The etruscan language riddle

By Enio Pecchioni (1975)

Scholars can not yet entirely translate the language spoken in Etruria in historic times. The innumerable attempts made by the greatest masters in linguistics and philology have failed to decipher a language which was spoken in Tuscany up the beginning of the Christian era and which the Etruscan priests must have used both in Tuscany and in Rome itself up to the end of th 5th century A.D.

In othe fields, there has been no lack of discoveries which have permitted us to understand idioms seemingly even more difficult to tackle than Etruscan. Some years ago, the Hittite pictographic language was deciphered and, quite recently, the language spoken by the Mycenaeans, known as Linear B, as well. In all cases the difficulties were duly overcome and the solution of the problems has opened up a magnificent field to linguistic research. The wide interest rightly aroused by the deciphering of Mycenaean at once springs to mind; since from it we learn that at Mycenae and in Crete the language spoken in the second millenium B.C. was very close to Homeric Greek.

Also the Etruscans used a language near to Greek, and with a Greek alphabet, but this language was not Indo-European and probably connected with certain pre-Hellenic languages of eastern Mediterranean. A related language was still used on Lemnos in the archaic period, as the inscription on the stele of Caminia proves.

Yet let us examine the exact nature of the problem with Etruscan, what progress has been made in deciphering it and what obstacles remain in the way of its interpretation.

The Etruscan linguistic material that has come down to us is far from negligible. The soil of Italy has furnished us with about ten thousand inscriptions, engraved or painted on all kinds of manufactured objects. These are epigraphic texts whose great number does not deceive us; actually, nearly all are limited to a few words. Nine-tenths of the inscriptions are of a funerary nature and these brief epitaphs tell us only the name of the deceased, his parentage and the age at wich he died.

We can read them, for the Etruscan alphabet does not present any real difficulty; for centuries scholars have interpreted these obscure texts easily, but the problems increase when we are faced with longer inscriptions, which are unfortunately very rare. In fact, only about ten texts consist of more than one line; only two, one engraved on a tile discovered at Capua, and the other on a cippus near Perugia, consist of about a hundred words.

To these we should add a handwritten text of considerable length. Curiously enough, it is written on the twelve linen wrappings of an Egyptian mummy of the Ptolemaic period, known as Mummy of Agram ( the former German name of Zagreb), it contains 1185 words but with so many repetitions that its total vocabulary numbers only 530 words; it was discovered in Alexandria and is preserved today in the Zagreb Museum. It is, more or less, nothing else than a linen book, put to an unexpected use. This text is one of the foundations of Etruscological research. It has been possible to ascertain that it is a kind of sacred calendar, enumerating religious ceremonies to be carried out in honour of the gods. The text has been divided into a number of paragraphs and the general sense of the different passages is known. But many points remain obscure, and thus this fundamental text is far from being entirely understood.

To these direct sources of information on the Etruscan language we must add the glossaries of Etruscan words furnished by ancient authors, particularly compilers like Hesychius of Alexandria. When Sir Thomas Dempster, one of the pioneers of Etruscology, composed his great work on Etruria in 1616-1619, he was mindful enough to include this precious material which today is still one of the few clearly defined areas of knowledge. Thus we learn that in Etruscan aisoi meant the gods, capys a falcon, falado the sky, cassis a helmet, lanista a gladiator. Let us add to this the names of the months to be found in a Liber Glossarum of the 8th century A.D. The name of the month of June, aclus, appears in th form of acale in the manuscript of the Agram Mummy.

All this is very valuable but gives us the meaning of a mere thirty words. In the course of the most recent period of research the epigraphic material known has been enriched thanks to excavations carried out in various parts of “Etruria” and to chance discoveries. Even so, nothing in all this brings us nearer to the solution we so greatly desire.

Some languages initially presented more difficult problems of interpretation than Etruscan. They contained in fact, two uncertainties, the script on the one hand, and the meaning of the words on the other. The Etruscan alphabetic system no longer presents any serious difficulty and its close kinship to the Greek alphabet, as we have seen, has long been recognised. The last Etruscan symbol causing difficulty was the simbol + which was wrongly interpreted as a T , whilst in 1936 Eva Fiesel identified it as a sibilant. It is thus perfectly easy today read Etruscan inscriptions.

