Saturday, May 30, 2009

The Mystery of the Ezerovo Ring!

A few summers back, I was in an internet café in Bucharest, killing time to avoid going back to the chaos of the refurbishing of my mother-in-law’s apartment. (In retrospect, installing an air conditioner, painting the whole apartment, installing all new windows, and replacing all the furniture was too much for one summer.)

At any rate, I stumbled on the fragments of Thracian and Dacian preserved in a few artifacts. Both languages, which may or may not be dialects of a single language, are little understood owing to the lack of but a few lines of text for linguists to study.

Creative and courageous scholars have tried to compile a description of the ancient Balkan languages from preserved place names and names of plants and animals preserved in Greek references.

 But imagine trying to reconstruct English from the names of English villages and names for foods. If our favorites such as hamburgers and pizza are any indication, such a methodology is doomed from the start.

Attempts to make sense of the scanty Thracian and Dacian inscriptions usually resort to dictionary searching and proposing fanciful translations.

I decided, in my own studies, to ignore previous work, both because I do reject the above methodology and because I did not want my ideas influenced in advance.

So I attempted what should always be done first in decipherment. I would line the text up by recurrent patterns and see if anything meaningful emerged.

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As a former intelligence officer at the National Security Agency, I had the privilege to take a week long course in which I learned the encryption techniques such as were in use up until WWII (after which the whole thing turned into computer encryption beyond pencil and paper skills). It was a fun time, encrypting and decrypting messages in various block matrices, applying frequency analysis, and eating at a cafeteria with slightly different offerings than at Fort Meade.

So I attacked the best preserved of the inscriptions, a line of text on what is known as the Ezerovo Ring. Here is the artifact, found in 1912 in a burial mound in Bulgaria:

A Romanized version of the inscription, which is in Greek letters, is as follows:
rolisteneasn / ereneatil / teanēskoa / razeadom / eantilezy / ptamiēe / raz / ēlta

Supposing that the key to the language may lie in repeated series of letters, I divided the text by the most common repetition— the five occurrences of the vowels “ea”:rolisten
easn / eren
eatil / t
eanēskoa / raz
eadom /eantilezy / ptamiēe / raz / ēlta

After I divided the text this way, I spotted that two of the repetitions bore an additional similarity to each other:eatil /eantilezy /

In the first case, “il” occurs after the vowels, with a “t” in between. In the second case, “il” also occurs, with “nt” in between.

No one who has studied a Classical language would fail to spot the significance of those letters. “t” and “nt” mark the singular and the plural of the third person verb in many ancient Indo-European languages.

If these were verb endings, then the repeated “il” could be a following subject or object to that verb.

I was particularly intrigued by the possibility that the “il” could be akin to the Latin demonstrative adjective for “that”: ille (singular) and illī (plural).

The appearance of the vowel “e” after the “il” appearing in the hypothetical plural series amounts to potential confirmation that these are indeed verb endings, since the plural in ancient Indo-European languages can be marked by an additional vowel.

If we posit that the language on this ring is more Italic in nature than the study purely of place names would have suggested, I would propose as a reading for the above forms, "May that one go" (eat il) and "May they go" (eant ile).

A forced rendering of the full text, which would resort to mere speculation of much of the inscription, will not be proposed here. (Indeed, not even 50% of the oldest Latin inscriptions, such as the Doenos Inscription [ca. 500 B.C.] can be confidently translated, though the later stage of the language is perfectly known.)

Even so, an Italic understanding of the inscription would suggest other possible recoveries. The first incidence of the /ea/ series could be read as eas, 'may you go' or even teneas 'may you hold'.

The series dom suggests a word akin to Latin domus 'house' (noted by Paul Kretschmer in "Glotta" [Zeitschrift für griechische und lateinische Sprache 7, pp. 90-91]).

I hope we someday find a long inscription somewhere in Bulgaria or Romania which will provide us with a language sample large enough to tell what Thracian and/or Dacian were really like. Until then, here’s to another summer sipping wine at a terrace in Bucharest, contemplating life in the land of the Dacians.