Italic Languages
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Italic Languages

EthnicityOriginally the Italic peoples
Originally the Italian peninsula, parts of today's Austria and Switzerland, today southern Europe, Latin America, Canada, and the official languages of half the countries of Africa.
Linguistic classificationIndo-European
ISO 639-5itc
Main linguistic groups in Iron-Age Italy and environs. Some of those languages have left very little evidence, and their classification is quite uncertain. The Punic language brought to Sardinia by the Punics coexisted with the indigenous and non-Italic Paleo-Sardinian, or Nuragic.

The Italic languages form a branch of the Indo-European language family, whose earliest known members were spoken in the Italian Peninsula in the first millennium BC. The best known of them is Latin, the official language of the Roman Empire, which conquered the other Italic peoples before the common era. The other Italic languages became extinct in the first centuries AD as their speakers were assimilated into the Roman Empire and shifted to some form of Latin. Between the third and eighth centuries AD, Vulgar Latin (perhaps influenced by language-shift from the other Italic languages) diversified into the Romance languages, which are the only Italic languages natively spoken today.

Besides Latin, the known ancient Italic languages are Faliscan (the closest to Latin), Umbrian and Oscan (or Osco-Umbrian), and South Picene. Other Indo-European languages once spoken in the peninsula, whose inclusion in the Italic branch is disputed, are Aequian, Vestinian, Venetic and Sicel. These long-extinct languages are known only from inscriptions in archaeological finds.

In the first millennium BC, several (other) non-Italic languages were spoken in the peninsula, including members of other branches of Indo-European (such as Celtic and Greek) as well as at least one non-Indo-European one, Etruscan.

It is generally believed that those 1st millennium Italic languages descend from Indo-European languages brought by migrants to the peninsula sometime in the 2nd millennium BC.[4][5][6] However, the source of those migrations and the history of the languages in the peninsula are still the matter of debate among historians. In particular, it is debated whether the ancient Italic languages all descended from a single Proto-Italic language after its arrival in the region, or whether the migrants brought two or more Indo-European languages that were only distantly related.

With over 800 million native speakers, the Romance languages make Italic the second-most-widely spoken branch of the Indo-European family, after Indo-Iranian. However, in academia the ancient Italic languages form a separate field of study from the medieval and modern Romance languages. This article focuses on the ancient languages. For the others, see Romance studies.

All Italic languages (including Romance) are generally written in Old Italic scripts (or the descendant Latin alphabet and its adaptations), which descend from the alphabet used to write the non-Italic Etruscan language, and ultimately from the Greek alphabet.

History of the concept

Historical linguists have generally concluded that the ancient Indo-European languages of the Italian peninsula, that were not identifiable as belonging to other branches of Indo-European such as Greek, all belonged to a single branch of the family, parallel for example to Celtic and Germanic. The founder of this theory is Antoine Meillet.[7]

This unitary theory has been criticized by, among others, Alois Walde, Vittore Pisani and Giacomo Devoto, who proposed that the Latino-Faliscan and Osco-Umbrian languages constituted two distinct branches of Indo-European. This view gained acceptance in the second half of the 20th century,[8] though proponents such as Rix would later reject the idea, and the unitary theory remains dominant.[9]


The following classification, proposed by Michiel de Vaan (2008), is generally agreed on,[10] although some scholars have recently rejected the position of Venetic within the Italic branch.[11]


Bronze Age

Proto-Italic was originally spoken by Italic tribes north of the Alps. Early contacts with Celtic and Germanic speakers are also suggested by linguistic evidence.[5]Italic peoples probably moved towards the Italian Peninsula during the second half of the 2nd millennium BCE, gradually reaching the southern regions.[5][6]

Although an equation between archeological and linguistic evidence cannot be established with certainty, the Proto-Italic language is generally associated with the Terramare (1700-1150 BCE) and Proto-Villanovan culture (1200-900 BCE).[5]

Languages of pre-Roman Italy and nearby islands: N1, Rhaetian; N2, Etruscan: N3, North Picene (Picene of Novilara); N4, Ligurian; N5, Nuragic; N6, Elymian; N7, Sicanian; C1, Lepontic; C2, Gaulish; I1, South Picene; I2, Umbrian; I3, Sabine; I4, Faliscan; I5, Latin; I6, Volscian and Hernican; I7, Central Italic (Marsian, Aequian, Paeligni, Marrucinian, Vestinian); I8, Oscan, Sidicini, Pre-Samnite; I9, Sicel; IE1, Venetic; IE2, Messapian; G1-G2-G3, Greek dialects (G1: Ionic, G2: Aeolic, G3: Doric); P1, Punic.

