Etruscan language

Etruscan language

Infobox Language
nativename=mechl Rasnal
states=Ancient Etruria
region=Italian Peninsula
extinct=1st century AD

The Etruscan language was spoken and written by the Etruscan civilization in the ancient region of Etruria (modern Tuscany plus western Umbria and northern Latium) and in parts of Lombardy, Veneto, and Emilia-Romagna (where the Etruscans were displaced by Gauls), in Italy. However, Latin superseded Etruscan completely, leaving only a few documents and a few loanwords in Latin (e.g., "persona" from Etruscan "unicode|φersu" [ [ Online Etymological Dictionary] ] ), and some place-names, such as Roma.

History of Etruscan literacy

Etruscan literacy was widespread over the Mediterranean shores, as can be seen by about 13,000 inscriptions (dedications, epitaphs etc), most fairly short, but some of some length.Bonfante (1990), page 12] They date from about 700 BC. [Bonfante (1990) page 10.]

The Etruscans had a rich literature, as noted by Latin authors. Unfortunately only one book (now unreadable) has survived, although there is always some possibility that more will turn up. By AD 100, Etruscan had been replaced by Latin.

Only a few educated Romans with antiquarian interests, such as Varro, could read Etruscan. The last person known to have been able to read it was the Roman emperor Claudius (10 BC – AD 54), who — in the context of his work in twenty books about the Etruscans, "Tyrrenikà" (now lost) — compiled a dictionary (also lost) by interviewing the last few elderly rustics who still spoke the language. Urgulanilla, his first wife, was Etruscan. [For Urgulanilla, see Suetonius, "Life of Claudius", Section 26.1; for the 20 books, same work, Section 42.2.]

Livy and Cicero were both aware that highly specialized Etruscan religious rites were codified in several sets of books written in Etruscan under the generic Latin title "Etrusca Disciplina." The "Libri Haruspicini" dealt with divination from the entrails of the sacrificed animal, the "Libri Fulgurales" expounded the art of divination by observing lightning. A third set, the "Libri Rituales", would have provided us with the key to Etruscan civilization: its wider scope embraced Etruscan standards of social and political life as well as ritual practices. According to the 4th century Latin writer Servius, a fourth set of Etruscan books existed, dealing with animal gods, but it is probably unlikely that any contemporary scholar could have read Etruscan at such a late date. Christian authorities collected such works of paganism and burnt them during the 5th centuryFact|date=December 2007; the single surviving Etruscan book, "Liber Linteus", being written on linen, survived only by being used as mummy wrappings.

Etruscan had some influence over Latin. A few dozen words were borrowed by the Romans and some of them can be found in modern languages.

Geographic distribution

Inscriptions have been found in north-west and west-central Italy, in the region that even now bears the name of the Etruscans, Tuscany (from Latin "tuscIPA|ī" "Etruscans"), as well as in today's Latium north of Rome, in today's Umbria west of the Tiber, around Capua in Campania and in the Po valley to the north of Etruria. Presumably this range is a maximum Italian homeland where the language was at one time spoken.

Outside of Italy [A summary of the locations of the inscriptions published in the EDP project, given below under External links, is stated in its Guide.] inscriptions have been found in Africa, Corsica, Elba, Gallia Narbonensis, Greece, the Balkans and the Black Sea. By far the greatest concentration is in Italy.

An inscription found on Lemnos in 1886, is in an alphabet practically identical to that of Etruscan.


The majority consensus is that Etruscan is related only to other members of what is called the Tyrsenian language family which in itself is an isolate family, that is, unrelated to other language groups by any known relationship. Since Rix (1998) it is widely accepted that Tyrsenian is composed of Rhaetic and Lemnian together with Etruscan.

In the 1st century BC the Greek historian Dionysius of Halicarnassus stated that the Etruscan language was unlike any other. [1.30.2.] He agrees with the prevalent modern view that Etruscan, or more recently Tyrsenian, is an isolate. Bonfante, a leading scholar in the field, says "... it resembles no other language in Europe or elsewhere ...."

peculative relationships

The Etruscan language has been difficult to analyze, which is attributable to its being an isolate. The phonology is known through the alternation of Greek and Etruscan letters in some inscriptions (for example, the Iguvine Tables), and many individual words are known through loans into or from Greek and Latin, as well as explanations of Etruscan words by ancient authors. A few concepts of word formation have been formulated (see below). Knowledge of the language is incomplete.

Speculators nevertheless continue to compare known languages to Etruscan searching for a pattern match. Speculative decipherments utilize partial pattern matches. The key follows the formula: "Etruscan is really a form of X" where X is the known language or language group. None of these have found general academic credibility.

emitic hypothesis

The interest in Etruscan antiquities and the mysterious Etruscan language found its modern origin in a book by a Dominican monk, Annio da Viterbo, called "Il Pastura", the cabalist and orientalist who guided Pinturicchio's allegorical frescoes for Pope Alexander VI's Vatican apartments. In 1498 Annio published his antiquarian miscellany titled "Antiquitatum variarum" (in 17 volumes) where he put together a fantastic theory in which both the Hebrew and Etruscan languages were said to originate from a single source, the "Aramaic" spoken by Noah and his descendants, founders of Etruscan Viterbo. Annio also started to excavate Etruscan tombs, unearthing sarcophagi and inscriptions, and made a bold attempt at deciphering the Etruscan language. Still, in the 19th century the theory of the Semitic origins found its supporters. In 1858, the last attempt was made by Johann Gustav Stickel, Jena University: "Das Etruskische (...) als Semitische Sprache erwiesen". A reviewer concluded, that Stickel brought forward every possible argument which would speak for that hypothesis, and he proved with it the opposite of what he attempted to do (Johannes Gildemeister in ZDMG 13, 1859, 289-304).

A more modern look at linking Etruscan to Semitic languages comes from Gary L. Alton's book "Renderings of Four Etruscan Inscriptions", published in 2003. In this book Alton claims to translates two Etruscan inscriptions from Pyrgi, the Lemnos Stele, and the Arringatore inscription, using a comparison to Hebrew and other ancient Semitic languages.

Hungarian hypothesis

A recent (2003) study by linguist Mario Alinei has proposed the idea that Etruscan may have been an archaic form of Hungarian. Alinei's theory is based on similarities between certain words (magistrature names), agglutination, vowel harmony, construction of personal pronouns when used together with prepositions, etc. This theory has not been widely accepted in academic circles, and it has been rejected by practically all specialists of Uralic comparative linguistics. Critics accuse Alinei's work of being the product of mass comparison, a methodology that is not accepted by comparative linguists. Historian Kenneth J. Dillon suggests that Alinei was nonetheless on the right track, that Etruscan was a distant cousin of Hungarian and was the language of Trojans who fled from the European side of the Dardanelles after the fall of Troy. [ [ The Trojan Origin of Roman Civilization] ]

Indo-European hypothesis

In 1861 Robert Ellis proposed that Etruscan was related to Armenian, [Robert Ellis, "The Armenian origin of the Etruscans", London: Parker, Son, & Bourn, 1861.] a view that is now untenable. Some modern scholars [For example, Steinbauer (1999).] assert that the Tyrsenian family is distantly related to the Indo-European family. Proponents of this hypothesis put together similarities of phonetics, vocabulary and syntax that they see.


Frederik Woudhuizen has revived an ancient conjecture that the Tyrsenians came from Anatolia, including Lydia, whence they were driven out by the Cimmerians in the early Iron Age, 750-675 BC, leaving some colonists on Lemnos. He makes a number of comparisons of Etruscan to Luvian and asserts that Etruscan is modified Luvian. He accounts for the non-Luvian features as a Mysian influence: "deviations from Luwian ... may plausibly be ascribed to the dialect of the indigenous population of Mysia." [Page 83.] According to Woudhuizen, the Etruscans were colonizing the Latins and the Villanovan and all preceding cultures were Indo-European. The Etruscans brought the alphabet from Anatolia. Dionysius of Halicarnassus rejected this hypothesis in his time, because the late Iron Age inhabitants of Lydia were Luvian.

