Etruscan was a language spoken and written in the ancient region of Etruria (current Tuscany) and in what is now Lombardy (where the Etruscans were displaced by Gauls), in Italy. However, Latin completely superseded Etruscan, leaving only a few documents and a few loanwords in Latin (e.g., persona from Etruscan phersu), and some place-names, like Parma.
The Etruscans are thought to be indigenous people of Italy, living there before the Indo-European migration and the arrival of the Latins, around 1000 BC. Literacy was fairly common, as can be seen by the great number of short inscriptions (dedications, epitaphs etc). Though in the 1st century BC, the Greek historian Dionysius of Halicarnassus noted that the Etruscan language was unlike any other, the Etruscans had a rich literature, as noted by Latin authors.
With the rise of the Roman Republic that conquered Etruria, Latin hegemony hastened the decline of the Etruscan civilization, and by 200 BC, Etruscan was already replaced by Latin, except perhaps among some isolated mountain or fenland communities and, in a field that was more accessible to Latin authors, in the traditional contexts of religious cult. By the late Republic, however, only a few educated Romans with antiquarian interests like Varro could read Etruscan.
Livy and Cicero were both aware that highly-specialized Etruscan religious rites were codified in several sets of books under the generic Latin title Etrusca Disciplina. The Libri Haruspicini dealt with divination from the entrails of the sacrificed animal, the Libri Fulgurales expounded the art of divination by observing lightning. A third set, the Libri Rituales, would have provided us with the 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 Servius , a fourth set of Etruscan books existed, dealing with animal gods. The Christian authorities collected these works of paganism and burnt them during the 5th century.
Etruscan had some influence over Latin. A few dozen words were borrowed by the Romans and some of them can be found in modern languages.
Although some scholars claim that Etruscan is distantly related to Indo-European, and others that it is part of some theoretical super-family like Nostratic, there is no conclusive evidence of either.
In his Natural History (1st century AD), Pliny wrote about Alpine peoples: "The Rhaetians and the Vindelicans border with these [Noricans], all distributed in numerous cities. The Gauls maintain that the Raetians descend from the Etruscans, pushed back under the leadership of Raetus." Thus linguists suggest that Etruscan ought to be related to Raetic and to Camunic, another ancient but minor Alpine language of northern Italy. Neither language was ever written, and suggestive echoes in Roman placenames (see toponymy) and tribal designations have not been very fruitful yet.
An inscribed stele, one of two found built into a Christian church wall in Kaminia on the island of Lemnos and dated in the 6th century BC, is now at the National Museum, Athens. The 6th-century date is based on the fact that in 510 BC the Athenian Miltiades invaded Lemnos and hellenized it. The stele bears a low-relief bust of a helmeted man and is inscribed in an alphabet similar to the western ("Chalcidian ") Greek alphabet. According to Thucydides, the pre-Hellenic ("Pelasgian") population of Lemnos was "Tyrrhenian", which would make them kin to Etruscans. The inscription, which runs left-to-right then right-to-left as Etruscan inscriptions do (see Boustrophedon style), has been transliterated but not successfully translated. The most recent linguistic research into connections between Etruscan and the Lemnian stele are reported in Dieter H. Steinbauer, Neues Handbuch des Etruskischen 1999, pages 357-366.
Etruscan was spoken in north-west-central Italy, in the region that even now bears their name: Tuscany, and in the Po valley to the north of Etruria.
A related language is the language once spoken on the island of Lemnos, before the Athenian invasion (6th century BC), where a stone tablet written with a script related to Etruscan was found. We know that the inhabitants actually spoke this language due to the plethora of ceramic pieces with inscriptions written with the same alphabet. However, we do not know when or how speakers of this dialect arrived to this island.
Another language that could related to Etruscan is Raetian language, which shares with Etruscan some features such as grammatical inflections and vocabulary.
The reconstructed phonemes of Etruscan:
- /a/ letter: A
- /e/ letter: E
- /i/ letter: I
- /u/ letter: V
- /w/ letter: F
- /h/ letter: H
- /p, p_j/ /p_j/ is /p_h/ according to some scholars, the same applies to /t_j/ and /k_j/ letters: P, Phi
- /t, t_j/ letters: T, Theta
- /k, k_j/ letters: K, Khi
- /ts/ letter: Z
- /s/ letter: S
- /S/ letter: San
- /f/ letter: 8, FH
- /l/ letter: L
- /r/ letter: R
- /m/ letter: M
- /n/ letter: N
Rix (see Refs.) also postulates several syllabic consonants, namely /l, r, m, n/ and palatal /l, r, n/ as well as a labiovelar spirant. The palatal series may be somehow connected to the palatalization so typical of Romance languages.
Helmut Rix, Etruskische Texte, works as a kind of incomplete thesaurus, a main key to studying the Etruscan language.
First of all Rix and his collaborators present the only two unified (though fragmentary) texts available in Etruscan: the Liber Linteus used for mummy wrappings (now at Zagreb, Croatia) and the Tabula Capuana (the inscribed tablet from Capua).
All the rest of the recovered inscriptions follow, grouped according to the localities in which they were found: Campania, Latium, Falerii and Ager Faliscus , Veii, Caere , Tarquinia, Ager Tarquinensis , Ager Hortanus , and finally, outside Italy, in Gallia Narbonensis, in Corsica and in North Africa. (Two inscriptions from Sardinia, published in 1935, escaped Rix.)
Less precisely identified inscriptions follow, and finally inscriptions on small movable objects: bronze mirrors and cistae (boxes), on gems and coins.
Archeological inscriptions in Etruscan include inner walls and doors of tombs, engraved stele, ossuaries, mirrors and votive gifts.
Inscriptions are highly abbreviated and often casually formed, so that many individual letters are in doubt among the specialists.
The Pyrgi Tablets are a short bilingual text in Etruscan and Phoenician.
Some surviving Etruscan inscriptions appear on thin gold sheets. A "book" of gold sheets bound with gold rings went on display in May 2003 at the National History Museum in Sofia, Bulgaria. It consists of six bound sheets of 24-carat gold, with low-reliefs of a horseman, a mermaid, a harp and soldiers, with text. It was claimed to have been discovered about 1940 in a tomb uncovered during digging for a canal along the Strouma river in south-western Bulgaria, kept secretly and anonymously donated by its 87-year-old owner, living in Macedonia. Museum director Bojidar Dimitrov confirmed its authenticity with Bulgarians and experts in London. Bulgarian linguist Vladimir Georgiev is working on a translation of the text.
About 30 single golden sheets with Etruscan inscriptions are known, according to the Sofia museum's curator of archaeology, Elka Penkova.
- See the list of Etruscan words and list of words of Etruscan origin at Wiktionary, the free dictionary and Wikipedia's sibling project
Due to its isolation, no significant certain translations from Etruscan into modern languages have been produced yet, however we can be fairly certain of how the language was pronounced as the Etruscan speakers wrote using a variant of the Greek alphabet.
Latin borrowed a few dozen words from Etruscan, many of them related to culture, like ellementum (letter), litterae (writing), cera (wax), arena, etc.
Some of these words can be found in modern languages, especially in Romance languages. Even some English words, like people, person and population are considered to be of Etruscan origin.
The Etruscan used Old Italic script, an alphabet based on Greek, on which is based the Latin alphabet.
Last updated: 10-24-2005 04:07:44