Refinements and Future Directions in Venetic Scholarship
Charles Bryant-Abraham, PhD, FSO
The following is an English translation of a talk given at the World Slovenian Congress at Ptuj Castle, near Maribor, Slovenia, on the 20/21 September 2001, published in JAMS XVIII, 2001 (The American Journal of Ancient and Medieval Studies)
It is an honor and privilege to be invited to share with you a few modest thoughts on the present and future of Venetology, an emerging field promising to cast a new light on mankind's understanding of European prehistory.
First, a few introductory words about my own background are in order. I am a sixth-generation Texan and there are relatively few of us on earth. My family first came. to the Virginia Colony in North America in 1653. You will find few individuals who are as authentically American as I am. I was awarded a Ph.D. in Linguistics by the Université de Montreal for my work in Medieval Castilian philology. All of which is to say that I, at least for one, have no hidden agenda or political axe to grind about the importance of Slovenian dialectology in deciphering the Venetic inscriptions. I truly am simply an innocent academic bystander whose only interest is to learn a little more about early European pre-history. If I'm a chauvinist at all, I must be faulted as one of those proverbial insufferably-braggadocious types from the Lone Star State of Texas, a “John Wayne” cowboy, if you please.
But indeed I do suspect that history is about to be written, or rather rewritten. We stand on the threshold of a new world of insight into the prehistory of Europe and of the Mediterranean.
Prior to entering into my exposition before this august assembly, I must issue a preliminary disclaimer, for the timeless epistemological remains ever in front of us. How can the "truth" of a given moment in history every really be known? Historian A may assert the reality of a fact and historians B, C, and D may successively quote the assertion of historian A in recounting their own stories of how things must have happened. But in every case where historians are not elaborating primary and direct evidence created at the time an event occurred, subsequent students of history will be coping with varying levels of credibility. The presupposition underlying any historical assertion doggedly remains, "It is believed that..." All that the most successful of historians ever achieve after that is a rearrangement of extant records lending strength to the probability of an assertion. In linguistic history, just as in social, military, literary, musical, or artistic history, there is simply no such thing as absolute proof of anything. Every "fact" we posit can only be based upon the preponderance of evidence found to date. At every step we must ask: "What does the preponderance of evidence now lead us to conclude?"
In the case before us, I must ask: what is all of this hue and cry about lack of scientific method in reexamining inscriptions which no one heretofore has been able to decode or make any significant sense of whatsoever? Do we now possess a preponderance of evidence permitting us to begin drawing some justifiable conclusions about these inscriptions, despite faulty methodology, or rather despite the lack of appropriate technical jargon to express the results obtained? Forgive me, but the analogy is obvious. It looks all the world like the proverbial, insecure, pedantic teacher who marks a correct math answer “wrong” just because the student derived the correct answer without recourse to the precious method the teacher had so painstakingly taught. Clearly the integrity of a method or system is at best secondary to the accurate solution of a given problem.
Likewise, a satisfactory solution to any problem must preempt every system of instruction designed to lead to that solution. But in recent Venetic research a number of instances have come to remind us of the adage: "There is no sound as painful as a scientist groaning under a collapsed theory." The question, however, will just not go away: What inescapable conclusions must be drawn from the preponderance of evidence to date? Thanks to a precious few, undaunted Slovenian scholars, for the first time inscriptions heretofore indecipherable are at last being meaningfully read.
MateJ Bor, may he rest in peace, was a courageous pioneer who ventured forth into uncharted waters. All future Venetic scholarship will forever remain indebted to him. Like the work of every pioneer, the field of inquiry he so thoughtfully advanced will necessarily see many refinements in the years to come. But it must always be remembered: he was an intellectual father of Venetic studies.
Now, to the eyes of this sixth-generation Texas, it does seem that Matej Bor did manage to come to enough conclusions to make just about everyone on God's green earth angry at him. To be so decisively iconoclastic about one sacred assumption is daring enough, but the weighty implications of Bor's deductions were so broad and deep that much of the subsequent opposition would not have been difficult to predict.
Still, to streamline out and systematize three simultaneous rivers, which he let flow, might now prove useful to future directions of Venetic scholarship.
I. Undoubtedly the most intensely incendiary of Bor's findings is that Slovenian had heretofore been inaccurately classified as a South Slavic language, where in fact it is to be ranked among the West Slavic languages. This question continues to deserve all the attention it can bear, but for quite different reasons than those germane to the Venetic inscriptions. To sift out the objections of those decrying Venetic research as chauvinistically motivated, this entire issue should be reassigned to a specialized subcommittee for future development and redirected out of Venetic research altogether.
