30 Mar 2008

The net doesn't have to be an intellectual wasteland for Etruscan studies

All this networking and groupThink undermines clarity and logic. So far, the majority of discussion online is hijacked by perversely dim-witted discussions. On the topic of Etruscan, Google Groups gives us a typically worthless result. The highest-ranking link changes from day to day but a week back, the first thing that popped up in the search list was entitled Etymology of these Serbian words, followed by Basque and Etruscan, and in third place, Answer From Alan Wilson Reference Alphabet & Etruscan Decipherments. If I don't feel impelled to follow the "crowd", it's because the "crowd" is certifiably insane. In fact, one could argue that it's this follow-the-leader mentality that helps maintain perpetual global war. Extremism of all sorts is now in and subtlety of thought is going the way of the dodo bird as we network ourselves to extinction by denying ourselves the empowerment of individual reason.

Case in point, one of the few "in-depth" (I use the term loosely) conversations on the Etruscan language online has been in forums like Conlang hosted by Brown University. Ray Brown and Jörg Rhiemeier commented about Etruscan issues in 2005 while tripping over themselves with schadenfreude glee to "shame" me for questioning the status quo interpretation of Etruscan numerals (see link) using emotional rhetoric instead of hard facts. Here's an excerpt of the silliness I'm talking about:

Jörg Rhiemeier:
Yes. Actually, Glen Gordon gives a handful of further "cognate sets", but those don't look much better and many of them are based on controversial interpretations of Etruscan words.

Ray Brown:
Yes, it is surprising what one can do with controversial interpretations of Etruscan words - so much easier to prove connexions with them than with those troublesome certainties! I've been pestered for the last last two or three months by some guy who is convinced that Etruscan = Pelasgian = Albania {groan}
What's happening here is that these angry, narrow-minded people are confusing a bunch of very different topics together without having the mature subtlety of thought to properly address them in seriousness. Insecure pomp has replaced intellect. Here are the main topics that they've managed to misassociate together:

  • 1) The purported "certainty" of Etruscan word huth = 'six'.
  • 2) The possible relationship between Proto-Aegean (i.e. ancestor of Etruscan, Lemnian, etc.) and Proto-Indo-European.
  • 3) Etruscan-Albanian crackpot theories
So let's try reasoning through this instead of bragging childishly about who should be placed on some arbitrary academic blacklist and who shouldn't.

1) The purported "certainty" of Etruscan word huth = 'six'

A good teacher will tell his students to question all that they read and skepticism must be tempered at all times by Logic, not through one's feelings, gut instinct, hatred, or preconceptions. There must also be some limit to skepticism to ever be able to absorb input properly. The naive in contrast will assume that whatever is considered status quo by a majority is automatically "certain" (a complete lack of skepticism altogether). This is the classic logical fallacy known as argumentum ad populum. While the status quo certainly does appear to apply the value of 'six' rather than 'four' to huth, we cannot dismiss the value of critics because the only piece of "evidence" to give us any sense of "certainty" at all of this value are the Tuscania dice whose flaws in argumentation I've already written about. Since Etruscanist personalities such as Larissa Bonfante and Massimo Pallottino have written about these dice so overassertively while irresponsibly hiding important details, the layman is given the false impression that everything here has been solved and that there is no room for debate.

The fact remains that *not* all dice (whether Etruscan dice or classical dice in general) had opposing faces that added to seven. A significant number of dice had different configurations and this remains an inconvenient fact to this day. This very fact naturally undermines the supposed certainty of the "evidence" (or rather mere interpretation) of the Tuscania dice. The good Dr. Brinton way back in 1889 even went to the trouble of calculating the uncertainty that this represents and came to a significant result of more than 10%[1]! This shows us that the only competent way of convincingly translating these numerals is not through mere interpretations of dice but through the careful study of all contexts in which these numerals are found in inscriptions. Sadly, Ray and Jörg didn't get that memo and mistake popularity for certainty.

