Etruscan language

Perugia, Museo archeologico Nazionale dell'Umbria, cippo di Perugia.jpg
The Cippus Perusinus, a stone tablet bearing 46 lines of incised Etruscan text, one of the longest extant Etruscan inscriptions. 3rd or 2nd century BC.
Native toAncient Etruria
RegionItalian Peninsula
Extinct>20 AD[1]
  • Etruscan
Old Italic script
Language codes
ISO 639-3ett
Idioma etrusco.png
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The Etruscan language (ən/)[3] was the spoken and written language of the Etruscan civilization, in Italy, in the ancient region of Etruria (modern Tuscany plus western Umbria and northern Latium) and in parts of Corsica, Emilia-Romagna, Veneto, Lombardy and Campania. Etruscan influenced Latin, but eventually was completely superseded by it. The Etruscans left around 13,000 inscriptions which have been found so far, only a small minority of which are of significant length; some bilingual inscriptions with texts also in Latin, Greek, or Phoenician; and a few dozen loanwords, such as the name Roma, but Etruscan's influence was significant. Attested from 700 BC to AD 50, the relation of Etruscan to other languages has been a source of long-running speculation and study, with its being referred to at times as an isolate, one of the Tyrsenian languages, and a number of other less well-known theories.

The consensus among linguists and etruscologists is that Etruscan is a pre–Indo-European language,[4][5][6], and is closely related to the Raetic language spoken in the Alps, and to the language attested in few inscriptions in Lemnos.[7][8][9][10][11][12][13]

Grammatically, the language is agglutinating, with nouns and verbs showing suffixed inflectional endings and ablaut in some cases. Nouns show four cases, singular and plural numbers, with a gender distinction between masculine and feminine in pronouns.

Etruscan appears to have had a cross-linguistically common phonological system, with four phonemic vowels and an apparent contrast between aspirated and unaspirated stops. The records of the language suggest that phonetic change took place over time, with the loss and then re-establishment of word-internal vowels, possibly due to the effect of Etruscan's word-initial stress.

Etruscan religion influenced that of the Romans, and many of the few surviving Etruscan language artifacts are of votive or religious significance. Etruscan was written in an alphabet derived from the Greek alphabet; this alphabet was the source of the Latin alphabet. The Etruscan language is also believed to be the source of certain important cultural words of Western Europe such as 'military' and 'person', which do not have obvious Indo-European roots.

History of Etruscan literacy

Drawing of the inscriptions on the Liver of Piacenza; see haruspex

Etruscan literacy was widespread over the Mediterranean shores, as evidenced by about 13,000 inscriptions (dedications, epitaphs, etc.), most fairly short, but some of considerable length.[14] They date from about 700 BC.[15]

The Etruscans had a rich literature, as noted by Latin authors. Livy and Cicero were both aware that highly specialized Etruscan religious rites were codified in several sets of books written in Etruscan under the generic Latin title Etrusca Disciplina. The Libri Haruspicini dealt with divination from the entrails of the sacrificed animal, while the Libri Fulgurales expounded the art of divination by observing lightning. A third set, the Libri Rituales, might have provided a key to Etruscan civilization: its wider scope embraced Etruscan standards of social and political life, as well as ritual practices. According to the 4th century Latin writer Maurus Servius Honoratus, a fourth set of Etruscan books existed; dealing with animal gods, but it is unlikely that any scholar living in that era could have read Etruscan. However, only one book (as opposed to inscription), the Liber Linteus, survived, and only because the linen on which it was written was used as mummy wrappings.[16]

In 310 BC, Livy notes that Etruscan was once widely taught to Roman boys, but had since become replaced by the teaching of only Greek, while Varro notes that works of theatre had once been composed in Etruscan.[17]


The date of extinction for Etruscan is held by scholarship to have been either in the late first century BC, or the early first century AD. Freeman's analysis of inscriptional evidence would appear to imply that Etruscan was still flourishing in the 2nd century BC, still alive in the first century BC, and surviving in at least one location in the beginning of the first century AD;[18] however, the replacement of Etruscan by Latin likely occurred earlier in southern regions closer to Rome.[19]

