Saturday, March 1, 2008

Revisiting exchanges with Clyde Winters on the Meroitic script

...and his charges against Claude Rilly, a French linguist, generally known for his proclamations about making some strides in assessing the relationship between the yet-to-be fully deciphered Meroitic script of Ancient Kush and the various African language superphylums, and thereof, subphylums — Part 1.

Clyde Winters' main premise is that of having been able to decipher Meroitic script using a Kushana writing system, namely the Kharosthi script. The following content is mainly going to encompass recounts of my personal exchanges with him pertaining to the intellectual and linguistic validity of the arguments built around that premise.

The aforementioned premise comes along with the idea that the original inhabitants of Meroe had fled the Nile Valley of the Egyptian-Sudanese general region upon the decline of the Meroitic complex and migrated elsewhere, presumably west Africa. This is one of the explanations put forward by Mr. Winters about the struggle of linguists in fully deciphering the Meroitic script — in other words, linguists were looking at the wrong place for languages related to that which was communicated by the Meroitic script. The other explanation put forward, was the idea that origins of the Meroitic writing system was misplaced via the 'tunnel vision' to look for it on the African continent; rather, this origin lies far off, specifically in south Asia via the aforementioned Kharosthi script—which would be the key to unlocking the secrets of the Meroitic script. Now, before going any further, it is worth noting that Mr. Winters is a follower of Theophile Obenga's essentially Black African super language family, which would imply without saying, that there are indigenous 'non-black African' language phylums. What these aboriginal 'non-black African' languages are supposed to be, Mr. Winters does not say, but rather, goes onto to speak of non-African languages, namely—in his own words:

There are three non-African family languages spoken in Africa: 1.Afrikans in South Africa. 2.English and French which is spoken among millions of Africans. 3. Arabic — by Clyde Winters

Apparently, someone forgot to tell Mr. Winters that those languages are not considered aboriginal African languages to begin with.

Now, as for the issue of massive migration as the type seemingly suggested by Mr. Winters, there's got to be some tangible trail or marker left behind by its occurrence. So, when pressed to produce the tangible evidence for this mass Nile Valley intra-African emigration to west Africa, rather than comply accordingly, Mr. Winters responds with the following:

Please cite any source dating to Roman times or later that associates the Nuba with the Meroitic Empire. Tyhe Nubians did not live in the Meroitic Empire. The Nubians or Nobatai lived in the area from Aswan to Maharraqa called the Dodekaschoenas which was first under the rule of the Ptolemies and later the Romans. Most researchers believe that by 200 BC most of the region was occupied by Nubians. David O'Connor makes it clear in Ancientr Nubia: Egypt's Rival in Africa (1993), that the Nubians or Nobatai "adopted a Romano-Egyptian culture very different from that of Meroitic Lower Nubia" (p.72).Welsby, in The Kingdom of Kush,also believes the area was not fully occupied by Meroites. But there were some Meroites in the major cities. When the Romans left the area in AD 270, the Diocletian agreement was between the Nobatae and the Romans, not the Romans and Kushites. by Clyde Winters

Needless to say, the so-called Nuba are just a subset of populations living in the Nile Valley, not leave out, as the present author had informed him, abou
t the common acknowledgment of certain socio-cultural shifts [as suggested in Winters references to the authors David O'Connor and Welsby] in the Nile Valley throughout the various time frames from the predynastic periods through to the Roman era; to put it simply, Mr. Winters' so-called counter-request above had no bearing on the request made of him to produce the aforementioned tangible evidence. On an additional note, Clyde's claim of the following:

If the Nubians were always in conflict with the Meroites, we can not claim that these people were Kushites. — by Clyde Winters

Was greeted by this from the present author:

Judging by your careless use of terms, it may well be said that "Nubians" were always in conflict with "Nubians". "Nubian" is a term imposed on these people as a group. Which Nile Valley groups calls themselves "Nubian"? It has bec
ome a Euro-contextualized term to place certain Nilo-Saharan dialects of the Nile Valley into a family.

