15 Aug 2007

Literacy among Etruscan specialists less than 10% (or Alphabet Chess)

I'm probably going to hell for making this blog. Then again, I could be going to hell for any number of reasons outside of this blog. Believe me, I am consciously aware that I must seem like a peanut gallery nagger, tearing down respected academics with their own errors, but I just can't help it. I'm sick. I need pills. Perhaps I have a defective, anti-team-player gene that gives me an exhilarating shiver of schadenfreude whenever I broadcast published mistakes into cyberspace. And just when I start to feel a tinge of guilt for my badnewsbear attitude, I remind myself that this is just karmaic payback for all the badly researched self-contradictions that authors publish to waste my time, instead of these same authors teaching me about Etruscans as I initially wanted when I picked up their books.

Luckily however, the internet can be used for the power of social good. Google Book Search is the working man's friend, a practical scythe for the unwashed academic proleteriat to cut through ivory tower dumbocracy. Vive la résistance! When I compare my crosslinked notes to new information, I far too often am finding two, three or fifteen different versions of the same inscription. And always to add to these intolerable contradictions, no helpful photos of artifacts to be seen anywhere. While certainly not being a deliberate conspiracy, I remain forever in awe of how the headless bureaucracy of academia abets historical obfuscation so perfectly by burying access to primary information under a heap of tertiary re-interpretations that are next to impossible to verify without quitting one's nine-to-five.

So yet again, in the spirit of my other error-exposing blog entries like Religion in Etruria: A comedy of errors that keeps on giving and Voodoo linguistics in Etruscology: the imaginary word 'naceme', here's another example: page 137 of The Etruscan Language (Bonfante) . Unbeknownst to the neophyte, this page is boobytrapped with transcription errors, incomplete theories and incorrect interpretations of Etruscan grammar. An entire page of fodder for future blog entries! Here you will find TLE 28 cited as mi qutun lemausnaś ranazu zinake (note the difference made between the two sibilants, s and ś, in the last name Lemausnaś). Yet, if you happen to reject author-cults and commit the heinous thoughtCrime of reading multiple sources like a healthy iconoclast, you may run across Helmut Rix's Etruskische Texte wherein he publishes the same inscription, but with a twist of lime. In contradiction to the Bonfantes, Rix writes the two sibilants as exactly the same here on page 19.

Now, since academics are bred to compete fiercely with each other for namefame (aka "academic career"), Rix sought to express his individuality by reindexing Massimo Pallottino's TLE 28 as ET Fa 2.1. Logically, a global, multiple-university effort to maintain a single index system for Etruscan inscriptions which would be easily accessible to the public would be really swell, wouldn't it? However, that would be expecting too much from the human species who would rather forget history so that they can repeat it. Unless you're unnaturally obsessed like myself, a typical reader may not even notice that Etruscologists are playing "alphabet chess" with our minds. How would any average reader remember that TLE 28 and ET Fa 2.1 are the same artifact unless the author is kind enough to remind us of this, right after offering their bastardized transliterations. Of course, doing so would only encourage readers to verify sources.

Rix himself is also masterful at alphabet chess. In the same book, Etruskische Texte, he transliterates the first word in ET La 2.4 (also known as TLE 24 in Pallottino's system) as mi. The full inscription is according to him: mi araziia laraniia. This is the first person pronoun "I" which starts off many votive inscriptions whose subject, strangely enough, is the votive object itself "speaking" to the reader. Questionable as that might seem to newbies, there is an exact Faliscan equivalent of these types of Etruscan inscriptions (eco quton Evotenosio "I am the vase of Evotenos") and we just need to accept that this linguistic analysis of mi as a 1ps pronoun is perfectly sound. So what's the problem? The problem is that it isn't spelled as mi but rather as ni. and this picture of the artifact here proves the transcription obfuscation I am trying to counteract:

The first character at top (reading right to left) is quite clearly the letter nu followed by iota. These two letters are simply not attached making the letter mu here impossible, and the alpha of the next word immediately follows, providing insufficient room for it anyways. Despite all our naive desire to impose some sort of postmodern spelling system on Etruscan to iron out unwanted scribal inconsistencies, we just have to accept that the first person pronoun happened to have an occasional variant ni [1] (see John Adams, Bilingualism and the Latin language, pp 160-2). It's not a scribal error. I have an issue with authorities who whimsically write letters that aren't there since it washes out important details and sanitizes away a deeper understanding of this forgotten language, warts and all.

So it leads me to conclude that Etruscan literacy among Etruscologists is less than 10%. Shocking! Positively shocking, I must say. Hehe.

Variation and spurious phonetic change in the first person pronoun is very common in world languages. In Japanese, for example, watashi has been shortened to atashi, specializing itself as an effeminate variant used typically by women when amongst other women. In Cantonese, the first person ngo is shortened to o by many young speakers.

(Aug 15/07) Just after finishing this post, I found yet another inscription cursed by inconsistent transliteration, TLE 320 (aka CIE 5312 or ET Vc 1.91) : So far that makes five different versions and yet last time I checked there was only one reality.


  1. Yes, people reading what isn't there can be very annoying. It happens a lot in those languages with little textual evidence. Luckily I don't get in contact with it very often.

    And now on a completely different note, on the Japanese pronouns:
    Although there's an obvious correlation between atashi and watashi (It even uses the same Kanji! (or Hanzi, if you will)), it feels odd to assume that atashi was derived from watashi.

    What is it about /w/ which would make it's removal feminate?

    Probably the most correct interpretation of these two forms is that atashi is dialectal.

    After all, /w/ disappeared before /e, i, o/ and never existed before /u/. It's not unlikely that one dialect decided to pull the /a/ through this sound change as well.

    Watashi itself also has a bit of an effeminate feel to it. I'm guessing in said dialect this was increased where only boku and ore stayed available for women. Later when dialects got back on contact, they realised the handiness of having a female first person pronoun besides neuter and masculine ones. And thus they loaned it back into the standard dialect.

    It's funny I've never really thought about this before, but this seems to be the explanation for the weird removal of /w/ to make something feminine. :D

  2. I only compare Etruscan mi/ni with Japanese watashi/atashi to illustrate the tendency of spurious phonetic variation in pronouns, of course. In the case of Japanese however, there is an entire universe to explore concerning what is and isn't sociolinguistically acceptable to say between sexes and between classes.

    When I put myself in Japanese shoes, my first instinct would be to strongly suspect that it's a form of baby-talk. A means of "lady-like" self-deprecation to show proper respect to others. In fact, I read that some Japanese women will even pronounce "shi" as "si" to sound cute and lispy like a child.

    So, given that, I presume the loss of "w-" in "watashi" to feminize the pronoun here only serves as an auditory cue to sound childish and therefore feminine. (PS, the linguistic attitudes of the Japanese do not reflect the attitudes of this blog and its author! Please don't send me hate mail!! :P)

    It's a rather ugly and sexist fact in our primate species that there is a cross-cultural and cross-linguistic tendency to associate diminution with femininity, attributable to our sexual dimorphia.