Ancient writing systems in the Mediterranean

A critical guide to electronic resources


edited by: Alessia Ventriglia (translation revised by Melanie Rockenhaus)

  • Introduction
  • Ancient Writing Systems
  • Further information


The term Oscan has referred to a glottonym, i.e. the name of a language, since ancient times (for instance in Gellius' Noctes Atticae, XVII, 17, 1 where the author, talking about Ennius, says: Q. Ennius tria corda habere sese dicebat, quod loqui Graece et Osce et Latine,i.e. “Ennius, referring to his own origins and linguistic competences, said that he had three souls, since he could speak Greek, Latin and Oscan.” Therefore Ennius meant indirectly that he belonged to three different but in various ways interwoven worlds). However, the search for an exact definition of the term Oscan leads to problems related first of all to the definition of Italic, since Oscan is an Italic language, i.e. a language belonging to the linguistic group commonly defined as Italic. It follows that to define exactly the term Oscan it is necessary first to understand the meaning of Italic and second to define the relations between Italic and Oscan.



As regards the search for a definition of “Italic”, it is important to refer to history: this term was introduced at the end of the 19th century by the German school which persuaded its followers into considering “Italic” an Indo-European branch from a genealogical point of view.



In opposition to this identification the Italian school represented by Devoto and Pisani affirms that Italic formed inside the Italian peninsula and, according to both the scholars, practically coincides with Sabellic. Therefore we are dealing with a concept of Italic in stricto sensu: it follows that eventual affinities with other languages of the Italian peninsula, e.g. Latin, were not derived from a hypothetical original linguistic relationship but rather from later contacts.

Along the same lines but giving more precise information, D. Silvestri affirms that Italic has to do more with politics (Social War) than with languages, but the linguistic evidence (faute de mieux) suggests that Italic should include Oscan, Umbrian, South-Picene (which is more similar to Umbrian) and some minor traditions, improperly defined as “dialects” in manuals, referring to the areas of Peligni, Vestini, Marrucini, Marsi, Volsci, and maybe Equi as well. All these traditions could be considered as forming a Middle-Italic linguistic area.



But D. Silvestri also specifies that besides this stricto sensu Italic, a common Italic undoubtedly existed. This is not to be intended as a prehistoric language that can be in large measure reconstructed, but as a whole of linguistic facts existing before their written documentation and characterized by a good level of cohesion. In the final analysis this common Italic could be considered a result of prehistoric and protohistoric convergences confirmed by some phonetic rules which are not exclusively part of stricto sensu Italic but part of the Latin-Faliscan tradition as well.



On the basis of what the above and particularly of the definition of Italic in stricto sensu, it can be affirmed that Oscan, although often considered to be related to Umbrian, is a variation of Italic which probably developed from phenomena of aggregation which arose between the 5th and the 4th centuries BC, with some differences from Umbrian, although small. (The name “Oscan-Umbrian” indicates this close relationship. This term is an obsolete synonym of Italic in stricto sensu and different from Latin. It is not commonly used now because inadequate to express more complex phenomena and also conceptually improper, since it may cause the mistake of considering Oscan and Umbrian as equivalent to each other.)

According to epigraphic evidence, this aggregation began no earlier than first half of the 4th century BC, but in reality it occurred earlier as a result of different factors, first of all the desire for ethnic self-representation, and it developed inside a multiethnic context. In summary, Oscan is a language derived from a koiné which resulted from a progressive linguistic homologation of various autonomous traditions of Middle and South Italy (excluding the area to the South of Foggia). The most convincing evidence is in the writing: in order to transcribe this one language in the various areas of Middle and South Italy involved in this aggregation process, two different writing systems are in use: one based on Etruscan and the other on Greek. Both system took over previous writing traditions and adapted them to the Oscan language. For this reason, in the areas with a predominantly Etruscan culture (particularly Campania and surrounding areas), an Oscan alphabet based on Etruscan developed, while in the areas with a predominantly Greek culture (Calabria, Basilicata, the Southern part of the Salerno Province and some parts of the Messina Province) an Oscan alphabet based on Greek developed.



As an Italic language Oscan presents:

  • a vowel system of 7 elements (a, e [ε], o [É”], í [e], ú [o], i, u);
  • a tone dominance of [i] and [u] with respect to [e] and [o];
  • the sounded consonants b, g and d, but not aspirates φ = phi, χ = chi and θ = theta;
  • a broad tendency to analogical innovations;
  • syncopes regarding syllables immediately after the stress, in two different ways (in the first, there is stress in the penultimate and apocope in the last syllable, while the second, linked to the proto-syllabic stress, concerns only the vowels of middle syllables);
  • the form in –eis representing, undoubtedly, an Italic genitive attested in later texts;
  • an inclination to the palatalization of u till a resulting i;
  • the velarization of the final long vowels in open syllable;
  • the lack, but in rare cases, of the geminatio vocalium, outside of the first syllable, that is outside of tonic syllables (which confirms the importance of the proto-syllabic stress also for “anaptyxis” and syncopes);
  • a proto-syllabic stress in every dynamic case with a long vowel in the first syllable;
  • inclination to the assimilation of the group –nd- in -nn- (-nd- > -nn-;
  • the passage from –mb- to -m- (–mb- > -m-);
  • an inclination to the palatalization caused by –j- following (ex. –l- > -ll-, -r- > -rr-, -t- > -s-, -d- > -z-, -k- > -x-);
  • the passage from –tl- to -kl- (–tl- > -kl-) within the word;
  • the sonorization of the –s- between vocals;
  • the undifferentiated resulting f (that is both within a syllable and at the beginning) of the Indo-European sound aspirate (bh, dh, gh);
  • the division of the gender in male, female and neuter with two numbers (singular and plural);
  • the nouns belonging to stems in -ā, in –jo;
  • the nouns belonging to stems in –s instead of –ss at the end;
  • the lack of monophthongization (unlike Umbrian);
  • the presence of “anaptyxis” (unlike Umbrian);
  • the presence of active and passive diathesis;
  • the reinforcement of the case system (unlike Umbrian) represented by nominative, genitive, dative, accusative, ablative and locative;
  • the levelling of the stems in -i of the plural dative of consonant stems.


Ancient Writing Systems

  1. Oscan

Further information

  1. Bibliography