2) The possible relationship between Proto-Aegean (i.e. ancestor of Etruscan, Lemnian, etc.) and Proto-Indo-European

While it's pretty certain that Etruscan, Lemnian and other related languages cannot be classified as Indo-European languages because of too many dissimilarities, it's not at all certain that a relationship can't exist further back in prehistory between the two groups. Certain similarities of morphemes with secure values in Etruscan such as mi 'I' and mini 'me' (PIE *me 'me' and *mene 'of me, mine'); the genitive -(a)s (PIE *-ós); the demonstratives ca 'this' and ta 'that' with respective accusative forms can and tan (PIE *ḱo- 'this' and *to- 'that' plus the accusative ending *-m); and postclitic -θi 'in' (PIE *-dʰi 'in') would make any rational person wonder. The similarities aren't just idle look-alikes of general vocabulary but instead seem to suggest that an entire grammatical system has been inherited from a common ancestor.

Naturally, the unresolved topic of Indo-European & Aegean relationship has no bearing on the proper translation of Etruscan itself. Long-range linguistics must strictly be kept out of any efforts in Etruscan translation. However, it's important to debate on these issues and not allow simplistic rhetoricians to stifle intelligent communication where no facts as yet make anything certain about these more long-range relationships.

3) Etruscan-Albanian crackpot theories

First off, the fact that I'm being associated with a silly position I've never had in my life is one of the lowest forms of debate known as the strawman fallacy. Naturally, Etruscan is not related to Albanian for so many historical reasons that it goes well beyond the limits of what I consider to be sensible debate. The fact that Ray feels the need to compare me to people with radically different views and methodologies is easier for him than understanding what I actually said which requires extra mental effort.

The world to me seems, as I say, split between extremes of thinking more and more each day. One split in popular cognition that I've noticed involves the attraction towards either dogmatic relativism (i.e. that anything can be right) or dogmatic skepticism (i.e. that everything must be wrong). Both deny the value of Logic in their own way, but the practitioner of the former lacks a sense of self (i.e. a connection with their internal world) and the practitioner of the latter lacks a sense of social belonging (i.e. the connection with the external world).

So among those that are infected by these two cognitive diseases, there may be little hope to bring them back to healthy mental balance. All that I can say to appeal to people's reason or what's left of it on the internet is that a "crackpot" if anything might be defined as an individual who insists on only one idea while constantly ignoring the facts that conclusively disprove it. Dogmatic skeptics however have great difficulty in sifting between those with fact-based, evolving theories and those with stubborn, rigid convictions who never address facts. Dogmatic skeptics are too busy finding fault in everything and everyone to pay attention to the fact that a theory is not the same thing as a conviction and that the only way to finally recognize the difference in others around them requires letting go of their anger towards everyone else's imperfections, whether real or imagined, and allowing themselves to see their own errors in judgment as well.

[1] Brinton, The Ethnologic Affinities of the Ancient Etruscans (Read before the American Philosophical Society, Oct. 18, 1889.) (see link). While I admit, Brinton's views of the Etruscan language are very misguided today, the fact that classical dice have different arrangements has never gone away and his criticisms on this issue remain valid.


  1. It's quite bizarre how hard people try to stick to their own personal believes and use faulty reasoning to nullify anyone's good points.

    And now in a completely different note, this has been haunting me for some time. It's an Etruscan (and incidentally also Lycian) related question.

    As you and I both know the Etruscan alphabet spells their phoneme /u/ as a letter similar to our O.

    All loanwords that have either /u/ or /o/ are then loaned with this /u/. How exactly did they then conclude that the sound of the phoneme is in fact [u] and not [o]. Considering the shape I'd find the later one more plausible.

    Are these considerations purely based on the linguistics environment where a sound [o] tended to be rare? Because if so I really think those views should be reconsidered.

    Recent studies have shown that both Hittite and Akkadian may have had a phoneme /o/. I have elaborated about that view on my post on Hittite phonology, which I have almost finished writing, but still haven't pushed into public view.

    I hope you have an answer to this puzzling question which is slightly out of place here, but I couldn't think of a better way to contact you ;)

  2. Phoenix: "As you and I both know the Etruscan alphabet spells their phoneme /u/ as a letter similar to our O."

    Actually I think you're getting confused with another language related to Etruscan, Lemnian, which does use the letter "O" for the same vowel that Etruscans write as "V". See Etruscan alphabet chart.

