A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Time Out for Something Completely Different: Punic and Berber Influences on Etruscan?

Deep in your heart, do you sometimes get tired of the latest bloodshed, the latest rhetoric, or the latest political analysis of the current scene? Not to mention the latest peace plan or human rights atrocity? Do you wish, momentarily, for something older, more cerebral, but still relevant to the Middle East? Do you ever ask yourself, "were there any Punic or Berber loan words in Etruscan"?

No? Really? Never? Not even when contemplating the geopolitics leading to the First Punic War? Well, me neither, at least until now.

But, rest assured, someone cares. Here's a piece called "Ancient African Adstrate in Etruscan." I might quibble with "Ancient African," since Punic is Phoenician to all intents and purposes, and thus Middle Eastern, and yes, I had to look up "adstrate" too. Apparently linguists use it in contradistinction to superstrate and substrate, and it means loans between languages which were of equal influence or prestige. Berber is indeed an indigenous African language, or rather family of languages, on the other hand, so "Ancient African" can stand.

Now, the first thing to keep in mind about Etruscan is that nobody can read Etruscan. Well, that's not strictly true; we can read it, since the alphabet mixes Greek and Latin; we just haven't got a clue what the words mean. When I look at Finnish, I recognize all the letters, but other than "Nokia" and certain vodka labels I can't recognize any of the words. But Finns can read it, and there are dictionaries. Etruscans aren't around to help out. All of us are like that in Etruscan, since the alphabet is readable but the root language is unknown. the numbers have been deciphered and Roman sources give us a few more words, but no one can read Etruscan texts unless there's a Latin bilingual, and that's mostly limited to tombstones.

But before the rise of Rome, Etruria and Carthage were the dominant powers of the Western Mediterranean, so some borrowing would make sense. And the Berber (which is more what is cited in the article than Punic) could have come via Carthage. Though the article doesn't caption the two paintings there, they are reconstructions, I'm pretty sure, of the Naval Harbor at Carthage. Despite the good job the Romans did on Catoizing Carthage. its outline remains visible even today.

This link deserves a hat tip to Abu 'l-Rayhan al-Biruni on Facebook, who is a prolific linker for a guy who died in 1048 AD.  I don't know who his current incarnation is.

Anyway, sometimes I need to remind myself I'm a historian. And it gets the mind off the carnage in Syria, Yemen and Libya.


John T. said...

What's amazing about this blog is not just the range of subjects covered but the clear expertise of the blogger in discussing them.

Michael Collins Dunn said...

Thanks for the compliment. I must confess I know no Berber and the closest I can come to Punic is sa smattering of Hebrew.

Then again, I speak Etruscan at home.

peter1963 said...

Interesting topic ! I do not know more than classical greek, classical latin and church latin, and old testament hebrew. So this is new to me. But very interesting. I ve seen etruscan inscriptions, and as you said I actually can read them aloud, but I haven t the faintest clue of what I m actually reading.. Very funny..