Languages of Italy in the Iron Age

At the start of the Iron Age, around 700 BC, Ionian Greek settlers from Euboea established colonies along the coast of southern Italy.[28] They brought with them the alphabet, which they had learned from the Phoenicians; specifically, what we now call Western Greek alphabet. The invention quickly spread through the whole peninsula, across language and political barriers. Local adaptations (mainly minor letter shape changes and the dropping or addition of a few letters) yielded several Old Italic alphabets.

The inscriptions show that, by 700 BC, many languages were spoken in the region, including members of several branches of Indo-European and several non-Indo-European languages. The most important of the latter was Etruscan, attested by evidence from more than 10,000 inscriptions and some short texts. No relation has been found between Etruscan and any other known language, and there is still no clue about its possible origin (except for inscriptions on the island of Lemnos in the eastern Mediterranean). Other possibly non-Indo-European languages present at the time were Rhaetian in the Alpine region, Ligurian around present-day Genoa, and some unidentified language(s) in Sardinia. Those languages have left some detectable imprint in Latin.

The largest language in southern Italy, except Ionic Greek spoken in the Greek colonies, was Messapian, known due to some 260 inscriptions dating from the 6th and 5th centuries BC. There is a historical connection of Messapian with the Illyrian tribes, added to the archaeological connection in ceramics and metals existing between both peoples, which motivated the hypothesis of linguistic connection. But the evidence of Illyrian inscriptions is reduced to personal names and places, which makes it difficult to support such a hypothesis.

It has also been proposed that the Lusitanian language may have belonged to the Italic family.[2][29]

Timeline of Latin

In the history of Latin of ancient times, there are several periods:

As the Roman Republic extended its political dominion over the whole of the Italian peninsula, Latin became dominant over the other Italic languages, which ceased to be spoken perhaps sometime in the 1st century AD. From Vulgar Latin, the Romance languages emerged.

The Latin language gradually spread beyond Rome, along with the growth of the power of this state, displacing, beginning in the 4th and 3rd centuries BC, the languages of other Italic tribes, as well as Illyrian, Messapian and Venetic, etc. The Romanisation of the Italian Peninsula was basically complete by the 1st century BC; except for the south of Italy and Sicily, where the dominance of Greek was preserved. The attribution of Ligurian is controversial.

The period of late Latin (2nd to 6th centuries) is characterised by a gap between written and folk-spoken language: the regional differentiation of the people's Latin was accelerated, the formation of Romance languages, finally separated by the 9th century, began on its basis; written Latin continued to be used for a long time in the administrative sphere, religion, diplomacy, trade, school, medicine, science, literature, and remains the language of the Catholic Church and the official language of the Vatican City.


Prehistory of Italy

The Italian peninsula has been inhabited by tool-making hominids since at least 730,000 BC, by Neanderthals since 120,000 BC, and by anatomically modern humans since about 35,000 BC.[28]

The Pleistocene glaciations caused the human populations of central and northern Europe to migrate southwards. At the height of the last Ice Age (about 35,000 to 13,000 BC), the sea level was about 120 meters below its present state, which radically changed the geography of the Mediterranean.[28]

Agriculture reached the peninsula from the Middle East between 7000 and 6000 BC, marking the start of the Neolithic. The seminomadic hunter-gathering lifestyle was replaced by a sedentary society, with large fortified villages and an economy based on agriculture and animal husbandry. While raised primarily as a source of meat, by 3000 BC domesticated animals were being exploited for traction (of plows and carts) and other product such as milk and wool. The making of wine and olive oil was learned from Greece by about that time.[28]

Metallurgy also spread through the Mediterranean at this time, first of copper around 3000 BC, then bronze around 2300 BC. Use of the latter for weapons, armor, and other artifacts marks the beginning of the Bronze Age. Around 700 BC, the development of iron smelting and steelmaking marked the beginning of the Iron Age in the region.[28]

Origin theories

The main debate concerning the origin of the Italic languages mirrors that on the origins of the Greek ones,[30] except that there is no record of any "early Italic" to play the role of Mycenaean Greek.

All we know about the linguistic landscape of Italy is from inscriptions made after the introduction of the alphabet in the peninsula, around 700 BC onwards, and from Greek and Roman writers several centuries later. The oldest known samples come from Umbrian and Faliscan inscriptions from the 7th century BC. Their alphabets were clearly derived from the Etruscan alphabet, which was derived from the Western Greek alphabet not much earlier than that. There is no reliable information about the languages spoken before that time. Some conjectures can be made based on toponyms, but they cannot be verified.

