31 Mar 2007

Etruscan 'cupe': The person that would be cup.

You know, I could probably do an entire blog on the goof-ups of Etruscologists alone. I can't stop finding one hilarious mistake after another. I know they're mistakes because they contradict themselves. As Judge Judy famously said: "If something doesn't make sense, it's because it is usually a lie." Boy, ain't that the truth, kind of a "duh" truth but then we live in "duh" times.

So we need to talk about the Etruscan word cupe that has been translated both as Cupius, a Roman name, and as "cup". If one follows the combinatory method at all, having two values for one word smells immediately of deception. Of course, words in any language can mean multiple things but it hardly helps us when translating an ancient language to simply apply any meaning or multiple meanings we want to a word to fill in the blank. We need to follow rules, maintain an order, otherwise we will never have a hope in emerging from the chaos of an undeciphered language.

First the specs of the word as I've got in my database so far:

cupe [TLE 7] (na.) // cupes [TLE 8, 12, 19] (gen.)

It's important to pay attention to the inflections and to all inscriptions that bear this item. We see that it is declined with the s-genitive which suggests that this is a masculine animate. Well, right there, this conflicts with the idea that this is a "cup" - an inanimate object, afterall.

We can immediately nip this one in the bud. What is most damaging to the views of anyone such as Massimo Pallottino and Larissa Bonfante, who have both published books claiming that it means "cup" is the inscription TLE 12:

Mi χuliχna Cupes Alθrnas. Ei minipi capi. Mini θanu.

It suffices to look at the very first sentence where we find the first person pronoun (mi), a noun in the unmarked nomino-accusative case (χuliχna), and two items both in the genitive case (Cupes Alθrnas). Pallottino ironically already explains that χuliχna or culiχna is "the name of a vase" or "cup". Two words χuliχna and cupe can't both mean cup in the same sentence! Rather the first sentence can only sensibly read "I am the kylix of Cupe Althrna".

What makes this goof-up particularly comical (or sad) is that both Bonfante and Pallottino both had placed these mutually contradictory translations of χuliχna and cupe on the same pages of their books (Bonfante, Reading the Past - Etruscan, 1990. p.59; Pallottino, The Etruscans, 1975. p.227).

Yet still, despite the contradiction leaping off the page, few people notice it proving that most haven't evolved an ability to question what they read. Make yourself an independent scholar, question what you read, or drown in a sea of misinformation.

28 Mar 2007

Ni-Ankh-Khnum and Khnum-Hotep

Here's an interesting topic and helps me make a point about history and bias. It emphasizes how historical art, or any art for that matter, is just too darn easy to interpret based on how one feels. That's why inscriptions are so handy, but sometimes even experts like to ignore them or misinterpret them according to modern views or their own biases. Even well-intentioned people with degrees out their yin-yang are found debating incessantly their own pet theories back and forth without ever an agreement between them. Sometimes the suggestions are absurd; sometimes pedantic. You be the judge.

There were two male individuals named Ni-Ankh-Khnum and Khnum-Hotep strangely portrayed together and very close, standing side-by-side (almost lip-locked, some may say). They were apparently both buried within a single Egyptian tomb, yet also appear to have had wives and children if the murals have been read correctly.

This tomb was found more than forty years ago. Still today however, academics can't decide whether this is a homosexual couple, a pair of brothers, or even conjoined twins! Egad, this debate sounds painfully narrow to me. This is just like the nonsense that goes on with Etruscan burial murals with which I'm more familiar. Essentially many whimsical statements are made by learned people about what they (think they) see in a mural, but nothing productive comes of it, save more conjecture, of course, until somebody comes a long with a thorough and comprehensive analysis.

We need to be careful with this. While I don't hold to any particular view on this so far, after just finishing a blog on sexuality and based on what I know about sexuality, I do know that what we now call "homosexual" love between men and a "heterosexual" life of wives and children is not necessarily incompatible in many societies.

First, bisexuals are not unicorns. They exist now and they existed in the past. Ancient texts may not have necessarily had a term "bisexual" but it happened (nb. consider Julius Caesar and the open claims of his bisexuality). To even label this Egyptian mural as specifically homo- rather than bisexual shows a naiveté about the human spectrum of sexual tastes and the added possibilities this mural may or may not represent.

In Ancient Greece, our concepts and terms relating to sexual orientation would have seemed to them quite foreign. (See http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/homosexuality/ for more details.) Due to the vaguer way that they looked at sexual orientation, a man could easily love another man without any social disdain while still having a wife and children. The latter could be seen as a societal obligation to procreate while the former, pleasure. To an Ancient Greek, we know there was no conflict in this behaviour, hard as it may be for some conservative-minded individuals to comprehend today.

So then, to understand what's going on with these murals and be fair on ethnological grounds, I might ask: In what way is Ancient Egyptian views of sexual orientation different from Ancient Greek views? If no significant difference, how then do we distinguish here between brothers and lovers? If Ancient Greece, as just one example, is to be our cultural guide on what is possible in human societies, the mere presence of wives and children in these murals does not say anything afterall.

However, this is just an idle thought I had when I read the story. It doesn't seem that the New York Times author was aware of these added considerations and I fear that without going through all the possibilities we're being one-dimensional about this debate.