But Etruscan script certainly poses a problem, an historical one.

Can the fact that Etruscan borrowed a certain type of alphabet from the Greek in any way elucidate the difficult question of their origin?

The archaic Greek alphabets must be divided into two large groups, known as Western and Eastern alphabets. The first gives X the value of x , and the Y the value of CH.

One of the ancients alphabets found in Etruscan soil, the alphabet of Marsiliana d’Albegna, daiting back to about 670 B.C. (discovered in 1915 by Prof. Minto), has a typically western character. The question remains as to how this alphabet came to be borrowed. Those supporting the eastern origin theory think it was borrowed by the Etruscans when they were still in their “native Anatolia”. Infact, tha alphabet of Marsiliana still includes the three sibilants of Phoenician origin, particularly the one called “samech”, which, as far we know, no western alphabet has. The borrowing of the Etruscan script would thus appear to go back to a period prior to the division of the Greek alphabets into western and eastern groups, prior to the beginning of the Hellenic colinisation of South Italy. According to this assumption, the Etruscans would only have made this borrowing before their migration from the East.

This argument however, is not decisive because also the Greek alphabets of southern Italy might have influenced the Etruscan language.

We can not exclude that Etruscans borrowed their alphabet from a Greek colony in the south of the Italian peninsula, in particular from Cumae, whose Chalcidian alphabet shows many analogies with the Etruscan. So it is not easy to decide for the one or the other assumption.

The lack of a true Etruscan Rosetta stone permits only to strike a balance between the various attempts scholars have made, with a tenacity not always favoured by fate. We have only a few bilingual inscriptions from Etruria, epitaphs of the Hellenistic period; they are too short to be of much use, but even they have added some single words to our vocabulary, such as lautni = freedom, and etera = slave. One can attempt to discover the hiddeng meaning of an Etruscan text in two ways: either by the so called etymological and deductive method, whereby Etruscan is compared with a language to which it is believed to be related and which is already known, or by the so called combinatory or inductive method introduced by W. Deecke in 1875, which advocates the opportunity to study the Etruscan with the Etruscan. This latter metod does not attempt any external comparison and limits itself, as we have seen, to studying Etruscan through Etruscan, with comparisons between similar terms and formulae used in different texts, made to identify the meaning of the words and phrases under study.

We must admit that the etymological method has, till now, almost failed.

All attempts to find points of resemblance between the Etruscan language and any other idiom have been fruitless. Efforts have been made to explain the Etruscan through Greek, Latin, Sanskrit, Hebrew, Hungarian and the Anatolian languages, to mention only the most frequently attempted comparisons. In the present state of our knowledge, Etruscan stands apart from all known language families and it seems impossible to find any distant cousin. This does not mean that, used carefully and in a very limited examples the ethymological method may not serve a useful purpose. Etruscan, in fact, having been spoken in the centre of the peninsula was not cut off from the neighbouring idioms. Loans between the various civilisation were inevitable; this took place between Etruscan, Latin and Umbrian. The analysis of such borrowings enables us to explane one set of terms through another. To judge by the repeated failures of the deductive method it would appear that Etruscan does not belong to the great family of Indo-European languages.

The presence in Etruscan of some words related to Indo-European such as nefts = nepos a grandson, sac = sacni, which recalls the Latin sanctus and the Umbrian saahta, and tur, to give, which is close to the Greek doron, present no difficulty; for these are, in fact, borrowings made by Etruscan from geographically adjacent languages. Several other examples could be quoted which merely prove the weak penetration of Indo-European elements into Etruscan vocabulary in the course of centuries. But the construction of the Etruscan sentence has nothing Indo-European about it, nor has the system of the verb as a whole.

Thus one cannot distinguish the active and the passive; as for conjugations, they too do not fit into the coherent system of Indo-European conjugations.

Quite apart from Graeco-Latin glosses, a fairly large number of Etruscan words can be understood. These concrete results have been achieved by analysing and comparing short epigraphic texts. At the same deductions were drawn from the nature of the objects bearing the texts.