There is no guarantee that the intermediate phases between those old Italic languages and Indo-European will be found. The question of whether Italic originated outside Italy or developed by assimilation of Indo-European and other elements within Italy, approximately on or within its current range there, remains.[31]

An extreme view of some linguists and historians is that there is no such thing as "the Italic branch" of Indo-European. Namely, there never was a unique "Proto-Italic", whose diversification resulted in those languages. Some linguists, like Silvestri[32] and Rix,[33] further argue that no common Proto-Italic can be reconstructed such that (1) its phonological system may have developed into those of Latin and Osco-Umbrian through consistent phonetic changes, and (2) its phonology and morphology can be consistently derived from those of Proto-Indo-European. However, Rix later changed his mind and became an outspoken supporter of Italic as a family.

Those linguists propose instead that the ancestors of the 1st millennium Indo-European languages of Italy were two or more different languages, that separately descended from Indo-European in a more remote past, and separately entered Europe, possibly by different routes and/or in different epochs. That view stems in part from the difficulty in identifying a common Italic homeland in prehistory,[34] or reconstructing an ancestral "Common Italic" or "Proto-Italic" language from which those languages could have descended. Some common features that seem to connect the languages may be just a sprachbund phenomenon - a linguistic convergence due to contact over a long period,[35] as in the most widely accepted version of the Italo-Celtic hypothesis.[undue weight? ]

Bakkum defines Proto-Italic as a "chronological stage" without an independent development of its own, but extending over late Proto-Indo-European and the initial stages of Proto-Latin and Proto-Sabellic. Meiser's dates of 4000 BC to 1800 BC, well before Mycenaean Greek, are described by him as "as good a guess as anyone's".[36]

Schrijver argues for a Proto-Italo-Celtic stage, which he suggests was spoken in "approximately the first half or the middle of the 2nd millennium BC",[37] from which Celtic split off first, then Venetic, before the remainder, Italic, split into Latino-Faliscan and Sabellian.[38]


General and specific characteristics of the pre-Roman Italic languages:

  • in phonetics: Oscan (in comparison with Latin and Umbrian) preserved all positions of old diphthongs ai, oi, ei, ou, in the absence of rhotacism, the absence of sibilants[clarification needed], in the development of kt > ht; a different interpretation of Indo-European kw and gw (Latin qu and v, Osco-Umbrian p and b); in the latter the preservation of s in front of nasal sonants and the reflection of Indo-European *dh and *bh as f; initial stress (in Latin, it was reconstructed in the historical period), which led to syncopation and the reduction of vowels of unstressed syllables;
  • in morphology: 5 declensions and 4 conjugations; reduplication and lengthening of the root vowel; preservation of the locative in Osco-Umbrian; differences in the formation of the future tense, perfect tense and the infinitive; the use of postpositions in Osco-Umbrian;
  • in the syntax: many convergences; In Osco-Umbrian, impersonal constructions, parataxis, partitive genitive, temporal genitive and genitive relationships are more often used;
  • in the lexicon: a significant number of lexemes inherited from Proto-Indo-European; the presence of words unique to the western area of the Indo-European linguistic community; the presence of Osco-Umbrian lexemes, which do not have a correspondence in Latin; borrowing from Etruscan, etc., unknown pre-Indo-European languages of Italy, a large number of borrowings from Greek.


The Italic languages share a certain number of isoglosses and common phonetic changes with respect to the common Proto-Indo-European:

  • Evolution of labial stops: *p > p, *b > b, *b?- > f-, -*b?- > -b-, (-f-)
  • Evolution of alveolar stops: *t > t, *d > d. Latin, for example, has *d > l, as in PIE *dnga > lingua or archaic Latin *odor > olor, olere.
  • Evolution of aspirated stops at the beginning of a word: *b?- > f-, -*d?- > f-.
Proto-Indo-European Venetic Faliscan Latin Oscan Umbrian
*b?réh?tr 'brother'
fr?ter fratu frater
*d?eh?lyo 'son'
filea 'sister'
f?lius fel
  • Evolution of velars: *k > k (c), *g > g, *g?- > h-
  • *k? > k? (qu) / k (c), *g? > v/g/f
  • Evolution of liquids: *l > l and *r > r.
  • Evolution of non-syllabic nasals: *Vm > Vm, *mV > mV, *Vn > Vn, *nV > nV (here V denotes any vowel) and the syllabic nasals: *Cm(C) > Cem(C) and *Cn(C) > Cen(C) (here C represents any consonant).
  • Evolution of semivowels: *w > v, *y > i.


