16 May 2008

The loss of mediofinal 'h' in Pre-Proto-Etruscan

I recently suggested that the virtual absence of mediofinal "h" in Etruscan is a feature common to both Lemnian and Rhaetic as well but it may not be clear to my readers why I'm insistant on that idea, so let's discuss.

Just to be sure, I looked up in my database what words contain medial h. Of the more than thousand entries I have, I came up with only two results: cehen 'here before' and the name Uhtave. The name Uhtave is clearly of Oscan origin, from Úhtavis, and related to the common Roman name Octāvius. It is squarely an Italic, and hence, un-Etruscan name. The word cehen, while a native word, does not in reality show an archaic medial h afterall because it is transparently a recent compound composed of cei 'here' and *hen 'before' (c.f. hanθe 'in front'). Even if these two lonely items were attributable to a pre-Proto-Etruscan stage though, it would need a clear explanation as to why so few instances of mediofinal h exist in this language.

My attentive readers may have noticed that I've already asserted several times on this blog that -va (a plural inanimate ending) is an allomorph of -χva. The term allomorph is just linguistobabble for a piece of language, such as a suffix, that shows predictable variation in its form in different positions or circumstances. So in this case, we may observe that Etruscan -va always pops up after nouns ending in vowels or in sibilants like s or ś, whereas the Etruscan speakers regularly chose -χva when the preceding noun stem ended in most other consonants. Some may wonder why I'm so sure that they are allomorphs of a single suffix instead of two distinct suffixes, but we can put this skepticism to rest right away.

The evidence for allomorphy in the inanimate plural is clear after examining the pair maχ '5' and muvalχ '50'. Lo and behold, we find the same internal alternation of χ and v and for the same reasons. We know that letter chi is used for the sound // (as in Classical Greek) and the letter vee is used for what is in fact a bilabial approximant /w/ (much like Classical Latin vinum 'wine', also pronounced with initial /w-/). Clearly then there is an original sound, let's label it Q for now, that evolves into both chi and vee in Proto-Etruscan based on environment. Through this sort of internal reconstruction, we may then hypothesize that pre-Proto-Etruscan probably had the following items: *maQ '5', *muQalχ '50', and inanimate plural *-Qva.

All we need to do is figure out what the quality of this original phoneme is and we're home free, right? The answer to the mystery of the paucity of /h/ in mediofinal positions in Etruscan, Lemnian and Rhaetic, quite simply lies in this alternation of chi and vee.

So if we now replace our mystery phoneme *Q with *h, everything is resolved. We can both phonetically explain the origin of the alternation as well as explain the curious disappearance of h in both word-internal and word-final positions. Most likely, medial *-h- which was probably a velar fricative became weakened at some point intervocalically and after sibilants. The only thing that remained was the "backness" of the sound which came to be reinterpreted as /w/ and consistently written with the letter vee once the ancestors of Etruscans, Lemnians and Rhaetic finally adopted their alphabet. In other positions, a velar fricative can easily harden to a velar aspirated stop, hence this would explain the evolution to chi after certain consonants and in word-final position. We may then be so bold as to predict the following for a pre-Proto-Etruscan stage: *mah '5', *muhalχ '50' (probably < *mahálχu), and an inanimate plural marker *-hva.

(May 20 2008) I corrected my confusing flaw that Tropylium has mentioned to me. My hypothesized antecedent form of the Etruscan inanimate plural should be *-Qva (and thus in conclusion *-hva) rather than *-Qa and its result *-ha as I had initially written. Naturally, since this hypothesized *h should only result in either Etruscan chi or vee based on the pair '5' & '50', and since the Etruscan form of this suffix, -(χ)va, usually shows both sounds together, then *-hva would seem to be in order. Although, *-ho might also be a possibility if it can be shown that word-final *-o normally erodes to *-a with residual labialization. Sorry about that. There are a lot of details here.


  1. Neat stuff. Except, you mean *-hva, right?

    The conditioning suggests next looking if other *F+F clusters dissimilate too, and if yes, to what? (If there even are any.)

  2. Tropylium: "Neat stuff. Except, you mean *-hva, right?"

    Yes, I should have written *-hva. Mea culpa. Congratulations, you found my easter egg surprise! :)

    Tropylium: "The conditioning suggests next looking if other *F+F clusters dissimilate too, and if yes, to what? (If there even are any.)"

    I'm not sure what you have in mind exactly but in regards to this alternation in the beginning of words, the '5'/'50' pair already shows one undeniable example of this pattern of Caχ/C(u)v- originating from none other than earlier *Cáh(V)/Cah-V'. So as far as I'm concerned the rule is already sufficiently proven, even if by only one example.

    However it doesn't hurt to find more examples showing the same pattern. There is also the attested word raχ in the Liber Linteus so it would be nice to find an etymologically relatable word starting with ruv-. Unfortunately, while there is such a word, namely ruva 'brother', I just don't think they're actually related at all. The only other word that could help us is naχ which may refer to a type of vessel.

  3. Actually, I was going on about a preceding sibilant causing *x > v. Vowels and sibilants do not comprise a natural class, so it seems we need two separate rules here. Simple voicing can account for the vowels, but for the sibilants, the rule would seem to be, in phonological terms, dissimilation of obstruency in continuants. So one might similarly also be on the lookout for let's say *sφ > sv, *sś > si, *φs > φr or φl. (Flip s/ś to taste in the last two.)

    Wait, I just realized, I'm overthinking this somewhat. If the pl. inan. suffix does contain an original *-v-, the *x in *-sx- doesn't need to change to anything, it can just elide altogether. Which doesn't change the point about possible other cases of former *-FF-, but they might then be harder to spot.

  4. Tropylium: "Actually, I was going on about a preceding sibilant causing *x > v. Vowels and sibilants do not comprise a natural class, so it seems we need two separate rules here."

    Great observation! My mind has been so stuck on the pattern itself that I guess I never really thought about the mechanics of it yet. Your idea made me decide to swim through my data again to make sure that the pattern I'm seeing is correct.

    It turns out that there may be a case for -cva being the proper allomorph of the inanimate plural after sibilants instead of -va. Note culścva (LL 8.v) which is undoubtedly the plural of *culś. The word is also found in the genitive as culsl (TLE 131) and is the root behind the theonyms Culśu and Culśans.

    So then, if -cva is the normal suffix used after sibilants (as well as aspirate stops like θ), this makes me wonder if heramaśva found in the Pyrgi Tablets is really a plural or merely a singular noun that looks like a plural but which terminates instead in a different derivational suffix altogether, namely -śva. Interestingly Larissa and Giuliano Bonfante translate it as 'statue' in the singular but don't give clear grammatical reasons why (Bonfante/Bonfante, The Etruscan Language: An Introduction, 2d ed., 2002, page 216). Likely, no one is really certain about this word's etymology anyways.