Our Readers Mouth Off—Letters to the Editor Babel Vol I, No 2 Contents Language—The Failure of Modern Philosophy—Dr. Georg Strudelfest

Classifying an Andean Language

Introduction: This is not a polished paper: rather, it is a preliminary report which I have rushed into publication because of the extremely shocking and significant information which it contains. I felt that the linguistic world would want to know of my results immediately, despite the fact that I have only just begun my research.

Description of Research: For several years I have been working on describing various Quechuan dialects to be found in the Andean fastnesses of northwest Bolivia. The indigenous population dwells for the most part in small villages of usually less than one hundred people, and sometimes considerably fewer. It was during the course of this investigation that one of my principal informants, who was bilingual in Spanish and Tena, told me about a village where the people spoke with “palabras extrañas, ni españoles ni indias tampoco.” Not sure at first what to make of his statement, I ended up supposing that the language he described was a Quechuan one which, for whatever reason, had come to be radically different from its sister tongues over the course of time. Accordingly, I decided that I would visit this village some day and collect some data on its dialect.

It was not until a few months later that I set off for the village in question, which was about one day’s journey from its nearest neighboring community. On the way, I learned from my guide that the people of this village, which is called Tileni by both its inhabitants and its neighbors, are no different racially and little if at all different culturally from the other Indians of the region. Only their language, and perhaps their elaborate inhumatory customs, differentiate them from their neighbors, with whom they have occasional intercourse. This strengthened my view that the Tileni were simply speakers of a distinctive dialect.

It was not hard to locate native Tileni speakers to serve as informants: perhaps ten or fifteen of the about sixty native Tileni speakers also have learned Tena, although the reverse, Tena speakers learning Tileni, is rare if it occurs at all. Neither I nor the bilingual Tileni are particularly fluent Tena speakers, but we managed to communicate effectively.

Well, I was soon busily collecting data, and after a few hours I had to admit an unexpected truth: Tileni is not a Quechuan language. Below are a number of basic vocabulary words which those who know Quechuan will immediately recognize as foreign:

1.e:s‘god’     9.mellum  ‘tribe’
2.e:zal‘gods’10.fu ‘one’
3.klan‘son’11.zal ‘two’
4.klenal  ‘sons’12.si ‘three’
5.se‘daughter’13.sa ‘four’
6.lubu‘to die’14.ma: ‘five’
7.e:l‘year’15.huf ‘six’

There was no question that Tileni was not Quechuan, but of course the problem now was, what was it? It did not seem to belong to any of the other South American language families with which I was familiar, although my knowledge has enough gaps that I couldn’t exclude the possibility. Yet there seemed to be something awfully familiar about the data as I stared at it on the pages of my notebook. I seemed to have seen the data before, but in a context radically different from the Andean one I was now in, so different, indeed, that I could not make the connection explicit. It was as if some portion of my mind was rejecting the wild hypothesis which my subconscious was raising.

The next day I tried approaching the matter from a different angle. I asked the Tileni if they had any legends, any half-forgotten memories of the origin of their village. Had they come from somewhere else and settled among the Tena, or were they perhaps the remnants of a pre-Quechuan substrate? Unfortunately, the Tileni’s folk history was of little use. According to their legends, they had always lived in this village, and they had always been surrounded by Quechuan speakers, and they had always spoken a different language from their neighbors. No one was sure why; indeed no one had ever really wondered why—that was just how it was.

I don’t know what it was that finally triggered my recollection. All I know is that a few nights later, having made no progress in placing the language, I suddenly woke up in a cold sweat. I had the answer—but the supposition was so fantastic that I wondered about my own sanity. Perhaps the thin mountain air had finally gotten to me. Yet I could not sleep anymore, at least not until I looked back at the data and made sure that this theory was as preposterous as it seemed. Then slowly, as I looked at the data, I came to realize that it was true. Next to the examples cited above, I jotted down from memory the following forms:

1.ais     9.meΘlum

The relationship was self-evident, the sound laws—e.g., ai > e:—so obvious and unremarkable that I need not enumerate them here. All the evidence, then, confirmed one of the most startling hypotheses ever posed in linguistics, for the data I jotted down from memory came not from Quechuan, nor from Tupi, nor Guarani, nor indeed any language spoken anywhere close to Tileni in space, or in timethey came, in short, from Etruscan. Yes, Etruscan, a little understood dead language spoken in Italy over two thousand years ago, and apparently unrelated to any other languages except perhaps a few equally dead tongues of the eastern Mediterranean.

Now you can understand how reluctant I was to accept the hypothesis forced upon me by the evidence. Yet there can be no doubt. Although it was only about a week ago that I had my epiphany, I have managed to collect nearly one hundred examples which are clearly descended from Etruscan, sometimes with a slight semantic shift; e.g., Etr. netsvis ‘haruspex’ > Tileni netsi ‘priest’. There are also a number of clear borrowings from Quechuan, e.g. hambatu ‘toad’, but for the most part, Tileni appears to be remarkably conservative, especially in its preservation of the Etruscan inflectional system virtually intact. No doubt many of the words which I have been unable to trace back to their sources could be referred to Etruscan, if we knew more about it. Certainly the number of Etruscan words which I remember from my graduate school days is particularly small.

It was in part to find a contemporary lexicon of Etruscan that I left Tileni for La Paz four days ago. However, I also considered it imperative to convey the news of the discovery to the linguists of the world as soon as possible. Babel, since it comes out frequently, and is distributed worldwide, seemed to be the best choice for publication; also, its editors are somewhat more open-minded about innovative research than are other, more stodgy editorial boards. By the time this report is published, I will already be back in Tileni, researching for a more comprehensive report which will be published later.

Reflections, Implications, and Applications: I cannot explain how the Etruscan language could have gotten to the mountains of Bolivia. Of course, it may be that we should consider the possibility that the Tileni have lived in Bolivia for four or five thousand years, or more, and that it was the Etruscans who migrated. In any case, the facts are plainly bizarre.

It is obvious that the study of the Tileni will prove very useful for the thorny task of deciphering and translating Etruscan writings. We know enough about the structure of Etruscan that comparison with the conservative Tileni dialect should clear up most if not all of the difficulties we have with the dead tongue.

I need not detail the far-reaching implications of this discovery for such fields as theoretical historical linguistics, Mediterranean history, and Latin philology. I will leave the applications of my research to the specialists in those fields, while I myself continue to work on the synchronic and diachronic analysis of the Tileni language itself.

Rodrigo Diaz La Paz, Bolivia

Editor’s Note: Lest anyone suspect that the above is a hoax, let me say that Professor Diaz is a well-known and well-respected linguist whose integrity is beyond suspicion. We may rest assured that the facts are as he relates them, even if his analysis may be wrong in some details. Moreover, it is absolutely certain that this is a genuine submission from Dr. Diaz, who took the trouble to have his report notarized. There can be little doubt, then, that there are about sixty speakers of what appears to be a language descended from Ancient Etruscan living in the Bolivian highlands, where they have lived for thousands of years. As Professor Diaz states, the implications of this discovery will be wide-ranging; we at Babel are proud merely to have been able to serve as the transmitters of this information.

Our Readers Mouth OffLetters to the Editor
LanguageThe Failure of Modern PhilosophyDr. Georg Strudelfest
Babel Vol I, No 2 Contents