17 Aug 2007

Problems with Etruscan inscription TLE 890 (or with Etruscologists)

Just so we're on the same page, I thought it would be kind to display a photo of TLE 890 since it seems that most Etruscologists like to hide these clear photos of inscriptions. The text is read from right to left and spells out the following:
  1. felsnas : la : leθes
  2. svalce : avil CVI
  3. murce : capue
  4. tleχe : hanipaluscle

There was a larger purpose to my rant on Enclitics and Noun Phrases in Etruscan and I'm just itching to test my new theory out on this inscription. So let's go for a ride.

We know that La in the first line is an abbreviation for the male praenomen Larth. Larissa Bonfante claims it translates as "Felsnas, son of Larth Lethe lived 106 years. (He) lived at Capua. (He) was enrolled in the army of Hannibal". Try for now to put out of your mind the astonishing fact that this man is actually inscribed to have lived to the ripe old age of 106 in pre-industrial times and how this puts your state of health to shame. We can see full well at the end of the second line the three numerals for CVI. (Note that the scribe wrote an ancient variant of upside-down upsilon for "five" which is attested elsewhere in Etruscan.) Yep, apparently he was 106... or maybe his community just lost count.

Now, let me warn readers that the last translated sentence which I mark in red is entirely mangled beyond recognition by Bonfante. One hint of her error in judgement is the consideration that if tleχe really meant "in the army", the use of the simple locative -e to convey "in" is not justified by attested examples elsewhere. The locative normally is equivalent to English "by", "at", "with" or "on". When one says "he is in the army" one is not saying someone is physically "in" an army since an army is an abstract concept. One really means that someone belongs to a group called an army. The genitive case then would be more appropriate in Etruscan, which typically conveys ownership or relationship. Bonfante, not being a linguist, isn't the first expert we should be running to in order to explain the grammar of this inscription anyways but sadly, aside from Rix, there doesn't seem to be many options for the reader who wants to bypass the mysterymongers to get at the nutritious morsels of linguistic fact.

Let me also assure you that mur, which is attested a couple of times in the Liber Linteus document (LL 11.vi, viii), does not mean "to live" given all of its contexts and in fact in all likelihood means the very opposite, "to die". If you don't believe me, please ask yourself how this verb could have possibly built a word like murs "sarcophagus" (translated this way by Massimo Pallottino himself) which conveys the complete opposite of what it supposedly means. Obviously, this contradicts Pallottino's (and Bonfante's) published belief that mur means "to live" while supporting the complete opposite translation.

(Oh-oh. I smell a historical controversy coming on!)

But this simple two-plus-two revelation would lend a completely different interpretation to the sentence, starting with a necessary, grammar-based readjustment of the translation of Tleχe Hanipalus-cle as "during the *War* of Hannibal". Maybe classicists like Bonfante should be aware of things like, say... Latin, where the equivalent phrase, Bello Hannibalis, was also used a lot by Romans like my main man, Livy? Just a teensy thought. The use of the simple locative -e to specify a point in time is securely attested in the Liber Linteus (n.b. θesane "in the morning").

Yet, after we've finished dancing around a bonfire fueled by the red herrings in Bonfante's books and break free from our naive dependence on narrow specialists to define our world for us, we might finally come to an independent realization that for Larth to have died during the War of Hannibal, his death would have to be placed between 218 and 201 BCE, not his army enrollment - a century earlier than is widely published! In other words, he would have to have been born sometime between 324 and 307 BCE and could only have been fit for the army between 304 and 287 BCE.

Quite frankly I find this whole absurdity deliciously hilarious. I hope you do too. Don't forget to pay me royalties in case you decide to publish, hehe.

Or... maybe I'm crazy. But at least I'm thinking about these nagging details about Etruscan grammar. I'm old school. I believe that a translation should be consistently applied and should follow a clear grammatical model. If that methodology had been applied throughout the 20th century, there wouldn't be people claiming that Etruscans are a mystery today.


  1. That is indeed quite funny. :D

    I can't help but feel amazed by the word mur. My Indo-Europeanist instincts immediately try to connect it with the stem *mer- 'to die' (or Indo-Hittite 'to disappear'). But if this word was the only reason for us to assume that Etruscan is in fact Indo-European, that'd be sort of far out there.

    Nice article, I felt like I was actually able to follow the Etruscan text. I've also figured out why I've so far been unable to figure out the texts that you had shown, and to connect it with the transcriptions. I failed to noticed the inverse direction of the script. haha.

    Omniglot (not often a reliable authority, I know)sketches a very different view of the script. Which is according to them, a left to right written script, which is also often written boustrophedon (That is probably true :)).


  2. My philosophy is that to translate Etruscan properly we have to focus on the language itself: its grammar, its context and strict consistency of translation. Yes, I'm aware of PIE *mer- but I hesitate with idle association because it's been the bane of Etruscan studies for too long. However, a borrowing from Latin morī demands less assumptions than a connection with PIE directly.

    When I translate Etruscan mur as "to die" when intransitive (or "to kill" when transitive with accusative-marked object), it is because of what I see in the inscriptions themselves, ignoring external connections.

    If you want to know what mur really means just take a gander at the phrase teśami-tn murce (LL 11.v-vi). If we followed Massimo Pallottino's vocabulary list in The Etruscans blindly, we would think it says "the curator lives (in a place)." ????? So as I suggest, let's make a bonfire with these useless books.

    I think my interpretation is less kooky - "A sacrifice was slain," referring to the rituals performed by the priest for certain gods on the calendar date specified therein. Here, the verb is in the active perfect preterite and takes an explicitly marked accusative object to indicate that the verb is to be understood in its transitive sense.

    Now, here's a question for you to ponder. In TLE 890, there is no accusative object and the NP of that sentence is placed after the verb.

    Do you know... why?

  3. Oh and I forgot. I checked out your link to omniglot... Aaaah, excellent! I see you're finding some juicy crap on your own ;) Good find, good find.

    The most famous and longest texts we have like the Liber Linteus, Tabula Capuana and Pyrgi Tablets are all written right to left.

    Be weary of "digimaopedias".