I liked the experience last year, so I decided to participate, again, in the Seminario de lenguas y epigrafías antiguas, which took place in Gandia (Valencia) last week. The lectures covered the topic of pre-Roman languages of Iberia from a variety of perspectives. There were two contributions by archaeologists: Alberto Lorrio (Universidad de Alicante) talked about some aspects of the Celtiberian area; Francisco Blanco García (Universidad Autónoma de Madrid) offered an interesting account of the Vaccei, one of the Celtic-speaking peoples of Central Spain. One of the interesting things about both lectures was that the authors tried to delimit very carefully the boundaries of those ancient territories, one of the most difficult aspects in their task. All too often, for example, the term Celtiberian is used in a generalized sense of 'Celtic-speaking peoples of Iberia', which is erroneous. The Celtiberians inhabited a specific area in east central Spain which can be identified with the help of archaeology and ancient sources. As for the Vaccei, it is also possible to find a series of defining traits that characterize them as a socio-cultural unit.
On the linguistic side of the lectures, we had the opportunity of listening to some of the leading experts in the field, among them Javier Velaza, Eduardo Orduña, Eugenio Luján and Joan Ferrer i Jané, who offered some interesting insights into the world of Iberian epigraphy and languages.
One of the lectures was given by the Hispano-Italian linguist Eduardo Blasco Ferrer (Università di Cagliari), an expert in the field of Sardinian languages. He expounded his theory about the languages spoken in pre-Roman Sardinia, which he calls Paleosardinian. According to him, Paleosardinian was a non-Indo-European language connected, at different time periods, with both proto-Basque and Iberian. He offered a lot of examples to illustrate his theory, which will be expounded in fuller form in a forthcoming book (Paleosardo. Le radici linguistiche della Sardegna neolitica), to be published by De Gruyter in November 2010. The readers of this blog know that I am not particularly fond of proto-languages, and in some cases, e.g. the supposed 'proto-Basque', I find them quite dubious. I wonder how an ancient proto-language, one designed to explain events occuring in the Neolithic, can be deduced exclusively from modern material (the oldest texts in Basque are only a few centuries old). Similar doubts arise in the case of Iberian. In any case, I think Blasco's theory is worthy of attention and I'll try to read some of his articles, and also the book, when it's published. In fact, the linguistic story of Sardinia, an island that occupies the centre of the western Mediterranean, is quite interesting in itself, and I will certainly write a post about it in the near future.
Now, the real highlight of the seminar was Joan Ferrer i Jané's lecture on the dual script of Iberian. Some years ago, he published an influential article (available here) in which he developed the theory of the dual system for the differentiation of stops in the Iberian script, a theory which had been first proposed in the 1960's but which had not received much attention. Ferrer proved the existence of this dual system for northeastern Iberian, and now he has extended it to the southeastern script. Roughly speaking, the idea behind the dual system is as follows: some Iberian letters show a series of variants, with dots or little marks, which were generally considered irrelevant; however, as Ferrer has proved, these variants are systematic, generally (but not only) expressing a voiced/voiceless contrast. Needless to say, this is a real step forward in the study of Iberian epigraphy, as it will allow a more accurate transliteration of the texts. When he finished his lecture, there was an open debate. The first one to speak was professor Javier Velaza (Universitat de Barcelona), who said something like this (I'm quoting from memory): "Last week, as I was watching the World Cup final between Spain and Holland, I was convinced I was in front of a historical moment. And the person who was making history with his goal was Andrés Iniesta, a football star who looks like a very normal person, away from stardom. And today, here in Gandia, we are in front of one such moment, when something historical is happening in our field of study".
The task of deciphering the Iberian texts is quite hard, and these developments are definitely in the right direction. For the moment, however, there isn't a single word in Iberian whose meaning can safely be established, apart from some numerals. Researchers like Velaza or Ferrer, who know many of the inscriptions by heart, do a very elaborate and meticulous job analysing possible segments and linguistic units and trying to understand the epigraphic material more accurately. Nothing to do with the fantasies of other scholars who have offered translations of Iberian based on dubious connections with Basque.
We were so excited with Ferrer's discoveries that we really thought we had something to celebrate. One week before, the streets of Gandia and other Spanish cities were crowded with people celebrating Spain's World Cup victory. Whenever there's a great achievement, there's someone ready to celebrate!
- Note on the pictures (from top to bottom): 1.Iberian inscription from Yátova; 2. A potsherd with Iberian inscription, from Llíria.