Classification of the Languages

Note: capital letters are used here for letters of the various alphabets, while letters in backslashes designate the sounds of the language.


Language Family: Unknown.

The Etruscans were one of the most dominant and powerful presences in Pre-Roman Italy. However, their language is only known through sporadic words cited by Greek and Latin authors, and over 13,000 inscriptions, most of which unfortunately are simple epitaphs. It is hard to believe that they did not have some type of literature, but none of this has survived.

The origins and affiliations of the Etruscan language have long been a subject of contention. Numerous and occasionally outlandish theories had been advanced, but it was not until Massimo Pallottino that any real progress was made in deciphering the texts. Pallottino adopted a new 'combinatory' approach: rather than try and force a connection between Etruscan and another language, he compared the inscriptions with each other and set them in a cultural context, much as a cryptographer might do when confronted with a coded message.

The process of deciphering Etruscan continues even to this day, and thanks to a patient application of Pallottino's methods and a certain amount of educated guesswork, some of the languages' vocabulary and basic grammar have been revealed. An important advancement came in the 1960's with the discovery of the Pyrgi tablets, written in Etruscan and Phoenician. Phoenician is a known language, so it was possible to compare the two texts, and though the Phoenician turned out not to be a literal translation of the Etruscan, the content was similar enough to prove useful.

With the steady process of discovery, there is increasing confirmation that the language is related to no living language. In particular, Etruscan does not belong to the Indo-European family of languages, and thus cannot be connected to Greek, Latin, Sanskrit, or any other descendant of that branch. Only two languages show a resemblance to Etruscan: Rhaetic, described below, and an even closer language recorded on inscriptions and pottery from the Greek island of Lemnos. But though the connections are interesting, they regrettably do not bring us any closer to placing Etruscan into the scheme of world languages.

At this point, it seems most probable that Etruscan is a native Mediterranean language, perhaps part of the substratum that the Indo-European tribes encountered upon their arrival in Southern Europe.

The phonetic characteristics of the language are quite dissimilar from the languages surrounding it. There were no voiced stops in Etruscan: no /b/, /d/, or /g/; when these occured in foreign words they were usually written P, T and K. Etruscan distinguished between aspirated and unaspirated unvoiced stops: /p/ from /ph/, /c/ from /ch/, /t/ from /th/,like some other languages of the time, including Greek. The vowel system was quite simple, consisting of /a/, /e/, /i/ and /u/ with no distinction between long and short; the sound /o/ did not occur in the language. Medial vowels tended to be dropped in the later phases of the language: e.g. ATLNTA (Atalanta).

The Italic Languages

Language Family: Indo-European.

The Italic languages are all descended from a hypothetical single language, Proto-Italic, which in turn is but one member of the Indo-European language family. Proto-Italic is not known from any inscriptions or historical citations; it is, rather, a reconstructed language that is assumed to have existed based on the common elements shared by its daughter languages (which we do have physical evidence of.)

This group had a good number of members in ancient Italy; in fact, Italic languages were spoken in most of the peninsula. Gradually, however, one member supplanted all the others: Latin, once spoken only in the ancient region of Latium, spread throughout Western Europe as Roman political power increased. And Latin in turn gave rise to the Romance languages: Italian, French, Spanish, Rumanian, etc., which are all thus the descendants of Proto-Italic.

The Italic dialects can be divided into three distinct groups: Osco-Umbrian, Latinian and Picene.


The Osco-Umbrian or Sabellian group includes the three chief languages of Oscan, Umbrian, and Volscian, with their related minor dialects. Marrucinian, Paelignian, and Vestinian are minor dialects of the Oscan type. Auruncan is perhaps related to Volscian, which itself bears some similarity with Umbrian. All of these languages and dialects are characterized phonetically by /p/ in place of Latinian /qu/: Osc. PIS, Umb. PISI, Volsc. PIS. (Lat. QUIS) They also share some common lexical peculiarities such as TO(U)TA = "people, citizens; city".

Oscan assumes a pre-eminent position among the group, because of the political power and geographical extent of its' speakers. The Oscan orthography is descended from the Etruscan model, and thus lacks a letter O; in approximately 300 B.C., two letters - Í and Ú - were added to the alphabet, the latter of which was used for the sound /o/. For the voiced consonants /g/ and /d/, the symbols C and R were used, respectively.

The Umbrian alphabet is likewise of Etruscan origin. The letters T and K served for the /t/ and /k/ sounds as well as the /d/ and /g/ ones. A modified R, much like a capital P, denoted a sound which was transliterated in Latin as RS. One new symbol was used for a sibilant Ç.

The Volscian alphabet is of Latin origin, with a backwards C for Ç.

As for the other central Italian dialects, such as Marsian, Aequian, Hernican and Sabine, they also seem to belong to the Osco-Umbrian group, though, close as they were geographically to Rome, were subject to Latin influence very early on. Furthermore, we have too few examples of these to make accurate distinctions.


The Latinian dialects are those that show a preservation of Indo-European /qu/. Faliscan is of this type, though it shows a good deal of borrowing from its neighbor languages. Latin, once restricted to a small area of Latium, soon became the official language of the Empire and gave rise to the modern Romance languages. Its alphabet has survived to the present and is the basis for the modern Western European scripts.


Picene is less of a linguistic concept than a geographical one; there being two very distinct (unrelated) varieties: Northern Picene and Southern Picene, generally listed together, but quite different. The Southern Picene has much in common with the Osco-Umbrian group and also has strong phonological and lexical ties to Venetic and the Balkan languages. It is doubtful whether Northern Picene is even Indo-European.


Language Family: Indo-European.

It is quite certain that Messapic is of Illyrian descent, having been brought over across the Adriatic as attested in classical authors. The alphabet is of Tarentine Greek origin; some inscriptions have come down to us in the native alphabet, but others are written with Greek letters. The /u/ sound did not exist, and was replaced by /o/. We see also a letter in form similar to the Greek psi or Etruscan chi, which represents a dental affricate (pronounced, perhaps, like /ts/ ) and is usually transliterated as T'.


Language Family: Unknown.

At one time, Rhaetic-speaking tribes occupied the greater part of what is today northern Italy, but following the Gauls' invasion of the peninsula were displaced from their original territory. The classification of this language, like those of its contemporaries, is still open to speculation. It seems, however, that Rhaetic is related to Etruscan, for we see many similar phonetic characteristics as well as grammatical terminations. It may thus be another relic of the pre-Indo-European substratum of Italy.


Language Family: Indo-European.

Venetic is quite certainly an Indo-European language, but the current question as to whether it belonged to the Italic group or not has not been satisfactorily answered. The once-held opinion that the language was of Illyrian extraction has now been discounted.

We see in Venetic orthography the use of VH for the /f/ sound; also a characteristic of early Etruscan writing, which the Veneti inherited. The Etruscan alphabet, however, had already lost the signs for B, D, and G, and since Venetic does have these sounds, extra letters had to be adapted for the purpose. Etruscan PH is used for the /b/ sound, Z for /d/, and CH for /d/.

Evolution | Viteliu