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Second paragraph of third chapter:

Modern scholars recognise a dialectal distinction which fundamentally parallels the ancient tripartite division. Prior to Michael Ventris' decipherment of the Linear B tablets of the Mycenaean Greeks (see §2.1) in 1952 (see Ventris and Caswick 1973:3-27), the ancient Greek dialects (i.e., of the first millennium BC) were broadly separated into (i) Attic-Ionic; (ii) Arcado-Cypriot; (iiii) Aeolic; (iv) Doric; and (v) Northwest Greek. Each of these, in turn, shows some lesser or greater degree of internal differentiation.

I bought this on impulse a few years ago; it turns out to be the European chapters extracted from the Cambridge Encyclopedia of the World's Ancient Languages, with a foreword explaining that the languages treated here are those with written records from before the fall of the Western Roman Empire (Cambridge University Press have generously put the whole thing online). That gives a shorter list than I would have thought, the chapters of the book covering Attic Greek, other Greek dialects, Latin, other Italic languages, Etruscan, continental Celtic, Gothic and ancient Nordic. I had not realised that written Irish was later than that. Obviously the chapters on Attic Greek and Latin have the most to say, but they are reasonably disciplined and establish a framework for the other languages that the reader may be less familiar with.

My discovery here is the weirdness of Etruscan, the only language on the list which is not from the Indo-European family. I'm intrigued by the numbers from one to ten - θu; zal; ci; huθ (or śa); maχ; śa (or huθ); semφ; cezp (probably); nurφ; śar - we don't even know whether huθ or śa is four or six. It's fascinating that the Etruscan word "zatlaθ", meaning axe carrier, became Latin "satelles" meaning bodyguard and is the origin of our word "satellite". I'm interested that like some Finno-Ugric languages, nouns take a lot of suffixes but have no gender. (Wikipedia says that the nouns did have gender, but Helmut Rix in this book says not.) And this language, long extinct, is a substratum for Latin which in turn has influenced every European language spoken today.

It is impressive that we have been able to reconstruct as much as we have, and I would have liked to read more about the process by which the ancient scripts were decoded. Most of them are at least vaguely related to the Latin and Greek alphabets which survive today, but only vaguely; if I were trying to decode them, I wouldn't know where to start. Some mysteries remain; the Gaulish letter known as the Tau Gallicum could have been pronounced st, ts, θ, or perhaps an emphatic t' like the Georgian ტ. Or possibly different Gauls pronounced it in different ways at different times.

And all of these languages are a melancholy reminder that life is short, and we have no idea what will survive. Many of the few surviving inscriptions in the lost language of Venetic are dedications to the goddess Reitia. Among other things, she is supposed to have been a goddess of writing, which is just as well as the other Venetic gods have been forgotten, as has any speaker of the language who did not leave their name in writing. And these languages, spoken by hundred of thousands who we could not now understand, are the exceptions rather than the rules. Humans have used language for hundreds of thousands of years, and the earliest European writing is the Linear B referred to in the extract above, from 3500 years ago, and the earliest Egyptian hieroglyphs are a thousand years older. So more than 95% of the thoughts ever thought, the stories ever told, the songs ever sung, are forgotten and cannot be retrieved.


( 1 comment — Leave a comment )
Sep. 14th, 2015 04:59 am (UTC)
“So more than 95% of the thoughts ever thought, the stories ever told, the songs ever sung, are forgotten and cannot be retrieved.”

Only if you ignore population growth and assume a more or less constant rate of thoughts gethunk, stories told, and songs sung per year. It's still lamentable, but not in just that way.
( 1 comment — Leave a comment )

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