19 Feb 2008

"Proto-Aegean" - What I mean and what I don't

Language Hat recently gave me good review[1] and of course I'm very thrilled and flattered. However, there was something in there that made me want to write a response and clarification:
"Talk of things like 'Proto-Aegean' makes me nervous, but this guy is no pushover for sloppy comparisons and hand-waving correspondences"
Gee, thanks! Erh, I think? Well, I can't say that I didn't bring upon myself this nervous skepticism. Being skeptical of what one reads, particularly when reading a quirky online blogger one isn't familiar with, is actually healthy and I expect it if one's skepticism is based firmly on objective reasoning rather than subjective feelings. It's a good sign that one's brain is functioning. The term "Proto-Aegean" isn't part of the linguist's general lexicon as yet and I'm fully aware of that fact. So I need to explain what I mean by "Proto-Aegean" in order to help people understand that I'm not as kooky as I may seem at first glance.

First off, let's go through all the nutty ideas commonly out there that I absolutely reject. I reject any attempts to translate an undeciphered language such as Etruscan or Minoan based purely on look-alike matches with random foreign languages. I do however support methodical analysis of grammatical patterns and context to deduce a more sensible translation that's a little more multi-dimensional. I reject the work of those who casually connect Minoans to Semitic by extracting inscribed words out of context or who believe that Etruscan is a language closely related to Turkish, Luwian, Abkhaz, Klingon, Esperanto or any other clearly absurd language. I really don't care whether these nutty theories are published in a book or not, or whether the theorists have a degree or not, so I guess I'm irreverent that way. I do however accept detailed morphological comparisons between language groups that show me that the author actually thought about what (s)he was writing at least several months in advance. For Etruscan however, no such detailed analyses of grammar or comparisons to other language families currently exist. In fact, 'mystery' is far more sellable than the nauseating details that I like to explore on this blog, so I doubt that I'll see a comprehensive book published on the Etruscan language for some time to come. This blog is in large part a rebellion against the dumbed-down websites and books out there on ancient languages and proto-languages. I feel that we can do much better. Our global society needs to stop thinking like mindless, relativistic vegetables and to start valuing the power of logic and self-education more.

So concerning the issue of the origins of the Etruscans, everything that we may attribute to the term 'Etruscan', whether it be Etruscan religious practices[2] (e.g. haruspical rites), alphabet[3], or language[4] appear to point to eastern origins. Whatever trivial aspect of Etruscan civilization remains which can be said to be autochthonous often turns out to be of non-Etruscan origin, attributable to some Indo-European-speaking people such as Faliscans, Romans or Sabines. Herodotus records in Histories 1.94 that the Etruscans are of Lydian origin and I think that this is fundamentally correct. It's easy in the modern age to dismiss Herodotus as the 'Father of Lies' as I've sometimes read, but how many of these armchair skeptics have bothered to read word for word what the classical historian actually said in original Greek to know what they're fighting against? I've seen people distort Herodotus' account to mean somehow that Etruscans were Lydian speaking or that this is some proof that Etruscans spoke Turkish (even though the Turkish language is an import from Central Asia during the Middle Ages and closely related to Mongolian)! So given all these simple facts, I like to connect the dots and state the obvious: The Etruscans are from Anatolia. If others are too fearful of this conclusion that many other academics have suggested despite my footnotes and the several facts I cite throughout my blog, well sheesh. What can ya do?

Etruscan is also not alone but is widely accepted to have been related to Lemnian and Rhaetic[5]. Lemnian was spoken on the island of Lemnos in... {drumroll please}... the Aegean. Big shocker there. So moving on with my spooky Proto-Aegean concept with my head held high, I think I'll get a little cocky. I suggest (more tentatively, I admit) that Eteo-Cretan, Eteo-Cypriot and Minoan[6], languages also centering around the Aegean islands and Cyprus, were also part of this Proto-Aegean linguistic group.

So now let's draw a circle around Greece, Western Anatolia, Cyprus, Crete and the Aegean islands. We then start to see the linguistic pattern that I'm getting at. An entire language family forgotten in the mists of time and modern-day mystery mongering. What's somewhat irritating to me and which should be irritating to you, the reader, is how we have an 'Etruscan mystery', a 'Minoan mystery', an 'Eteo-Cretan mystery' and an 'Eteo-Cypriot mystery' going on at the same time. If you research any one of these subjects, you'll get next to nothing on their languages or their translations. It's all "Who knows?" and "What if?". Why is this region and this time period such a freakin' mystery? Is it really because we lack information to piece it all together or is it because our power of concentration lacks get-up-and-go to solve problems without the use of a computer crutch?

Anyways, this is what I mean by "Proto-Aegean". It sits there before you readers, waiting to be developed further.

[1] While Language Hat gave me a good review, the blogger for whatever reason has a very laissez-faire policy on comments such that his commentbox filled up quickly with the most obscene rhetoric from anonymous trolls. I deemed it wise therefore to promply divorce this blog from that senselessness completely. The original review with comments are here but I also made a response with pictures of the original comments on his site that I found were deeply offensive for him to have published.
[2] I've already discussed the comparison of the Babylonian liver model with the Etruscan Piacenza Liver model as one clear piece of proof that Etruscan haruspicy originated from the same practices found in Western Anatolia and the Fertile Crescent in my unfinished, multi-part rant called Finding Structure in the Piacenza Liver despite academic claptrap. If you don't believe me, you can always consult the Encyclopedia Britannica at your local library that will tell you the same thing I am here (minus the museum photo of the Babylonian artifact, that is).
[3] See for example Fischer, A History of Writing (2001), p.88, fig.54 (link). Keep in mind that the author here falls into the trap of assuming a priori that Etruscans obtained their alphabet from the Greeks rather than directly from Phoenicians. However the existence of the Pyrgi Tablets proves that trading contacts between Etruscans and Phoenicians were already well established before 500 BCE. Simultaneously, there is no conclusive proof as yet that Etruscans obtained their alphabet specifically from the Greeks, nor do I wager that we will ever find it.
[4] R.S.P Beekes explores the Anatolian origin of Etruscans in his article The Origin of the Etruscans [pdf]. Also some words are clearly of direct Semitic origin which can be seen most clearly in the numerals (e.g. Etruscan śar '10' versus Phoenician ʕsr, Hebrew ʕeśer-, Tigre ʕasər and Ugaritic ʕašar-).
[5] Fortson, Indo-European Language and Culture: An Introduction (2004), p.246 (see link).
[6] An interesting quote from Chadwick, The Decipherment of Linear B (1967), p.34 (see link) reads: "In 1940, a new name appears for the first time in the literature of the subject: Michael Ventris, then only eighteen years old. His article called 'Introducing the Minoan Language' was published in the American Journal of Archaeology; [...] The basic idea was to find a language which might be related to Minoan. Ventris' candidate was Etruscan;" However interestingly, Ventris sought to connect Linear B, rather than Linear A, to the Etruscan language. Too bad. Regardless, he managed to decipher Linear B as an older form of Greek, leaving Linear A undeciphered to this day.

(Feb 20 2008) I created a quick illustrative graphic of this conjectured Proto-Aegean. Enjoy!


  1. Ignorant question: What do you think of Steven Roger Fischer's work?

    (He made the mistake of publishing in a thoroughly obscure publishing house...)

  2. I have no strong opinion about his work yet. His book was just something to link to in order to show my readers that the connection between the Etruscan alphabet and West Semitic alphabet systems is common knowledge.

    As I said, I personally would question the idea that Etruscans simply obtained their alphabet directly through the Greeks (i.e. I'm highly suspicious of Greek-centric and Roman-centric explanations of this aspect of Etruscan history with so many unknowns lurking about). Afterall, we don't really know whether it was the Greeks who innovated this alphabet from the Semites or another group or even the Proto-Etruscans themselves, so how can we be so certain about where the Etruscans got this alphabet from?

    However this is through no error on Fischer's part and judging by the diagram I see nothing terribly wrong with it. The Coptic alphabet is indeed a derivative of the Greek and the idea that the Etruscans obtained the alphabet from the Greeks is stated by Etruscan specialists themselves. See Pallottino, The Etruscans (1975), p.209 for example where it states that the alphabet supposedly came in through Greek Cumae. The Bonfantes asserted something similar in The Etruscan Language. I figure that by assuming that everything is the product of Orientalization and imports, one can continue to pretend that Etruscans are in some small way still native to Italy (via the Villanovan archaeology). I suppose this would be particularly important to someone if they were Italian and had a bit of national or cultural pride to influence their decisions on the matter. However, my position is that barely anything is 'Etruscan' before the "oriental influences" start pouring in. Saying that Etruscans are autochthonous to Italy is like mistaking those of European descent here in Canada as Aboriginals and then assuming that English is a Native language like Haida and Montagnais.

    At any rate, Fischer is merely relying on experts in the field from what I can tell.

  3. Actually, I just noticed one thing. I might object to the statement 'Viking-like Danaans (Mycenaean Greeks)' because it may lead a naive reader to a misleading association between Scandinavians and the Danaan of Sea People fame. I'll have to examine this book further.