25 Jan 2012

A resting place

Recently I've been investigating the Etruscan word hupni. Looking at the word, I had assumed a native formation in -ni which normally seems to mark persons elsewhere. I shrugged off the slightly awkward use of -ni, open to the possibility that the suffix might have a broader usage than I thought. Through this analysis, one must assume a root *hup-. In turn, with the apparent meaning of the full word being that of an 'ossuary chamber', I'd surmised that the underlying root might then mean, perhaps, 'bones'. Admittedly tentative but this is how I do things.

I dare to explore until I find paradoxes. If we don't dare to explore the consequences of a promising idea, our theory will become stagnant. Yet if we don't keep our theories in check by distinguishing between fact and hypothesis and by carefully prioritizing the relative probabilities of each proposal, we lose track and our theory goes to mush. (This is why I always mark anything I propose with an asterisk in my lexical database for the sake of clarity, for me and for others.) Sometimes, all you're able to do, given limited information, is to try out things and hope new information comes along. Sometimes this new information arrives in the form of a paradox or a better proposal than the one we have.

At last I stumbled across a comparison between hupni and Greek ὕπνος (húpnos) 'slumber', which I suppose implies a derivative in that language of *ὑπνις (*hupnis) 'resting place'. At that I realized that this very well is likelier than the view I held as my default answer. I feel compelled to abandon the root I tentatively put down now since this etymology is cleaner than assuming a root *hup- which up to now hung in mid-air, both in terms of its exact meaning and its utterly untraceable history, and it also cures the problem of the seeming inappropriate use of the suffix -ni. Another exciting contradiction to push me towards greater accuracy. Adaptation is far more exhilarating than idées fixes.

20 Jan 2012

The holy goddess of sewers

It started with looking up North African terms for 'rainbow' in Berber and Arabic. I confirmed that one Arabic expression is similar to the hypothetical Etruscan expression *Tluscval arcam that might lie behind the aforementioned abbreviation tlusc arc inscribed on the Piacenza Liver where its religious significance might have something to do with a role as messenger between sky and earth. That expression is qaws al-māʔ 'bow of the water', spoken in the Maghreb. Another rainbow expression in Berber, 'bride of the jackal', led me to the Roman Virgo Caelestis, the Latin name given to the Carthaginian goddess of the sky. To the delight of my humour bone, this then led me straight to something I hadn't come across before: Cloācina, goddess of the sewers and of the Cloāca Maxima (ie. The Great Drain of Rome). Yes, the Romans had a goddess of sewers. It's very amusing but also a natural product of a polytheistic religion that maintains that all things great and small, glorious and foul, must have a deity governing it. Stinky as this tale is, something perverse within me needed to dig further.

The name of Cloācina immediately takes hold of my attention because it could be quite easily an Etruscan name. Many Etruscan names end in -na, including those of divine epithets (eg. Aracuna 'Of the hawks', a byname of the death goddess Vanth). In fact, the Cloāca Maxima herself was the ingenious invention of Etruscan engineers to efficiently take away much of the daily filth naturally produced by its inhabitants in the city. Etruscans were master architects and founders of Rome before the Latin-speaking population became dominant so it naturally makes me wonder if the name Cloācīna and the term cloāca 'sewer' could be hidden Etruscan lexical items.

Immediately when looking it up, one will find an ample number of etymologists connecting it with cluēre 'to cleanse, purify'. Perfectly sensible. But... Latin has two homophones here and the other meaning of this verb is  'to hear, be spoken of, be said'. This latter verb is without a shred of doubt traced back to Proto-Indo-European *ḱleu- but does the other verb truly go back to PIE  *ḱleuh₁-  as often claimed by Indoeuropeanists? Etymological dictionary of Latin and the other Italic languages by Michiel de Vaan lends doubt under the heading cloāca:
"Since an original sequence *klowV- would have yielded *clau- (at least, in pretonic
position), Vine 2006a: 2l7f. posits an adj. *kleuH-o- 'clear, clean' from which a
factitive pr. *kleuH-eh₂-ie/o- > *klewāje/o- > *klowā- could have been derived. This
verb might be preserved in the Servius gloss cloare, although its reliability is often
doubted. From *clowā-, the noun cloāca can then be explained. WH and Rix argue
that cluō may have been invented by Plinius to explain Cluācīna but it might also
derive from *cluwere < *klowere < *kleuH₁-e/o-. For the root, Derksen (fthc.) reconstructs *ḱlh₃-u-, whereas Rasmussen posits *ḱleh₁-u-. If one accepts such a root structure, the ablaut *kle/ou(H)- of Latin must represent a secondary full grade based on a zero grade *kluH₁- < *klHu-C-. The short vowel of Greek κλύζω remains unexplained under any account."
So given the limited cognate set (limited to Western IE languages only) and dubious attempts to derive these words using IE-based grammar, there seems to be room for another hypothesis from outside of Indo-European. Is it possible that Etruscan had a verb *cluva 'to cleanse, to purify' that led to an adjective *cluvaχ 'clean, pure'? Through *cluvaχ, we could obtain *Cluvacuna /ˈkluwəkʊˌna/ '(She) of the pure' leading to Latin Cloācīna. We'd also have the basis for Latin cloāca 'sewer', now to be understood as a loanword and nothing to do with Proto-Indo-European. The instance of cluce in the Liber Linteus could be translated as a perfective 'has purified' (< ? earlier *cluvace), a verb to be expected in a ritual text.