Indeed, "Nubian" had become a generalized Euro-contextualized term applied to the southern most region of Egypt through to the Sudanese regions. Generalized so much so, that the Kushites and their Meroitic successors were generally lumped into this entity. As the present author had pointed above, fact is not even the contemporary groups in the
Nile Valley ethno self-designate themselves as "Nubians".

At any rate, when pressed to provide bio-anthropological and genetic evidence of massive Nile Valley-to-west Africa emigration, Clyde Winters' reaction to that was this:

Who needs any biological or genetic evidence. Bones and mtDNA can not tell you what language a person speaks. It can on
ly show you what population they may be associated with. The textual evidence relating to the rise and expansion of the Nubian speakers is all the evidence you need to support this truth. If the Nubians were always in conflict with the Meroites, we can not claim that these people were Kushites. — by Clyde Winters

For some reason, logic escaped Clyde Winters a
bout the fact that human beings as organisms, are ultimately what they are under the instruction of genetic coding. Hence, if the Meroitic population mass migrated to west Africa, their descendants there today should be testament to this migration, in addition to any extra-genetic tangible evidence. However, Mr. Winters goes onto to add:

What genetic evidence exist of the actual mtDNA and Y chromosomes of the Meroites recovered from Meroitic graves? There is none. As a result, researchers are speculating on population genetics 3000 years ago, base
d on genetic material carried by contempory Sudanic people. Call this "evidence" what it is: i.e., pure speculation and conjecture. — by Clyde Winters

What Mr. Winters failed to take into account in the above, was that by the time the so-called Nile Valley-to-west Africa emigration took place, there were already populations living in west Africa, which in all likelihood, as is the case today, had attained distribution and frequency patterns of DNA markers peculiar to that region, and so, not duplicated in eastern Africa. What are the odds of an inbreeding emigrant population from the Nile Valley continuing to practice endogamy in its new-found location, to conserve
the social integrity of that population? Which socially-identified population does not seek to sustain that socio-ethnic unit for the long term? Genealogical studies thus far done in Sudan and Upper Egypt, as the regions where the so-called "Nubian" languages are spoken, tend to show genealogical patterns consistent with eastern Africa, which is the considerable presence of deep-rooted markers like haplogroups A, B, and precursor PN2 lineages like E3* [P2 clade sans downstream PN2-derived clades].
For a full view of the above, click here: Link

Source: Arredi et al., A predominantly neolithic origin for Y-chromosomal DNA variation in North Africa. 2004

Yes, those aforementioned clades are present in west Africa in varying frequencies, but not as considerable as their distribution in east Africa, including the said Nile Valley region. If these Meroitic emigrants in west Africa are genealogically discernable from other west African groups, to the extent that their genealogical background is still consistent with those in East Africa, well then, Mr. Winters had failed to point it out. Instead, Mr. Winter maintained:

I never said the Meroites were wiped out. I believe they just migrated into West Africa. This would explain the genetic relationship between Egyptian and other languages spoken by Black Africans. — Clyde Winters

Hence, the only thing to fall back on, is the tenuous and unspecified link between ancient Egyptian and other "languages spoken by Black Africans." Of note, is the reference to Egyptian rather than "Meroitic", the subject of the topic, in the above. Mr. Winters however goes onto to add:

I also maintain that the composition of the Meroitic Empire was ethnically diverse. As a result, they used first Egyptian, and later Meroitic as a lingua franca. Since Meroitic was a lingua franca you can not use language(s) spoken by contemporary groups living in the fomer Meroitic Empire, to identify any remnants of the Kushites presently living in the former environs of the Meroitic Empire.

