3 Jul 2007

Voodoo linguistics in Etruscology: the imaginary word 'naceme'

I really think that the topic of the Etruscan language is one of the most sabotaged topics one can find in the modern age. And clearly no one but a few neurotics like myself care enough about history to notice these flagrant inaccuracies. Just when I'm sure I've seen it all, I always find a new, shiny pearl showing me how incredibly ill-researched even well-respected academics in this field happen to be. I know that sounds harsh but take a look at this and tell me if I'm crazy.

Xaverio Ballester had chosen to limit his career by writing a silly article entitled Etrusco ¿una lengua úgrica? [pdf] (2003) (English: Etruscan - An Ugric language?). (The abstract summary is found here.) Sufficed to say, you'd expect this sort of nonsense from would-be amateurs and loons with too much time on their hands but sadly this individual comes out of the University of Valencia.

If the sensationalist title isn't a tip-off that trees have been wasted to print this, and if the pedantic exploration of the validity of ad hoc Etruscan-Hungarian comparisons are not jarring enough for you, some of Ballester's subtle mistranslations he relays to us can point us to how much more disturbingly profound the scourge of "voodoo linguistics" and self-indulgence in academia really is.

On page 15, Ballester shows us two monstrous fumbles:
    naceme ‘hacia mí’
    iχeme ‘yo beba’
However, these innocent items are provably non-existent. If they had existed, they would be the only such occurences in the entire corpus of known Etruscan inscriptions since it is only retrievable from an artifact called Vetulonia's Cup (i.e. TLE 366 [1]) which coincidently is written in continuous script (that is, script without spaces making word seperation difficult to those that lack intimate understanding of the language in question).

Without being laborious about it, the fact is that we already have the following two well-attested words:
    nac [PyrT 1.ix, 2.i; TLE 334, 366]
    [CPer B.xx; TLE 366, 399]
For example, the phrase " ca ceχa ziχuχe." in the Cippus Perusinus artifact means "Thus this rite was written." It's not rocket science if you have organizational skills. And naturally anyone with a bit of grey matter can see that eme then must be a seperate element here, possibly a verb. This analysis is more optimal since if we think of this as a game of cards, two attested words and a dis legomenon (i.e. a word attested only twice) beats two hapaxes any day. It shouldn't be too difficult to figure all this out if you're a qualified specialist in Etruscology with a PhD, right?

Sadly, no. It's sensible to at first believe that this sort of astonishing incompetence is only typical of the likes of, say, Alinei or Mayani who dish out imaginative books that linguists shun but which masses, fattened on television and fantasy, tend to swallow without skepticism. However, there's a bigger problem here. Much bigger. Hold on to your seat.

Etruscan Life and Afterlife: A Handbook of Etruscan Studies was edited by Larissa Bonfante, a foremost Etruscologist, in 1991 and published from the Wayne State University. In it, Emeline Richardson while trying to speak so authoritatively on the subject falls into the same pitfall as amateurs and loons when she cites the same inscription (TLE 366) on page 216 with missegmented *naceme and *iχeme, proving how uninformed she and all that contributed to that book really are on the Etruscan language. Fortunately, the shameful error is online. Go to this link from Google Books and either scroll down to page 216 or do a search for 'naceme' in the righthand frame.)

[1] The inscription TLE 366 is transcribed as



    1. I guess this is the right place to post this since a large portion of the post is about TLE 366. (You should give out an e-mail address, since I do so hate struggling to find semi-relevant posts to post comments on.)

      I decided to have a bash at working out what the damn thing says using your dictionary from the Lingua Files, and I've come to the conclusion I'm woefully out of my depth.

      The segmentation I came up with was nac eme uruiθal θile ni θal iχ eme mesnam ertanś ina mulu. I didn't get much further than that, other than to fail to get any definition for mesn(a) or ertanś.

      Hopefully you have more to say on the subject - you've namedropped this thing enough times that the tension is getting to me.

    2. The suspense must be killing people. LOL! I've been parsing it as follows:

      Nac eme, uru iθal, θi len iθal, iχ eme mes namer, tanśina mulu.

      Now plug the above line into my Etruscan Dictionary et voilà! Quelle magie de programmation! ;o)

      It seems to me that it's saying "When it was taken (nac eme), filled with vine (uru iθal), pouring liquid from the vine (θi len iθal), so too it was taken to be entombed (iχ eme mes), the blessed funerary ladle (namer tanśina mulu)."

      So I understand it to be a devotional inscription describing the libational rite with wine used to dedicate the funerary object.