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    Language and Writing


 This page is partly based on educational material collected by our partner "
Mysterious Etruscans", 
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Language - Texts - Alphabet and reading - Numeral system
The present day notion that there is a "mystery" regarding the Etruscan writing is fundamentally erroneous; there exists no problem of decipherment.
But as always, we have to differenciate the spoken language, from its writing, that is to say the written transcription of its sounds.

Sometimes, the linguists have a hard time deciphering the writing of a known old language. Here, we have the opposite: the Etruscans used a well-known alphabet, but the real problem lies in the difficulty to understand the texts which we read easily, because we do not know the exact meaning of many written words, and moreover we know only rudiments of the grammatical forms.

The Etruscan language: indefinable origins    

A fundamental obstacle stems from the fact that no other known language has close enough kinship to Etruscan to allow a reliable, comprehensive, and conclusive comparison… This does not help us to know the origin of this people.

The apparent isolation of the Etruscan language had already been noted by the ancients; it is confirmed by repeated and vain attempts of some to link it to any other lost or living language.

However, there are in fact connections with Indo-European languages, particularly with the Italic languages, and also with more or less known non-Indo-European languages of western Asia and the Caucasus, the Aegean, Italy, and the Alpine zone as well as with the relics of the Mediterranean linguistic substrata revealed by place-names.

A relationship has been considered between Etruscan and a language recorded on the island of Lemnos, (VIème century B.C.) where a stele was found, bearing inscriptions in characters close to those of the Etruscans. A relation with Raetic, recorded in the Alps, was also noted, judging by a few inscriptions found.
Lastly, the Camunic language, sporadically noted in the North-West of Italy and written in Etruscan letters, may also have been related to Etruscan, but the evidence is too mean to allow any sure conclusion.

Some linguists consider that the Etruscan language would have parted quite early from the common root and would be related to the Lycian, for others to the Lydian language. They assigned thus Etruscan to pre-indo-european, proto-indo-european or peri-indo-european groups: in fact, the trend today would more be to say that Etruscan does not belong to the indo-european language group.

As a conclusion, the language is not completely isolated, but its roots are very old and mixed with those of other very old languages that were spoken in a geographical area extending from West-Asia to East-Central-Europe and to the Middle-Mediterranean area. It then may have evolved in Italy at the contact with pre-Indo-European and Indo-European.

It was spoken in ancent Etruria from the 8th century B.C. to the time of imperial Rome. It continued then to be studied by priests and scholars. The emperor Claudius (d. 54 A.D.) quoted Etruscan historians which he compared tho the roman ones. The sources were thus still preserved in his day. The final record of its use relates to the invasion of Rome by Alaric, chief of the Visigoths, in 410, when Etruscan priests were summoned to conjure lightning against the barbarians.

The Etruscan Corpus    

There is a corpus of over 10,000 known Etruscan inscriptions, with new ones being discovered each year. This quite a significant number, much more than we have from other Italic peoples (Sabines, Umbrians, Oscans, Faliscans and even Latins of the same time).
Most of inscriptions were found in Campania, Latium, Falerii, Faliscus, Veies, Caere, Tarquinia and also other places outside Etruria, depending on the trading routes (Sardinia, Narbonnese, Corsica, North Africa)

These are mainly short funerary or dedicatory inscriptions, abecedaria or, as in Greece, “speaking” inscriptions, for exemple, on a vase, mini muluvanece avile vipiiennas which may be translated by “I was given by Avile Vipienna" or, on a tomb from Orvieto, the inscription mi aveles sipanas, "I am (the tomb of) Avele Sipana". We may note here that Etruscans used names and forenames, which was not usual in Antiquity.

Such short texts, found on funerary urns, in tombs or on objects dedicated in sanctuaries, engraved on bronze mirrors, coins, dice, and pottery do not pose tough problems: the same words being often used (epitaphs, mentions of property or gifts, proper names), we globally understand their meaning.
On the other hand, for the rare longer texts which have been found, the meaning of rarely used words is often unknown, despite the recent progresses achieved.. We just know, on the whole, what those text are talking about.
The discovery of some large literary work would be a great help ! We know that an Etruscan religious literature did exist, and even the name of a playwright, Volnius, of obscure date, who wrote "Tuscan tragedies". Some of these works were translated in Latin, but event the translations have been lost.
An Etruscan origin may be found in some modern words derived from Latin, which took them over. A “Histrion”, a pejorative name for an actor, a "person" (in Latin, persona designates a theatre mask, and then the role) would come from Phersu, a masked and bearded character who appeared in Etruscan funerary performances. Finally "Mecene" was a Roman minister of Etruscan origin.

The most famous inscriptions

Now, if we have a good number of short inscriptions, texts with a significant length are so rare that each of them became famous. And we are still far from having a piece of literature ! Here are the most outstanding examples.

The mummy wrapping of Zagreb or "Liber Linteus"
A mummy found in Egypt in the 19th century and brought back to Yugoslavia by a traveller (National museum, Zagreb), was wrapped in a linen cloth, which had been originally a book made of cloth, which had been cut up into strips. With about 1,200 words, written in black ink on the linen, this text dating from the 1st century B.C. it is the longest existing Etruscan one. It contains a calendar and instructions for sacrifice, sufficient to convey some idea of Etruscan religious literature.

The Pyrgi Lamellae
Found in 1964 on the site of the ancient sanctuary of Pyrgi, the port city of Caere, these gold sheets provide two engraved texts (about 40 words) and a third in Phoenician, a known language, of similar content. This offered substantial data for the elucidation of Etruscan ! The find is also an important historical document, which records the dedication to the Phoenician goddess Astarte of a "sacred place" in the Etruscan sanctuary of Pyrgi by Thefarie Velianas, ruler or magistrate of Caere, early in the 5th century B.C.