Read here the New York Times article on the subject and get informed about a kooky corner of Egyptology your professor may not have told you. Perhaps you too will see other unique perspectives on these images from the past that haven't yet been considered by the old school.

26 Mar 2007

Thoughts on sexuality and history

Hide the children. As I promised you in my blog "Nostratic-L yahoogroups update", outraged by the bigoted attitudes of a yahoogroups moderator, Andy Howey, and some members like Patrick C. Ryan, I think it's constructive to tackle the complex world of sexuality maturely, covering the broad range of opinions which continue to exist today and which have existed throughout time. Allowing our own ethnocentric feelings of moral supremacy will forever prevent us from understanding our past, our present and even our future.

On Nostratic-L, Patrick's paranoia towards the light-hearted term "sweetie" as a kind of accusation of homosexuality (see here) and Andy's subtle use of quotation marks around the pronouns "he" to refer to me (see here) are subtle examples of continued bigotry in the modern day. They demonstrate unscientific, fear-driven myths seen countless times elsewhere that a) to be a gay male or to be associated with one is a sign of moral deficiency, and b) that gay males aren't male enough to be referred to as he without quotation marks. Considering the available information on sites like the American Psychological Association, it's hard to believe that these online individuals masquerading as history buffs are not purposely being ignorant in order to unload their baggage of self-hatred on random scapegoats whether it be groups united by sexuality, by gender, by culture, by religion, by skin colour, etc.

It's interesting also that Patrick Ryan and Andy Howey should both reside in the United States, a country that frequently airs homophobic propoganda as we would expect in other countries intolerant towards homosexuality such as Iraq, Algeria and Mozambique (see Debra Rosenberg/Karen Breslau, Newsweek: Culture Wars Winning the 'Values' Vote, Online: Feb 05 2006[1]; CNN: GOP Renews Fight Against Gay Marriage). In that country, gay marriages are recognized in some states while others maintain laws against sodomy that were written a century ago. (This in itself teaches us that no culture, ancient or modern, is entirely monolithic in views and attitudes about anything, by the way.) I live in quite a different country just next door, Canada, where gay marriage is now legally recognized throughout all of its provinces and territories. Similar positive attitudes now prevail in modern countries around the world like Australia, Belgium, France, Germany, Israel, Luxembourg, Monaco, Norway, Portugal, Slovenia, South Africa, Spain, Sweden and the United Kingdom, to list only a few. As we can see then, Patrick and Andy's unscientific attitudes towards sexuality probably in part were shaped by their own cultural biases of what they learned to be "right" and "wrong" from their parents and their parents before them. However with just the above facts about laws around the world, these morals are not universal and it's naive to impose them on other cultures, whether they be prehistorical, historical or modern. They certainly have no business being in an educated debate as a low-handed way to personally attack other members of a forum.

There are many quick examples of how moral supremacy can cause the destruction of historical artifacts and infect our knowledge of history. Consider for example the many books that Mayans had produced recording their advanced knowledge of the sciences, completely destroyed by Spanish catholic priests who deemed them demonic according to their own narrow religious views. Only a few books now remain such as the Dresden Codex. In Victorian times, many Egyptian statues of a phallic nature, devoted to the god Min, were purposely maimed to agree better with the sensibilities of that era rather than being properly studied in order to truthfully comprehend the past. Ignorance is a destructive imp and allowing it to fester leads to chaos.

Many people when they study ancient cultures think that they can hide themselves away from the uneasy topic of sexuality and yet still gain deep insight into these cultures, but they are deluding themselves. Inevitably one will accidentally trip over cultural curiosities such as this sexually overt image displayed on a classical Greek amphora or a carefully carved facade of an ancient temple in India and then what does one do? Hide in a bomb shelter? Is the end really nigh, or has history just blown your mind wide open and showed you how small your own culture really is in the grand scheme of time?

And this is just scratching the surface of this topic...

[1] Originally published online by MNSBC at http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/6401635/site/newsweek/, the article is now curiously absent and unretrievable from their site. Thankfully it has been archived by others however.

23 Mar 2007

Allan Bomhard's "Toward Proto-Nostratic"

(The following uses a special font to render linguistic symbols. Please download and install the Code2000 font [zip] if you're having difficulties with the display. A single asterisk (*) represents reconstructed forms; double asterisks (**) mark implausible forms.)

Allan Bomhard is one of many Nostraticists attempting to iron out the theory of the Nostratic proto-language (see my previous blog: What is Nostratic Theory?). Unfortunately, this ironing has been going on for a while and some may feel that a hole as been blazed into the shirt by now. In 1984, Bomhard published Toward Proto-Nostratic in which he explored in particular the possible relationships between Proto-Indo-European (PIE) and Proto-Afro-Asiatic (PAA).

A daunting task. For me this rings alarmbells in my head immediately because I can tell based on what I know of comparative linguistics that any such relationship is fantastically remote at best. Couldn't we start with something easier? What about the relationship between Indo-European and Uralic which many academics can recognize as a clear possibility? It just breaks my heart to see "long-rangers" go too long-range and bite off far more than they can chew.

Bomhard's position as reflected in his other books is that PIE and PAA are seperated by approximately 15,000 years, as old as Nostratic itself. I can buy that. This is no doubt why he focusses on these two language groups in particular - to attempt to approach the mysteries of Proto-Nostratic by some sort of linguistic triangulation. Conjecture like this is okay as long as it doesn't ignore facts. It's a healthy part of science, but only if you can seperate capably in your mind your untested imagination on the one hand from hard facts or thoroughly established theories based on those facts on the other hand. An "idea" is not a "theory" and a "theory" is not a "fact". Also when I read Allan Bomhard or other Nostraticists, I try consciously to not get stuck into absolutive thinking and pre-judge people as either 100% kooky or 100% infallible. To come away with something from whatever book we may read, we must first ponder logically on what these books can and cannot provide us.

First the bad news about this book: If you're looking to Bomhard to give you a thorough reconstruction of the Proto-Nostratic language, keep looking. Sad as I am to say this, an overwhelming majority of his roots can be rejected right off the hop because they carelessly ignore how the protolanguages he deals with are reconstructed by recognized specialists. This is the way that virtually all Nostraticists shoot themselves in the foot - by reinventing the entire field of comparative linguistics for themselves rather than taking the time to study it. Observe the festival of errors:

  • PIE *dəg-am-, *dg-am- 'earth, ground, man' (p.216)

    The agreed-upon PIE reconstruction for 'earth' or 'ground' is *dʰǵʰom- without controversy. No one but Bomhard and Nostraticists would recognize **dəg-am- as a validly formed root. The word he claims to be 'man' is actually reconstructed as a derived stem *dʰǵʰom-h₁on- 'someone of the earth' (hence Old English guma and Latin homo). Without the agentive ending -h₁on-, *dʰǵʰom- cannot possibly mean 'man'. This is shameful ignorance of well-attested Indo-European grammar.

  • PSem *tyawr- 'bull' (p.216)

    Semiticists purposely reconstruct *θawr- with *θ- (pronounced 'th' as in English 'thin') based on uncontroversial data showing either /ʃ/, /θ/ or /t/. The first sound is definitely not palatalized as he suggests without ignoring what is actually historically attested.

  • PIE *ʔya- 'relative pronominal stem' (p.270)

    Again wrong. The word is commonly reconstructed as *yo- (note that Andrew Sihler, Benjamin Fortson, & Jaan Puhvel cite *yo-, despite all these specialists being aware of the controversial alternative *h₁yo-). Indo-European languages do not show us a trace of such an initial laryngeal here aside perhaps from Greek hos (yet note also ios found side-by-side with hos since at least Mycenaean). In Indo-European Language and Culture (2009), p.144, Fortson describes the added laryngeal as incompletely resolved. When postposed, we only find laryngeal-less *-yo- however and so the belief that this relative pronoun must be a thematic extension of the 3ps pronoun *h₁i- is an idle conviction. There's also no trace of such a laryngeal in Uralic's cognates (nb. FU *jo- and Uralic *-ja [nomen agentis]) nor has Bomhard sufficiently demonstrated that word-initial clusters even originate at all from a common Indo-Uralic ancestor. Ad hoc.

    Even beyond this laryngeal controversy, we are assured that a vowel *a in this pronoun is most glaringly irresponsible in any accepted modern theory of PIE proper whose known reflexes keep it quite distinct from *o.

  • PIE *rəkʔ-/*rakʔ- 'to stretch out, straighten, make straight'

    He fails to notice the actual form, reconstructed long after Julius Pokorny, showing initial laryngeal *h₃ to explain the initial o- found in Greek oregein. The root is therefore *h₃reǵ- and once again Bomhard's casual musings are invalid.

The good news is that Bomhard's many books on Nostratic can be read for the text, not the listings. He makes some valid points about the awkwardness of PIE sound system which, for one thing, oddly lacks *b when the principle of "typological markedness" (see Markedness in Phonology) shows us that it should have it. Many other points like these are things he uses to justify his reworking of PIE altogether as you can see above, however I would argue that what he is in effect doing here is confusing issues of Pre-Indo-European with Indo-European itself. If, for example, he were to reconstruct /*a ablaut and a series of ejective stops in Pre-IE rather than IE, he could keep his theory intact while avoiding the otherwise unnecessary war with IE specialists who naturally reject his work.

To sum things up then, we might say that what Nostraticists appear to be are hopeless extreme- generalists, so caught up in the forest that they forget the trees. Specialists on the other hand tend to reject long-range comparative linguistics a priori because they are stuck looking at a single tree without looking at the wide forest. The future will eventually bring these two extremes together and a new brand of Nostraticist will evolve that both respects specialists yet also has the ability to pull the detailed information these specialists provide us into a general big-picture, one that no longer involves ignoring logic.

21 Mar 2007

Roman video blog: i-claudius.com

Wonderful! Joy upon joys! I finally found a really fun video blog (or is it a "v-log", "vidblog"...?) that I came across months ago. It was a blog on Roman history and I appreciated it because the host comes across as a down-to-earth, approachable guy who has a strong zeal for the past. This is someone who enjoys history and wants to share the beauty of it with others without pretense and ego, able all the while to poke fun at himself and have fun with the subject matter. Kudos.

Sometimes it seems like his zest borders on the fetishistic with his use of period costumes and such. Yet in my books, that's what makes what he does both informative and entertaining to watch for everyone. Even if it's not your cup of tea, you have to give him some credit for the amount of work he puts into it

Check it out: http://www.i-claudius.com/ (The Ancient, The Modern and The Ridiculous)

What is Nostratic Theory?

As promised in my previous blog (Nostratic-L yahoogroups update), a rant on Nostratic. Hooray!

Nostratic is a proto-language, a reconstructed language, generally proposed to have been spoken approximately 15,000 years ago and thought to be the ancestor of certain language families. The last of the Wisconsin-Würm glaciation period (aka. The Ice Age) was ending by this time. Nostratic is meant to explain, at the very least, the origins of Indo-European, Uralic, Altaic, Afro-Asiatic and Kartvelian language families.

The relationship of these language groups to each other and how other language families might be included under the Nostratic umbrella is as always a matter of debate. Frankly, it's still anyone's guess at this point and mainstream academia still doesn't fully accept the theory entirely. This was my attempt years ago based on Bomhard's to work out a relationship of these various families that made sense to me:

The idea of Nostratic was first written about publicly by an inquisitive Dane named Holger Pedersen as early as 1903. This was hardly the first time anyone had proposed long-range linguistic relationships. You can find previous explorations into "Indo-Semitic" in the mid 19th-century and if you really dig deep, there are interesting nuggets from classical Greek authors about language origins.

For a more detailed primer on the history of the Nostratic Theory, I can't possibly compete with the wealth of info from an Oxford University website that you can enjoy. They have an online article called The Nostratic linguistic macrofamily by Ilya Yakubovich of the University of California. If you can track down Indo-European and the Nostratic Hypothesis by Allan Bomhard, you will get another meaty account of the history of the debate about Nostratic and language origins to sink your teeth into.

A few days ago, I trekked to my local University of Manitoba to track down a few books on Nostratic to make more detailed comments for you all. There's a lot of more to say on Nostratic, Nostraticists and comparative linguistics in general. So maybe I will seperate this into a few blogs devoted to "Nostrato-mania". One of the books I've gotten a hold of is Allan R. Bomhard's Toward Nostratic and as usual I have some positive comments on it as well as some harsh criticisms about some glaring errors that just shouldn't have been committed. Tsk, tsk.

They say an unquestioning mind is a lazy mind. I can't argue with that... hehe.

20 Mar 2007

Nostratic-L yahoogroups update

After a slumber of several months, one of my old forums has finally awakened... or has it? In my blog entry entitled Nostratic and the curse of the online forum, I had merely explained that the topic of Nostratic Theory is bogged down by its own controversies and how online forums that serve to represent it need the maturity to strive continuously to cultivate balanced debate. That's all I said, as you can read for yourself.

Well, my exercise in free speech apparently provoked the Nostratic-L beehive and now the drones from the peanut gallery are needlessly attacking me once more. It's frustrating, it's infuriating, but they're just up to their ol' tricks again. Of course, their actions and the continued lack of mature moderation by Andy Howey are only validating precisely the criticisms I've just wrote. The moderator, to this very day, is merely biting the hand of contributors who feed him. Are these naive people for real?

What I avoided up to now, concerning Nostratic-L itself, was its added plague of racism and homophobia, but I've decided that this really needs to be discussed. Some very disturbed characters such as Patrick C. Ryan (owner of this site) purposefully misconstrue comments by others as a form of warped amusement. After I had made casual comments obviously intended to be light-hearted and poking fun at myself, Patrick never thought twice in masturbating these poignantly biggoted comments in return:
  • I am not your friend in general, and in particular, not one of your homosexual friends. "Sweetie" is used among homosexuals. Use it for them, not for me.

  • Since I am, myself, white, "White Trash" can only refer to social class as demonstrated by language and attitude. It cannot be racist.
(The original public record is found here.)

This is inane, if not absolutely offensive, for any educated person to be subjected to. This is why at that point I forever shunned all of these childish groups and left them to the yahoos, despite Andy Howey's disturbing requests to "get along with the depressing biggot". Like the character Archie Bunker in All in the Family, these fools have had their day in the sun and now it's over thanks to the growing democracy of blogs. Think of blogs as a Yahoogroups 2.0 perhaps where individuals are not at the mercy of demented trolls or self-important moderators who've lost track of the topic of their own forum. Bloggers, unlike oppressed Yahoogroups members, are free to be either as stupid as they choose to indulge, or as informed as they strive to be. We are also free to form are own online alliances by shunning the court jesters and linking only to the conscientious.

The best way to counter these negative trolls and the spiteful moderators who back them up is to frustrate their tactics at every turn by making their determined stupidity into a wonderful opportunity for shared discussion and learning.

So in the next few blogs I will be offering information and my own perspectives based on life experience on sexuality and gender issues throughout history, the cultural differences that exist, and how our own ethnocentric views of what should be "right" and "wrong" to us are *not*, nor have ever been, universal. In fact, these narrow-minded prejudices doom us to forever misunderstand history.

Another more immediate blog I'm inspired to do will be about Nostratic theory itself since I, for one, can easily access at least three books at the Elizabeth Dafoe Library at my University of Manitoba directly on the topic of Nostratic. If those on the Nostratic-L forum wish to discuss the topic of Nostratic intelligently, the least they could do is read any one of the authors who have written on this topic (Bomhard, Kerns, Dolgopolsky, Illich-Svitych, etc.) and refer to them, no? I hope this will be much more informative, enjoyable and positive for everyone than what Nostratic-L is thus far incapable of offering us.

Ignorance will always die a cruel death by the sword of Athena.

17 Mar 2007

Pokorny lives again

Yes, my friends, I'm talking about Julius Pokorny, author of the Indogermanisches Etymologisches Wörterbuch, (ie. "IndoEuropean Etymological Dictionary") and unfortunate victim of a tram hit-and-run that ended his life in 1970. However, he lives again thanks to the miracle (or curse) of the internet.

For those new to comparative linguistics, Indo-European (or "IE", for short) is a language hypothesized to have been spoken about six thousand years ago. It is the ancestor of most languages now dominating Europe and India. English too is an Indo-European language.

I have just come across yet another site that faithfully provides us with Pokorny's work, rather overconfidently named Linguistics Research Center, a site coming from the University of Texas. Together with the American Heritage Dictionary and the late Sergei Starostin's Tower of Babel, there is no shortage of access to Pokorny's reconstructions online.

This seeming wealth of information on the internet tests the limit of how outdated information can be before it is no longer true information and starts becoming insidious miseducation. In this case, Pokorny's works are outdated by at least a half-century. I have no doubt that far better books can be found with which to build an info-site, even at the University of Texas.

The changes that Indo-European linguistics has experienced since he published his book, during those tween years of the 60s, 70s, 80s and beyond, made an irreversible impact on the rise of universal acceptance of "Laryngeal Theory". Laryngeal Theory proposes that Indo-European (IE) had three "h"-like sounds (written as h1, h2 and h3) that had disappeared in most languages. Fortunately, h2 and h3 had left signs of their original presence in various words of IE languages by altering the vowels neighbouring them before they completely disappeared.

With the discovery of Hittite and other languages such as Luwian, Lycian, Lydian and Palaic, it was shown that h2 and h3 didn't entirely disappear in all IE languages, remaining "h" in this Anatolian branch of the family. Laryngeals are now an undeniable feature of the Proto-Indo-European sound inventory. To deny their existence now amid all of the extensive data showing otherwise is tantamount to denying that the earth revolves around the sun.

Yet, Pokorny never reconstructed any of his roots with these added laryngeals despite the Laryngeal Theory already taking hold in the field at the time. His antiquated work wasn't without its critics either. So today, if one has any access to a university library at all, Pokorny's reconstructions are a pale imitation of real information on the subject. They are only useful if one is interested in the history of linguistic studies, just as Plato's works are no longer informative on modern cosmology.

The following table illustrates a sample of important differences between Julius Pokorny's reconstructions and those used today:

Let's take the malformed *ant- "front" (based on words like Greek anti and Latin ante) as an example which takes all of a minute of googling to disprove thanks to Hittite hanti with preceding "h", showing us that the true form must be *h2ent- instead.

Considering that there are many more current resources available on Indo-European reconstruction (eg: Encyclopedia of Indo-European Culture by J. P. Mallory and Douglas Q. Adams), I don't think it's harsh to find it more than a little odd that an institution of higher learning like the University of Texas can't try a little harder to educate the public with information written in this century.

15 Mar 2007

Etruscan 'maru' : A non-existent title

It is a long-standing doctrine in Etruscan studies that the Italic title maro (pl. marones) has a counterpart in the Etruscan language as maru, a term assumed to be related through borrowing. Massimo Pallottino lists the following entry in the vocabulary section found at the end of his book The Etruscans (1975):

maru title of magistracy (= Lat. maro, Umbrian maron-); connected and derived forms: marnu, marniu, marunu, marunuχ, maruχva, marunuχva: zilaθ maruχva, zilc marunuχva, marunuχva cepen, etc. titles; maru- (marv-as) verb denoting the exercise of the magistracy.

Any critiques on the work of Etruscologists are hard to come by, yet there are many valid reasons to question this and many other sacrosanct translations based on linguistical grounds.

For one thing, and the most grammatically obvious, the word marunuχ sometimes sports the suffix -va, which is precisely what we would expect for an inanimate noun! The suffix -va is a known allomorph of -χva that is used after stems ending in certain consonants (eg: PyrT 1.i-ii heramaśva 'idols'; see Etruscan grammar [pdf] by Micheal Weiss of Cornell University).

Another important oddity of this word is never explained by either Pallottino or any of his academic followers to date: Why do we find so many alternate forms *all* translated the same way, such as maru, marnu, marniu, maruχva, marunuχ or marunuχva?! Indeed, they are all in exactly the same funerary contexts, but what then is the grammatical difference between the stem maru- and the stem maru-nu-? If it were honestly expressing a position of power, the Etruscans would surely have agreed upon a single term. If Etruscologists were speaking from a position other than ignorance, they would have been able decades ago to adequately explain what -n(i)u- adds to the meaning of this word. They have yet to do so.

