30 Nov 2010

Elementum, my dear Watson

The assumption of Etruscan letternames is real

During my latest admonitions against Etruscan letternames being the source of Latin ones, some commenters seem unaware that other careful scholars have published the same stance, even several decades ago:
Avrin, Scribes, Script, and Books (2010), p.60: "The naming system is believed to have been an Etruscan invention, although there is no documentary proof for this. These Latin names were in existence by the first century B.C.E." [link]

Hammond, Latin: A historical and linguistic handbook (1976), p.57: "These may already have been discarded by the Etruscans, but since evidence for the Etruscan letter names is lacking, it cannot be asserted that the Romans adopted the Etruscan names, although they probably did take over the Etruscan versions of the Greek letter forms." [link]
That some authors persist with outdated theories is not because the theory is legitimate and proven. It's simply a sign of bad research or error in reasoning.

Assumption: Latin elementum is Etruscan

Built on the unproven belief in Latin-like Etruscan letternames, the Latin word elementum 'letter of the alphabet; element' is further assumed to be Etruscan based on a purely theoretical lettername-sequence of *el-em-en in that alphabet.
Hooker, Reading the past: Ancient writing from cuneiform to the alphabet (1990), p.330: "Four words dealing with writing came into Latin by way of the Etruscan language, confirming the Etruscan transmission of the Greek alphabet to the Romans: elementum, whose earlier meaning was 'letter of the alphabet', litterae, 'writing' (originally derived from Greek diphthera, 'skin', a material on which people wrote); stilus, 'writing implement', and cera, 'wax' (for wax tablets on which to take notes)." [link]
If el, em and en are already attested Latin letternames, why must we go to the bother of assuming Etruscan origin based on letternames that haven't been attested?
Archivio glottologico italiano, vol 82-83 (1997), p.83, fn.5: "Brent Vine (p.c.) points out that there would be some indirect evidence for Etruscan letter names if the «letter-name» etymology of Latin elementum could be taken back to the Etruscans. Unfortunately, any connection between Latin elementum and an Etruscan source is purely speculative at this point." [link]
Not only speculative but, it must be overtly confessed, absurd.

The halfway point

Even ignoring all my prior proof on this blog against such letternames in Etruscan, the view may still be rejected for important reasons. Nagy clearly explains the reasons behind this strange origin of elementum from letternames:
Nagy, Poetry as performance: Homer and beyond (1996), p.216: "To start with L M N and so on is thus symbolically apt, in line with the archaic Roman custom, derived from earlier conventions in the writing traditions of Semitic languages, of dividing the alphabet into two halves for teaching purposes, with the recto, as it were, starting at A-B-C and the verso, at L-M-N." [link]
Taking this explication for granted, compare it with the published drawing of an artifact with the Etruscan alphabet inscribed on it in Rogers, Writing systems: A linguistic approach (2005), p.171 [link]:

While the Latin alphabet might be divided into two equal, 10-letter halves once we take away the last three Greek-influenced letters (ex, ī Graeca, zēta), the halfway point of the Etruscan alphabet is different as can be seen in the picture above. The halfway point is not el but en. We have no excuse to get rid of the last three letters to make it the required el either. We have no valid reason to go to extra effort to repair this ailing theory with a multiplication of hypotheses.

We witness then yet another turkey theory that capitalizes on the marketed artifice known as 'the Etruscan mystery'.


  1. First of all the etymology of El-Em-En-tum never occurred to me as such. Awesome!

    And I think your explanation why it cannot be from Etruscan is very well found and quite clearly the best solution.


  2. http://blog.oup.com/2007/10/element_hocus_pocus/