12 Jul 2011

Eyeballing Minoanists and the value of A-SA-SA-RA-ME

Minoanist Leonard Palmer once wrote, “[...] for in questions of genetic relationship the linguist rightly attaches small importance to common elements of vocabulary. Decisive are resemblances of morphological procedures, for these are less readily borrowed.”[1]

Eyeballing is for the bored and desperate

Rational people deal in facts and probabilities, not in mere possibilities and assumptions. If one's translations depend fundamentally on subjective similarities of words between languages, then one's contribution to the field of paleolinguistics is as useful as toxic sludge.

The eyeballing method, if it can be dignified as a 'method' at all, relies primarily on individual perceptions about phonetic similarity and difference. Since subjectivity is in the eye of the beholder, different individuals will reach different conclusions about the same data according to this strategy, making it disordered and unhelpful. It's best to become familiar with this shameless tactic so as to shun it whenever it surfaces in someone's work.

Internal analysis first

A widely applicable statistic known as Zipf's Law adds to what we should already be able to deduce by experienced linguistic intuition. In any given language, the most frequent words tend to be the shortest. Conversely, less frequent words tend to be longer. Afterall, how often do words like osteochondrodysplasia or spatiotemporal pop up in everyday conversation? This relates to the efficiency of information exchange.

The sheer length of Minoan A-SA-SA-RA-ME and its derivatives also hints that it most likely belongs to a core word class, such as a noun or verb. We can see that a five-syllable term is above the average length of attested Minoan vocabulary which implies that, with all things being equal, its typical frequency in random text or conversation should have been comparatively infrequent. Yet to the contrary, its unexpected ubiquity among libation table inscriptions demonstrates in itself a strong link between its genuine semantic value and its evident religious context. If one agrees that the analyzable suffix -NA belongs specifically to nominal morphology, then since our term is found with this very suffix (KN Za 10: YA-SA-SA-RA-MA-NA), it must likewise be nominal. Hence we can make an informed guess that it's likeliest a name or common noun relevant to Minoan religion.

These rational considerations alone then compel us towards the optimal conclusion that the term conveys the name or title of a deity to which these libations must have been dedicated. Palmer's original comparison to a title for a neighbouring Anatolian goddess (or goddesses) merely supplements the strong deductive foundation of this avenue of investigation. So this identification with the divine can't be so easily downplayed as the kind of immature eyeballing method that sensible linguists work hard to avoid. This view has something richer going for it.


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