24 May 2009

Phi Beta Kappa + masters degree = instant Etruscanist

Here's a little test for readers. Those who can't see anything wrong in the caption below taken from Google Books featuring Ilse Nesbitt Jones' Five texts in Etruscan: Early Gothic Language of Tyrrhenians and Ancient Jutes published in American university studies, Vol 35 (2002) should promptly remove themselves from this website and never return.

According to Peter Lang Publishing Group, Jones is apparently a Phi Beta Kappa from the University of Kansas with a Master of Arts (in what field, I wonder) from the University of Tulsa and has been "involved with Etruscan translation [for] more than twenty-five years." Now check out the frightening caption of parts of her book.

Jones has taken this text from the Cippus Perusinus and translates the first line as "Crowd extension not to be hidden - rule is weak...". ??? Seriously now. It even prompted Ian M. Ragsdale to give this review, a rather restrained and undeservingly verbose one in my honest opinion, on the WorldCat website poignantly labeled A Linguistic Fantasy:

"This book is a prime example of why mass comparison is so alluring, yet has the potential to be devastatingly incorrect. Jones' introdu[c]tion proposes that Etruscan is the lost Germanic language of the Jutes and throughout the book she throws any Germanic word or root - and any Proto-Indo-European root, for that matter - that fits the Etruscan words in her texts. [...] Academics and all careful readers will see through the veneer before finished reading the back cover."

You get the idea. It would suffice to cut to the chase and call it what it truly is with only two words: ahistorical crap. If we run the risk of discouraging this assinine pseudo-scholar, it can only be for societal good, I'm afraid. The tragic case of Jones's failures in linguistic decipherment and her obvious methodological handicap reminds of the following common-sense facts about the world we live in:

1) Academic programs don't teach nearly enough on logic theory.
2) Universities are driven by profit, not sense.
3) Publishers are also driven by profit, not content.
4) Universities don't really care about how the quality of their graduates impacts on their image.
5) Those with degrees can be just as clueless as the layman (... or much more so).
6) A sucker is born every minute.

16 May 2009

Etruscan inscription REE 59,1993

The inscription REE 59,1993 is often transcribed thus:
ecn : turce : laris : θefries : espial : atial : caθas
This is how it's transcribed, for example, on the online Etruscan Texts Project website under ETP 189. Of course, for all the effort they put into giving us the transcriptions of these artifacts, it's a pity that they didn't put in just a little bit more effort supplying the populus photos of the historical artifacts so that careful scholars can immediately ascertain for themselves whether or not they're being hoodwinked by a particular academic's faulty reading. We're simply told that it's a bronze weight dating to the 4th century BCE or later but no means on the site to verify the validity of the transcription nor is there a suggested translation (which would, as you'll find out later, only make the problems in this transcription much clearer).

If you're craving a photo of this artifact online however, you're in for a treat because I've spotted a decent black and white picture obtainable here: Chapin/Immerwahr, Charis: Essays in Honor of Sara A. Immerwahr, Hesperia 33 (2004), p.357 (at the top of the page). We also learn that it's in the grubby hands of a private collector. The picture below is from this book and easily obtained by pressing your "Print Screen" button on the keyboard and pasting the captured screen image into a graphics program like Adobe Photoshop or the common Windows Paint program. (Go on. Don't be shy. Our right to history logically trumps copyright afterall.)

First, let me explain what we know versus the issues involved in the status quo transcription before arriving at another, perhaps better, hypothesis. To begin with, most of the vocabulary presented in this inscription is now beyond debate:
ecn = 'this' [accusative case]
turce = 'has given' [perfect preterite]
Laris = the praenomen Laris (Roman Lars)
Θefries = the gentilicium Thefarie (Roman Tiberius) [genitive case]
Caθas = 'of (the goddess) Catha' [genitive case]
As stated in the above link to Charis, Bonfante pushes the idea of a divine epithet Ati Catha claimed to mean 'Mother Catha', even though this title is found nowhere else, and Cristofani challenges this by explaining that if this claim were true then ati 'mother' should properly follow, not precede, the name of the deity (as in Cel Ati & Turan Ati). I agree that something is fishy with this 'Mother Catha' business and it smells almost like an airy-fairy, gynocentric myth invented by an overzealous New Age camp rather than a tenable hypothesis based on historical reality. While true that Etruscans revered goddesses as much as gods and appear to have been sexually egalitarian (definitely not matriarchal, but egalitarian at least), we must ask what conclusive fact makes the goddess Catha a 'divine mother'? Mother of what exactly? What basis for this in mythology? One arbitrary translation doesn't make it so and there are other competing interpretations. One might understand espial (which is itself a troubling hapax) to refer to the father of Laris Thefarie, which is the traditional way of naming people in Etruscan inscriptions. Thus we might read "This has given Laris Thefarie, (son) of Espi, to Mother Catha". On the other hand, perhaps espial atial refers to a woman named Atia Espi, perhaps deceased, on behalf of which a gift to Catha is given by Laris, thus: "This has given Laris Thefarie, for Ati Espi, to Catha".

