16 Jun 2010

Is Etruscan ais 'deity' an Indo-European loanword?

I'm starting to suspect that Indo-European could have built up the following vocabulary based on a single verb root:
*h₂ēiti 'he shares'
*h₂ēist 'he is in a state of sharing' [sigmatic stative] → 'he reveres'
*h₂ēis 'respect, honour' [athematic root noun]
~ *h₂éisis 'honour; honoured one' [thematic noun]
*h₂éisḱeti 'he begs' (<? *h₂éisǵeti, intensive form of *h₂ēist)
*h₂éisdet 'he gives respect' (short for *h₂ēis deh₃t ?)
From this, one might then take *h₂éisos as the basis for the pan-Italic word *áisos 'god' (Venetic aisus 'god', Marrucinian aisos 'to gods', Paelignian aisis 'to gods'), which in turn goes back to *h₂ei- 'to share'.

If this idea flies right, then the commonly held view that Etruscan had imprinted their own native term onto the Italic languages would be in the wrong direction. It's very easy afterall to pin a word origin to an obscure language and play the 'out of sight, out of mind' game. So some skepticism of the status quo is healthy here.

The Eteo-Cypriot form *aisona (a-so-na), which in my view probably means 'god-offering' as it does in Etruscan, would have been borrowed from Etruscan sometime around the Orientalizing Period (c. 8th century BCE). The Italic loan implied by Etruscan ais 'god, goddess' then would have been transferred even earlier, say, right at the beginning of the Etrusco-Rhaetic immigration into Italy: the 10th to 9th century BCE.

This relates to Andras Zeke's latest thoughtful entry, The Kafkania Pebble - testament to the strangest of religious practices?, speaking on the artifact's legitimacy and possible links between a-so-na written on it (as in Eteo-Cypriot) with Etruscan aisna 'divine (adj.); god-offering (n.)'. If the word is an Italic loan though, this word on the pebble must be something else and/or the artifact could be fake. The idea that this artifact dates to the 17th century BCE strains credulity in my eyes. Nonetheless, this particular word and its origin is fascinating to delve into.


  1. The Umbrian adjective esunu < *ais-ōno- (ri esuna = rēs dīvīna) fails to undergo rhotacism, which is *suggestive* at least that the loan might have been the other way around.

    But then again, if we are to look at things from your root if this were derived as a past participle *h₂éisd-to- > *aisso- > *aiso- > *esu- 'honoured thing > deity'(?) where the geminate *-ss- (which is later simplified) blocks rhotacism, that could work. (s.v. *h₂éisd- in LIV²)

    Bear in mind that I've only looked at this problem myself from the side of the people who would attempt to link Greek ἱερός to Sabellic *aisos, which I don't think is possible.

  2. It is interesting to see how complicated the origin of some words can be. The word ais- can easily be an Indo-European one in addition to being an Aegean one as well. Just remember that perfectly IE stems like *pot- = 'powerful', 'mighty' are also attested from pure Aegean sources (i.e. Minoan Linear A   PO-TO-KU-RO, Eteocypriot PO-TI, Cypro-Minoan MA-LI-KI-PO-TI). So the borrowing (in any direction) could have happened much earlier.

    Some people like to point out that Germanic languages also have a similar term for a group of gods: Aesir - though I have some serious doubts about connecting the Aesir with ais-.

    As for Minoan, I am getting a feeling (after analysing the word-formation in geographically close Anatolian languages) that the (likely heavily derived) phrase (J)A-SA-SA-RA-ME might hide the word 'god', 'divinity' in its first part:

    = ('that'+)'god'+'-ess'+'-ity'+'of'
    = '(that) of the Goddess'

    If true, then this term could not have been borrowed from the (not yet separately existing) Italian branch of Indo-European languages. In other terms, if it is an inherited stem in Italian languages - no matter how strangely it sounds - it should be a PIE heritage, and not a local invention.

    Of course, if it had been borrowed by proto-Italian from an Aegean source, the borrowing should have been taken place quite early, even before the Etruscans settled in Italy. There is plenty of evidence of early contacts between Bronze-Age Aegean and Italy [see the example of the Monte Morrone Peak-Sanctuary, with Cypro-Minoan inscriptions], so this scenario is not completely implausible.

  3. Mattitiahu,

    Neither Umbrian esunu nor its antecedent *ais-ōno- are nicely derivable from Etruscan ais(u)na with its word-final -a. And what about the Umbrian suffixation is non-Indo-European anyway?

    Your solution of *h₂éisd-to- is clever in light of similar developments (eg. *sed-to- > Latin sessus).

  4. Bayndor: "The word ais- can easily be an Indo-European one in addition to being an Aegean one as well."

    Sure, that's a possibility but I respect Occam's Razor too much to consider this thought right now.

    "Some people like to point out that Germanic languages also have a similar term for a group of gods: Aesir - though I have some serious doubts about connecting the Aesir with ais-."

    Funny because I have serious doubts about *(*)h₂ensu- which is used to explain the Aesir away by appeal to several contrived associations that would force this mythic package on the Indo-Europeans themselves! Meanwhile the division of celestial versus chthonic gods mirrors so closely the Etruscan world-view and its similar terminology leaving no doubt that these words are related somehow.

    Particularly curious is how it is that we have Old English os 'god' and Old Norse áss at the same time as we have Italic words for 'god' of the form *aisos... yet IEists claim they're not connected. Really? Hmm. I smell research paper material.