10 May 2010

A Minoan word for red dye

Here's an interesting set of reflexes for discussion. It hints at yet another Wanderwort possibly eminating out of Minoan Crete regarding materials used for red dye:
The second syllable of the Hittite form alternates between -i- and -a- and the internal stop is sometimes written out in the script as -t- (/d/) or -tt- (//). Its large variation in spelling might hint at a post-Proto-Anatolian borrowing. The Mycenaean reflex is attested in a feminine adjective spelled out in Linear B as mi-to-we-sa 'red-painted' and combined with later Classical Greek μίλτος points to the root *milto-. The vocalism of the Egyptian word is unattested due to the nature of its script but if we reconstruct *mīnašat, it agrees better with the Hittite and Mycenaean material while still resembling the Latin reflex enough to pursue this hypothetical relationship further. Finally, it's impossible for Latin to have acquired a Minoan word directly but if Etruscan brought related cognates to Latin, we have here a full package of evidence pointing to a general Aegean word describing minerals used for bright red or red-orange dye. Given the ambivalence of the exact mineral, we might surmise that it was the colour that was most important in the word's semantics and not the chemical structure (something the ancients could hardly know about anyway). Thus, whether red lead (Pb₃O₄) or red ochre (Fe₂O₃), the word must have described any mineral which could be used to make bright-red or red-orange dye.

Now if we accept that there is a Minoan word here, what is its likeliest form? This has got me thinking hard and long because while there appears to be a relationship between the above words, finding a common etymon behind them all is tricky. For me, Hittite, Egyptian and Mycenaean all point to a general structure of *miN(T)- (N = resonant, T = coronal). The Latin word, which we might assume is from Etruscan, strangely doesn't reflect the expected coronal. At this point, it's understandable that one might decide to abandon this idea altogether due to a lack of consistency. However, for the sake of brainstorming, I thought of one elaborate possibility.

Let's suppose that there was an Aegean root *minyu 'red-orange mineral dye'. From this, let's also suppose that Minoan added an optional suffix *-zo (cf. Etruscan diminutive *-za), thus Minoan *mĩyuzo. This can then yield all of the Hittite, Egyptian and Mycenaean reflexes at once. In Etruscan however, inherited *miniu, without suffix, would yield Latin minium 'red lead'. Now we just might be able to explain this whole package of possible substrate. Maybe outlandish but it was worth a shot.


  1. Um, call me oblivious if you must, but could you try showing the sequence of changes to get from the Proto-Aegean form to the Hittite, Mycenaean, and Egyptian forms? I'm still a bit bewildered how the deformations of the original form could have been so extreme.

  2. Seadog Driftwood: "Um, call me oblivious if you must,[...]"

    Where is that coming from? Do cheer up. :o)

    "[...] but could you try showing the sequence of changes to get from the Proto-Aegean form to the Hittite, Mycenaean, and Egyptian forms?"

    Absolutely. Please be reminded that others have published that this may represent a Mediterranean Wanderwort. So I'm exploring what that implies. Whether I achieve a decent solution or whether I show the absurdity of it, we win either way because we're exploring the idea in more detail.

    Egyptian *mīnašat [ˈmiːnəʃəʔ] would be directly resolved with *mĩyuzo (*minyuzo). The final -t is known to have eroded to a glottal stop by this time.

    In Greek, we would have to conclude that n > l (which is in fact a minor phonetic change) while -z- [ts] is interpreted as -t-.

    Anatolian is a little difficult to explain unless perhaps -n- was fortified to -d- through a neighbouring Proto-Cyprian reflex *minyu (Cyprian being the ancestor of Etruscan in Lydia and environs).

    That same Cyprian reflex would remain *minyu in Etruscan to yield Latin minium which is self-explanatory. The -m would be added by the Romans to fit their declensional types, or alternatively, it could be through an Etruscan derivative with the mass noun suffix -(a)m.