30 Sept 2007

Concerning Pre-Etruscan syncope

Sad as it is, I'm still contemplating the "magical -i-" in the name Arnth (see my previous blog: Etruscan names Arnth and Arnthia) that shows up sometimes when declined in the genitive case as Arnthial, the case form that indicates possession. I know it may seem that I have no life (actually, "seem" is such a euphemism, let's face it) but I really think there's something noteworthy going on here with this apparent lost vowel. Yet I haven't read any published work on it at all. It seems that Etruscologists like Pallottino, Bonfante, Jannot or De Grummond seem to be far too concerned with generalities to worry about these language specifics and that's a pity. For innovative ideas to toy with, we often have to go online and sniff around. Everyday people are talking about all sorts of subjects and it's not just people talking through their hat either. Some are sharing with us their informed ideas generously. I've managed recently to recover some interesting tidbits from the internet's collective memory on this very topic.

I remember I had read something about a disappearing *-i in pre-Etruscan before. I started thinking about Miguel Carrasquer Vidal, a man with a fierce sense of logic with which I had many an online arguement with beforehand. Regardless of our differences of opinion, I respect him as a keen thinker in the realm of comparative linguistics and someone who typically backs up his views with a wealth of solid references. In this post on sci.lang in October 2004, Vidal had mentioned this interesting tidbit which he based on his readings of Robert S. P. Beekes, the Emeritus Professor of Comparative Indo-European Linguistics at the University of Leiden who has also written about the origin of the Etruscans (see pdf) and Pre-Greek substrate (see pdf). Miguel stated:

That doesn't change anything in the analysis of -le < *-la-i, or -ls < *-la-si. If it makes you feel better:
  • genitive *-si, *-ia-la > -s, -(ia)l
  • ablative *-si-si, *-ia-la-si > -is, -(ia)l(a)s
  • dative *-si-i, *-ia-la-i > -si, -(ia)le
At the time I had first read it, it didn't "make me feel better", nor did other people completely embrace the idea as you can read by the responses. While it's acceptable to suggest that Etruscan had some sort of prior syncope (before the documented one that occured around 500 BCE), suggesting also that an ablative *-si-si was reduced to -is by way of a convenient one-time case of added haplology seemed to me ad hoc. The package as a whole then came across as just a shade too mathematical, assumptive and logically problematic to accept.

Yet now, here I am before my computer, and after hammering out my Etruscan database, I have to admit with tail between my legs that Miguel may not have been so crazy afterall, although his point of view needs clearer rules and further examples. It's not enough to say that vowels disappeared in final position because it clearly wasn't the case in passive participles in -u (e.g. caru "made"), as an example.

It seems to me that we might be able to theorize the following to add to Miguel's ideas above concerning an early stage of pre-Etruscan:
  • There were once 3 possible vowels in word-final position: -a, -i and -u.
  • Both -a and -i were dropped while -u remained.[1]
  • Former a-stems and i-stems however still kept their vowel when suffixes were added.
So then, this would mean that the masculine praenomen Arnth was from *Aranθi with genitive *Aranθi-al and the feminine praenomen was *Aranθia at the time, with a homophonous genitive *Aranθia-l. After the syncope, we would have *Aranθ and its unscathed genitive *Aranθial, while in the feminine, we might have *Aranθi but again with genitive *Aranθial. The result is a curious intrusive -i-, a relic from a previous time. This idea also explains the intrusive -i- in the word hinθial 'spirit, ghost, shade' derived from the genitive of hinθ 'below, beneath, underneath' which we may now relate to an earlier form *hinθi. And of course, Miguel has already explained the loss of the same -i in the s-genitive ending citing Beekes.

More food for thought.

[1] The loss of -a can be seen in the word un 'libation' (< *una) with the locative une (< *una-i) attested in the Liber Linteus (LL 8.xvii, 10.xxxiv). If the vowel had not been there, we'd expect *un-i in the locative instead.


  1. Wow that solution makes a lot of sense. Just one question though, there still is the form Arnθal. Do you ascribe this to analogy for the masculine?

    If so, I think I'm going to have to agree with you in this theory.

  2. Paradigmatic regularization is one of the most common phenomena in world languages, so Arnθal can naturally be explained as the new nomino-accusative Arnθ plus genitive ending -al.

    But it gets interesting... I decided to check through my data for dates. I searched for instances of Arnθal and sure enough, I found a pattern: They all pop up at the end of the 4th century BCE and later.

    However when I looked up instances of Arnθial and Arnθeal, many appeared to be dated with uncertainty (at least, according to what Rix had published). Grrrr.

    Overall, however, I would gather that Arnθial began to be replaced by Arnθal by the end of the 4th century BCE.