In Southern Etruria, the first Etruscan site to be Latinized was Veii, when it was destroyed and repopulated by Romans in 396 BC.[19] Caere (Cerveteri), another southerly Etruscan town on the coast 45 kilometers from Rome, appears to have shifted to Latin in the late 2nd century BC.[19] In Tarquinia and Vulci, Latin inscriptions coexisted with Etruscan inscriptions in wall paintings and grave markers for centuries, from the 3rd century BC until the early 1st century BC, after which Etruscan is replaced by exclusive use of Latin.[19]

In Northern Etruria, Etruscan inscriptions continue after they disappear in Southern Etruria. At Clusium (Chiusi), tomb markings show mixed Latin and Etruscan in the first half of the 1st century BC, with cases where two subsequent generations are inscribed in Latin and then the third, youngest generation, surprisingly, is transcribed in Etruscan.[19] At Perugia, monolingual monumental inscriptions in Etruscan are still seen in the first half of the 1st century BC, while the period of bilingual inscriptions appears to have stretched from the 3rd century to the late 1st century BC.[19] The isolated last bilinguals are found at three Northern sites. Inscriptions in Arezzo include one dated to 40 followed by two with slightly later dates, while in Volterra there is one dated to just after 40 BC and a final one dated to 10–20 AD; coins with written Etruscan near Saena have also been dated to 15 BC.[20] Freeman notes that in rural areas the language may have survived a bit longer, and that a survival into the late 1st century AD and beyond "cannot wholly be dismissed", especially given the revelation of Oscan writing in Pompeii's walls.[21]

Despite the apparent extinction of Etruscan, it appears that Etruscan religious rites continued much later, continuing to use the Etruscan names of deities and possibly with some liturgical usage of the language. In late Republican and early Augustan times, various Latin sources including Cicero noted the esteemed reputation of Etruscan soothsayers.[22] An episode where lightning struck an inscription with the name Caesar, turning it into Aesar, was interpreted to have been a premonition of the deification of Caesar because of the resemblance to Etruscan aisar, meaning "gods", although this indicates knowledge of a single word and not the language. Centuries later and long after Etruscan is thought to have died out, Ammianus Marcellinus reports that Julian the Apostate apparently had Etruscan soothsayers accompany him on his military campaigns with books on war, lightning and celestial events, but the language these books were written in is unknown. According to Zosimus, when Rome was faced with destruction by Alaric in 408 CE, the protection of nearby Etruscan towns was attributed to Etruscan pagan priests who claimed to have summoned a raging thunderstorm, and they offered their services "in the ancestral manner" to Rome as well, but the devout Christians of Rome refused the author, preferring death to help by pagans. Freeman notes that these events may indicate that a limited theological knowledge of Etruscan may have survived among the priestly caste much longer.[23] One 19th-century writer argued in 1892 that Etruscan deities retained an influence on early modern Tuscan folklore.[24]

Around 180, the Latin author Aulus Gellius mentions Etruscan alongside the Gaulish language in an anecdote.[25] Freeman notes that although Gaulish was clearly still alive during Gellius' time, his testimony may not indicate that Etruscan was still alive because the phrase could indicate a meaning of the sort of "it's all Greek (incomprehensible) to me".[26]

At the time of its extinction, only a few educated Romans with antiquarian interests, such as Marcus Terentius Varro, could read Etruscan. The Roman emperor Claudius (10 BC – AD 54), is considered to have possibly been able to read Etruscan, and authored a treatise on Etruscan history; a separate dedication made by Claudius implies a knowledge from "diverse Etruscan sources", but it is unclear if any were fluent speakers of Etruscan.[27] Plautia Urgulanilla, the emperor's first wife, was Etruscan.[28]

Etruscan had some influence on Latin, as a few dozen Etruscan words and names were borrowed by the Romans, some of which remain in modern languages, among which are possibly columna "column", voltur "vulture", tuba "trumpet", vagina "sheath", populus "people".[29]

Maximum extent of Etruscan civilization and the twelve Etruscan League cities.