Sure, why not.
My first reaction to this article was skeptical, as it almost always is whenever someone has ‘discovered a new X’ and bases their discovery on miniscule evidence. I would certainly prefer the evidence were something other than names. However, it’s not such shoddy evidence as it might appear at first. Though I make zero claims to knowing much at all about Semitic languages or really anything at all about the big puddle of languages that lived east of the Aegean (reread the phrase ‘big puddle of languages’ and imagine the simultaneously crestfallen and disdainful look of the Assyriologist who just read that phrase), I would have to agree that when a whole bunch of names we’ve never heard before show up, it makes sense that they would have come from another language.
So, sincerely, well done dudes and dudettes who deciphered the tablet.
What irritates me is the sensational nature of the headline. I see a headline like “Archaeologists discover lost language” and red sirens start going off in my head. Let’s look at this title bit by bit, because hell, it’s way more fun than working on my thesis.
1. ‘Archaeologists’ – to the casual reader, “ZOMG! INDIANA JONES”. Every time I see an article with “archaeologist” in the headline, I immediately suspect that author wants me to be thinking of Indiana Jones.
2. ‘discover’ – well, yes, that is a large part of what Archaeologists do. There’s not really a more sober word that could be used here, but it’s still a tad sensational.
3. ‘lost’ – ark of the covenant! Oh, wait, those aren’t the next words?
4. ‘language’ – Actually, it’s just the word ‘lost’ being used to describe ‘language’ that annoys me, but I couldn’t have two bullets under ‘lost’ and nothing under ‘language’. My minor OCD wouldn’t be able to cope with that. What annoys me here is that it implies we were looking for it in the first place – that there was some sort of missing link that has just been discovered that answers all of our questions. It’s not like we’ve deciphered Hittite or Linear B or found someone scribbling PIE.
All in all, finding a hitherto unknown language (as I think the headline should have called it) is not really as exciting as the headline would make it seem. We don’t have any documents that are particularly useful in describing the nature of the language, so all we can say is ‘hey, there was another language that existed’. Fair enough, but unless we find more documents, we’re not going to be able to use this information to solve any questions about the linguistic make up of …. those languages over there that I don’t know anything about.
Though, I suppose it is exciting to have evidence of a movement of people within the empire. It certainly gives a slightly more nuanced understanding of how it worked.
So yes, this is actually quite cool. And of course, in order to get people to think that they’ve not wasted their money supporting your research, you totally want them to be thinking about Indiana Jones as much as possible. But it’s a good exercise in stopping and thinking about a sensational article before breaking out the exclamation points and all caps.
1. For the non-initiated, PIE stands for Proto-Indo-European (not a delicious crusty fruit filled desert). Proto-Indo-European is, well, the proto-language that we think the indo-european languages stemmed from. Of course, it’s highly unlikely that it’s actually a language – it’s really a compilation of all of the features we think should have existed to give us all of the indo-Euorpean languages. For example, if you compared all of the Romance langauges, you end up with something called proto-Romance. Surprise! It looks quite a lot like Vulgar Latin. Similarly, we compare all of the Indo-European languages (Romance, Greek, Germanic, Celtic, Balto-Slavic, Indo-Iranian, Tocharian, Armenian, etc.) and end up with Proto-Indo-European. It predates writing though, so we’re never going to be able to find an actual language it corresponded to. Or at least, it’s super highly unlikely.