11 May 2008

Bonfantes and the 'dative of agent' distraction

The treatment of the Etruscan dative case, ending in -si or in -le depending on the gender of the noun, is a perfect example of why I'm perpetually miffed by Etruscan experts and those that purport to be so without putting in the thought and effort. As far as I'm concerned, while in other fields, there is dare I say somewhat of a practicality to credentialism, the belief that authors on the Etruscan language who happen to have PhDs (not even necessarily in linguistics, mind you) have a sufficient grasp of this subject can easily lead the unquestioning naive down a neverending wild goose chase to intellectual oblivion.

In The Etruscan Language: An Introduction by Giuliano and Larissa Bonfante, first published in 1983 and republished in 2002 with little revision to speak of, the case endings -si and -le are labelled as "dative" on page 83. We see clearly that clenśi is given the value of 'to the son' and clenaraśi is a plural dative form meaning 'to the sons'. Remember this because it doesn't take very long for them to sabotage their authority in the matter.

A mere one page later on page 84, we are introduced to a new terminology, the dative of agent. Despite making an academic distinction between the garden-variety dative and the so-called dative of agent, the distinction is hard to make out since both are purported to use the very same ending. While the dative of agent is translated as 'by', the regular dative continues to be translated as 'to' with ne'er a rational explanation as to how one knows whether one is dealing with one or the other. The absurdity of this can be immediately observed by asking a simple question: "If a form like Titasi occured alone, what would it signify?" Is it 'To Tita' or 'By Tita'? Obviously, if the former, then how do we translate the latter into Etruscan with complete clarity? And if we did have a distinct form for the latter with a special ending, why then wouldn't the same ending be applied for every dative of agent in the first place??

The cruel fact, and the reason why I speak out against credentialism in Etruscan studies, is that there is no reason behind their grammatical flipflopping and inconsistent value-assignment of case endings in Etruscan. It's all smoke and mirrors to describe in two pages what can be described in a mere four words: "We have no clue."

For everyone's information, these dative endings are present in Rhaetic (Schum BZ 3: laśanuale), Lemnian (Lemnos Stele: Hulaieśi Φukiasiale 'to Hulaie the Phocaean') and possibly Eteo-Cypriot as well, all with the value of 'to', never 'by'. The agent of an action is simply not marked by this ending at all. While the Bonfantes fail miserably to provide a single coherent answer as to whether mi titasi cver menaχe refers to 'to Tita' or 'by Tita', sufficed to say that the value of 'to' can be applied here as in all other instances of this case suffix and to suggest otherwise only confuses our proper understanding of Etruscan grammar and the artefacts. It would have been more responsible of the Bonfantes if they had refrained from idle theorizing until they could amass sturdier evidence for their dative of agent, no?

There are many other deceptions here such as the imaginary definite accusative (spureni is in no way a case form of spur) and the misassignment of *spure as a dative when it can only be the standard locative in -e (i.e. *spure = 'before the city'). The expected dative of spur 'city', a type-II noun, is to the contrary *spurale.


  1. I can't help but wonder if these dative caseforms come from a combination of the genitive and locative endings.

    Hope everything's going well!

  2. "Well" is a relative term but my woes aren't terminal. Thanks, Rob.

    Rob: "I can't help but wonder if these dative caseforms come from a combination of the genitive and locative endings."

    Yes, the idea that the dative forms are a combination of genitive and locative endings has been published many times before and I also mentioned this before on my blog. It seems to be indeed the case but the exact way this would have come about and the semantics involved still leave me unsatisfied. I don't know of another language with this sort of case synthesis, yet the analysis seems pretty sound.

  3. Another noob question: is the -si / -śi flip-flopping something systematic, or free variation (doesn't seem improbable if either represents a postalveolar)?

  4. Tropylium: "Another noob question: is the -si / -śi flip-flopping something systematic, or free variation (doesn't seem improbable if either represents a postalveolar)?"

    No need to call it a "noob" question unless one feels shame in asking a question, but why? This is a good question. Helmut Rix states that the Etruscan script used in Northern Etruria is a little different than in Southern Etruria in that the usage of the letters sigma and san are inverted, one being used for s and the other for ś. Rix explains this on page 21 of Etruskische Texte: Editio Minor, Band I (1991). I haven't yet investigated that claim however and I suspect that it's not that cut and dry. (For now, take my idle suspicion with a grain of salt.)