12 February 2009

Etruscans and Hungarians

Etruscan is an ancient language of the Italian Peninsula, now extinct. Reading the Etruscan alphabet is not a major problem for the experts, who have deciphered a large corpus of inscriptions. Understanding the language, however, is a different issue. A limited list of words and a series of grammatical and phonological features have been identified, but, on the whole, Etruscan remains a bit of a mystery. And also a language isolate, because no clear connections have been found between Etruscan and any other known language. In 2003, the Italian linguist Mario Alinei published a book with a new theory about the origin of Etruscan, linking it to Old Hungarian (Alinei, Mario. Etrusco: una forma arcaica di ungherese. Bologna, Il Mulino, 2003; also translated into Hungarian: Alinei, Mario. Osi kapocs: A magyar-etruszk nyelvrokonság. Kiadó, Budapest, 2005).

According to Alinei, the Etruscans were an intrusive elite that expanded from the Carpato-Danubian area to northern Italy at around 1000 BC, spreading over a territory which was already (and still is) Italic-speaking. During the Bronze Age, the Carpathian Basin was the most important metallurgic centre in Europe. This is where the common ancestor of Old Hungarian and Etruscan was spoken, a language belonging to the Uralic group but highly influenced by Turkic elements through a process of acculturation. Needless to say, this theory can only be understood in the context of the Paleolithic Continuity Theory, with its revised chronology for European languages and an innovative, multidisciplinary approach to the study of languages in prehistory. Alinei’s book is 481 pages long and it includes an impressive amount of evidence from various disciplines, especially from archaeology, to support his theory, which is inevitably bound to be controversial, because it challenges both the linguistic establishment and the historical tradition that sees the arrival of the Magyars at their current territory as a result of Arpad’s conquest in 895 AD. Obviously, the only way to understand the full extent of Alinei’s theory is by reading the book itself. Unfortunately, it has not yet been translated into English. On this web-page, you can find a summary of the book written in English, and also some additional material. It is a useful summary, but I must say I don’t like it much, because the main points of the theory are presented without a clear context, and the layout is rather inelegant. However, one of the good things about this summary is that it provides some practical examples adapted from Alinei's book, where relevant, sometimes striking similarities are found between the texts of Etruscan inscriptions and Hungarian (see pp. 14-15 of the summary: grammatical words and morphemes; pp. 16-17: names of political leaders, officers and public institutions; p. 17: kinship terminology; p 18: religion; p. 19: professions; p. 20: place names; pp. 21-28: translation of inscribed texts, for example the Vetulonia kyathos, see images below).

To get a more complete view of Alinei’s Etrusco-Hungarian theory I recommend a series of alternative sources, some of them included in the above mentioned web-page:

- Léonard, Jean-Lèo. Review of M. Alinei, Etrusco: una forma arcaica di ungherese [L'etrusque: une forme archaïque du hongrois], Bologna, Il Mulino, 2003, published in "Etudes finno-ougriennes", 38 (2006), pp. 228-237. The author of this review provides a complete summary of Alinei’s book, including the most relevant information and putting it in the right context. He also discusses some previous reviews of the book, by Gheno and Szilágyi. Let’s see a quote from Léonard’s article: (p. 229): “Le livre récent de Mario Alinei, qui présente une thèse à première vue audacieuse sur la filiation entre l’étrusque et le (paléo)hongrois, n’est pas un délire étruscomaniaque ou magyaromane de plus. On pourra en critiquer de nombreux details, corriger des correspondances étrousco-ougriennes et des interprétations philologiques, mais on pourra difficilement ignorer la solidité de l’édifice construit par l’auteur”.

- Morris, Jonathan. Review of Mario Alinei, Etrusco: Una Forma Arcaica di Ungherese [Etruscan: An Archaic Form of Hungarian], Il Mulino, Bologna, 2003, published in "Mother Tongue", n. 9 (2004). A detailed review of Alinei’s book, written in English by Jonathan Morris. I would like to quote the final remark of this review, which is quite significant: “Alinei’s linguistic conclusions may thus be as important for Uralic studies as Ventris’ decipherment of Linear B was for Greek”.

- Tamas-Tarr, Melinda. Corrispondenza con Mario Alinei e documentazione e riflessioni sull’eco ungherese a proposito del volume “Etrusco: una forma arcaica di ungherese”, published in “Osservatorio Letterario”, n. 47-48, Nov-Dic/Jan-Feb. 2005-2006. In this interesting article, Melinda Tamas-Tarr offers an accurate account of Alinei’s theories and also quotes some Hungarian authors who have expressed their opinions about the book. Alinei’s response to this criticism is also included. One of the commentators (András Bencsik) relates a funny anecdote. Some years ago he attended a speech given by Alinei in Budapest. The Italian linguist greeted the audience with the following words: “I have never spoken in front of so many Etruscans”.
In my opinion, the link between Hungarian and Etruscan, whose validity must still be further tested, is a very interesting hypothesis in the field of historical linguistics.

Last Edit: 8 June 09


Bayndor said...

Yeah, I read about this theory enough before. Shortly said, this is little more than an absurdity. Being Hungarian myself, I percieve it as being nothing more than an un-scientific ultra-nationalist approach to prove some never-existed ancient glory for the nation. It is just as wothless as a proposed Sumerian-Hungarian relationship. Just madness, nothing more.

The cited 'evidence' actually mostly consist of quite modern Hungarian words compared to ancient Etruscan ones, often without explaining the word-formation. These works tend to fully ignore the fact that Hungarian has also underwent heavy changes over the millenia, so currently-existing words cannot be used for comparison (they should have used the earliest attested ones, or reconstructed original stems). Some of the Etruscan words even have wrong meaning (for example, the Etruscan numeral 'huth' is likely 4 and not 6, so it cannot be meaningfully compared to the Hungarian 'hat'= 6). Neither do these works explain, what on earth did the ancestors of Hungarians do in Europe, several thousands of kilometers from their homeland at the Ural mountains. And of course, there are no convincing parallels in grammar at all. As for me, I think that even the early Indo-Eurpoean languages have more convincing parallels to Etruscan words, than the Uralic-derived Hungarian ones.

Jesús Sanchis said...

Thanks for your comments, Bayndor. Maybe you're right. Alinei's Hungarian-Etruscan theory is very risky, and it may have important weaknesses. Nevertheless, I'd like to make a couple of comments:

- Alinei does not use modern words exclusively, he uses ancient material too

- Questions like the meaning of Etruscan words and the original 'homeland' of the Uralic people are debatable, and there are alternative views about the Finno-Ugric group of languages.

- As far as I know, there's no 'nationalistic' agenda in Mario Alinei's works. He's just trying to apply the continuity theory in the context of Hungarian and Etruscan. His hypothesis might be proved to be wrong (why not?), but it's just a linguistic proposal.

Anonymous said...

Hi, Jesus

It seems strange that some can have such strong opinions on such a topic especially when the theory has only been expounded in Hungarian and Italian. Reading the Hungarian version you do get the sense from the reconstructed Finno-Ugric words that it is possible that Ugric people may have been connected with the Etruscans in the distant past.

On the alleged value of 'huth', Dr. Larissa Bonfante says that we know the first six Etruscan numbers: thu, zal, ci, s'a, mach, huth, who justifies this by saying that "Their order was recognised because in antiquity the sum of each of the two opposite sides of the die added up to seven: mach + zal = seven; thu + huth = seven; ci + s'a = seven. Other clues led to the identification of each particular number, so that the order given above is generally accepted today." Further Larissa and Guiliano Bonfante write in "The Etruscan Language: An Introduction. Manchester and New York, 1983; trans. as Lingua e cultura degli Etruschi, rev. trans. Rome 1985
say "that Adriana Emiliozzi's work confirms the use of s'a for 'four' (referring to a quadruple burial), and therefore huth for' six'.

Of course, 'huth' for '4' is probably weakly based on a city name Tetropolis = Huttenia; and the fourth figure of the demon Charon which is labelled Charun huths 'the fourth Charon' in a tomb according to the Bonfantes.