II. The evidence of past Venetic presence in any given area, which can be marshaled from inherited place names, will necessarily always be speculative and cannot be allowed to detract attention from more decisive evidence. Nevertheless, Venetic topology must be pursued, especially in areas where inscriptions do independently attest to earlier Venetic settlement. Anton Ambrožič, in his book, Journey Back to the Garumna, has shown the validity and usefulness of Venetic topology in the territories of pre-Roman Gaul. Likewise, the identity of the pre-Greek Pelasgians, who had widely spread over the coasts and islands of the eastern Mediterranean and Aegean, may well be established through future Venetic topology, even in the dearth of reliable inscriptional evidence, as we shall come to see.
III. The overwhelming importance of the Venetic runic inscriptions themselves must lead to the development of a separate and distinct scientific discipline, commanding the keenest focus of all Slavicists, for it does constitute the cultural patrimony of all Slavs. Indeed the high value of the ultra-conservative Slovenian dialects in the decipherment of these inscriptions has the potential of so enhancing the appreciation of Slovenian linguistics that those alpine dialects may yet come to be collectively hailed as the "mother of Slavic languages." My sincere advice is that research into these inscriptions should proceed "full steam ahead" to produce credibly deciphered texts which can then later be analyzed by linguistic specialists who will write their descriptions in the conventional jargon of the trade.
We absolutely must tease out these three subject areas if we are to develop each in its own right and attract future scholars into this new field of investigation.
Having duly considered these imperative refinements to the current practice of Venetology, let us now turn our attention to new avenues of approach begging to be opened.
As a point of transition, I shall attempt to illustrate an important principle. One of the earliest expressions of this principle is found in the second-century Jewish text, Pirké&Avot 4: 1: "Ben Zoma used to say, who is wise? He who learns from all men, as is said in the Psalms, ‘From all my teachers I have gained wisdom.’ "
To make clear my implication, consider one critique of Matej Bor's work, "Vandals, Veneti, Windischer: The Pitfalls of Amateur Historical Linguistics," by Prof. Tom Priestly, read at the conference of the American Association for the Advancement of Slavic Studies in Denver, Colorado, on November 2000. My point is that none should take the criticism in a personal way, but rather apply oneself to the task of learning from it. Indeed, every criticism of Venetic scholarship must be taken seriously and used to refine the details of the theory. Still, Prof. Priestly might have benefited from a broader peripheral vision, had he just put a little more creative thinking into his critique. Be that as it may, for clear and good reasons, he quite correctly faults the work of Johann Topolovšek, Die Baskoslavische Spracheinheit. I Band Einleitung. Vergleichende Lautlehre (1894), and the work of Franc Jeza, Skandinavski izvor Slovencev. Etnografska jezikoslovna in zgodovinska študija (1967). Both of these studies failed to prove their case: clearly Slovenian and Basque do not share common descent, nor do Slovenian and Old Norse. In citing these two studies, which have nothing in common with Bor's research, Prof Priestly has brought to the attention of Venetic scholarship an important new direction, specifically, early lexical borrowing from Venetic by contiguously-spoken languages. Obviously, neither Basque and Slavic nor Scandinavian and Slavic are derivable one- from the other. Yet what is to be made of the extraordinary lexical correspondences that Topolovšek and Jeza have succeeded in amassing and, at least in the case of Basque which have recently been replicated by the Czech researcher, Ota Janek? This indeed opens a new avenue for future research, that of lexical borrowing in prehistoric times by languages in contact with Venetic. And it is to be expected that predictable phonologic laws will emerge within each receptor language, revealing the phonetic processes as it adapted Venetic loan words to its own speech habits over a long period of symbiosis. Instructive also are Jeza's correlated pairs of Slovenian and Old Norse shared lexical items, of which Prof. Priestly states: "Semantically, Jeza's word-pairs are even more plausible than Topolovšek's: in almost every instance, the Scand. and the Sin. word have an identical meaning; this is true of all the examples ... except for kupa 'hollow log' vs. čupa 'boat', which would indeed involve an acceptable semantic shift ... some pairs are so far apart phonetically that one wonders at Jeza's audacity in citing them... He seldom comments on this, but on page after carefree page lists hundreds of word-pairs with phonetic inconsistencies which are never related to any systematic framework and which seldom receive comment. Here, what Prof. Priestly failed to consider is that the Scandinavian/Venetic symbiosis continued over a vast stretch of time and the phonetic habits of both languages, particularly Old Norse, continued to change without surcease, so that phonetic inconsistencies would not only be predictable, but would render somewhat difficult the work of consistent phonetic correlation.