Writing system


The Latin alphabet that is used in English owes its existence to the Etruscan writing system, which was adapted for Latin in the form of the Old Italic alphabet. The Etruscan alphabet [The alphabet can also be found with alternative forms of the letters at [ Omniglot] .] employs a Euboean variantBonfante (1990) chapter 2.] of the Greek alphabet using the letter digamma and was in all probability transmitted through Pithecusae and Cumae, two Euboean settlements in southern Italy. This system is ultimately derived from West Semitic scripts.

The Etruscans recognized a full 26-letter alphabet, which they depicted as itself for decoration on some objects such as an occasional ink-jar; for example, the "rooster ink-stand." [ [ Rooster ink-stand] at [ Etruscan Art Virtual Museum] .] This has been termed the model alphabet. [Bonfantes (2002) page 55.] They did not use four letters of it, mainly because Etruscan had no voiced stops, b, d and g, and also no o. They innovated one letter for f.


Writing was from right to left except in archaic inscriptions, which might use boustrophedon. An example found at Cerveteri used left to right. In the earliest inscriptions, the words are continuous. From the 6th century BC, they are separated by a dot or a colon, which might also separate syllables. Writing was phonetic; the letters represented the sounds and not conventional spellings. On the other hand, many inscriptions are highly abbreviated and often casually formed, so the identification of many individual letters is sometimes difficult. Spelling might vary from city to city, probably reflecting differences of pronunciation. [The Bonfantes (2002) page 56.]

Impossible consonants

Speech featured a heavy stress on the first syllable of a word, causing syncopation by weakening of the remaining vowels, which then were not represented in writing: Alcsntre for Alexandros, Rasna for Rasena. This speech habit is one explanation of the Etruscan "impossible consonant clusters." The resonants however may have been syllabic, accounting for some of the clusters (see below under Consonants). In other cases the scribe sometimes inserted a vowel: Greek Herakles became Hercle by syncopation and then was expanded to Herecele. Pallottino [Page 261] regarded this variation in vowels as "instability in the quality of vowels" and accounted for the second phase (e.g., Herecele) as "vowel harmony, i.e., of the assimilation of vowels in neighboring syllables ...."


The writing system had two historical phases: the archaic, 7th to 5th century BC, which used the early Greek alphabet, and the later, 4th to 1st century BC, which modified some of the letters. In the later period syncopation increased.

The alphabet went on in modified form after the language disappeared. In addition to being the source of the Roman alphabet, it has been suggested that it passed northward into Venetic and from there through Raetia into the Germanic lands, where it became the Futhark, a system of runes. [The Bonfantes (2002), page 117 following.]

The media


The Pyrgi Tablets are a bilingual text in Etruscan and Phoenician engraved on three gold leaves, one for the Phoenician and two for the Etruscan. The Etruscan is in 16 lines, 37 words. The date is roughly 500 BC.The Bonfantes (2002) page 58.] The tablets were found in 1964.

Longer texts

According to Rix and his collaborators only two unified (though fragmentary) texts are available in Etruscan:
*The "Liber Linteus" used for mummy wrappings (now at Zagreb, Croatia). Roughly 1200 words of readable text, mainly repetitious prayers yielding about 50 lexical items.
*The "Tabula Capuana" (the inscribed tile from Capua). About 300 readable words in 62 lines, dating to the 5th century BC.Some additional longer texts are:
*The lead foils of Punta della Vipera, [Brief description and picture at " [ The principle discoveries with Etruscan inscriptions] ", article published by the Borough of Santa Marinella and the Archaeological Department of Southern Etruria of the Italian government.] about 40 legible words having to do with ritual formulae. Dated to about 500 BC.
*The Cippus Perusinus, a stone slab (cippus) found at Perugia. Contains 46 lines, 130 words.
*The Tabula Cortonensis, a bronze tablet from Cortona recording a legal contract. About 200 words.
*The Piacenza Liver, a bronze model of a sheep's liver representing the sky, with the engraved names of the gods ruling different sections.

