Sunday, November 06, 2011

Another Post of Surpassing Particularity: The Uniqueness of Etruscan

Another field note leftover from a tramp through Etruria.  The Etruscans brought the alphabet to the Romans. They emphatically did not bring their language to the Romans. The Etruscan language counts, by conventional measures, as different from and unrelated to Latin. Indeed scholars of Etruscan apparently count it as one of those languages—Basque is another—that bears no relationship to any other known language. 

Apparently this insight give rise to one of those academic parlor games among amateurs of Etruscan: prove that Etruscsan is really related to (Albanian, Finnish, Klingon, whatever). Serious student dismiss these attempts with the same tired conviction that Shakespeareans use in dismissing claims that Shakespeare was not Shakespeare but another poet of the same name

I'm certainly not competent to challenge the conventional wisdom on this one. I'd concede that a skim of an Etruscan vocabulary list yields up none but the most trifling similarity to any language of which I know anything, and in particular, none to Latin (except very a very few words which seem pretty clearly to have been lifted from Etruscan and put into Latin by the Romans). 

But I will utter a perplexity. That is: in The Etruscan Language: An Introduction (2d ed. 2002) (evidently the definitive study) authors Giuliano and Larissa Bonfante offer a comprehensive account of what we know about Etruscan grammar. And here's the thing: it looks an awful lot like Latin. For example, here's (83) methlum, “nation,”, “district.” B and B give us nominative, genitive, “definitive accusative,” dative and locative—i.e., forms for a paradigm, just as you would learn in Greek or Latin. And, for what it is worth, not remotely what you would find in any of a thousand other languages not related to Greek and Latin. And it's not just names of cases—function also. There's a catalog of “genitive uses” that looks a lot like Latin to me. There are “time” denotations for genitive and accusataive that look like Latin. You can find comparable resonance in their presentation of adjectives and verbs. Also sentence structure --”word order is similar to that of Latin,” they declare with examples but without further comment. B and B seem to recognize the problem back-handedly. “Luciano Agostiniani,” they say “was probably correct when he recently described Etruscan as an agglutinative language that was evolving into an inflectional language.”* (84) That's certainly responsive on point although it is heroically economical. One would think grammatical structure is one of the most conservative features of a language. Do languages really shift from, say, agglutinative to inflectional with such seeming ease? 

To repeat—I'm certainly not in a position to challenge the conventional wisdom here (i.e.,as to the uniqueness of Etruscan). But with echoes like this, you'd think the proponents might be a bit more cagey. 

– *The bibliography offers a dozen cites to the work of “L. Agostiniani.” I haven't any idea to which in particular they might be referring.


Anonymous said...

They go from inflectional to agglutenative pretty damn fast.

And English is exhibit A.

marcel said...

I thought that word order did not count for much in Latin except with regard to style (i.e., it little affects the meaning of the sentence).

Also, welcome back.