Yet, in Charis, another rather alluring option is explored. Based on the above picture, could it be possible that espial is a faulty transcription for what is to be read estial with the letter tau instead of pi? I have motivation to think that this may be the best answer.

Based on my own research, I notice that elsewhere a word eśta exists. It seems to me that the most sensible translation of this word which works in all contexts is 'gens', 'clan' or 'family' as found in the Cippus Perusinus (eśt-la Afuna-s = 'with (the) family of Apuna'; eśta-c Velθina = 'and (the) family Velthina') and TLE 626 (esta-k = '(the) family also'). Pallottino had claimed that it was a demonstrative but obviously this is just an ad hoc idea based on Latin iste 'that', hardly likely given that Etruscan is conclusively unrelated to Latin, that this value is not born from the textual contexts themselves and that the word behaves more like a noun than a demonstrative based on all that we now know about Etruscan grammar.

With this insight, the suggestion in Charis starts to fly off the page because it then yields a far more credible translation, one that addresses the problems mentioned above while avoiding the controversial 'Mother Catha' epithet altogether. If we read estial instead, giving it the value of 'of the family', then by reinterpreting atial not as 'of the mother' (from ati 'mother') but rather a genitive of the gentilicium Atie, already attested in TLE 105[1], then we may consider this alternative:
Ecn turce Laris θefries estial Atial Caθas.
"This has given Laris Thefarie of the gens of Atie for Catha."

[1] Bonfante/Bonfante, The Etruscan language, rev.ed. (2002), p.172 (see link).

(May 17) Corrected typo at the transcription at the very bottom from espial to estial.

14 May 2009

Spring cleaning on Paleoglot

Just a quick heads-up to my readers. I finally got off my butt and organized things on the Lingua Files and Extras pages, which are accessible from the red buttons to the right. Now everything which I've been contributing online through this blog (ie. the list of Semitic loans in Proto-Indo-European, Etruscan dictionary, my ideas on Pre-Proto-IE, etc.) should be listed and easily clickable for readers. Yay for organization!

Well, that's all. Carry on, carry on.

12 May 2009

More fun from the NY Times

While we're on the subject of shoddy articles from the New York Times and sensationalism born from ignorance, here's another one concerning the origin of languages. It's very painful to read if you know anything at all about linguistics:

NY Times: Linguists Dig Deeper into Origins of Language (By John Noble Wilford; November 24, 1987)
I like this borderline-Creationist statement before we even get to the 3rd paragraph : "Yet humans may have developed rudimentary spoken language at least 50,000 years ago, although from the evidence of fossil jaws, they probably could not have made the sound of any vowels other than a long 'a.'" Jaw fossil evidence, eh? Let me get this straight, Mr Wilford... Before 50,000 years we were talking with grunts and ughs, eh? That's funny because I could have sworn that homo sapiens complete with typical human jaw and functional larynx has been around far longer than 50,000 years ago. Just a little bogus already, no?

The article thoroughly pushes a bias slanted towards the kookier camps in linguistics that believe beyond all sense that mass comparison, a technique with obvious and well-documented methodological problems, is somehow "underappreciated" by those crabby ol' status-quo linguists. The article then repackages mass comparison as "the Nostratic technique". We're told that "Dr. Shevoroshkin complains that out of ignorance and skepticism scholars in the United States are discouraged from pursuing Nostratic techniques for reconstructing protolanguages." What a crying shame! While one can fairly admit to an unsaid taboo regarding the subject of long-range comparison in academia, pursuing it with insufficient "Nostratic techniques" only exascerbates the issue by vindicating the weariness of our more diligent scholars.