Inscriptions on monuments

The main material repository of Etruscan civilization is or was its tombs. Public and private buildings were dismantled and the stone reused centuries ago. The tombs remain as they were except for the ravages of time and the activities of plunderers. More tombs continue to be found regularly.

The tombs are the main source of portables in collections throughout the world, provenance unknown. The Etruscans lived well and valued art. Their objets d'art are of incalculable value, causing a brisk black market and equally brisk law enforcement effort. It is against the law to remove objects from Etruscan tombs unless authorized by the Italian government.

The total number of tombs is unknown due to the magnitude of the task of cataloguing them. They are of many different types. Especially fruitful are the hypogeal or "underground" chamber or system of chambers cut into tuff and covered by a tumulus. The interior of the tomb represents a habitation of the living stocked with furniture and favorite objects. The walls may display painted murals, the predecessor of wallpaper. Tombs are identified as Etruscan dating form the Villanovan period to about 100 BC, when presumably the cemeteries were abandoned in favor of Roman ones. [Some Internet articles on the tombs in general are:
" [ Etruscan Tombs] " at
" [,9171,936863,00.html Scientific Tomb-Robbing] ", article in "Time", Monday, Feb. 25, 1957, displayed at
" [,9171,907013,00.html Hot from the Tomb: The Antiquities Racket] ", article in "Time", Monday, Mar. 26, 1973, displayed at
] Some of the major cemeteries are as follows:
*Caere or Cerveteri, a UNESCO site.Refer to [ Etruscan Necropolises of Cerveteri and Tarquinia] , a World Heritage site.] Three complete necropolises with streets and squares. Many hypogea are concealed beneath tumuli retained by walls; others are cut into cliffs. The Banditaccia necropolis contains more than 1000 tumuli. Access is through a door. [Some popular Internet sites giving photographs and details of the necropoleis are: [ Cisra (Roman Caere / Modern Cerveteri)] at
[*/33.html Chapter XXXIII CERVETRI.a — AGYLLA or CAERE.] , George Dennis at Bill Thayer's Website.
[ Aerial photo and map] at

*Tarquinia, Tarquinii or Corneto, a UNESCO site. Approximately 6000 graves dating from the Villanovan (9th & 8th centuries BC) distributed in necropolises, the main one being the Monterozzi hypogea of the 6th - 4th centuries BC. About 200 painted tombs display murals of various scenes with call-outs and descriptions in Etruscan. Elaborately carved sarcophagi of marble, alabaster and nenfro include identificatory and achievemental inscriptions. The Tomb of the Orcus at the Scatolini necropolis depicts scenes of the Spurinna family with call-outs. [A history of the tombs at Tarquinia and links to descriptions of the most famous ones is given at [] on]

* Inner walls and doors of tombs and sarcophagi.
* Engraved steles (tombstones)
* ossuaries

Inscriptions on portable objects


Votive gifts


A speculum is a circular or oval hand-mirror used predominantly by Etruscan women. Speculum is Latin; the Etruscan word is malena or malstria. Specula were cast in bronze as one piece or with a tang into which a wooden, bone or ivory handle fitted. The reflecting surface was created by polishing the flat side. A higher percentage of tin in the mirror improved its ability to reflect. The other side was convex and featured intaglio or cameo scenes from mythology. The piece was generally ornate. [For pictures and a description refer to the " [ Etruscan Mirrors] " article at]

About 2300 specula are known from collections all over the world. As they were popular plunderables, the provenance of only a minority is known. An estimated time window is 530-100 BC. [For the dates, more pictures and descriptions, see the " [ Hand Mirror with the Judgment of Paris] " article published online by the Allen Memorial Art Museum of Oberlin College.] Most probably came from tombs.

Many bear inscriptions naming the persons depicted in the scenes, for which reason they are often called picture bilinguals. In 1979, Massimo Pallottino, then president of the "Istituto di Studi Etruschi ed Italici" initiated the Committee of the "Corpus Speculorum Etruscanorum" (CSE), which resolved to publish all the specula and set editorial standards for doing so.

Since then the committee has grown, acquiring local committees and representatives from most institutions owning Etruscan mirror collections. Each collection is published in its own fascicle by diverse Etruscan scholars. [Representative examples can be found in the U.S. Epigraphy Project site of Brown University: [] , [] ]


A cista is a bronze container of circular, ovoid or more rarely rectangular shape used by women for the storage of sundries. They are ornate, often with feet and lids to which figurines may be attached. The internal and external surfaces bear carefully crafted scenes usually from mythology, usually intaglio, rarely part intaglio, part cameo.

Cistae date from the Roman Republic of the 4th and 3rd centuries BC in Etruscan contexts. They may bear various short inscriptions concerning the manufacturer or owner or subject matter. The writing may be Latin, Etruscan or both.

Excavations at Praeneste, an Etruscan city turned Roman, turned up about 118 cistae, one of which has been termed "the Praeneste cista" or "the Ficoroni cista" by art analysts, with special reference to the one manufactured by Novios Plutius and given by Dindia Macolnia to her daughter, as the archaic Latin inscription says. All of them are more accurately termed "the Praenestine cistae." [Paggi, Maddalena. "The Praenestine Cistae" (October 2004), New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, in [ Timeline of Art History] .]

Rings and ringstones

Among the most plunderable portables from the Etruscan tombs of Etruria are the finely engraved gemstones set in patterned gold to form circular or ovoid pieces intended to go on finger rings. Of the magnitude of one centimeter, they are dated to the Etruscan floruit from the 2nd half of the 6th to the 1st centuries BC. The two main theories of manufacture are native Etruscan [ [ Classic Encyclopedia] .] and Greek. [ [ Beazley Archive] .]

The materials are mainly dark red cornelian with agate and sard coming in from the 3rd to the 1st centuries BC along with purely gold finger rings of a hollow engraved bezel. The engravings, mainly cameo, but sometimes intaglio, depict scarabs at first and then scenes from Greek mythology, often with heroic personages called out in Etruscan. The gold setting of the bezel bears a border design, such as cabling.


Etruscan-minted coins date ca. 500-200 BC. Use of the Euboïc-Syracusan standard, based on the silver litra of 13.5 grams maximum, indicates the custom, like the alphabet, came from Greece. Roman coinage supplanted Etruscan, but the basic Roman coin, the sesterce, is believed to have been based on the 2.5 denomination Etruscan coin. [ [ Ancient Coins of Etruria] .] Etruscan coins have turned up in caches or individually in tombs and in excavations seemingly at random, concentrated, of course, in Etruria.

Etruscan coins were in gold, silver and bronze, the gold and silver usually having been struck on one side only. The coin bore a denomination, a minting authority name, and a cameo motif. Gold denominations were in units of silver; silver, in units of bronze. Full or abbreviated names are mainly pupluna (Populonia), Vatl or Veltuna (Vetulonia), Velathri (Volaterrae), Velzu or Velznani (Volsinii) and Cha for Chamars (Camars). Insignia are mainly heads of mythological characters or depictions of mythological beasts arranged in a symbolic motif: Apollo, Zeus, Janus, Athena, Hermes, griffin, gorgon, sphinx, hippocamp, bull, snake, eagle, etc.

Recent discoveries

A book of gold sheets bound with gold rings went on display in May 2003 at the National History Museum in Sofia, Bulgaria. It consists of six bound sheets of 24-carat (100%) gold, with low-reliefs of a horseman, a mermaid, a harp and soldiers, with text. It was claimed to have been discovered about 1940 in a tomb uncovered during digging for a canal along the Strouma river in south-western Bulgaria, kept secretly and anonymously donated by its 87-year-old owner, living in the Republic of Macedonia. [ [ BBC News report] .]


In the tables below, conventional letters used for transliterating Etruscan are accompanied by likely pronunciation in symbols within the square brackets, followed by examples of the early Etruscan alphabet which would have corresponded to these sounds:


The Etruscan vowel system consisted of four distinct vowels. Vowels "o" and "u" appear to have not been phonetically distinguished based on the nature of the writing system where only one symbol is used to cover both in loans from Greek (e.g. Greek Polytonic|κώθων "kōthōn" > Etruscan "qutun" "pitcher").



* Available for preview on Google Books.
* cite book
authorlink = Giuliano Bonfante
last = Bonfante | first = Giuliano
coauthors = Bonfante, Larissa
title = The Etruscan Language: an Introduction
location = Manchester
publisher = University of Manchester Press
year = 2002
id = ISBN 0-7190-5540-7
Preview available on Google Books.
* cite book
author=Bonfante, Larissa
location=Berkeley and Los Angeles
publisher=University of California Press
id= ISBN 0-520-07118-2
Preview available at Google Books.
* cite book
author = Mario Alinei
title = Etrusco: una forma arcaica di ungherese
location= Bologna | publisher=Le edizioni del Mulino
year = 2003

* cite book
authorlink = Mauro Cristofani
last = Cristofani | first = Mauro
coauthors = "et al"
title = Gli Etruschi: una nuova immagine
publisher = Firenze, Giunti Martello
year = 1984

* cite book
authorlink = Mauro Cristofani
last = Cristofani | first = Mauro
title = The Etruscans: A New Investigation (Echoes of the ancient world)
publisher = Orbis Pub
year = 1979
id = ISBN 0-85613-259-4

* cite book
authorlink=Massimo Pallottino
title=The Etruscans
publisher=Penguin Books
Translated from the Italian by J. Cremona.
* cite book
authorlink = Helmut Rix
last = Rix | first = Helmut
title = Etruskische Texte
publisher = G. Narr
year = 1991
id = ISBN 3-8233-4240-1
2 vols.
* cite book
authorlink = Dieter H. Steinbauer
last = Steinbauer | first = Dieter H.
title = Neues Handbuch des Etruskischen
publisher = Scripta Mercaturae
year = 1999
id = ISBN 3-89590-080-X

* Woudhuizen, Frederik Christiaan. April 2006. " [ The Ethnicity of the Sea Peoples] ". Doctoral dissertation; Rotterdam: Erasmus Universiteit Rotterdam, Faculteit der Wijsbegeerte.

See also

* Corpus Inscriptionum Etruscarum
* Etruscan alphabet
* Etruscan civilization
* Etruscan documents
** "Liber Linteus" — An Etruscan linen book that ended as mummy wraps in Egypt.
** "Tabula Cortonensis" — An Etruscan inscription.
** "Cippus perusinus" — An Etruscan inscription.
** "Pyrgi Tablets" — Bilingual Etruscan-Phoenician golden leaves.
* Etruscan mythology
* Etruscan numerals
* Lemnian language
* List of English words of Etruscan origin
* List of Spanish words of Etruscan origin
* Raetic language
* Tyrsenian languages

External links


* [ Etruscan News Online] , the Newsletter of the American Section of the Institute for Etruscan and Italic Studies.
* [ Etruscan News back issues] , Center for Ancient Studies at New York University.
* [ Etruscology at Its Best] , the website of Dr. Dieter H. Steinbauer, in English. Covers origins, vocabulary, grammar and place names.
* [ Viteliu: The Languages of Ancient Italy] at
* [ The Etruscan Language] , the site. Links to many other Etruscan language sites.


* [ ETP: Etruscan Texts Project] A searchable database of Etruscan texts.
* " [ Etruscan Inscriptions in the Royal Ontario Museum] ", article by Rex Wallace displayed at the site.
* [ Etruscan; The Pyrgi Bilingual] , paper by Michael Weiss, Cornell University.

Lexical items

* [ An Etruscan Vocabulary] at A short, one-page glossary with numerals as well.
* [ Etruscan Vocabulary] , a vocabulary organized by topic at, in English.
* [ Etruscan-English Dictionary] at An extensive lexicon compiled from other lexicon sites. Links to the major Etruscan glossaries on the Internet are included.


* [ Etruscan and Early Italic Fonts] , download site by James F. Patterson at

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