Funerary inscriptions, chiefly those coming from the same tomb, have thus, by comparative analysis, given the meaning of the main words denoting kinship: clan (son), sex (daughter), nefts (grandson), ati (mother), puia (wife).There are also many votive inscriptions, cut on bronze figurines and other ex-voto dedicated to the gods. Since many of these begin with mi fleres one must presume that fleres means “offering”. Objects in tombs are often inscribed with the single word suthina and this suggests that “suthina” should be translated “funeral gift” or something of the sort. Similarly, we have mi spanti “I am the plate of…”, mi culixna “I am the cup of…”. The same inscriptions have revealed without trouble the meaning of the constantly recurring term lupuce “he is dead”. Formulae indicating the age of the deceased have given us the meaning of avils “years”.

Also we now know that the frequent amce is related with a verbal form and translated “he was”. And thanks to the Liver of Piacenza with the similar Babylonian and Hittite terracotta livers for divination help us to understand some others words like usil (sun) and tiv (moon).

Thus, gradually, we have found out the meaning of a restricted but basic vocabulary, enabling us to understand very exactly short epithaphs as: VELTUR LARISAL CLAN CUCLNIAL TANXVILUS LUPU AVILS XXV, meaning “ Veltur, son of Laris Tanaquilla died at the age of twenty five” (CIE 5426). Difficulties arise when the funerary inscriptions become longer and contain information about the life and career of the deceased.

The meaning of the majority of words used escapes us, and the combinatory method, even applied with the greatest care, has not yet thrown any light on the true meaning either of the terms used or of the ideas expressed.

But an ingenious discovery has given rise to another supplementary technique, know as the bilingual or parallel text method. It emerges more and more clearly that there were reciprocal influences, at different periods, between the various peoples of the Italic peninsula: Etruscans, Latins, Umbrians and Greeks. So the obscure ritual formulae of prayers we discover in Etruscan texts can be compared with Latin and Umbrian rituals which are bound to show fundamental and formal analogies.

This method has already been attempted for the exegesis of the long texts of Capua tile and the Zagreb book. The collation of the ritual rules described in the latter text, of the brief Roman prayers handed down to us by Cato in his De Re Rustica, and verses of prayers on the Umbrian tables in Gubbio, have enabled us to elucidate certain passages and certain formulae of the Etruscan ritual. Naturally, the application of such bilingual method requires the greatest circumspaction; for, if it is possible to ascertain certain analogies between Etruscan writings and Latin or Umbrian, the danger lies in establishing a connection between formulae that are not identical or not even analogous. Research must be carried out, therefore, with the greatest precautions. Nevertheless, the creation of artificial bilingual texts are encouraging.

Work on Etruscan linguistic has gained momentum in recent years. The transcription into Etruscan of well-known names of the Greek mitology, names of heroes and gods, enables us to grasp fully the fundamental phonetic rules of the Etruscan language. At an early date vocalisation was more devoloped than in more recent periods, and variations in the sound of vowels are frequent. Thus the same feminine first name occurs in the form of Ramatha, Rametha, Ramutha and Ramtha. We note cases of vowel harmony e.g. Klytaimnestra in Greek corresponds to the form Clutumustha, Menelaus to Menle. In general, the soundless consonants tend to be transformed into aspirates, and aspirates into fricatives. C is changed into CH, T into TH, P into PH and F. At the beginning of the word the aspirate or fricative becomes often the simple aspirate H. A characteristic lack is that of the voiced consonants B, D, G, which were unknown in Etruscan, at least in historical times. The first syllable of the word is strongly stressed and the frequent result is a syncope of the vowels in the unstressed syllable. This occurs particularly in the later period and produces complex consonant clusters. To the Greek Alexandros thus correspond in Etruscan the forms Alechsantre, Elchantre.

In the field of morphology, our knowledge is by no means negligible.

A number of important facts are now clear to us. The actual structure of the Etruscan language appears to be very different from that of Indo-European languages. Suffixes used in word formation are interchangeable, and certain grammatical categories are vague. A curious fact is the superposition of different suffixes express a given grammatical function.

