Monday, April 21, 2008

Claude Reilly's Sudani and meroitic Hypothesis

I found the article about Claude Reilly the “Champollion of Meroitique” very interesting. Although he is being given credit for presenting a method to decipher Meroitic, I already deciphered Meroitic years ago. Reilly believes that he can decipher the Meroitic language language using the Proto-NorthEastern Sudanic, which he has reconstructed.

According to Reilly, since the people presently living in the Sudan today speak languages associated with the Nilo Saharan Superfamily of languages, the Meroites probably spoke a language associated withthis family. This was a radical decision, because research has shown that none of the attested Meroitic terms accepted by mainstream scholars are related to any living language in the Sudan (there are some Meroitic terms borrowed from Egyptian).

Because there are no cognate Meroitic terms and lexical items in the Eastern Sudanic Languages, Reilly has begun to reconstruct Proto- Eastern Sudanic, and attempt to read Meroitic text using his Proto-Eastern Sudanic vocabulary. Even if I hadn’t deciphered the Meroitic writing this method would never lead to the decipherment of this orany other language.

Proto-Northern Eastern Sudani can not be used to read Meroitic because there is no documented evidence this group of languages was ever spoken in the Meroitic Empire. Reilly claims that lexicostatistics or glottochronology allows him to read Meroitic. Lexicostatistics is used to fit datable events among languages that theoretically are descendant from a common ancestor.The basic vocabulary is that part of the lexicon that shows slow change. These terms relate to basic cultural practices and universal human experiences.Reilly can not use this method to read Meroitic because there are only 26 attested Meroitic terms accepted by the establishment. None of these terms are cognate to Nubian or Taman terms except the name for a Meroitic god.

With only 1 cognate Meroitic and Northern Eastern Sudani languages, there is no way you can date the time Meroitic speakers and Nilo-Saharan speakers spoke a common ancestral language. Reilly claims to be able to decipher Meroitic using a method that compares basic culural words to date the time languages separated, can not be used to read Meroitic, because none of the attested Meroitic terms have Nilo-Saharan cognates. The absence of Meroitic and Nubian cognates prevents any fruitful comparisons between these languages.Paper


There are three ways to verify a protolanguage is congruent with reality 1) there is documentary evidence of the ancestor or near ancestor of the target language that allows comparison of adctual terms and grammars to the construct (i.e., reconstructed lexical items and grammars); 2) written evidence in the form of inscriptions exist from systematic excavation that compare favorably to the contruct; and 3) the power of prediction that this or that construct will conforms to objective reality.

Reilly's ideas that he can read Meroitic based on Kushite names from Kerma, which he calls proto-Meroitic names (even though he knows full well that a protolanguage is artificial and comes from reconstruction); and a list of Northern Proto-Eastern Sudani terms from the Nubian, Nara, Taman and Nyima languages meets none of these standards. This meets none of the standards because there is no documentary evidence for Northern Proto-Eastern Sudani dating to the Meroitic period. Moreover, the principle language he hopes to use to read Meroitic text: Nubian, was not spoken in the Meroitic Empire. A fact Reilly admits in his own paper where he notes that Nubians invaded the Meroitic Empire during the declining days of the empire.

Theodora Bynon, Historical Linguistics, wrote that ,"a protolanguage is no more than a theorectical construct designed to link by means of rules the systems of historically related languages in the most economical way. It thus summarizes the present state of our knowledge regarding the systematic relationships of grammars of the related languages....When dealing with past language states it is possible to assess the distance between construct and reality only in cases where we possess documentated evidence regarding an ancestor or a near ancestor, such as is provided by Latin, in the case of the Romance languages"(p.71).


We can reject Reilly's claim he can use this protolanguage to read Meroitic because there is no documented evidence of Northern Eastern Sudani speakers ever living in the historic Meroitic Empire, until after the Meroitic Empire was in decline. The absence of documentary evidence of any Nilo-Saharan language spoken in the Meroitic Empire during the Meroitic period precludes any possibility that Reilly's alleged Proto-Northern Eastern Sudani has any relationship to Meroitic or reality for that matter.


