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


It is customary to define the Umbrian language as Indo-European and in particular as belonging to the group of languages commonly defined as Italic since they emerged primarily in Italy. However, defining exactly what the Umbrian language really was raises additional problems, first with the definition of ‘Italic’, and secondly with the quantity and quality of claims received. In fact, the concept of ‘Italic’ and the term itself 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. Based on this, to classify typologically the various differences and convergences among the Indo-European languages of the Italian peninsula, many scholars have suggested that this ‘Italic’ original be further divided into two smaller branches, specifically:

  1. ‘Western Italic’, within which Latin, Faliscan and Venetic must be included;
  2. ‘Eastern Italic’, commonly referred to as ‘Osco-Umbrian’, within which Umbrian, Oscan, Sabine, South Picene and other minor dialects are included.

This division, however, is not universally accepted, especially among Italian scholars, given the fact that, except in the case of Latin for ‘West Italic’ and Oscan for ‘East Italic’, few documents are available. Umbrian exemplifies this, since its corpus amounts to one extremely long single text to which can be added a few scores of inscriptions of a maximum of three lines. Therefore, the concept of ‘Italic’ as a branch of Indo-European was opposed by the Italian school represented by Devoto and Pisani who have, however, preferred to mean by Italic “formed inside the Italian peninsula” which in practice coincides with Sabellic, otherwise known as ‘Osco-Umbrian’ for the linguistic affinities that appear to bind together minor languages such as Sabellic, Paelignian, Marrucinian, etc., to the two principal languages that compose it, Oscan and Umbrian.

This is a concept of Italic in the stricto sensu, and it follows that possible 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 offering more precise information, D. Silvestri affirms that the term Italic has to do “more with politics (Social War) than with languages, but that the linguistic evidence, faute de mieux, suggests that Italic includes Oscan, Umbrian, South-Picene (which is more similar to Umbrian) and some minor languages, improperly defined as ‘dialects’ in manuals, in the areas of the Paelignians, the Vestinians, the Marrucinians, the Marsians, the Volscians, and maybe the Equians as well. All these traditions could be considered as forming a Mid-Italic linguistic area.” These definitions do not mean that it is totally inaccurate to speak of ‘common Italic’ because, as noted by D. Silvestri, beyond this ‘stricto sensu Italic’, there must definitely have been a ‘common Italic’ that could be understood not as a prehistoric language which can be reconstructed, but as a set of pre-documental linguistic realities characterized by a certain degree of cohesion. In the final analysis, “common Italic” is the result of prehistoric and proto-historic convergences, demonstrated by the fact that some phonetic rules are not exclusive to Italic in the strict sense, but are also found in the Latin-Faliscan tradition at an undoubtedly early date.


Based on the above and especially on the basis of the definition of ‘stricto sensu Italic’, it can certainly be said that Umbrian means not only a language variant of Italic, but mainly the language reflected in the Iguvine Tablets, a document consisting of about 4500 words, and secondarily the language of a few other places from which the minor Umbrian inscriptions come. While the Umbrian language is commonly often linked to Oscan, the now dated term ‘Osco-Umbrian’, used as synonymous with ‘stricto sensu Italic’ and different from Latin, is now rarely used both for its inadequacy in expressing more complex phenomena and for its conceptual impropriety, since it could lead to the misunderstanding that the two languages, Oscan and Umbrian, are almost equivalent. Basically, thanks to the discovery of other inscriptions (Umbrian minor inscriptions) in an area which may be referred to as “Umbrian” and which express the same language of the aforementioned tablets found near Gubbio, it can be stated that Umbrian was the language spoken by a specific community that in early times inhabited ancient Umbria, or the territory that extended both east and west of the Tiber River and arrived to the borders of the Sabina Region (corresponding roughly to the modern provinces of Viterbo and Rieti). Finally, regarding the relationship between Umbrian and Oscan, it should be noted that despite the similarities that have favored the emergence of the term Osco-Umbrian, Oscan and Umbrian are not amenable to being considered diatopic (geographical) varieties of the same language. The confirmation of this may be found both in the mono-centric nature of Umbrian (in opposition to the polycentric nature of Oscan), and in Umbrian’s developed tendency to phonetic and morphological innovation in contrast to a certain semantic conservatism (compared to Oscan, in which there is strong phonetic conservation, but considerable semantic innovation).


