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Slovenes, a Contrasting View of Their Origin

[Previously published in Slovenija magazine, Vol. XIV, No. 4, pp. 60-2,
and transcribed, formatted, and republished here by Gary L. Gorsha
with the direct permission of the author.]

By Anton Škerbinc

The theory that the Slovenes arrived in the present homeland in the 6th century A.D. has no documentary or archaeological basis.  It is an invention created by German and Austrian historians and archaeologists, who were in the service of their respective governments.  Many generations of scholars have been indoctrinated into this theory as if it were a scientifically proven fact.  True to this position, the political forces in Europe as well as in North America have been consistently hostile to a re-examination of this problem.  They have systematically prevented reopening the question of Slovene history.  University professors ward off any such attempt in any way they can:  they know that a new investigation of Slovene history by independent scholars would have profound implications, not only for Slovenia, but for all of central Europe.  They know that most of the details and important events in Slovene history had been deliberately distorted or swept off the stage as if they never existed.

The traditional view that Slovenes are indigenous to the Alpine region of Europe was held not only by Slovenes, but also by some German and Italian scholars.  Yet, through clever manipulations, it was denied its rightful place among the general public and, when it resurfaced in the mid 1980's, it was strongly attacked by the establishment historians. The approach advanced by the Slovene authors Šavli, Bor, and Tomaz'ic' in their book Veneti: First Builders of European Community, disturbed the foundations of the official history in central Europe.  Since then, there have been lively discussions and countless exchanges in the media regarding the origin of Slovenes, and their relation to the Veneti.

The North American response was quite different.  Even those groups of scholars most closely connected to Slovenia treated the new findings mainly with silence, but there was also a great deal of well-planned obstructionism.  Nevertheless, they too, like their colleagues in Europe, aligned themselves with the outdated theories of the past.

The same attitude prevailed at the recent gathering of the American Association for the Advancement of Slavic Studies in Denver in November, 2000.  The conference, Constructing the Myth About the Origin of the Slovenes, interested me.  As a member I should have attended, but other obligations prevented me from doing so.  Subsequently, a copy of one of the papers that was read at the above meeting was sent to me.  From the programme notice, I knew that this particular conference featured only opponents of the writings of Šavli, Bor, and Tomaz'ic'.  No proponents of the Veneti theory were invited to present papers which, in my view, is inexcusable for an association that prides itself on objectivity and scholarship.  Inexcusable, too, is the fact that some professors from the University of Ljubljana have been recruited to be part of this play of power politics.  The paper I wish to examine briefly was presented by a Canadian professor, who is known for his strong objections to the Veneti theory, a theory that credits Slovenes among descendants of the proto-Slavic Veneti.  His paper, The Pitfalls of Amateur Historical Linguistics, embodies a very unusual mixture of styles, from near-slander, to sophistication, to derision.

He starts with a lengthy and strange criticism comparing the healing methods of African witchdoctors with the methods of amateur linguists, and the methods of medical doctors with those of professional linguists.  He states:  ". . . the analogy applies perfectly to my subject, historical linguistics."  He then tells us that he will not discuss historical or archaeological aspects of the Veneti theory, that he will refrain from commenting on its onomastic components (place-names), and its graphological aspects (the interpretation of Venetic inscriptions), and that he will refrain from discussing the equation that the Veneti were the early ancestors of the Slovenes.  It is true, he does not discuss any of the above, but he does deride, unobtrusively, in various parts of the paper, all components of the Veneti theory.

After presenting some samples of medieval etymologies and word-play specialties, which have nothing to do with the subject at hand, he explains at length a highly specialized but nonetheless unreliable method, namely, the comparative method.  This method, he claims, is the only legitimate tool to provide us with the definitive answer as to whether or not the Slovene and Venetic languages are related.  To utilize the method, the linguist must count the consonants, vowels, and words of the two languages; the resulting percentage of sameness and similarity are tabulated to prove the degree of relatedness.  The method is actually much more involved.  There are three categories:  language relationship, grammatical relationship, etymological relationship.  These categories are subdivided into some twenty-three clauses, which must all be implemented if the experiment is to pass the test.

This may be alright as an academic exercise, but just to be on the safe side, we should consider the validity of the method in a wider sense.  It is, after all, a method from the 19th century, when fierce nationalism regulated much of the intellectual work in central Europe.  Methods were devised by the dominant powers to validate their own goals in the areas of linguistics, history, archaeology, rights to territory, and everything else.  For this and other reasons, I think we must take a broader look at the present inquiry.  There is more than one way of making a useful contribution to the study of the problem under consideration, and to insist that the research into the Venetic language must start with the comparative method is very much like putting the cart before the horse.

The author of the above paper charges that Bor's translations are too close to modern Slovene; e.g., "inspection of his data [Bor's] quickly shows one very striking fact:  many of his transcriptions of the Venetic inscriptions [ . . . ] are often extraordinarily close to Modern Sln. [ . . . ]  This means that his theory rests on the premise that, relatively speaking, very little phonological change has occurred between the date of the inscriptions and our own times — i.e., about 2500 years.  This is theoretically possible — some language-groups, such as the Turkic, have apparently exhibited very few sound-changes over time."  If little change is possible for Turkic, why could the same possibility not be extended to the Slovene language, which has preserved some of the oldest features of the Indo-European?