The very usual name Larth thus has two genitives, Larthal and Larthals, the latter representing the inflexion of an already inflected form.

It is not easy to reconstruct actual declensions but we can distinguish two groups by the form of the genitive which ends either in S or in L. We can identify personal pronouns, thus mi and mini are forms of the first person.

Yet the Etruscans verb continues causing us serious problems; the form very clear to us is the third person singular of the perfect in ce; e.g. mulvenice means “he has dedicated”, turce “he has given”.

We have spoken of the deciphering of a certain number of Etruscan words by various methods. In all, about a hundred roots are at present clearly understood. They permit us to interpret more or less completely the very brief funerary inscriptions in which the same formulae recur. But as soon as words with more complicated concepts appear in the eulogies of the dead or on longer inscriptions, words absent from the brief epithaphs, literal translations become almost impossible.

Discussion still continues concerning the three terms which undoubtedly designate the three major magistratesphips in Etruscan cities: Zilath, Purthne and Marunuch; but despite efforts of the best brains their exact meaning is still debated.

In the course of the last few years, research on the great ritual texts found on the tile of Santa Maria di Capua and on the linen book of the Zagreb mummy has been particularly active. The conclusions, deserving support, are that the rites are enumerated in detailed commandments. All the above reminds us of the Umbrian rituals of the Gubbio tablets. The Agram text specifies the necessary sequence of the ceremonies and is apparently a religious calendar, giving the months and the days on which feasts should be celebrated. The Capua ritual has a funerary character and gives us an idea of the nature of the famous books of Acheron, which contained the Etruscan doctrine on death and on life after death.

The complicated punctuation of Etruscan texts was completed only a short time ago; it enables us to go deeper into them with the result that interpretation becomes less obscure. This has been the case with the Capua tile whose text was more or less unintelligible before the problem of punctuation was solved; the stops follow consonants at the end of a syllable, as well as the voiced consonants at the beginning of the words; this strange system does not appear in the most ancient inscriptions and is known only from the middle of the 6th century B.C. onward.

What has been said above shows the point reached in research on the Etruscan language. Methods of approach have undoubtedly been perfected and enriched, and studies are no longer groping in the dark. At the same time, slow but sure progress has been made in all the sectors of this difficult problem. A grammar of the Etruscan language is now possible and, for istance, we have also found a difference between southern and northern Etruscan: in the area of Volterra, Fiesole and Arezzo, at the end of the VI cent, B.C. we have the same graphological tradition: “alpha” is angular, “epsilon” and “digamma” inclined, “rho” triangular, “sigma” opposite in respect of the direction of the inscription.

What can we expect from the future? If the material available to scholars is not enriched, progress in Etruscan hermeneutics will probably be slow; each new conquest will be achieved trough a vast number of efforts, few of which will prove successful. It is unlikely that a comparison with any other known tongue, so far not attempted, should cast new light on the nature of the Etruscan language. However, it is not unreasonable to hope for a change in the situation, through the discovery, either in the East or in the former Etruria, of unexpected documents which might shed more light onto the mistery.

The Etruscan soil and the continued excavations encouraged by the increasing number of findings, may yet produce a key document, or above all a bilingual text, in Etruscan and Latin. Such bilingual documents must in all probability have existed and been posted on the walls of Etruscan cities, after their conquest by Rome, during the centuries when the Tuscan population and the Romans co-existed, sharing the same life-style and the same laws.

Recently the ancient soil of Tarquinia has yielded fascinating eulogies, written in Latin, but dealing with the life of Etruscan citizens of a very remote period whose offspring wished to honour them in a dignified manner with laudatory inscriptions. These texts, altough short and very mutilated, have cast valuable light on the public institutions of Etruscan cities. We can imagine what benefit the linguists might derive from similar texts, written in two languages. It would mean that at last the riddle of the Etruscan language could be solved and full light cast on a problem which all efforts have hitherto been unable to unravel.

Edifying literature held by Mr. Enio Pecchioni


Saturday (04.oo pm.), November 6th, 1982