Then towards the end, as the article gains antilogical momentum, we arrive at the pièce de resistance: "Dr. Ruhlen, in an interview, conceded that reconstructed protolanguages were 'educated guesses based on a range of meanings and a range of sounds,' but he said that many critics are often unfamiliar with the Nostratic methods, in part because most of the research has been published in Russian." No, trust me. It's not the "Russian" issue that makes people 'unfamiliar' (ie. disinterested). It's the sophomoric claims and the many methodological failures that thankfully keep these views (aka. delusions) buried.

This Dr Merritt Ruhlen character is one of the firm reasons why I'm so outspoken against credentialism. This person obtained a PhD from Stanford University like many competent linguists. Yet here is the result of his education: Bengtson/Ruhlen, Global etymologies in Ruhlen, On the Origin of Languages: Studies in Linguistic Taxonomy (1994), pp. 277-336 [pdf]. There we can find a list of charming, conlang-like Proto-World terms. To even have to explain why this is a flamboyant waste of ink and paper is inane in itself. Eyeballing is not a true linguistic "technique" because it's quite simply subjective by its nature. What I may find 'similar', is not necessarily what you may find 'similar'. So without logical criteria to judge whose view is more sensible, it amounts to nothing more than an unintellectual opinion war.

Unfortunately, this fictional drivel lulls the feeling-oriented layman into a false sense of learning. Naturally in the time one would waste in disproving Bengston and Ruhlen's list of gaga terms (as if the onus to prove them weren't logically their *own* in the first place!), we could use our time more wisely from the get-go by getting caught up on what proper linguistic methodology looks like in more serious practice. However, as an example, we can see under **kati 'bone' that he misuses Indo-European *kost- as a cognate while conveniently omitting the fact that it's more common form is *h₂ost-. He clearly can't explain the alternation (since he so cleverly hid it from the reader's view), let alone give us an accurate and sensible account of the development of Pre-IE. Without being able to thoroughly and competently explain the regular development of these terms in each family, his views will always remain idle fantasy regardless of whether he himself is capable of understanding his methodological errors or not.

So, as you see, if a person with such uneducated and over-the-top views can get a PhD, what value is a PhD at all other than simply to impress others with a flashy title? Case in point. Credentialism is a distracting illusion because the only thing that really matters in assessing a person's views at all is good ol' logic, not a piece of paper with a title on it. In this case, Ruhlen's assertions fail. However this doesn't stop him from being front and center on a New York Times article because, to a newspaper, logic doesn't matter; only titles, sensationalism, politics and all other sorts of tactics that stir up people's feelings.

There you have it, yet another nonsensical New York Times article about linguistics that might not smell the slightest bit fishy to the average unknowing joe but which is nonetheless a woefully unbalanced representation of the state of comparative linguistics. Semper caveat lector.

9 May 2009

An Etruscan discovery of yore and modern times

Just yesterday, to one of my previous entries entitled The Etruscan verb root slic- in TLE 131, a person of mystery known only under a cute, ursine name without any associated profile had posted a comment with a lone link to a New York Times article entitled Hittite Seal in Italy - Discovery at Vicenza Reveals Hittite Origin of Etruscans without any futher explanation. I do hope that his aim was something other than to push a dead theory (ie. that Etruscan is an Indo-European language). I decided to excise it from the entry's commentbox anyway because it didn't have that much relevance to the topic there. Afterall, in that entry I was only suggesting Hittite loanwords in a Pre-Etruscan stage, *not* a genetic relationship between the two at all. No academic concerned about his reputation or sanity dares endorse such an absurd and fully disproven theory in this day and age. It also seems that the reader didn't notice that his linked article is now almost 102 years old. Oh dear.

However, more constructively, this century-old article is still interesting to examine, in the right frame of thought, for many reasons. It certainly can't be used as a source of relevant information on Etruscan origins but it has historical merit pertaining more to modern culture and the uses/abuses of media. It's also instructive to learn how a field of study has progressed over the decades. Personally, I look at this NY Times article as a case study of how mass media (in this case, print) can lure the naive, general public into sensationalist beliefs about obscure subjects documented by authors who are fundamentally uninterested in it. Most of these writers of newspaper articles aren't simply unqualified to treat these special topics with educated balance, but are additionally handicapped by a deleterious devotion to rhetoric and fantasy in order to sell a product (in this case, a newspaper) rather than selflessly commit to the careful but comparatively unentertaining discipline of logical sequitur.