In grammar there are basically three innovations shared by the Osco-Umbrian and the Latino-Faliscan languages:

  • A suffix in the imperfect subjunctive *-s?- (in Oscan the 3rd person singular of the imperfect subjunctive fusíd and Latin foret, both derivatives of *fus?d)
  • A suffix in the imperfect indicative *-f?- (Oscan fufans 'they were', in Latin this suffix became -b?- as in portab?mus 'we carried').
  • A suffix to derive adjectives from verbs *-ndo- (Latin operandam 'which will be built'; in Osco-Umbrian there is the additional reduction -nd- > -nn-, Oscan úpsannam 'which will be built', Umbrian pihaner 'which will be purified').

In turn, these shared innovations are one of the main arguments in favour of an Italic group, questioned by other authors.

In addition, Latin and other Italic languages have an innovative future form derived from *-b, *-b?esi, *-b?eti, .... This form appears for example in the Latin form amabo et amabis 'I shall love and you shall love' and in the Faliscan form cra carefo ('tomorrow I will not have', Latin cr?s car?bo).

Lexical comparison

Among the Indo-European languages, the Italic languages share a higher percentage of lexicon with the Celtic and the Germanic ones, three of the four traditional "centum" branches of Indo-European (together with Greek).

The following table shows a lexical comparison of several Italic languages:

Gloss Latino-Faliscan Osco-Umbrian Proto-
Faliscan Old
Oscan Umbrian
'1' *ounos ?nus *un?s, acc. *unu *

*oinos *oinos *ainaz
'2' du *du? du? *dos, f. *duas
*du? *dw?u *twai
'3' tris tr?s (m.f.)
tria (n.)
*tres ?
? (m.f.)
trif (m.f.)
triia (n.)
*tr?s (m.f.)
*tri? (n.)
*tr?s *þr?z
'4' quattuor *k?att?r

*k?ettw?r *k?etwares *fedw?r
'5' *quique quinque *kink -
*k?enk?e *k?enk?e *fimf
'6' ?ex *sex sex *s?ks *?
*seks *swexs *sehs
'7' *?epten septem *s?pte
*septem *sextam *sebun
'8' oktu oct? *?kto *?
*okt? *oxt? *aht?u
'9' *neven novem *n?we *
*nowen *nawan *newun
'10' decem *d?ke
*dekem *dekam *tehun

The asterisk indicates reconstructed forms based on indirect linguistic evidence and not forms directly attested in any inscription.

Map showing the approximate extent of the centum (blue) and satem (red) areals.

From the point of view of Proto-Indo-European, the Italic languages are fairly conservative. In phonology, the Italic languages are centum languages by merging the palatals with the velars (Latin centum has a /k/) but keeping the combined group separate from the labio-velars. In morphology, the Italic languages preserve six cases in the noun and the adjective (nominative, accusative, genitive, dative, ablative, vocative) with traces of a seventh (locative), but the dual of both the noun and the verb has completely disappeared. From the position of both morphological innovations and uniquely shared lexical items, Italic shows the greatest similarities with Celtic and Germanic, with some of the shared lexical correspondences also being found in Baltic and Slavic.[39]

P-Italic and Q-Italic languages

Similar to Celtic languages, the Italic languages are also divided into P- and Q-branches, depending on the reflex of Proto-Indo-European *k?. In the languages of the Osco-Umbrian branch, *k? gave p, whereas the languages of the Latino-Faliscan branch preserved it (Latin qu [k?]).

