Naples:life,death & Miraclecontact: Jeff Matthews

main index   © Jeff Matthews    entry Jan 2014

he Etruscan Language

The idea that the “Romans got the alphabet from the Greeks” is shorthand for something far more interesting: the Romans got the alphabet from the Etruscans ...who got it from the Greeks. By about 750 BC, the Etruscans were building true settlements in Italy and about a century later came into contact with the new Greek centers on Pithecusa (the island of Ischia) and in Cuma. The Etruscans thus learned how to read and write and then passed that mighty gift down to their Latini (alias Roman) subjects. Unfortunately, if there was ever an ancient Etruscan Homer, someone who might have given us sweeping tales of heroes and gods, or someone to tell us of Etruscan philosophy or history, we likely will never know, because as literary and civilized as the Etruscans may have been, only a paltry few written fragments have survived the centuries.

There are some 13,000 Etruscan inscriptions on various surfaces such as pottery or stone found in Etruscan cemeteries or in the remains of their cities. With the exception of a few longer fragments, they are all short ritual, legal, funerary, or votive inscriptions. There is no literature, no poetry, no philosophy, no oral lore transformed though magical scribblings for posterity. That is maddening. In the first century BC, there were still some in Italy who spoke the language. The emperor Claudius (10 BC- 54 AD) married an Etruscan! He also wrote a 20-volume treatise on them—plus a Latin-Etruscan dictionary. Those works have been lost. The single extant Etruscan book, Liber Linteus, which was written on linen, survived only because it was used as mummy wrappings. It has remained largely undeciphered. If you think that 13,000 inscriptions add up to a lot of writing, they really don't. Most of them are short and formulaic; that is, they say much the same thing over and over again in standard phrases. It's somewhat like walking past a row of tombstones and finding "In loving memory of..." written on most of them; or consider formulaic signs on property that say "No trespassing," "Welcome," or "Please keep off the grass." Even if you have many thousands of such items, you will get very little new information about the language as you go from one inscription to the next.

The difficulty, besides the lack of a substantial and varied body of Etruscan writing, is that there is no basis for comparison even for the fragments that exist. That is, we know what sounds the letters represent (because they are Greek),*1 but we don't understand the meanings of the words. If Etruscan had a descendant language (the way Italian comes down to us from Latin) or even a sister language with a literature that had come down to us (such as Latin) we could read Etruscan just the way our modern knowledge of Latin lets us read Oscan, the language of the Samnites. Oscan is so similar to Latin that it's like comparing Spanish and Italian; if all you speak is one of those two, you can still read the other one with a bit of effort. The conclusion is that Etruscan was not Indo-European, that is, not part of the vast language family that includes almost all languages in Europe, many languages even in India, and many languages in the middle. Such relationships among languages are substantiated by comparing the grammars and vocabularies of large bodies of text. If the concept that languages can look alike (because they use the same writing system) but be unrelated is confusing to you, it is quite common to find such languages in the world—Turkish and English, for example; both use the Roman alphabet and are not even in the same large language family. You can write the sounds (at least, approximately) of almost any language using the writing system of any other language. That process is called "transliteration" and is what happens when a Chinese friend writes your name in Chinese characters or when you buy a trinket in a gift shop in Cairo purporting to "spell" your name in hieroglyphics. Languages can also, for one reason or another, change writing systems. Before the 1920s, Turkish, for example, was written in the Arabic alphabet.

photo: Pufacz
Languages with no relatives are called "isolates." Etruscan was long held to be such a language. Recently, however, there have been attempts to fit Etruscan into an ancient language family with the proposed name of Tyrsenian, also called Tyrrhenian (from the ancient Greek, Tursanoi, the Greek term for the Etruscan people—thus, the Tyrrhenian sea, that is, the Etruscan sea, that part of the Mediterranean between the west coast of Italy and the islands of Sardinia and Corsica). That family would include some ancient languages of the Aegean such as Minoan and Lemnian (from the island of Lemnos). The family would be a pre- or, at least, non-Indo-European group stretching from the Aegean across parts of Anatolia (modern Turkey) and mainland Greece all the way to the Italian peninsula to include some ancient languages of the Alps (termed Rhaetic languages). Even if this relationship is borne out by further discoveries and scholarship, Etruscan will remain an "isolate" in the sense that it is unrelated to any modern, spoken language. In the last few years, there has been a growing consensus on the Etruscan-Tyrsenian connection and work continues. Such work is cross-disciplinary. In 2007, for example, Professor Alberto Piazza, from the University of Torino reported to the European Society of Human Genetics that there is overwhelming evidence that the Etruscans were settlers from old Anatolia (now in southern Turkey). That conclusion was based on comparative DNA studies. That lends credence to the idea of an Etruscan people and their language spreading from the east into Italy. It also supports the claim by Greek historian Herodotus (c.484-425 BC) in Histories that the Etruscans were from Anatolia.*2

The only way we have been able to compare Etruscan to anything else is shown in the above image. These are the Pyrgi Tablets, sheets of gold written in both Etruscan and Phoenician. The tablets are in the Etruscan Museum in Rome and are the closest thing we have to a "Rosetta stone" for Etruscan; that is, a bilingual display by which it is possible to compare a known language (Phoenician) to an unknown language (Etruscan). The Etruscan language portion has 16 lines and 37 words. The date is roughly 500 BC. The Pyrgi Tablets, found in a 1964 excavation of a sanctuary of ancient Pyrgi on the Tyrrhenian coast of Italy (today the town of Santa Severa, a few miles north of Rome). The tablets record a dedication made to the Phoenician goddess Ashtaret. Why Phoenecian? At the time, the Etruscans, Greeks, and Phoenicians--great sea-faring merchants from the eastern Mediterranean--had trading posts on the island of Sardinia. Contact among the three groups was common.

Can we still get lucky? Maybe find a longer piece of true Etruscan literature or history accompanied by a handy bi-lingual glossary in Greek or Latin? Such things do happen, but they are rare. The Rosetta Stone in 1799 (by which we were able to decipher ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics) was one such discovery; another was Henry Rawlinson's fortuitous discovery of a tri-lingual proclamation of Darius the Great inscribed on a rock face in Behistun (modern Iran), leading to the discipline of modern Assyriology; or the Royal Library of Ashurbanipal in 1849 (in modern-day Iraq) with The Epic of Gilgamesh; and so forth—the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Papyri of Herculaneum, etc. Maybe what we are looking for is right below ground where they are about to put up that new supermarket and parking lot in Tuscany.

Finally, language scholars with a lot of time have proposed various words in English that may (or may not) be of Etruscan origin, such as autumn, ceremony, people and even the name of the city of Rome.

note 1: "...they are Greek." More shorthand.  What that means is that the letters of the Etruscan alphabet are based on the Greek alphabet of the time in use at Pithecusa and Cuma. It is worth noting that even as late as 600 BC, there was no standard Greek alphabet in use among all of the various sites of Magna Grecia in Italy.  (back to text^)

note 2: "...were from Anatolia."  The alternative to the 'Etruscan immigrant' theory--and long held to be equally plausible--is that they were indigenous to Europe, 'indigenous' meaning for as far back as we can reliably trace human presence in Europe. Even Robinson, in 2002, (sources below) says: "In the absence of contrary evidence, most scholars favor the point of view that the Etruscans were not immigrants to Italy." It is not impossible that an indigenous people resisted assimilation by Indo-European invaders, retained their language and started to expand their culture. An analog might be found in the case of the Basques, another people in Spain and France who speak an "isolate" language. In any event, scholarly opinion seems now to have shifted in favor of the "immigrant" theory. (^up to text)

[update: as of Feb 2015 there is a good small museum of Etruscan archaeology in Naples. It is on the premises of the Collegio Francesca Denza on via Discesa Coroglio and is run by the Barnabite fathers. It may be visited by appointment (091 5757533). It is an 800-piece collection first assembled between 1869 and 1882 by the Barnabites and displayed at their school in Florence. Those premises have now closed and the collection has come to Naples.]

[See also: The Etruscans in Campania and The Ancient Unknown City of Amina/Picentia.]


Bonfante, Giuliano and Larissa Bonfante (2002). The Etruscan Language: an Introduction. Manchester: University of Manchester Press.

Bonfante, Larissa (2013). "Etruscan Inscriptions and Etruscan Religion." Ch. 2 in The Religion of the Etruscans, ed by Nancy Drimmond
and Erika Simon, Uni. of Texas.

Man, John (2000). Alpha Beta: How 26 Letters Shaped the Western World. John Wiley & Sons. New York.

Renfrew, Colin (1987). Archaoology & Language, the Puzzle of Indo-European Origins. Cambridge University Press.

Renfrew, Colin (1993). The Roots of Ethnicity: Archaeology, Genetics and the Origins of Europe. Rome: Unione internazionale degli istituti di archeologia, storia e storia dell arte in Roma.

Robinson, Andrew (2002).  Lost Languages: The Enigma of The World's Undeciphered Scripts. McGraw-Hill.

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