15 Jan 2012

Explaining away "tlusc arc"

A commenter reminded me of some unresolved issues regarding tlusc arc, written on the Liver of Piacenza artifact. The inscription in question can be seen inside the blue box in the picture above. To get to properly solving this inscription, we must overcome a few lazy misanalyses that still stifle any progress in the field. First, there's the persistent misanalysis of Tluschva as a "plurality of gods", even though the suffix -cva is already well-known to be grammatically inanimate (see Paleoglot: The nonsense about the Etruscan god Tluschva). The second problem is the whimsical misreading of *tlusc mar instead of reading it simply with respect to a single direction of writing as tlusc arc (see Paleoglot: The "Tlusc Mar" reading error on the Piacenza Liver). In search of a legitimate explanation of this elusive deity that specialists fail to offer, I've come to my own conclusions that Tluscva must be the Etruscan sea god, like Roman Neptune or Greek Poseidon. His name then likely means "Depths" and his positional opposition to Tinia, the highest of all gods in the pantheon, on the outer rim of the same artifact solidifies this interpretation.

Given this new analysis however, we're still left wondering what tlusc arc could refer to. We can see that the first element of the epithet is abbreviated for the full name Tlusχva (as shown on another inscription). Is the second word abbreviated in this cramped space as well? I suspect so. Arcumna and Arcmsna appear to be the only plausible comparisons we can make in the available Etruscan lexicon to date but this in itself tells neither what the epithet should mean nor the names.

Not accepting a dead end, I extended my search further, finding Latin arcus 'bow' in the process. The received wisdom among Indo-Europeanists is that the Latin term must stem from PIE *h₂érkʷo-. However this is one of many roots listed by IEists that fall on tenuous evidence. It could just as well be yet another substrate word passed off as a valid IE term. The compared Germanic neuter *arhwō 'arrow' doesn't entirely match the formation seen in Latin and a purely Germano-Italic term does not make for a strongly argued IE root. This naturally leads those like Donald Ringe to concede doubt of its thinly accepted IE origin and this naturally in turn makes me wonder if an Etrusco-Rhaetic word is at the heart of it.

For the sake of argument, let's assume that Arcumna and Arcmsna are built on a word *arcam 'bow' (later *arcum*arcm due to syncope). The Germanic word in *-ō then would be a reflex of Old Etruscan /-əm/ in *arcam presuming that the word was borrowed (perhaps through the Veneti) before Grimm's Law had occurred, sometime in the early 1st millennium BCE. The trading of bows and arrows between the Etrusco-Rhaetic population and northern Italian peoples would be historically expected and natural (particularly if we assume an Adriatic point-of-entry of Etrusco-Rhaetic people from the River Po). The above two names would then mean "Of the bow" and "Of the archer" respectively (if *arcamis = 'archer' with agent suffix -is). Coming back to tlusc arc, we might fill this out as *Tlusχval Arcam "The bow of Tluschva". Granted, my idea is cursed with little evidence either way but it's worth a try, if anything, because it will inspire others to come up with something better.

But what then would "The bow of Tluschva" refer to, if so? Latin arcus, aside from meaning simply 'bow', has a secondary meaning of 'rainbow' as in pluvius arcus 'rainbow' or literally 'bow of rain'. Even in French we say arc-en-ciel for 'rainbow', literally 'bow-in-sky' and other Romance languages have similar phrases. Perhaps there's a connection. Or perhaps not. However, the inscription's presence in the celestial zone should be noted. Additionally, according to Hesiod's Theogony, the goddess of the rainbow Iris is the daughter of Thaumas, a sea deity. The other daughter of Thaumas, twin sister of Iris, was coincidently named Arke. If this is all innocent coincidence, we have to agree that it's an interesting one to ponder over.