It is sad when arguments fail and one needs to resort to attacking the person, their motivation or their credentials. You can judge this level of angst when you see claimsof 'voodoo science'. Bogus skepticism is just as unscientific as some claims by amateurs on this subject

Jesús Sanchis said...

Hello Anonymous, and thank you for your contribution. I agree with you that Alinei's hypothesis is worth considering. The world of linguistics is quite funny. Some valuable linguists, like Alinei, are widely ignored by the 'establishment', whereas charlatans like Chomsky are considered important, at least in the USA. It is this type of things that encourage me to go on with my blog.

Anonymous said...


The claim that Alinei compares only modern Hungarian to ancient Etruscan is curious since chapter 4 is devoted to "The Archaic form of the Hungarian language/tongue mirrored in Etruscan and Ugric studies" which covers the basics of sounds formation and so on.

You said, "As far as I know, there's no 'nationalistic' agenda in Mario Alinei's works. He's just trying to apply the continuity theory in the context of Hungarian and Etruscan. His hypothesis might be proved to be wrong (why not?), but it's just a linguistic proposal. "

That's right. Alinei has a right to propose his theory which is based on linguistics, history and archeology.

But Hungarian academics have not been kind considering that critical examination and questioning, not dogma, are supposed to form part of the basis of the much touted Scientific Method.

I read Alinei's reply to one Hungarian academic's criticism here http://www.continuitas.com/szilagyi.pdf

It gives you a measure of the quality of the debate. Not very scientific nor very enlightening.

Tim said...


I tried accessing your links at www.continuitas.com but all the material on this theory has disappeared. At least I am unable to find any of it. Can you have a look and try to find out what has happened?

Tim said...

Please ignore my previous post.

Forgive my stupidity. I was trying to access www.continuitas.org and instead typed .com

Sorry for taking up your time

filolohika.blogspot.com said...

Right this morning I read another study that linked Etruscan to IndoEuropean.

Of course mi/mini was mentioned, and I of course thought more of Finnish minä, but I wonder if Etruscan might be the "missing link" between Fenno-Ugrian and Indo-Europena languages.

Etruscan-hungarian said...

Italians are trojan (etruscan) latin combo. Trojans were relatives of royal hungarian subartuans the sabirs. Its the key, not the Ural orkurgan culture. Trojans made by Sicambria in Hungary and Ister-gan (Esztergom) city with lion-life tree symbol. We are a mix of sabirs-huns and ogurs (yuezhi-tochrian).

tigereye670 said...

Thomas Kuhn maintained that, contrary to popular conception, typical scientists are not objective and independent thinkers. Rather, they are conservative individuals who accept what they have been taught and apply their knowledge to solving the problems that their theories dictate. Most are, in essence, puzzle-solvers who aim to discover what they already know in advance - "The man who is striving to solve a problem defined by existing knowledge and technique is not just looking around. He knows what he wants to achieve, and he designs his instruments and directs his thoughts accordingly." During periods of normal science, the primary task of scientists is to bring the accepted theory and fact into closer agreement. As a consequence, scientists tend to ignore research findings that might threaten the existing paradigm and trigger the development of a new and competing paradigm.

Alinei admits that there are areas not explained by his theory, but what does outright dismissal without any examination prove? Can one evaluate such a work simply by reading short English summaries or by simplistically concentrating on one or two words without being aware of the archaeological and historical aspects of the rest of the theory?

If Alinei's theory is 'wrong' then its allegedly testable hypotheses should be falsifiable to use Karl Popper's idea. Much more so than the unpronounceable proto-words invented in mainstream linguistic circles which can never be historically verified/falsified with actual spoken proto-languages of extremely remote times. Voodoo science, indeed.

tigereye670 said...

The criticisms of Alinei are largely personally motivated by scientists fearful of their dogma being uprooted by new concepts. Their criticisms take the form of insults instead of factual rebuttals. That proves these mainstream scientists care not about truth but about keeping THEIR mainstream theories mainstream.