A vanished people, a lost language

The script of the Etruscan people who dominated northern Italy before Roman times seems easy to read: it’s written in Greek characters. But mysteriously no clear relationship between Etruscan and any other language has yet been found.

Around 800 BCE a sophisticated civilisation began to emerge in the area of Italy now known as Tuscany. The Etruscans flourished for the next 800 hundred years, working with copper and trading it as a commodity. They were skilled soldiers, architects and artists, and much of their handiwork survives today.

More than 10,000 Etruscan inscriptions have been discovered. Most are funerary epitaphs bearing only the dead person’s name, title, age and parentage. Since the late 19th century, scholars have only succeeded in building up a vocabulary of a few hundred words. Hopes soared in 1964 when a text surfaced in Pyrgi, a major Etruscan seaport and centre of religion now known as Santa Severa located west of Rome, .

Dating from 500 BCE, the Pyrgi gold tablets carry a bilingual text in Etruscan and Phoenician engraved on three gold leaves, one for the Phoenician and two for the Etruscan. The Etruscan language portion has 16 lines and 37 words, but it defies transliteration.

Etruscan writing was phonetic, with the letters representing sounds and not conventional spellings. Many of the funerary inscriptions appear to be highly abbreviated and often casually formed, so identifying individual letters is difficult. It’s almost as if the Etruscans used a kind of shorthand.

Several Latin authors were familiar with the Etruscans’ rich literature. Unfortunately, only one book (today unreadable) has survived. By 100 CE, Etruscan had been replaced by Latin. The last person known to have been able to read Etruscan was the Roman emperor Claudius (10 BCE – 54 CE), who was interested enough to write 20-volume treatise about the people.

The general consensus is that the Etruscan language is related only to other members of what is called the Tyrsenian family. Another Aegean language which was thought to be possibly related to Etruscan is Minoan. But in 2006, it was proposed that Etruscan belongs to the Anatolian branch of the Indo-European family, specifically to Luwian, an extinct language of the Anatolian branch of the Indo-European language family. The Etruscans may have come from Anatolia, whence they were driven by the Cimmerians in the early Iron Age, 750–675 BCE.

The English writer D. H. Lawrence travelled in Tuscany in 1927. His Sketches of Etruscan Places and other Italian Essays (1932) recount a visit to the tombs of the Tarquins, the family that gave Etruscan kings to early Rome. Lawrence noted:

“There are the writings on the wall, and in the burial niches in the wall above the long double-tier stone bed; little sentences freely written in red paint or black, or scratched in the stucco with the finger, slanting with the real Etruscan carelessness and fullness of life, often running downwards, written from right to left. We can read these debonair inscriptions, that look as if someone had just chalked them up yesterday without a thought, in the archaic Etruscan letters, quite easily. But when we have read them we don’t know what they mean… The Etruscan language is a mystery. Yet in Caesar’s day it was the everyday language of the bulk of the people in central Italy – at least, east-central. And many Romans spoke Etruscan as we speak French. Yet now the language is entirely lost. Destiny is a queer thing.”

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