Matej Bor has done more for the deciphering of the Venetic inscriptions and the study of the Venetic language than all non-Slovene researchers combined.  I hope the author of the above paper will agree that he has treated Bor's contribution shabbily, and that regardless of how incomplete Bor's work is in the ultimate sense, it is a good beginning.  When more inscriptions are found and the study advances, better comparisons between the two languages can be made.  In the book Veneti: First Builders of European Community (p. 336), Bor states:  "I do not consider my interpretations of the individual words or texts of Venetic inscriptions to be definitive.  There will be other, more competent linguists who will be able to discover additional details; nevertheless, anyone wanting to approach the Venetic language will not be able to ignore the Ateste grammar tablets.  Their Slavic morphology cannot be removed or doubted or refuted."  And, on page 500 of the same book, he says the following about future research:  "To research the Venetic language in depth will be a considerable undertaking, and can succeed only when there is a new generation of linguists able to think openly, independently, and free of intellectual blinders."

At the end of the "Pitfalls" paper, the linguist dons a psychologist's hat, and we are told that the Slovene search for their origin and true history is a kind of psychic problem peculiar to small nations, "likely to indulge in these fabrications to bolster their self-esteem."  It is difficult to understand the purpose of this unprofessional remark, a remark which tears at the very soul of every thinking Slovene.  He concludes with a quotation from page 525 of the book Veneti: First Builders . . . :  "After 1247 years since the annexation of Carantania to the East Frankish kingdom in 745, Slovenia has finally joined the other democratic countries of Europe as an independent state."  He then adds, "a statement which is of course correct, but has nothing whatever to do with the purported Venetic ethnic or linguistic origin of the Slovenes."  A very strange observation when half of his own paper has nothing whatever to do with the subject of his choice.  Which leads me to think that ideology cannot be ruled out as a source of his almost fanatical objection to the writings of Šavli, Bor, and Tomaz'ic'.

In the meantime, the Veneti theory was very warmly received in Russia.  Early in the year 2000, a lengthy essay (125 pages) reviewing the Veneti theory and the book Veneti: First Builders of European Community appeared in Moscow.  It instantly caught the interest of Russian readers and became a best seller.  The reviewer, Professor Pavel V. Toulaev, is a historian and a linguist, and the title of his essay is Veneti:  Ancestors of Slavs.  I will make a few translations from it.  Within its pages, Toulaev examines the entire spectrum of materials on Veneti in relation to ethnology of Slavs in general, including Slovenes.  In his introduction, he states:  "The scientific discussion about Veneti was carried out uneventfully, sorting old facts, arguments, hypotheses, till about the mid 1980s.  From time to time publications in different European languages appeared, but they did not solve the problem [ . . . ].  Quality breakthrough occurred after the discoveries of the Slovene academician Matej Bor, who deciphered the ancient Venetic inscriptions.  He proved their Slavic origin and also confirmed the hypothesis about Slavic elements in the Etruscan language."  The goal of Professor Toulaev's essay was, in his own words, "to offer a short survey of Russian language literature regarding the problem of the Veneti, and to compare results of our studies with those of the colleagues in Slovenia."

He tells us that the Greek literary tradition since the time of Homer and Hesiod (8th century B.C.) abounds with information about the Eneti (Enetoi), whose name derives from Enei, the legendary hero of the Trojan war.  Herodotus (5th century B.C.) mentions in his History vol. 7, a seaside city of Eneia in Macedonia, and in vol. 1, he mentions Eneti in Illyria and their custom of selling brides.  Strabo (63 B.C. – 24 A.D.) tells us that, after the fall of Troy, the Veneti, who fought on the side of the Trojans, migrated to Thrace (present-day Bulgaria).

After he completes the investigation of the ancient myths, Professor Toulaev offers the Russian position on the origins of the Veneti and the Slavs.  He discusses old records about the ancient homeland of Slavs as found in Russian literature.  This is followed by a survey of research by other Slavic scholars involving the origin of Slavs and their relation to the Veneti.  The second half of the essay is devoted to the book Veneti: First Builders of European Community.  After detailed examination of parts of the book, Professor Toulaev says:  "On the whole, the work of Matej Bor, Joz'ko Šavli, and Ivan Tomaz'ic' has unconditionally positive meaning.  They published an enormous amount of data, gave them a new sense, presented them to the reader, and called forth a wave of interest in the new generation of scholars.  Even if there are in the publications of the Slovene authors some inaccuracies, mistakes or methodological flaws, their research is extremely valuable for those who sincerely wish to investigate the problem of Slavic ethnology."

He continues:  "The most convincingly and thoroughly debated and elaborated is the theme of the origin of Slovenes in the Alps.  Their material culture, their economic and social structure, mythology, and written language have been studied with sufficient clarity to connect this ancient Slavic community with the Veneti.  After reading the book, there is no doubt left about the idea that Slavs did not arrive here during the 6th century from beyond the Danube, but considerably earlier.  Sufficiently clear is the connection between the Slovenes and the bearers of the Lusatian culture, united by the famous "Amber Road" from the Baltic to the Adriatic."

The book Veneti:  First Builders of European Community is still the best book in the English language on the question of the origin of the Slovenes.
Published by Editiones Veneti, Vienna 1996, translated and printed in Canada, hardbound, with attractive dustcover, 534 pages, 150 illustrations, index.
Price in the USA, Australia, and other destinations 29 USD, in Canada 34 CAD.  Postage included.  Quantity discounts are available.
Write to Anton Škerbinc, Site 1, Box 17, R.R. 1, Boswell, B.C., V0B 1A0 Canada.

Page Created:  June 2, 2001
Page Updated:  June 3, 2001
©Copyright 2001 Gary L. Gorsha