10 Jan 2012

Coffee is culture

Yasemin extolls the virtues of coffee and the culture surrounding it in Turkey on her blog Yasemin's Kitchen. I'm not Turkish but I do relate. She's got it right. Coffee isn't just the drink; it's the self-reflection, the contemplation, and especially the company you're with to enjoy it. There's an entire philosophy behind that cup. She shares a lot of other delicious recipes from the Mediterranean too combined with personal stories and thoughts. I thought I'd pass it along.

8 Jan 2012

Ghost words and anti-dictionaries

I've mused before that what we need is an Etruscan "anti-dictionary" to reference all the words that have been made up over the decades out of thin air due to misanalyses by various scholars. Lazy authors spread these infectious memes the most, of course, but even careful scholars can overlook things. These words end up being taken as 100% fact by more naive readers and it's difficult sometimes to talk them out of their factless stupor. The more everyone shares information however, the more we can crush these little fibs and understand our history just a little better.

Michael Weiss at OHCGL Addenda and Corrigenda likewise has noticed some phantom words in the Hittite lexicon and calls attention to *itar/*itnaš, explaining some details behind that inaccuracy.

3 Jan 2012

Baxter-Sagart reconstructions and Occam's Razor

The internet abounds with information if we make the effort to search. One interesting find is a pdf of the Baxter-Sagart reconstruction of Old Chinese roots in tabular format. Excellent! But being an analytical bad news bear, I also see some important issues that tie in with my stance on developing orthographies that properly conform to Occam's Razor. This is out of respect for logic, for necessary simplicity, for clarity and for general readers, some of whom may not be well-versed in linguistics but which nonetheless are interested in the beauty of a language and its history.

Contempt for Occam's Razor inhabits even mainstream linguistics and the field is far too often misconceived as an intuitive art than a logical science. I put my money on organized phonologies and uncluttered orthographies that express only what's necessary for the topic at hand. It's not necessary to show exact phonetics of a word each and every time when the discussion is not about the exact phonetics of a language. If we have a list of roots, it doesn't make sense to list it all out in excruciating phonetic detail any more than it makes sense to write English this way. As such, mixing IPA symbols into your orthography often spells more trouble than what it's worth. "IPA" doesn't stand for International Orthographic Alphabet. At some point a decent linguist must come up with a sensible, legible, optimal, uncluttered orthography to express their language of study beyond the microscale phonetic level. A means, in other words, to quickly and clearly cite words in a vocabulary, pruned for immediate and sufficient comprehension by an everyday reader. Abusing symbols to complicate the message is as corrupt a practice as abusing unnecessary specialist terms for little other reason than for show.

On the top of the list, the Baxter-Sagart team begins with roots like *ʔˤra. This shows us that they envision a phonemic pharyngealized glottal stop. Fine. However unless */ʔˤ/ is phonemically distinct from other phonemes in the language, say */ʕ/, why be so precise on the orthographic level? Why not use a single clear symbol for this instead of mixing up orthography with the phonetic level far below it? If the orthography, in its necessary simplicity, doesn't make the phonetics you intend very clear, one may simply write a quick primer on it and be done with it. If only this, then I can concede that perhaps there's some reason for it that I've overlooked.

Further down the list, we also have *qˤrep which is quite the tongue-twister. One may dismiss this as within the bounds of plausibility although I do admit that this apparent pharyngealized uvular stop is unusual for its Schrödingeresque ability to inhabit two places of articulation at once. Then again, there are many consonant rich languages like Klallam around, right? We also have to keep in mind though that these kinds of languages are also quite rare and there's nothing scientific and methodical about a theory that strives towards the exotic rather than the minimal. Strong proof should come before the addition of a new phoneme to a reconstruction.

But when we come across *qʷʰˤat-, what is Baxter and Sagart trying to express to us and how does it fit into a plausible phonological system? A labialized, aspirated, pharyngealized, uvular stop??? How on earth could this possibly be contrastive with another phoneme? Surely at this point we have to concede that Baxter and Sagart have not respected the differences and proper uses of phonetic versus orthographic transcription. It gives the impression of a poorly organized phonology and orthography, mixing exact and even unlikely phonetic symbols together to create a visual mess that ends up being more confusing to the reader than helpful. At this point, it's just not reflective of the facts, even when (and especially when) armed with knowledge of the IPA system!

Keep in mind that there are already expressed concerns by others about the use of "j" in Middle Chinese onsets in words like gji  (祇 ) considering that the "phoneme" doesn't seem to exist when compared to some loanwords coming from outside Chinese (eg. MC *bjut [Baxter] < Sanskrit buddha 'enlightened one; Buddha'). There is indeed informational value behind "j" here but it's very unlikely a true semivowel or a palatalization of the preceding consonant. At some point then, we have to get back to reality, paying careful heed to creating a balanced, minimal orthography because overcomplexity quite simply hampers progress in all things.