Finally, I dispute Rilly research because 1) he claims that the Meroites spoke a language similar to Nubian (which according to the textual evidence was not spoken by any Kushites) a people who practiced an Egypto-Roman culture; and 2) he is attempting to read Meroitic using Proto-Nilo-Saharan, when he does not have any evidence of the various languages spoken by the Meroites. lacking evidence on the languages spoken by the ancient Meroites makes it impossible to reconstruct Proto-Meroitic. — by Clyde Winters

This is where Mr. Winters submits certain charges against Claude Rilly, which the present author will revisit shortly, but to the issue of Meroitic as a possible lingua franca, this is what the present author said to him:

How do you know Egyptian wasn't a lingua franca itself? After all, dynastic Egypt was a union of different polities and socio-complexes. Yet if this was to be the case, you're telling me that the language can be affiliated with contemporary groups, while Meroitic cannot?

The point being that the notion of Meroitic as a potential lingua franca of the time, and a defunct one at that, could not be related to contemporary languages [i.e. the surviving languages of the region], while Egyptian on the other hand, which too is largely a defunct language, has been determined to be related to contemporary languages of the Afrasan superphylum, has little intellectual merit to it.

The present author added that:

If Meroitic was a intra-Kushitic lingua franca, which as I noted before, that I suspect it was, then it was likely done so to unite the related but discerned sub-ethnic units of the Kushite society. Just as Demotic script had influenced Meroitic script, I suspect that the Kushitic/Meroitic language, which likely used as a foundation, some Nilo-Saharan affiliated language, also saw some extra-Kushitic infusions, with the most likely source being from its Egyptic counterpart, thus giving it a certain Afrasan touch to it. The descendants of Meroites went nowhere, they are still in the region, not withstanding some cultural shifts [like Arabization, Islamification, Christianization and so forth] along with various population movements along the region. Meroe was a literate society, and as such, there is no reason to assume that they couldn't have taken their scripture [and other specific cultural traits] along with them in the event of any potential 'exodus'. Meroitic script has been found nowhere else but in the Nile Valley!

Now getting to the aforementioned charges levied against Mr. Rilly by Mr. Winters:

*Finally, I dispute Rilly research because 1) he claims that the Meroites spoke a language similar to Nubian (which according to the textual evidence was not spoken by any Kushites) a people who practiced an Egypto-Roman culture

Aside from being a misinterpretation of Mr. Rilly's premise, this charge carries little intellectual merit for the simple fact that Mr. Rilly was not as vague as Mr. Winters, whom as the present author noted above, clings onto the ambiguous generalized term of "Nubian", which has been known to include the very Meroites and their precursor Kushites—according to norms in Eurocentic scholastic contextualization—that Mr. Winters sought to disassociate from what he vaguely terms as "Nubian". The present author suspects though - since not sure by any means, since he is vague about it, that Mr. Winters' reference to "Nubian" here, pertains to the group of contemporary North Eastern Sudanic languages designated as such. Secondly, Mr. Rilly didn't single out the so-called contemporary "Nubian" language in suggesting a family association with Meroitic, which is what Mr. Winters in his own vague way seemed to be suggesting. What Mr. Rilly had done, as the present author had to reiterate to Mr. Winters time and again, was to compare Meroitic with a multitude [not a singular one] of North Eastern Sudanic languages—a subset of the Nilo-Saharan superphylum—after having compared it with other language superphylums and other Nilo-Saharan subphylums and not finding a closer relationship as that with the North Eastern Sudanic branch:

Previous works, including mine, had shown that a link with other phylums like Niger-Congo or Afro-Asiatic was Mr. Rilly

So to reiterate, Rilly certainly didn't single out "Nubian" — the contemporary designated North Eastern Sudanic subphylum — as being relatively more closely related to Meroitic than other North Eastern Sudanic languages, as opposed to Meroitic being closer to the North Eastern Sudanic branch in general. In a glaring contradiction to Mr. Winters' charge, right from the horse's mouth, we have:

Later on, in the first centuries AD, Nubian groups invaded the dying Kingdom of Meroe and founded their own kingdoms along the Nile. — by Claude Rilly

That is, taking into consideration, certain demic diffusions into the region.

Anyone familiar with the North Eastern Sudanic branch of Eastern Sudanic languages, would know as Mr. Rilly acknowledges, that:

Nowadays, these languages are scattered from Chad to Eritrea — by Claude Rilly

Getting to the other charge:

*he is attempting to read Meroitic using Proto-Nilo-Saharan, when he does not have any evidence of the various languages spoken by the Meroites. lacking evidence on the languages spoken by the ancient Meroites makes it impossible to reconstruct Proto-Meroitic. — by Clyde Winters

Obviously a gross misinterpretation of Mr. Rilly's premise. Mr. Rilly never said anything about reading Meroitic by using Proto-Nilo-Saharan. What Mr. Rilly did, as would be obvious to anyone who has read his piece, was to try to expand on the limited vocabulary available from previous work on the Meroitic script using a multi-contextual approach, but essentially the reasonably methodological & standard linguistic approaches to reconstruction. To this end, the present author summarized Mr. Rilly's approach upon Mr. Winters request, as follows:

* 'Proto-Meroitic' names are uncovered from Egyptic texts. This partly relies on the weight of archaeological evidence, which relays a picture of certain levels of socio-cultural progression and continuity from the "Pre-Kerma" complex through to the early Kerma complex, and thereof its successor Kush, and ultimately Meroe. For some insight into the "Pre-Kerma" through to the "Kerma" phases, amongst well known publications, see Mr. Honegger's take:

*'Typological similarity between Egyptian texts and Meroitic' ones, is sought after.

*Various words are already known from earlier work, but it is the question of determining the meaning for the bulk of them. So, those whose meaning have been determined, provide something to start working with.

*Iconography on archaeological material is taken into consideration, because they are many a times accompanied by descriptive words. This along with aforementioned translated words, names of persons and gods are useful in extrapolating certain words of the cotexts, and confirming their meanings in other [textual] occasions.

* Comparative analysis is undertaken between Meriotic and various other language groups from different language families, and then zeroing in on the ones sporting closer relationships.

*Once closely related languages have come to the fore, lexicostatistical method is applied for comparative purposes between the defunct language [Meroitic] and living ones [in this case, several Nilo-Saharan language sub-phylums, including Eastern Sudanic - both North and South Eastern Sudanic, Central Sudanic, Saharan and so forth], to filter out the yet closer sub-branches of the language superphylum deemed to be more closely related to Meroitic.

*Lexicostatic approach is to be supplimented by the classical comparative method, which involved reconstruction of proto-languages named below; no mention of proto-Nilo-Saharan is made here, nor is the notion of using proto-Nilo-Saharan or any other proto sub-Nilo-Saharan phylum to read Meroitic - rather, Meroitic was compared with both the actual subphylums and proto-North Eastern Sudanic:

It was necessary,

*first to find regular phonetic correspon­dences between North Eastern Sudanic languages,

*second to reconstruct the original phonology of Proto-North Eastern Sudanic,

*third to reconstruct, as much as possible, some Proto-North Eastern Sudanic words, and

*finally to compare these proto-forms with Meroitic words.
[courtesy C. Rilly]

The resultant phonetic estimations and lexicon are compared, utilizing not only similar phonological structure, but also possible genetic correspondence, usually communicated in the same meaning of the words in question.

*Finally, close connections were found between some Meroitic words and their Proto­-North Eastern Sudanic counterparts (see table below). Some regular phonetic correspondences are obvious. — Rilly

In spite of the scanty available data, the result is obvious : Meroitic is more than probably a member of the North Eastern Sudanic family.

The process above, is a slow one, requiring much patience, but doable with proper approach to standard linguistic procedures to unlocking 'defunct' but well documented languages.

More to come in the part 2 post of this very topic. Watch this space.


*Reference material: