Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Etruscan immigration to Italy: What's language got to do with it?

This morning's Science Times (graphics are way better in the on-line version) has a long piece by Nicolas Wade on how DNA from once-Etruscan areas in Tuscany supports the ancient claim by Herodotus that the Etruscans were immigrants to Europe. After they run through the obligatory lascivious stuff (wife swapping, the women are fit and exercise a lot, also champion drinkers — sounds like a media image of SoCal/Hollywood), the case built in the article spins together various threads of evidence on the point, certainly a positive aspect when working in such speculative territory.

So of course there's a language angle. Could the Etruscans be from elsewhere?
One hint of such an origin is that the Etruscan language, which survives in thousands of inscriptions, appears not to be Indo-European, the language family that started to sweep across Europe sometime after 8,500 years ago, developing into Latin, English and many other tongues. Another hint is the occurrence of inscriptions in a language apparently related to Etruscan on Lemnos, a Greek island just off the coast of Turkey. But whether Lemnian is the parent language of Etruscan, or the other way around, is not yet clear, said Rex Wallace, an expert on Etruscan linguistics at the University of Massachusetts.
Wait, what? The fact that Etruscan looks non-IE hints that they were immigrants to Europe? And the fact that related-looking inscriptions are on found a Greek island supports that? Sure, these things are not inconsistent with immigration, but judging from these points alone, we could equally well argue that these are the last remnants of pre-IE languages (cf. Basque, Pictish, etc.) I'm by no means pushing that view, please understand, but simply trying to point out that there's no probative evidence here.

From what I know, Rex Wallace is probably the best specialist in the ancient languages of Italy working today, and one of our best historical linguists. So, it's hard to imagine his view was captured precisely in that last sentence of the passage above: It is possible that these inscriptions and languages have a colonial relationship, that is, that one community sent immigrants forth who founded the other one. And if so, that could easily be described as a parental connection. But those are hardly the only options, and I'm not sure they are even the most likely here: These languages could easily be sisters, two communities founded by immigrants from a single source area. (That would fit fine with Herodotus's brief mention of their origins, I think.) Or more distantly connected cousins of some linguistic diaspora in the ancient world. It's like finding English spoken in Los Angeles and in Singapore and trying to figure out which one descended from the other.

Will the coverage of linguistic issues ever improve?

Image from Ancient Scripts, a site worth a visit.


Anonymous said...

Hey, wasn't somebody going to follow up on that "English as the fourth branch of Germanic" stuff?

Glen Gordon said...

You have to understand that eastern Etruscan origins are suggested by a package of other things like:

1. Herodotus' claims that Etruscans were from Lydia
2. The eastern origins of the alphabet which appear to be a derivative of the alphabet used by Euobaean Greeks.
3. Religious rituals such as haruspicy (ie. finding omens in sheep livers) which point strictly to Anatolia who obtained their traditions from Babylonians to the east where livers made of clay for the purposes of divination can be found just like those in Etruria.
4. Their close ties with Phoenicians in sea trade, the Phoenicians being a Semitic people also from the east.

There are many, many connections to be made showing eastern origins. So without understanding the full context of the topic, it's not right to just dismiss everything.

On the other hand, I think that your skepticism of Hollywoodizing history is valid. Whenever Etruscans show up in the New York Times, CNN, FoxNews, ABC, or whatever other big advertising media, you can be sure that there will be a quite a few inaccuracies by those with no expertise in the subject just to sell their wares. To that I say "Cut out the middleman".

Mr. Verb said...

I wasn't so much challenging the eastern origins of the Etruscans in particular, and certainly not the connection to eastern peoples.

First, the article doesn't really try to present compelling evidence for immigrant origins (thus the jab about how they don't exclude a pre-IE origin. (As I said then, I'm hardly pushing that view, just pointing out that they don't make the clear case against it.) A connection between a language/culture found at point A and another at point B has plenty of explanations besides that people from A moved to B.

More seriously, the evidence just seems too thin to draw the particular, highly specific conclusions that the article draws. The point I picked on was the relationship between Lemnian and Etruscan. Let's assume that the Etruscans and Lemnians came from the east. The article suggests that this implies that one community is the 'parent' of the other, that folks moved west to Lemnos and from there to Italy or from the east to Italy to Lemnos. Surely it's just as possible that they shared a parent culture (say, in Anatolia) but moved to Italy and Lemnos independently.

So, I *was* raising a question about whether Herodotus got it entirely right. But if I recall, the article itself starts from that position and it seems prudent to be somewhat cautious in accepting assertions like this from ancient sources, even the best ones.