Ancient writing systems in the Mediterranean

A critical guide to electronic resources


edited by: Simona Marchesini

  • Introduction
  • Ancient Writing Systems
  • Further information

Language overview

The Messapic language belongs to the Indo-European language family. Since only very fragmented examples from a limited number of text types have been found, only a relatively small range of grammatical and lexical typology and reconstruction has been possible until now. This fact prevents us from assigning the Messapic language to a specific language group within the Indo-European languages. The most relevant gaps concern the verb system and the reconstruction of the labiovelar and palatal consonant sets. The morphology also fails to enlighten us about the affinity of Messapic with the group of Italic languages.


Assigning a phonological value to the Messapic graphemes is not always an easy process. While it can surely be stated that a distinction between long and short vowels must have taken place, as in most Indo-European languages, it is very difficult to reconstruct both the vowel system as a whole, and the position of each item with respect to others, in order to assign the final phonological value to each sign. The alternation between /i/ and /u/ in the so called “Apulian” alphabet, a northern late variant of the proper Messapic alphabet, and moreover between /i/ and /o/ in several Messapic inscriptions, reflect most probably an asymmetric vowel system, where only two items instead of three are to be found in the velar vowel set. Other phonological aspects, which can be dated to the pre-documentary phase, are the switch from /o/ to /a/ (as in *to-bhoros > tabaras) and the palatalization of the consonants. Palatalized consonantal phonemes are expressed with the typical doubling of the grapheme, as for example in the personal names Artorres < *Artor-yo-s or  Blatθes < *Blat-yo-s.

The Indo-European mediae aspiratae (middle aspirate) are generally realized in Messapic with the correspondent mediae, both at the beginning and in the middle of the word (for example: beran 'let them bring', where the phoneme /b/ comes from *bh).

The Indo-European */s/ is treated as /h/, either at the beginning of the word or intervocalic (klaohi 'hear' to *kleu-s-i).


Only a minimal part of Messapic morphology can be reconstructed, due to its fragmentary documentation. Since it belongs to the Indo-European language family, the comparative method is used – where possible - for the decoding/deciphering of this language.

Two numbers are attested in Messapic: singular and plural. Four cases are known: nominative, accusative, genitive and dative.

Some palatalization, that affects the ending of the words, makes it very difficult, in many cases, to define the original stem class. The following stem classes are identified (note that C= Consonant; V= Vowel):

- Vowel stems: in ā/-oa; in -Cyā with palatalization, in -yā, in -ayā/-eyā, in -oa/-ova, in -a-/-ya-, in -Cya-, in -Vya-, in -i, in -u (written -o-), in-(V)(t)as;

- Consonant stems: in -n/-ōn/-(y)ōn-/-edōn-, in -r in -t, in-s.

In the verbal system only the indicative (present, aorist and perfect), some cases of imperative (present), conjunctive (present) and optative (present) are known until now. Only the 3rd person singular and the 3rd plural have been found.

Some examples:

apistaθi “present indicative, 3rd singular “he offers”;

hipades: aorist indicative, 3rd singular “he has dedicated, he dedicated”;

hadive: perfect indicative, 3rd singular “he put, stood”;

klaohi: present imperative, 3rd singular “hear”;

beran: present conjunctive, 3rd singular “let them bring”;

berain: present optative, 3rd singular “they must bring”


Information about the Messapic syntax is very exiguous. Some articles are known, like, for example toi for the dative masculine, tai for the dative feminine and tan for the accusative feminine in the singular. We also know some conjunctions like ai, possibly hypothetical, and ma, a prohibition particle. Also the enclitic conjunction particles -si, -θi, -ti ("and") have been identified. Among the prepositions we recognize apa "from", epi (known principally as a verbal preposition in epi-gravan "they wrote"), whose meaning remains uncertain. Only one praenomen is attested: the singular relative  kos < *qwos 'someone'.


Since most of the Messapic inscriptions record only personal names, very few non-onomastic elements of the lexicon are known. Among these, the term argorapandes has been found; its meaning must be something like “treasurer”, “coin magistrate” or similar. Moreover bilia “daughter”, bennan (a sort of vehicle), tabara “priestess” are known. The word *kalator, which is probably a loan word from the Latin “herald”, can be reconstructed from the genitive singular kalatoras. The word teuta, also reconstructed from its onomastic derivatives Taotor and Taotorres, is found in other western Indo-European languages with the meaning of “community”, “people”.

Ancient Writing Systems

Further information

  1. Bibliography
  2. Online resources