Ancient writing systems in the Mediterranean

A critical guide to electronic resources


edited by: Daniele F. Maras (translation revised by Melanie Rockenhaus)

  • Introduction
  • Ancient Writing Systems

Etruscan inscriptions from the 8th till the 1st century BC have been found in Italy: after that period the language seems to have been completely replaced by Latin, even in the northern towns of Tuscany, which kept their national idiom alive for a longer time than elsewhere.

In the earliest period, Etruscan-speaking communities seem to be already spread across all the regions belonging to what we call the historical Etruria, with prolongations South, in Campania (two areas around Capua and Pontecagnano), and North, in Padana (between Bologna in Emilia and Verucchio along Adriatic coast).

Although there are a relatively large number of Etruscan inscriptions, they consist mainly of names and repeating formulas: so it is difficult to obtain data about current language, except for a short number of longer texts, which allow us to deepen the study.

A short consideration of the main acquisitions allows us to have an idea of how much of Etruscan language resembles to or differs from Greek and Latin.

Compared to Latin and to the main Indo-European languages, Etruscan base phonology is different, because of the lack of voiced consonants (/b/, /d/, /g/) and of a velar vowel (/o/), as well as because of the existence of two different sibilants, whose respective pronunciation was as the one of /s/ in “seed” and /sh/ in “shame”. Furthermore, like Greek, Etruscan notes the aspirate consonants (/ph/, /th/, /kh/).

Anyway there are traces of local pronunciations or dialects and of an internal evolution of the language too.

As far as we can reconstruct them, the features of Etruscan language provide for a noun-inflection expressing four cases: nominative-accusative, genitive, “pertinentive” (that is to say a particular form of dative), ablative; to these we can add locative, often connected to suffixes.

- e.g. , personal noun, gen. larthal, pert. larthale, abl. larthals

Demonstrative adjectives and pronouns are an especially complex category, which comprehends the different forms ica, ita (in recent age ca, ta) and perhaps ena too; but we know also enclitic forms such as –ca, –ta, –Å›a and perhaps –sa. Compared to nouns, their inflection is peculiar too and differentiates nominative (subjective) case from accusative (objective):

- e.g. rec. ca, “this”, acc. cn, gen. cla, pert. cle, abl. cls, loc. cei

On the contrary, verbs show a simple morphology, with no inflection for person or number, but seem often to have a complex structure, made of a series of suffixes, whose meaning is often not so sure.

The best known forms are the present tense, ending in –e or with no marker, and the past tense (praeteritum), ending in –ce (active form) or in –khe (passive form):

- e.g. ale, “I give, he/she/it gives, we give”; alice (rec. alce), “I/he/we gave”; alikhe, “I/he/she/it was given – we/you/they were given”

Finally, we should remember adjectives ending in –na and –ra, which were used to form personal family names (gentilicia) based on original patronymic adjectives:

- e.g. laricena < larice-na, “son/descending from Larice”

(for further information, see H. Rix, Lingua e scrittura, in M. Cristofani [ed.], Etruschi. Una nuova immagine, Firenze, Giunti, 2000, pp. 210-238).


As regards linguistic kinship, the most famous isolation of Etruscan (whose lexicon contains a lot of words borrowed from Greek, Latin and Italic languages) is now softened by the affinity with the Raetic language in northern Italy and with the until-now-small number of archaic pre-Greek inscriptions from Lemnos in northern Aegean sea.

About these latter, we should remember C. de Simone’s hypothesis that the Lemnian language is what remain of a real Etruscan presence: Etruscan sailors arrived from Italy through the sea (the famous Tyrrhenian pirates recorded by Greek literature in the Aegean) and settled on the island; their language could thus survive till the 5th century BC and then was replaced by Athenian Greek.

On the contrary, other scholars (e.g. H. Rix) think that the Lemnian language is the document of a pre-Hellenic substrate and that it could supply an explanation to ancient theories of the origin of Etruscans from Lydia (in modern Anatolia, Turkey).

Ancient Writing Systems

  1. Etruscan