Yet what is so very intriguing in Jeza's Scandanavian/Venetic word-pairs is the indirect. though still inconclusive, testimony of the two languages in contact, a testimony strengthening the Venetic hypothesis of the origin of Norse runes. To be brief, let me cite from the following:
"It has been established that a number of runes which are contemporaneous with the oldest of those found in the Danish bogland have been discovered along a line of country passing through Pomerania, Brandenburg, Volhynia and Rumania. Moreover, these discoveries include archaic objects the primary forms of which do not hail from western Europe but are found in southeastern Europe, on the northern coast of the Black sea and along the lower Danube and in Carinthia. From this fact, and also from the close agreement of the forms of the letters in these texts, especially the Negau helmets, with those of the subalpine alphabets of northern Italy, and the agreement in date (c. 250 B.C.), the conclusion was drawn simultaneously by a number of scholars that the runes came to Scandinavia from central Europe and that the script itself was of subalpine origin.”
In other words, it does now seem probable that the early Scandinavians not only borrowed vocabulary from the Veneti, but the art of runic writing itself.
Thus, the results of Topolovs'ek's and Jeza's studies must be reviewed from the alternative point of view of lexical loans. Moreover, similar studies are needed for the Greek, Celtic, Italic and Baltic language families. Also the Armorican Venetic lexical level of Breton should be further explored and documented, as Ota Janek has begun to do.
Prof. Priestly's critique is equally useful to us in two further instances where he should and could have used broader peripheral vision:
I. Prof Priestly is correct in writing: "...since there was a single protophoneme /h/ ... the three consonantal correspondences ... /h : k/, /h : g/ and /h : h/ must be in complementarity. In other words, in reconstructing the sound-changes involved in the development from Ven. (Psl.) to Sln., it is necessary to show that * /h/ changed to /k/ under some circumstances, to /g/ under some different circumstances, and remained unchanged as /h/ in a third set of circumstances..." Incidentally, it is likely that Venetic distinguished here a voiceless /h/ < /k/, /h/ and voiced /h/ < /g/, analogous to the voiced /h/ of Czech and Afrikaans. But isn't Priestly's speculation here really putting the cart before the horse? Once phonemes coalesce ( /k/, /g/, /h/ > /h/), they are not known to separate out again into the original phonemic inventory. Therefore, what we are confronting - and this is an important lead that Prof. Priestly provides - is the imminent emergence of Venetic dialectology. Indeed, Slovenian must henceforth take its place as the only surviving dialect of Venetic, and a most conservative one at that, for only sporadically did its regional variations undergo coalescence of the three phonemes at issue into /h/.
II. Prof, Priestly further expands the emergent dialectology of Venetic in two other cases: 1.) "It is unclear what the Ven. word for 'fire' was. Cf. on the one hand: 'v han' - into the fire ... and on the other 'v ougon' - into the fire’ ” ; and 2.) "...'betatism' ... Bor ... has two graphemes labelled 'B,V' on his alphabet table... and whenever one occurs, he is more or less at liberty to interpret it as he pleases... this approach shows an annoying lack of consistency…” I must point out that these differences are highly indicative of dialectal variation over the vast Venetic territory and that given these differences,, it will be incumbent upon future Venetologists to elaborate the dialectal contours and broad isoglosses of Venetic as attested in the inscriptions.
Parallel to the on-going analysis of the Venetic 'inscriptions, a thorough search must be undertaken throughout the Balkan Peninsula for all extant lapidary evidence of its former presence there. Foremost - and I have called attention to this elsewhere - an investigation must be made of all inscriptions associated with the age of Philip of Macedon preceding the Hellenization of his son, Alexander, under the tutelage of Aristotle. The close collaboration of Macedonian and Greek scholars must be solicited and sustained for this effort. We are encouraged in this direction by the findings of Anton Ambrožič who has successfully demonstrated Venetic presence in the Hellenistic city, Dura-Europos, founded by Alexander in the Syrian desert and destroyed by the Sassanids in AD 256, some 400 years before the supposed first penetration of Slavs into the Balkan Peninsula. 8 These Venetic inscriptions from Dura-Europos lend weighty if still circumstantial evidence to my original conjecture that Alexander and his Macedonian people may very well have been Veneti. If this does prove to be the case, then the Macedonian people today will have every justifiable reason to reclaim their own linguistic patrimony.