North Picene language

North Picene language
North Picene
Spoken in Picenum
Region Marche, Italy
Extinct 1st millenium BCE
Language family
Writing system Picene alphabet variants
Language codes
ISO 639-3 nrp
Iron Age Italy.svg
Approximate distribution of languages in Iron Age Italy during the sixth century BCE

The North Picene language is a hypothetical construct based on four inscriptions of the Italian Iron Age from the Pesaro region of northeast Italy. The total number of words is about 60. The construct is that they represent a single extinct language, North Picene, that is not related to any other known language (and is therefore a language isolate), despite its geographic proximity to the speakers of South Picene.

To conclude to this hypothetical language certain basic assumptions about the extant texts have been made by mainstream scholarship, all of which have been questioned by some authorities. The first is that the inscriptions are all in one language; second, that the Old Italic alphabet in which they have been written can be adequately transcribed to the phonemes usually represented by the graphemes of the alphabet in the Italic languages. If the transcriptions do not represent the spoken language, then it is in an unknown script and nothing further can be known about it. If more than one language is represented then no means exist to distinguish one from the other. If, however, the assumptions are sound, then some 60 words of a totally unknown language are available for analysis. To date, not a single word has been translated.

The forerunner of the term North Picene was devised by Joshua Whatmough in Prae-Italic Dialects of Italy, 1933, a catalogue of Italic texts. Although neither type of text could be read with any confidence he distinguished between six northern East Italic inscriptions and all the rest southern. The northern later lost three and gained one.[1] Before that work all the inscriptions had been lumped together under a variety of names, such as "Sabellic."



The corpus of North Picene inscriptions consists of four engraved items of similar lettering and decoration, one of known archaeological provenience and the others acquired out of context, but assumed to be of the same location and date. The known site is the excavation at Servici Cemetery in Novilara, a village several km to the south of Pesaro.

All four items are stelai or fragments of stelai. Italian scholars have adopted the habit of calling them all Novilara Stelai; thus "the Novilara Stele" can be any one of them or any stele from the site. To the lettered stelai is added one without lettering but inscribed with the scene of a naval battle. It is kept in Pesaro, where it served as a model for a reconstructed Picene ship.

Novilara has been "excavated" since the mid-19th century. In those days the digging was not scientific, with no concern for stratigraphy. The locations of objects were not recorded. Apart from the fact that an object came from the site with other objects, no other information exists regarding it. Whether it was in situ or not in situ is of little concern. Even the date an object was excavated is now uncertain. Many objects are missing, as the region, the site and the museum have endured a century and a half of history, including war and occupation.

The fragment of most certain date (not very certain) is located in the Museo Oliveriano, Pesaro. One number associated with it is PID 344.[2] It was excavated 1860, 1863 or 1895 from a tomb of the Servici Cemetery. It records two one-word lines, transcribed variously as ]lúpeś, ]mreceert[2] or ]-UPE ś, ]Mresveat.[1] The archaeological date is that of the site as a whole, somewhere in the window 800–650 BCE.[3] The style of the alphabet suggests the end of the 7th and the beginning of the 6th centuries BCE.[1] The most likely date, therefore, would be about 650 BCE, the end of the Novilara window. It was a time of Italic and Etruscan wars and warrior kings during the Roman Kingdom, as martial scenes on other stelai and the presence of weapons in nearly all graves of males suggest.

The only long inscription known to date is incised on a stone often called "the Novilara Stele" as though it were the only one of that name. It is located in the Museo L. Pigorini, Rome, with the number PID 343. It begins mimniś erút .....[4] The decorations: spirals, wheel, herring bone and zig-zag patterns, are similar to those of the others. The reverse side features hunting and battle scenes. It and the nautical Novilara Stele were acquired out of context probably in 1889 in the vicinity of Novilara; they are generally believed to have been taken from there and to be of the same date.

Sample text

The best-known North Picene inscription is on the stele from Novilara (now in the Museo Preistorico Pigorini, Rome), dated to approximately the 6th century BCE:

mimnis erut gaarestades
rotnem uvlin par tenus
polem isairon tet
sut trat nesi kruvis
tenag trut ipiem rotnes
lutuis θalu isperion vul
tes rotem teu aiten tasur
soter merpon kalatne
nis vilatos paten arn
uis balestenag ands et
sut lakut treten teletau
nem polem tisu sotris eus


  1. ^ a b c Calvelli, Alberto. "Lingua e Scrittura" (in Italian). I Piceni. antiqui. Retrieved 8 September 2010. 
  2. ^ a b Di Carlo, Pierpolo (2007). "PID 344: fragmentary inscription from Novilara (1895 excavations)". Thesaurus Indogermanischer Text- und Sprachmaterialien (TITUS). 
  3. ^ Davies 1976, p. 13
  4. ^ Di Carlo, Pierpolo (2007). "PID 343: long inscription, probably from Novilara or S. Nicola in Valmanent (antique trade)". Thesaurus Indogermanischer Text- und Sprachmaterialien (TITUS). 


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