    The Etruscan "V" is identical with the Roman letter used coincidently to write /u/ and /w/ in Latin (as well as the rounded schwa in unstressed syllables if I recall my Latin phonetics correctly).

    Also, it's important to note that in Etruscan spelling, "V" was also used to write schwa as in mulaχ (LL 8.xi) which is also written mlaχ (LL 8.xviii) in the same document.

    Phoenix: "Are these considerations purely based on the linguistics environment where a sound [o] tended to be rare? Because if so I really think those views should be reconsidered."

    Put simply, there's nothing evident in the Etruscan language that indicates that [u] and [o] were distinct phonemes. If you wish to think of "u" as "o" instead, then there's little to stop you. However, in a language that lacks a phonemic contrast between "o" and "u", it would be natural for there to be allophonic, dialectal or idiosyncratic variation within that large vocalic space.

    Also, as I said above, Latin used "V" for both /u/ and /w/ while reserving "O" for /o/. This would be easier to explain if Etruscan was using "V" for /u/ more often than /o/.

    I find it's better to transcribe a language based on phonemics rather than phonetics. Any added phonetic details should then follow from the transcription. For example, in Proto-Indo-European, we write word forms phonemically, such as *édti 'he eats', and then any environment-conditioned allophonic variation is expected to be understood, such as the rule that two adjacent dental stops in PIE such as in this example were pronounced with intervening sibilant automatically. I mention this because, as I said, there's nothing barring the possibility that "V" was used at least in some cases to write an allophone [o].

  3. Right, proof once again to never trust Wikipedia :D


    See, that got me confused. Oh well. Point still is that, well, Lemnian and Lycian has it. :D

    With "V" I would indeed have little trouble assuming that the sound was in fact [u]. Nevertheless there seems to be this tendency to sort of mix the two letters up a lot in that region, which could indeed be easily explained by dialectal variation in languages where [o]is not a distinct phoneme.

  4. Phoenix: "Right, proof once again to never trust Wikipedia [...] See, that got me confused."

    Congrats, you found one of the easter egg memes! Collect all ten! The problem is more than just how unreliable the digimaoist Wikipedia website is, but the fact that you only relied on a *single* source instead of diversifying your reading portfolio.

    Phoenix: "Point still is that, well, Lemnian and Lycian has it. :D"

    They both have what? A distinct vowel "o"? No. Besides Wikipedia, where else do you get this information?

  5. Actually... To add, concerning Lemnian, we know that "O" is being used on the Lemnos Stele to write both /u/ and /w/. Words in that inscription like AOMAI make it rather self-evident that O is being used for /w/ in diphthongs. Thus a sensible transcription of the word should be aumai, not aomai.

  6. Ah, that's quite convincing indeed. Sort of reminds me off how Greek inscriptions have ΑΟΤΟΣ rather than ΑΥΤΟΣ though. So it still doesn't cover the assumption completely ;)

    And what I mean with Lemnian and Lycian still having it, is using an O for a phoneme apparently meant to be /u/.

    As for Lycian, for that language I know for sure there is no phoneme /o/, (or /u/ there's really no clarity which one it should be). This information I'm basing on what I've learned in class and the lycian texts that I've translated ;)

  7. Phoenix: "And what I mean with Lemnian and Lycian still having it, is using an O for a phoneme apparently meant to be /u/."

    ?? Today I have an awful headache for some reason so maybe I'm dense but... when you write /u/, you're writing a phoneme. When you write "O" it's a letter and not necessarily representative of a single phoneme, nor must it be representative of [o]. Your statement is unclear.

    As I said, even though Lemnian writes the letter "O", Lemnian is very closely related to Etruscan to the point that at around 600 BCE it might even be fair to call them only dialects rather than seperate languages. There are several words that can be compared between Lemnian (Lem) and Etruscan (Etr) such as Lem naφuθ and Etr neftś; Lem murinai and Etr *murina (> TLE 359: murinaśie). If we insist on /o/ in Lemnian, it veers away from its strong connection with Etruscan.