Before my decipherment of Meroitic the attested vocabulary of Meroitic was only 26 terms. Researchers proved decades ago that none of these terms have Nubian and Nilo-Saharan cognates. This makes Reilly's ideas about deciphering Meroitic using Proto-Northern Eastern Sudani a farce.

This is a farce because we do have document evidence of Meroitic, but none for the Nilo-Saharan languages. As a result, any proto-term from Northern Eastern Sudani Reilly compares with Meroitic will be conjecture since there is no documented evidence of Nilo-Saharan languages being spoken in the Meroitic

Empire.H.H. Hock, in Principles of Historical Linguistics (1986), observed that there are two major arguments against the idea that comparative reconstructions recover the "prehistoric reality" of a language.The first principle, is that languages change over time. This makes it almost impossible to "fully" reconstruct the lexcical items and grammar of the ancestral language. Secondly, there are few, if any dialect free languages. Constructs resulting from comparing lexical items and grammars from an available set of languages,produce a dialect free protolanguage, that is unnatural and "factually incorrect as shown by the insights of the wave theory" (p.568).

First, it must be stated that no “dead “ language has been deciphered using a proto-language. These languages were deciphered using living languages, Coptic in the case of Egyptian, Oromo and(Ethiopian) Semitic was used to decipher the Mesopotamian Cuneiform scripts. The basic problem with using a proto-language to read a dead language results from the fact that the proto-language has been reconstructed by linguist who have no knowledge or textual evidence of the alleged proto-language.

Secondly, there are subgroups in anyfamily of languages. This means that you must first establish the intermediate proto-language (IPL) of the subgroup languages in the target language family. Once the IPLs have been reconstructed, you can then reconstruct the superordinate proto-language (SPL). You can only reconstruct the SPL on the basis of attested languages. In addition, before you can reconstruct the IPLs and SPL a genetic relationship must be established for the languages within the Superfamily of languages, e.g., Nilo Saharan.

The problem with Reilly’s method, is there is no way he can really establish the IPLs in Eastern Sudanic because we have not textual evidence or lexical items spoken by people who lived in the Sudanin Meroitic times. As a result, the languages spoken by people in this area today may not reflect the linguistic geography of the Sudan in the Meroitic period.

This is most evident when we look at modern Egypt. Today the dominant language is Arabic, and yet Arabic has no relationship to Egyptian. If we accept Reilly’s method for deciphering Egyptian we would assume that once me reconstructed proto-Semitic , we could read Egyptian—but as you know Egyptian is not a Semitic language.

Secondly, researchers have compared the “attested Meroitic” terms to all the Nilo-Saharan languages. The results were negative, they do not relate to any Eastern Sudanic language. If the lexicalitems attested in Meroitic are not cognate to Eastern Sudanic terms, there is no way to establish a genetic relationship between these languages. Absence of a genetic relationship means that we can not reconstruct the imagined IPLs of Meroitic sister languages, sincethese researchers failed to find a connection between Meroitic and the Eastern Sudanic. As a result, Reilly’s reconstructions of Nilo-Saharan can offer no insight into the language spoken by the Meroites.

Granted, by comparing languages and associating them with a particular time period you can make comparative reconstructions that may eliminate dialectal diversity. But Reilly can not do this because none of the attested Meroitic terms have Nubian cognates. This along with the fact that we have no textual evidence of Nilo-Saharan during the Meroitic period demonstrating that Nilo-Saharan languages were spoken in the Meroitic Empire, especially Nubian,precludes using proto-Northern Eastern Sudani terms to read Meroitic.

Using proto-Northern Eastern Sudani terms to read Meroitic will fail to provide a linguistically realistic situation in Nubia 2000 years ago. This is especially true for Nubian, which was not spoken in the Meroitic Empire. The Nubian speakers lived far to the north of the Meroitic Empire, a fact Reilly acknowledges in his paper.

1 comment:

Learn the Thai Language said...

I can't analyze the languages (because I don't know them and didn't study how languages change over time).

Do you think it likely that the Kushite people spoke a language related to Egyptian or just not enough data to tell anything at this point?