In common with other Italic languages Umbrian features:

  • a vowel system of presumably 7 elements in which tonal value seems to dominate quantitative value, expressed mainly in the correlation of openness (especially in the correlation between long and short vowels);
  • a dominant tone of the i and u with respect to [e] and [o];
  • an oscillation between a and o conditioned by accent;
  • the sound b, g and d, but not aspirates φ = phi, χ = chi and θ = theta;
  • two distinct phenomena of syncope related to the positions of accent (the first of which provides emphasis on the penultimate and apocope in the final syllable, while the second, linked to the proto-syllabic accent, concerns only the vowels of median syllables);
  • the ending of the accusative singular in -om in the consonant stems (in the form of stems -o);
  • the conservation of terminations -ōs in the plural nominative of the stems in -o and -ās in the –a stems;
  • the output -r in the passive forms of the verb;
  • the presence of the secondary ending -ns in the third person plural of the active form;
  • a tendency to palatalization of u until it becomes an i;
  • the velarization of the long final vowels in open syllables;
  • a tendency for the group –nd- > -nn-;
  • movement from –tl- to -kl- (–tl- > -kl-) within the word;
  • the passage of the diphthong –ew- to –ow- (-ew- > -ow-);
  • the vocalization of early sonorants and , respectively in or and ol ( ṛ > or; ḷ > ol)
  • the passage from Indo-European labiovelars (kw) to labial (p)
  • the tripartite division of the genders in male, female and neutral with two numbers (singular and plural).

Instead, the following are typical and exclusive to Umbrian :

  • the tendency to be a somewhat innovative language (unlike Oscan which appears more conservative);
  • the absence of the use of double letters;
  • the tendency to use the h to express the long vowel;
  • the tendency to loss of final consonants, and in particular of m and d, and to loss of the outputs of the cases;
  • leveling to –u of the dative plural of consonant stems;
  • palatalization of k to š [ʃ];
  • the passage of l to v (l > v);
  • the transition from d to ř (d > ř);
  • the presence of monophthongization (unlike Oscan);
  • the rare presence of an epenthetic vowel or, better, of anaptyxis (unlike Oscan);
  • the presence, at least in writing, of a total dominance of the vowel timbres i and u;
  • a tendency to the palatalization effect of the following –j- for which k and g followed by e, i or j become ç or j (k and g + e, i, j > ç / j);
  • the presence of rhotacism for intervocalic s, for which V+s+V > V+r+V, both inside and at the end of the word;
  • the transformation of intervocalic d to ř or rs (V+d+V > V+ ř+V or V+rs+V);
  • the transformation of Indo-European *-bh- and *-dh- to –f- (*-bh / *-dh > f) and Indo-European *-gh- into –b (*-gh > -b) both inside and at the beginning of words;
  • the transformation into -f of the old endings of the nominative singular of the themes –n and –r (*-ns / *-rs- > -rr > -f);
  • the presence of the assimilation of mb to m (mb > m);
  • the trend in the stems in –a to formal modification in the outputs of both the nominative and the accusative in the singular and in the plural;
  • the tendency to expand the personal pronoun (i-; e-; eo-/ eā-), corresponding to the Latin is, ea, id, with suffixes such as -sm-, -s-;
  • again for the personal pronoun (i-; e-; eo-/ eā-), the tendency to use some extended forms –hu, -ont, -unt (eg. eriront, ererunt) to express identity and to thematize the masculine and neutral in –e in competition with the theming –o (or in –a the feminine gender) (whereas Oscan tends to thematize the masculine in –i / í);
  • the presence, again in the personal pronoun, of the theme ek(s)o compared to the Latin hic and of the ending –om of the accusative singular (eg. tiom)
  • the ending in –es /-er of the genitive singular of the topics –o and in consonants formed by analogy with the themes –i i of the third declension;
  • the tendency to favor postpositions;
  • the absence, among the possible forms of perfect, of that in –tt- (present instead in Oscan) in opposition to the presence, almost exclusively Umbrian, of a perfect –nki form, with phenomenon of palatalization (-nki > -nçi);
  • the early and marked tendency (unlike Oscan) to alter the system of cases in its morphology as a result of syncope and weakening of the final syllable and homophony between the various outputs of cases. This results in a tendency to a typological change bringing Umbrian towards incipient agglutination, also demonstrated by the frequent and widespread use of postpositions;
  • the presence of active and passive diathesis;
  • the use of et as a conjunction where Oscan had íním;
  • the tendency to locate the patronymic immediately before the gens/family name.


Ancient Writing Systems

  1. Umbrian