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Euphratic – A phonological sketch

There is an interesting monograph by Fournet & Bomhard on the Indo-European Elements in Hurrian (pdf). I will leave the linguistic details to the experts, as I doubt that many people are competent in both Proto-Indo-European and Hurrian to assess the authors’ thesis. However, this is the bit that captured my attention:

Hurrian cannot be considered an Indo-European language — this is so obvious that it barely needs to be stated. Traditional Indo-European languages, such as Sanskrit, Greek, Latin, Gothic, Old Irish, Old Church Slavic, Tocharian, etc., are clearly related to each other through many common features and shared innovations that are lacking in Hurrian. However, that is not the end of the argument. In the preceding chapters, we presented evidence that Hurrian and Proto-Indo-European “[bear] a stronger affinity, both in the roots of verbs and in the forms of grammar, than could have been produced by accident; so strong that no philologer could examine [them] without believing them to have sprung from some common source.” In this chapter, we will discuss our views on what that common source may have been like. In so doing, we will have to delve deeply into prehistory, well beyond the horizon of what is traditionally reconstructed for Proto-Indo-European in the traditional handbooks. …

Our discussion now comes to an end. In the course of this book, we have attempted to show, through a careful analysis of the relevant phonological, morphological, and lexical data, that Urarto-Hurrian and Indo-European are, in fact, genetically related at a very deep level, as we indicated at the beginning of this chapter by quoting from the famous Third Anniversary Discourse (1786) of Sir William Jones. We propose that both are descended from a common ancestor, which may be called “Proto-Asianic”, to revive an old, but not forgotten, term.

On the basis of genetic data I have recently proposed an origin of the Indo-Aryans in the Transcaucasus, based on their possession of a genetic component related to that of modern Northeast Caucasian speakers and the putative relationship of the latter with the Hurro-Urartian group. If the Hurrian-Indo-European “Proto-Asianic” hypothesis is true, then it would strengthen that hypothesis as it would place the Proto-Indo-Europeans in the vicinity of the Hurrians.

In the following paper the primary correspondences between Indo-Euro-pean terms and their Sumerian counterparts, for which a loan status has been argued (Whittaker 1998, 2001, 2004, 2004/05, 2005, 2008, 2009), aretabulated for convenience of comparison. It has been postulated that alexical exchange took place in Southern Mesopotamia in the mid-4th mil-lennium BC, persisting down into the early 3rd millennium. Tis contactinvolved an Indo-European group which I have dubbed the Euphrateans, a pre-equestrian society whose pastoral and agricultural economy, alongwith the bulk of their material culture, makes them largely indistinguishable from other Near Eastern groups of this time.

Over the course of the Late Uruk and Early Dynastic periods (late 4thand early 3rd mill. BC), the Euphrateans would have come into contactwith speakers of different languages in the Mesopotamian crossroads, of which the best-documented ones are Sumerian, an isolate, and Akkadian, aSemitic tongue. Although Sumerian and Akkadian have bestowed uponeach other a vast number of elite and mundane loans, there are a signifi-cant number of terms in both languages that have been regarded by severalgenerations of Assyriologists as having come from an unidentified sourceor sources.

A good number of these terms are of an advanced technicalnature or of local reference, suggesting contact within Mesopotamia or itsimmediate environs, and it is these words that are the subject of this paper. As I will attempt to demonstrate, many of the words in question resembleattested and reconstructed vocabulary in Proto-Indo-European and itsearly descendants. Most importantly, the terms are for the most part poly-syllabic (unlike the great majority of Sumerian lexemes) but unsegment-able, whereas the Indo-European terms can frequently be broken downinto two or more morphemes each, which argues for the latter as thesource of the former. In some cases, the Indo-European term (for example,the ancestor of English axe) is itself likely to have been a loan from anunidentified language at some point prior to the separation of Euphratic from the Indo-European continuum.

Of relevance to the question as to when the contact took place is,among other things, a body of structural evidence from the Mesopotamianwriting system. A considerable number of phonetic values in early cunei-form have no known source or motivation, which again suggests inheritance from an independent language, one associated with the early development of the script, and probably with the initial stage known as proto-cuneiform. Since writing at this early date was confined to Egypt, Mesopotamia and Elam to the east, each of which had quite distinct systems of writing, the probable source of these values must be sought within Meso-potamia itself, in a proto-cuneiform script developed for administrativepurposes by the Euphratean elite. This scenario is reminiscent of the one documented for the Japanese script, which is based on a Chinese modeland preserves logographic and syllabic values derived over a long period from several stages of Chinese influence.

Furthermore, even those Assyriologists who deny the possibility of anearly non-Sumerian, non-Semitic element in the population of 4th-millennium Mesopotamia (despite the fact that, in recorded history, Mesopotamia has always been a crossroads for a wide variety of ethnic groups and languages) frequently concede that many of the early placenames and names of deities in Southern and Central Mesopotamia lack arecognizable morphological and lexical affnity to Sumerian or Semitic. Anumber of these names have been discussed in the papers cited above,where details of the proposed scenario can be found.

The brief phonological sketch laid out here is, of course, highly tenta-tive. It is meant to be viewed as a preliminary attempt to retrieve from aseries of alleged loanwords certain patterns of correspondence that may cast light as much on Sumerian as on the Indo-European donor language itself. It goes without saying that much work remains to be done before thephonology of Euphratic can be considered understood in its essence. Fu-ture work on the proto-cuneiform corpus, both on the contexts in whichsigns occur and on phonetic (rebus) usage within these archaic texts, com-plemented by rigorous studies of sign-value accretion in the writing sys-tem that evolved out of the Uruk-period script, has the potential to refineour understanding of the languages of early Mesopotamia and help us re-think the manner in which Indo-European evolved.

Although many aspects of Euphratic phonology remain uncertain, andmany others as yet unexplored, a number of regular patterns of correspon-dence between Indo-European and Mesopotamian languages can nonethe-less be discerned that are suggestive of early and prolonged historical con-tact, a contact that had run its course centuries before the first documentsin Hittite and Greek were set down.

It has not always been possible to determine accurately the nature of a given correspondence, for examplewhether a specific lexical relationship involves sound changes that havetaken place in the donor language rather than the receiver, or whether par-ticular loans are earlier or later than others. Nor is it possible to determine,at least with the kind of precision that one wishes, the exact qualities of many Euphratic and Sumerian phonemes reflected in the lexical transfer.

Nevertheless, a start has been made, and there is good reason to believethat this picture will continue to undergo refinement as fresh data from Mesopotamia and fresh insights from Assyriological and Indo-Europeanistresearch emerge.

Euphratic – A phonological sketch by Gordon Whittaker

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