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The Fabrication of Ancient Greece - An Interview with Martin Bernal - by Walter Cohen 7/9

I'd like to pursue your references to method and ideology. In your books, as well as in this interview, you often find historical and linguistic analogues for Greece's indebtedness to Semitic and Egyptian civilizations, especially—and given your background, not surprisingly—in Sino-Japáñese and Anglo-French relations. Are these analogies designed to make the unfamiliar familiar, to provide scholarly and historical precedent—and hence plausibility—for your claims, for something else? Obviously, analogies cannot constitute evidence in themselves, but they can serve as arguments and they most certainly can have powerful rhetorical effects.

I use analogy for a number of overlapping reasons—in the first place, to help me formulate working hypotheses; then, to demonstrate the conditions of possibility for such hypotheses; and finally, as a rhetorical device, to bring the hypotheses "home" to the reader.

One of the attractions of your work is the range of materials it utilizes—linguistic, documentary, archaeological, legendary and mythological, comparative, and so on. You re slightly apologetic about that range, apparently on the grounds that it could open the way to a methodologically sloppy eclecticism. But I dont think that's the way most people experience your work. For me at least, what comes across is that your central theses are tendential and probabilistic, that they stand or fall not on a single piece of information or kind of data, but on the overall weight of the evidence. On the other hand, this procedure poses a methodological problem when it comes to testing your claims. Presumably, the most effective challenge to your position would take the form of a demonstration that, on balance, the evidence pointed not to your conclusions, but to different ones. Short ofthat, however, what would count as a substantive critique? Are there individual discoveries or demonstrations that would challenge any of your central arguments?

On the historiographical side, skeptics are trying to find thinkers who think out of my time scale, who are pro-Greek or pro-Egyptian when they shouldn't be. I'm sure they will find them. But I don't think that will dislodge the basic scheme. Were you going to make some suggestions?

/ could raise some linguistic questions. First, you incline to the belief that Linear A, the only partially deciphered written language of Crete beginning around 2000 B.C., is a form of Semitic. Crete is important in your account of Afroasiatic influence on ancient Greek civilization. What if the Semitic elements in Linear A are loanwords or occasional syntactical borrowings, and Linear A itself turns out not to be Semitic?

That wouldn't be devastating because, whatever the basis of the Minoan language, there is no doubt that during the Early and Middle Bronze Ages, Crete was saturated with Levantine and Egyptian culture.

What about the history of the alphabet? In Cadmean Letters you argue for an updating of the (Semitic) origins of the Greek alphabet by as much as a thousand years, from the eighth century to the eighteenth. Your argument rests in part on the presence in written Classical Greek of letters that have closer formal analogies in the earliest extant Semitic scripts (from the fourteenth century) than in the later Semitic writing (from eighth-century Phoenicia) traditionally seen as the source of the Greek alphabet. This early dating strengthens the case for massive Near Eastern influence on Greek civilization during what is acknowledged to be its formative, Mycenaean phase. It also undermines the standard belief in a long illiterate Dark Age separating the Mycenaean from the HesiodiclHomeric periods and thus increases the credibility of extant Greek historical and legendary written accounts of early Greek civilization. But what if the Dark Age really was illiterate and the alphabet was borrowed rather late?

Well, it certainly helps my case if the Greek alphabet goes back to the middle of the second millennium B.C. But literary continuity isn't necessary for the Greeks of the Classical period to have understood their past, because they also had Egyptian and Phoenician sources, as well as oral traditions. So I don't think my account would fall on that basis alone.

Then the strongest challenge would be the establishment of pre-Hellenic roots for much of the Greek vocabulary. One of the most intuitively compelling bases for your line of inquiry is the fact that less than half of the Classical Greek vocabulary can be traced to Indo-European roots. Traditionally, the remainder has been seen as pre-Hellenic. But no one has been able to provide an account of that ostensibly lost pre-Hellenic language. You argue instead that most of the non-Indo-European words come from Egyptian or Semitic. What would be the consequences if someone was able to reconstruct that pre-Hellenic language, to show the Anatolian or otherwise non-Afroasiatic roots of this half of the Greek lexicon?

If most of the pre-Hellenic words could be derived from a new Anatolian language which had a substantial portion of the non-Indo-European words of Greek in it, that would certainly falsify my central arguments. Then you'd want to find alternative explanations for the divine names and for the mythological structure; you'd have to show that these were not influenced by Egypt.

Even in the absence of such a demonstration, an Anatolian source for the non-Indo-European vocabulary. . .

. . . would shift things quite a lot.

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