So as we read in this centenarian article, a cylindrical seal lead to the leap of logic that it somehow revealed the "Hittite origins of Etruscans" (planted right in the article's title), as if to suggest that Etruscans were Hittite. Egad. Now back to modern times, are we so certain that we aren't reading similarly sensationalist and deceptive things in the paper, taking advantage of the layman's laziness to verify facts for themselves, that are leading us to false conclusions about the world around us? Caveat lector.

3 May 2009

Some observations concerning Woodard's The Ancient Languages of Europe

As I've done before, I will now pick apart yet another Etruscan author and his errors for the informative benefit of my readers. This time, Roger D. Woodard is going to be put through the ringer. Woodard's The Ancient Languages of Europe (2008) is a decently edited book for sure, but it's no more immune to errors than any other book, even though published by the Cambridge University Press and even though Dr. Woodard himself is an academic with an impressive education and array of publications to his name. In fact, no matter what the background of the author sometimes we can catch some pretty horrible errors in judgement. I think these are important to discuss. I can only confidently discuss issues in the Etruscan section but there may be errors lurking under the headings of other languages discussed therein. My point as always is both to look past credentialism to find historical truth and caveat lector.

The first, immediate stain in the Etruscan section is an outrageous attempt to revise the Etruscan phonological system on page 145. He begins by explaining the typical communis opinio, making a minor faux-pas by misrepresenting Etruscan f as a labiodental rather than a bilabial fricative.[1] He insists on a labiodental fricative without any explanation further down the page, just in case the reader might assume that it was just a silly accuracy error in IPA notation. Now, this is a matter of detail perhaps but worth noting since p has occasionally eroded to f in Etruscan, particularly next to tautosyllabic u, and this sort of lenition can only rationally happen with a bilabial phoneme, not a labiodental one.

After this it turns for the worse, much worse, as he bravely suggests that the Etruscan letters corresponding so clearly to the Greek aspirated stops, are a series of palatal consonants! His only real evidence is an apparent spelling variation between Larθia and Larθa. However, the simple fact that the omission of such word-internal vowels occurs not only following stops but after all consonants (eg. TLE 880: Arznal compared to TLE 566: Arzneal) proves this to be quite an ignorant hypothesis that wasn't well thought-out before it was printed. The names shared between Etruscan and Latin show no such palatalization either in these stops. The claim is positively absurd.

As if this isn't enough, even though his revisal of the phonology is fundamentally flawed with the basic data available to us, he goes on to add that chi is not a palatalized velar as his proposed pattern would suggest, but a velar fricative /x/. Again, just in case we might simply dismiss this as another crazy but forgiveable editing error mixing IPA /x/ with Greek letter χ, he buries himself further in his own lack of expertise by enforcing it at the end of page 151 by informing us that -χva was pronounced [xʷa] rather than [kʰwa]. He bases this on the allomorphs of the plural suffix, -χva and -va. Yet onomastics between Etruscan, Latin and Greek prove once again that this assumption is false since Etruscan Χalχas is borrowed from Greek Κάλχας, Paχa is from Greek Βάκχος, leχtumuza is a diminutive based on a loan from Greek λήκυθος (nb. Etruscan chi here corresponds to Greek kappa), the Etruscan name Marχar (in TLE 113) corresponds to Latin Marcarius etc. Nothing tangible at all in the classical linguistic corpus suggests to us that chi is even occasionally a fricative in the Etruscan language, although I've spoken about the probability that velar fricatives existed word-internally in a more ancient stage of Pre-Etruscan some time ago (see Paleoglot: The loss of mediofinal 'h' in Pre-Proto-Etruscan).

[1] Bonfante/Bonfante, The Etruscan language: An introduction‎ (2000), p.78 (see link): "The Etruscans had a sound f (a bilabial, voiceless fricative, pronounced approximately as in English labiodentals: find, soft, stuff) for which the Greeks had no sign."; Many languages have bilabial fricatives such as Irish, Andalusian and Japanese. Speakers of Japanese coincidently pronounce h as [ɸ] before u because historically, h [ɸ]~[h]~[ç] < Old Japanese p. Yimas also lenites /p/ specifically before high back vowels and particuarly before /w/ (cf. Foley, The Yimas Language of New Guinea (1991), p.39). These real-world examples serve as close parallels for the Etruscan development.