The gold book of Sofia
Six other similar gold sheets assembled with rings, are kept at the National museum of Sofia. They show drawings with a rider, a siren, a harp, and a text. There are about thirty gold sheets, according to the curator of the department of archaeology at the museum of Sofia. The text has not been published yet .

The Tabula Cortonensis
The Tabula Cortonensis, discovered near Cortona in 1992, bears an inscription of 32 lines in Etruscan language. The text of the Tabula relates to a land transfer agreement between two parties, a kind of notarial act.
It is made of bronze (approximate dimensions: 50 by 30 cm, with a mean thickness of 2-3 mm) and was cut into eight fragments, of which one unfortunately has been lost. We can surmise that the table, once it had served its purpose, was broken in order to re-use the precious metal of which it was made.

The "Cippo perugino"
The cippo perugino (cippe of Perugia) is a stele (cippe) discovered in Colle San Marco in 1822, which relates also to a land agreement between two families (National archaeological museum of Umbria).

The Tabula Capuana
A terracotta plate dating from the 5th century B. C. was found in Capua in 1898. It bears a religious text (ritual calendar) of almost 400 words. It is kept in Berlin.

Alphabet and writing    

If the language poses problems, the writing does not.

It is purely alphabetic, without any ideogram, and its origin is not in doubt. The first alphabet was invented by Semitic-speakers in the ancient Near East, though the Caananite and later Phoenician alphabets had only consonants, and no vowels.
The Greeks derived their alphabet from the Phoenicians and added vowels, producing the first true alphabet, which experienced some local varieties. Euboean Greeks (colonists or mining prospectors) entered in contact with the Etruscans and acquired the alphabet from them (a western variety), in the 8th century B.C.

Of course, the Etruscans hat to adapt the alphabet to the phonetic features of their own language. Some consonants were useless for them, others were used for a different sound, and they added some signs like an F and the "san", a variety of the S. Obviously, there were variants from one Etruscan area to another, small local differences, and also some evolutions in the course of time. They wrote generally from right to left but in the late period also from left to right.

The Etruscans in turn passed on the alphabet to the Romans who again adapted it to their needs, and wrote from left to right. The Etruscan alphabet was also diffused at the end of the Archaic period (c. 500 B.C.) into northern Italy, becoming the model for the alphabets of the Veneti and of various Alpine populations; this happened concurrently with the formation of the Umbrian and the Oscan alphabets in the peninsula. The Germanic Runes (the Futharc) may also derive from the Northern Etruscan alphabet.

By the way, we may notice that the Etruscan abecedaria where often engraved on rather precious material, and that many inscriptions were found on women’s items (reels, mirrors…),which may uphold the opinion that writing was mostly known by aristocrats, and that women were not excluded from education.

A reading exercise

The following is an attempt to translate the (first) Pyrgi Tablet based on a number of sources. In the transliterataion was used an upper case K to represent the Etruscan letter "ch" (as in the German Bach). The Etruscan letter which resembles the Greek Theta, pronounced like "th" in "thing" is represented by the greek Theta "q".

Original Etruscan:


Rough Translation:

This temple and (this) statue have been dedicated to Uni / Astarte. Thefariei Velianas, head of the community, donated it for the worship of our peoples. This gift of this temple and sanctuary and the consecration of its boundaries during his three year term in the month of Xurvar(June?) in this way, and in Alsase (July?) this record together with the divinity/statue shall thus be buried by order of the Zilach that the years may outlast the stars.

As another example, a funerary inscription of Tarquinia, quoted by Jean-Paul Thuillier, illustrates our knowledge and its limits...


“Larth (first name) Felsnas (family name), son of Lethe (father’s name, which may also mean slave or descendant of a slave), lived 106 years. He has (.?.) Capua (.?.) by Hannibal"
The verbs MVRCE (active) and TLECHE (passive) remain mysterious. Does that mean for example that the deceased has "defended Capoue besieged by Hannibal", "liberated Capua taken by Hannibal" or " restored Capua ruined by Hannibal" ?

The numeral system    

First of all, the Etruscan used a base 10 (decimal) system. It followed the example of the systeme used in Attic, using as digit the first letter of the word they were called (except for 1, a simple bar), namely:
  • I for 1 (a bar),
  • G for 5 (PENTE, see ancient form of the letter P at the top of this page),
  • D for 10 (DEKA),
  • H for 100 (HEKATON),
  • C for 1000 (CILIOI),
  • M for 10000 (MURIOI),
They wrote:

Like their alphabet, the Etruscan transmitted their digits to the Romans. But for numbers, the Etruscans wrote IIII for 4 (and not IV as Romans did), and used systematically the substracting notation to represent numbers close to the upper unit, for instance for 17 (ci-em zathrum: 3 substracted from 20), 18 (esl-em zathrum: 2 substracted from 20), 19 (thun-em zathrum: 1 substracted from 20). The Romans used this less often: they wrote XIX for 19, but they wrote XVIII for 18 and not write XIIX.

It is noteworthy that the numeral system of the Etruscans, as the Greek and Roman one, was not very convenient when compared to ours (do you imagine how to divide CLXVII by XIX???), but even if some ancient systems were easier, arithmetics remained for a long time a complex technique!
Lastly, it should be noted that the names of the numbers do not bring any answer to the question of the origins of the Etruscans: they do not resemble those of any other old language: