1 Sep 2010

Subtle truths about Etruscan letter-names


Long ago, I had privately indulged in tentatively reconstructing letter-names in the Etruscan alphabet based on the hunch that they could likely be related to those found in Greek (ie. alpha, beta, gamma, delta, etc. < West Semitic). Perhaps we could theorize something like *alφa, *peta, *camla, *talta, etc. Contrary to this, it seems that many specialists have assumed that the Etruscan letter-names had inspired, or were even identical to, the Latin names that the Western world now learns from gradeschool.[1] The Latin alphabet rejected the original but arcane Semitic-derived names and had opted for a more phonetic naming system, as follows:
ā, , , , ē, ef, , , ī, , el, em, en, ō, , , er, es, , ū, ex (ix), hy (ī Graeca), zēta
I've never heard of conclusive facts proving the assumption that this is derived from Etruscan naming practices, however there are simple facts that can easily abolish this belief. For example, Latin maintains a contrast in the alphabet between and . This is patently impossible in Etruscan with only unvoiced stops. So if the claim were true, Latin's allegedly Etruscan antecedents could only have been *pe for both! The same contradiction immediately obstructs us concerning Latin and which can equally find no source in Etruscan due to a more restricted phonology. So evidently it was the Italic population that innovated these names, not the Etruscans who no doubt used the original Semitic-derived names familiar to Greeks. For Latin & , Etruscans can be predicted to have uttered *peta and *pei respectively.


NOTES
[1] Arthur Gordon, On the origins of the Latin alphabet: Modern views (1969) (see link); Ullman/Brown, Ancient writing and its influence (1963), p.167 (see link).

4 comments:

  1. Strictly speaking, what your argument proovs is that and were created by the Romans (as we kno the case to have been for ). It doesn't say anything about what the Etruscans did, as the system is transparent and new letters can be added as necessary.

    (But I agree that it would be nice to have some actual facts for placing the invention of this system in Etruscan specifically.)

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  2. Tropylium, if you can concede that bē and dē were a Roman invention, you concede that Etruscans called these letters something else.

    To say "It doesn't say anything about what the Etruscans did" is to deny that Etruscans could have used the Semitic names of this Semitic-derived alphabet despite the Greeks having done the same. It implies that you believe in an unspecified third possibility that you don't bother proving. This violates Occam's Razor.

    Why do you hate Occam's Razor?

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  3. Why do you accuse others of irrationality without reason?

    "It doesn't say anything about what the Etruscans did" is obviously a statement of agnosticism — I cannot deny that they could have used Semitic-inspired names, but I also cannot deny that they could have been the ones to invent the "short" system.

    If they did employ the "short" system after all (only with ei rather than ē), modern parallels suggest that 'B' and 'D' would have been called something like "greek P" and "greek T".

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  4. Tropylium: "Why do you accuse others of irrationality without reason? [...] modern parallels suggest that 'B' and 'D' would have been called something like 'greek P' and 'greek T'."

    You've answered your own question, Mr Pystynen. When you decide to adhere to burden of proof and the law of parsimony, let me know.

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