When we realize how misguided the translation of this word is, we may then start to notice a larger, ominous pattern that becomes evident in Massimo Pallottino's work on the language: the overindulgence in ad hoc Latin-Etruscan comparisons. Have you been fooled too?

The only way to sift through this paleoglottal tomfoolery is to always, always, always look at these words in their proper context, in their original inscriptions. Never let an author pull the wool over your eyes. Go straight to the source and question:

TLE 133: Marunuχva cepen tenu, zilaχnu.
TLE 170: Zilc marunuχva tenθas.
TLE 190: Maru Paχaθuras Caθs-c, lupu.
CII 2070: Marunuχ spurana cepen tenu.

If we are to understand what maru(-nu)- really is, we need to take note of the patterns in the inscriptions. As I explained above, Etruscan grammar itself is telling us that this word expresses a countable, inanimate object, not a person.

We see further that there is a verb that operates on this object: ten. This verb too has been the victim of Pallottino's ad hoc Latin-tainted whims since he mistranslates it as "'to act' in the sense of 'to exercise a magistracy'" (The Etruscans, p.232), a clear connection to Latin tenēre 'to hold' (in this case, 'to hold a position') even though he doesn't explicitly admit this in his book. Knowledgeable experts nowdays agree that Etruscan is entirely unrelated to Latin so these impulsive connections just get in our way of properly understanding this language.

In both TLE 133 and CII 2070, the verb is in the passive (-u) and thus it informs us that the "marunu" objects are being "ten"-ed. In TLE 170, it is the subject zilc that is "ten"-ing the "marunu" objects but yet again, the same action is being performed on them. If the maru in TLE 190 is at all expressing the same object as *marunu (an iffy proposition that needs to be demonstrated both by its context and by a detailed explanation of its morphological elements), we should note that the sentence conveys that the object belongs to both Paχaθur (ie. "those of Bacchus") and Caθ (apparently a deity that we also find inscribed on the bronze Piacenza Liver artifact).

Given the above data, I hardly think any reasonable and informed scholar can possibly take Pallottino's translation of maru seriously any longer.

12 Mar 2007

The real names of Egyptian deities

Let me tell you a little story about little Nancy. Little Nancy contracted a disease called Egyptomania when she was 16 years of age, sometime between her bouts of the Mayan Fever and Indo-European Flu. She learned everything she could about the Egyptian language, how they wrote it, how to conjugate a verb, what the word order was, etc., but her spidey senses knew that something wasn't quite right.

At that age, she had never thought of going to a university library to find the information that she was craving. It was too intimidating for her. She was but a young child with the typical teen-angst-enduced self-esteem issues. Besides, only older people went to university and they would probably look at her funny whispering "What is that kid doing here?". So to avoid controversy, she naively limited herself to what she could get her hands on at the school library (pretty much nothing but books from 1932) or the public library.

Unless you can get an academic book on the subject, the real Egyptian language as it was spoken by real Egyptian people is all but inaccessible to the average joe. The scribes didn't normally write vowels, aside from words and names of foreign origin, and even then, not consistently. In most garden-variety books, the words have been ever so (un)kindly "recodified" for the unwashed masses by inserting e's and other vowels that never belonged there in the first place, all to render it more "pronounceable". Is it misinformation? Technically, but who cares about that if little Nancy can write her ill-conceived essay for social studies class. As long as she has a bibliography, little Nancy might get an A- without any guidance whatsoever from the clueless teacher who also probably knows as much about the Egyptian language as the students. (In the idealistic good ol' days, teachers also understood the topics they taught. Oh well.)

I have a confession to make. I... yes, I... I was once little Nancy and it breaks my heart to see the next generation of little Nancies walking around with a forlorn look on their misinformed faces just because the government has no more funds to keep libraries open and well stocked. So this tasty table of raw data is for you, little Nancy. Live, long and prosper:

6 Mar 2007

Nostratic and the curse of the online forum

It's a strange fact that comparative linguists get a nasty rash when talking about reconstructing languages older than 6000 years. Why 6000? No one can say for sure but people use this voodoo number far too often. Far be it from me to think that the imposed time limit smells too much like the biblical creationists of yore who would snuff out any debate that implied that the earth was older than 6000 years... And look who has egg on their faces now.

Sadly, if you want a serious discussion and inspection of "long-range reconstruction" of any of the hypothesized proto-languages, such as Nostratic, you're probably going to have to wait a few centuries when an intellectual renaissance finally happens. Some noteworthy books and articles have been published by scholars such as Allan Bomhard, John C. Kerns, Aaron Dolgopolsky, etc. but nothing I would call terribly "meaty" since much of it are simply educated opinions that lack sturdy evidence as yet.

