too lacking in necessary detail. Even worse, the average joe often reads "probably from Etruscan" in dictionaries as "certainly from Etruscan". Confusing probability (something relative) with certainty (something absolute) is one of the most common and dangerous flaws in logic. The human tendency towards absolutism engenders confusing memes and increasing mass misinformation without individual reasoning to get in the way.

In this example, as I often see whenever something is attributed to "those mysterious Etruscans", a number of subtle but important linguistic considerations are missed by those who aren't versed in the languages they're discussing. In the above example, people don't take the time to address vital questions that should be bubbling up in all of our noggins:

1. Why Latin unvoiced stop ('p') for Etruscan voiced nasal continuant ('m')?
2. Why 'u' in Latin for 'a' in Etruscan?
3. If stress was on the 2nd syllable in the Etruscan word, why not Latin *placher instead?

I've never seen these questions adequately answered and its probably because, sadly, no one bothered to ask them before. It's much easier and quicker for us to just quote blindly from a book than to think about what we read. (On a side note, that's precisely why I fear wiki-mentality and its brainless notions of 'verifiability'.)

At any rate, this little rant is just about why I find the etymology of this word suspect. Hopefully, by sharing, others might have a more detailed explanation to offer accounting for all of the above.

(Jul 14/07)
While most words containing 'ch', 'th' and 'ph' in Latin were of Greek origin, Classical Latin also has words proven to be native but which nonetheless were given aspirated spellings. We have lachrima "teardrop" for example, also spelled lacrima (from Old Latin dacruma), which is without a doubt an old word inherited directly from Indo-European *dáḱru. If this is the case, it lends credence to Douglas Kilday's recent suggestion that pulcher (also spelled pulcer) is equally ancient and native to Latin itself. Perhaps, as he offers, it is from Indo-European *pl̥h₁-tló- "made abundant".


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