For now, most people gladly put themselves into one extremist slot or the other. Chances are, either you're a staunch, Nostraticist-reviling academic or you're the anything-goes type that just can't stop talking about how the government is conspiring to hide the truth about Atlantis and UFOs. People like me sit uncomfortably in the middle of this intellectual jihad, daring to suggest that the theory of Nostratic does not have to be the domain of the undisciplined and that a heap of work needs yet to be done before we can call anything conclusive on the subject. I know that a lot can be gained through the *careful* inspection and comparison of language groups. While its scholarship so far might leave a bad taste in our mouths, we have to admit that the basic premise of long-range theories -- that certain language groups are closely related and groupable into even larger and more ancient groups -- is not silly at all anymore than the idea that we're related to monkeys. Certainly, no one can logically proclaim that long-range reconstruction is forever beyond our capacity without falling into the old paradox of pretending to be knowledgeable enough to know what we cannot know.

It's not likely though that mainstream academia will dare touch these subjects with a ten-foot pole anytime soon. People with doctorates are usually worried about their reputation so they stick to safer subjects with lower levels of controversy, fields that are not dominated by kooks. We don't have to look far to find the undisciplined amateur with an itching for a published book or website in their name flocking to it like sweet candy. Look at the cornucopia of crazies online and you'll understand why academics fear to dabble in the subject, lest they be put into the same category:
  • Hunmagyar.org
    (An Ethnocentrist's pet website devoted to proving that Hungarian is the one and only source of all mysteries.)
  • Proto-Language
    (Patrick Ryan asserts that all language comes from a syllabic googoo language 100,000 years ago and seeks to prove it through a manic use of superlarge fonts, distracting graphics and an odd selection of music.)
It's because of the "crazy label" that Nostratic curses every mailing list or forum dedicated to its name. This has gone on for years so it can't just be a fluke. The last Nostratic forum moderated by Andy Howey called Nostratic-L was what must have been the third in a line of groups in which I had tried to participate on the subject, devoted to Nostratic. All would be doomed to die.

As I mention above, subjects like these, and thus the forums that cover them, involve an unsaid jihad between the crazies and the conservatives. Without moderators realizing this, one extreme or the other tends to forever destroy the unstable balance. Either trolls get on and start talking nonsense that educated people find too inane to comment on (eg: [1], [2]) or conservativism dominates so strongly that no one deigns speak to other members at all.

Proper moderation of these forums must involve an active and continuing desire to bring everyone to the middle, and whenever possible, to expel the most extremist members from the forum that harm rather than trigger fertile debate.

4 Mar 2007

Ancient Athenian market found

(AP Photo/Greek Culture ministry)

A possible fairly complete ancient market in southern Athens was found recently dating from the 4th or 5th century BCE, along with pottery, period coins and lead weights. Read more on Yahoo! News...

3 Mar 2007

Piacenza Liver and Transliteration Hanky-Panky

If you're not convinced that we should question everything that we read, this should help kickstart your devil's advocate.

There are a lot of Etruscan inscriptions where the notable experts of this field can't seem to agree on what letters should be read from them. The disagreements would make sense if, let's say, the debated inscriptions were hard-to-read because of damage. However, when the disagreements involve clearly inscribed artifacts like the Piacenza Liver, it insults me as an astute reader and leads me to believe that Etruscology has one of the lowest standards of scholarship of any field of history.

The disagreement in question involves the underside of the Piacenza Liver artifact where we find two words: tivr usils. Larissa Bonfante has written that the word found on the artifact is indeed tivr, while Jean-René Jannot in Religion in Ancient Etruria (2005) claims that the word in question is tivs. In other words, some read "sigma", some read "rho", and the reader is caught in the cross-fire of an inane technicality.

Let's get busy: Which is the correct version of the story and which one's the fraud? Thankfully, pictures are worth a thousand words and I urge anyone to look at the artifact before believing anyone blindly:

The above drawing of the inscription makes clear that the word is tivr, not tivs, and if you should be skeptical at all, the real-life photo of the Piacenza Liver will lead you precisely to the same conclusion; the rho is clear and unmistakable, even in this grainy photo:

Jean-René Jannot loses this round. We'd expect that an academic authority worth his degree would get a simple inscription like this straight, seeing as how the artifact has been available for study for many decades now. So shame on you, J.R., for telling the reader fibs that are thankfully easy to falsify.

Curiously however, Larissa Bonfante cites in Etruscan (Reading the Past) in 1990 (on page 62 under Appendix 2 - Glossary of Etruscan words): tiu, tiv-, tiur moon, month. Yet, as above, there is no genitive form tivs, thus no such *tiv-, and since she does not source her citations, it is very hard to be sure whether tiu is real or yet another bad transliteration caused perhaps by improper word segmentation! Tiur however is well attested and real:

tiur [PyrT 2.iv; TCort vi] (na.sg.) // tiiurś [TLE 749], tivrs [TLE 181] (gen.sg.) // tiuri-m [LL 2.iii, 2.xv, 3.xxiii, 4.ii, 5.iv, 8.xxi, 8.xxxv, 9.iii, 9.xi] (loc.sg.)
(LL = Liber Linteus; PyrT = Pyrgi Tablets; TCort = Tabula Cortonensis; TLE = Testimonia Linguae Etruscae)

This shows me that even experts are a little confused about what is reality and what is not. But don't worry, we'll get this all straightened out one day.

2 Mar 2007

Etruscan 'usil': It ain't the "sun"

The general public, if they ever should come across the topic of the Etruscans at all, doesn't fully understand the fact that most foremost Etruscologists lack linguistic training and have published many falsehoods about the translation of Etruscan words and grammar. Academics with degrees are hardly infallible and are not experts in everything they touch so it is our duty as readers to question what we read. Sometimes even a student can show a sensei a thing or two.

Etruscan usil is unanimously translated as "sun". We see this published everywhere, so I realize that questioning it only arms dismissive spindoctors to label me an iconoclast who thrives on sacrilege. I can do little about petty politics and time is better spent constructively getting at the heart of this nonsense by asking a direct question and seeking an answer to it.

What proofs demonstrate clearly that usil must mean "sun"?

The answer to that is straight-forward. We see a couple of mirrors where the word "usil" is inscribed next to a character shown in a kind of "aura" (see pic: [1]). Further, Massimo Pallottino in The Etruscans (1975) had connected usil to a Sabine word ausel- and this etymology seemed to lull critics into submission. What here is there to question?

Well, this isn't the whole story at all. To translate a word properly we should seek consistency by taking note of all instances of this word, including any inflected forms that we can identify with our grammatical model of Etruscan. This is called the combinatory method and it is a fully accepted part of the mainstream linguist's toolkit. Linguists also are taught to avoid the trap of folk etymology and avoid building one's case on deceptive look-alike words. Thus the Sabine doppelganger, without any other evidence to back it up, has no weight particularly when the lack of initial a- in ausel- in the Etruscan counterpart cannot be explained without special pleading (nb. Etruscan allows au/v- at the beginning of words: avil, Aule, avratum, etc.). These loose threads just aren't convincing in linguistics.

I've been building up a personal computer database of Etruscan vocabulary and any instances in indexed artifacts to keep ultra-organized. Currently I have the following specs on this etymon:

usil [LL 7.xi; TLE 417] (na.sg.) // usils [TLE 719] (gen.sg.) // usli [LL 7.xiii] (loc.sg.)
(LL = Liber Linteus, TLE = Testimonia Linguae Etruscae)

So since we are trying to expose the inner contradictions of Massimo Pallottino's translation, we should start by accepting Massimo Pallottino's own grammatical sketch of Etruscan that explains that -s is a genitive marker (conveying the word "of") and -i is a locative marker (equivalent to English prepositions of location: "at", "on", "upon", "in", etc.). Already, we can see a problem of consistency.

If usli of the Liber Linteus is the locative case form of the unmarked nomino-accusative case form usil as attested on the mirrors, translating it as "at/in/upon/on the sun" is utterly inane. Before we seek excuses, let me remind you that no one has the logical justification to "tweak" any translation that doesn't fit with more ad hoc assumptions. That conduct is not helpful.

It gets worse. We find usils on the back of the Piacenza Liver (see http://users.tpg.com.au/etr/etrusk/po/liver.html) and it could only be understood as a genitive form. It is found not alone, but together with the word tivr which is well attested to mean "month" in the Liber Linteus as well as in a few funerary inscriptions (TLE 181, TLE 749). It may be also translated as "moon" since this is normally a synonym for "month" in countless languages including English. Yet if these facts are all kosher, this gives us "month/moon of the sun". Now, what month is that on the as-yet-obscure Etruscan calendar pray tell? On second thought, do not pray tell. We can't throw logic out the window and drum up any old excuse about why "month of the sun" is somehow supposed to make sense, because it clearly doesn't.

There is a notable derivative of usil, namely *uslan, which is attested in its locative, uslane (LL 5.xxi). We must recognize its context, found in a sentence "Cis-um thesane uslane-c mlache." We know that the word thesan means "dawn" since a goddess by that name is attested on mirrors too but her mythological connections are less controversial. So if thesane means "at dawn", it specifies a time of action. Since -c is the conjunctive, usilane too is part of this temporal noun phrase. Thus, it must refer to a point in time on a par with "at dawn". Symmetry seems the simplest answer, leading us to a more sensible translation of usilane as "at dusk". The phrase probably reads "And the three [things] were blessed at dawn and at dusk." Does this fit all the other instances too?

If we translate usil as "dusk" or "setting" instead of "sun", we start to realize how the aura of the deity found on the mirrors may in fact represent the aura of the sun setting beneath the horizon. Furthermore, we again have a more satisfying symmetry on one mirror of deified Thesan "Dawn" and Usil "Dusk" before the god of the ocean. The symbolism is clear: Dawn and Dusk represent the two extremes of the horizon and it is the ocean that keeps the two apart. Further, the classical dawn-to-dusk metaphor as symbolic of an individual's lifetime from birth to death, as used in the famous Riddle of the Sphinx, is particularly meaningful on tomb offerings which these mirrors happen to be.

What then does the backside of the Piacenza Liver signify? Instead of "month/moon of the sun", we discover a more natural translation: "Moon of dusk" (or possibly "Setting Moon" if the "setting" in this context is intended to be of the moon rather than of the sun). What this moment signifies in Etruscan ritual would be a matter of debate but it at least shows a real point in time that finally works with the known morphology. That's leaps better than suggesting a month whose existence we have to hypothesize or an entirely nonsensical phrase "moon of the sun", all based on whimsical interpretations of artifacts, ad hoc folk etymologies, and a basic lack of respect for linguistic principles.