See also


  1. ^ Prósper, Blanca Maria; Villar, Francisco (2009). "Nueva Inscriptión Lusitana Procedente de Portalegre". EMERITA, Revista de Lingüística y Filología Clásica (EM). LXXVII (1): 1-32. Retrieved 2012.
  2. ^ a b Villar 2000.
  3. ^ Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds. (2017). "Italic". Glottolog 3.0. Jena, Germany: Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History.
  4. ^ Mallory & Adams 1997, p. 314-319.
  5. ^ a b c d Bossong 2017, p. 859.
  6. ^ a b Forston 2004, p. 245.
  7. ^ Villar 2000, pp. 474-475.
  8. ^ Villar 2000, pp. 447-482.
  9. ^ Paolo Pocetti, "The Documentation of Italic", in Handbook of Comparative and Historical Indo-European Linguistics: An International Handbook, vol. 2, ed. Jared Klein, Brian Joseph, and Matthias Fritz (Berlin: de Gruyter, 2017), 1-19. ISBN 311052175X, 9783110521757
  10. ^ de Vaan 2008, p. 5: "Most scholars assume that Venetic was the first language to branch off Proto-Italic, which implies that the other Italic languages, which belong to the Sabellic branch and to the Latino-Faliscan branch, must have continued for a certain amount of time as a single language."
  11. ^ Bossong 2017, p. 859: "Venetic, spoken in Venetia, was undoubtedly Indo-European. It is safe to assume that it formed an independent branch by itself, rather than a subgroup of Italic."
  12. ^ a b c d e de Vaan 2008, p. 5.
  13. ^ Fortson 2017, p. 836.
  14. ^ Polomé, Edgar C. (1992). Lippi-Green, Rosina (ed.). Recent Developments in Germanic Linguistics. John Benjamins Publishing. p. 50. ISBN 978-90-272-3593-0.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
  15. ^ a b c Poccetti 2017, p. 738.
  16. ^ a b c de Vaan 2008, p. 14.
  17. ^ Bossong 2017, p. 863: "Up to the middle of the 2nd century BCE (conquest of Carthage and Greece) the language was uniform; no differences between 'higher' and 'lower' styles can be detected." p. 867: "From a strictly linguistic point of view, the Strasbourg Oaths are just an instantaneous snapshot in the long evolution from Latin to French, but their fundamental importance lies in the fact that here a Romance text is explicitly opposed to a surrounding text formulated in Latin. Romance is clearly presented as something different from Latin."
  18. ^ Posner 1996, p. 98.
  19. ^ Herman 2000, p. 113: "That is, the transformation of the language, from structures we call Latin into structures we call Romance, lasted from the third or fourth century until the eighth."
  20. ^ Fortson 2004, p. 258: "The earliest Romance language to be attested is French, a northern variety of which first appears in writing in the Strasbourg Oaths in or around the year 842 (...) it had diverged more strongly from Latin than the other varieties closer to Italy."
  21. ^ Eduardo Blasco Ferrer, Peter Koch, Daniela Marzo (2017). Manuale di linguistica sarda, De Gruyter, Manuals of Romance Linguistics. Aspetti Esterni, Sardo antico (2.4), Le manifestazioni scritte in sardo antico (4.2)
  22. ^ Bossong 2017, p. 867.
  23. ^ Bossong 2017, pp. 861-862.
  24. ^ a b c d e de Vaan 2008, p. 2.
  25. ^ a b c d Baldi 2017, p. 804.
  26. ^ a b Vine 2017, p. 752.
  27. ^ Brixhe 2017, p. 1854: "The Siculian language is widely believed to be of Indo-European, Italic origin..."
  28. ^ a b c d e "history of Europe : Romans". Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved 2012.
  29. ^ Francisco Villar, Rosa Pedrero y Blanca María Prósper
  30. ^ Leppänen, Ville (1 January 2014). "Geoffrey Horrocks,Greek: A History of the Language and its Speakers (2nd edn.). Wiley-Blackwell, Chichester, 2010. Pp. xx + 505". Journal of Greek Linguistics. 14 (1): 127-135. doi:10.1163/15699846-01401006. ISSN 1566-5844.
  31. ^ Silvestri 1998, p. 325
  32. ^ Silvestri, 1987
  33. ^ Rix, 1983, p. 104
  34. ^ Silvestri 1998, pp. 322-323.
  35. ^ Domenico Silvestri, 1993
  36. ^ Bakkum 2009, p. 54.
  37. ^ Schrijver 2016, p. 490
  38. ^ Schrijver 2016, p. 499
  39. ^ Douglas Q., Adams (1997). Encyclopedia of Indo-European Culture. Taylor & Francis. pp. 316-317.


Further reading

  • Adams, Douglas Q., and James P. Mallory. 1997. "Italic Languages." In The Encyclopedia of Indo-European Culture. Edited by James P. Mallory and Douglas Q. Adams, 314-319. Chicago: Fitzroy Dearborn.
  • Baldi, Philip. 2002. The Foundations of Latin. Berlin: de Gruyter.
  • Beeler, Madison S. 1966. "The Interrelationships within Italic." In Ancient Indo-European Dialects: Proceedings of the Conference on Indo-European Linguistics held at the University of California, Los Angeles, April 25-27, 1963. Edited by Henrik Birnbaum and Jaan Puhvel, 51-58. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.
  • Coleman, Robert. 1986. "The Central Italic Languages in the Period of Roman Expansion." Transactions of the Philological Society 84.1: 100-131.
  • Dickey, Eleanor, and Anna Chahoud, eds. 2010. Colloquial and Literary Latin. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.
  • Joseph, Brian D., and Rex J. Wallace. 1991. "Is Faliscan a Local Latin Patois?" Diachronica 8:159-186.
  • Pulgram, Ernst. 1968. The Tongues of Italy: Prehistory and History. New York: Greenwood.
  • Rix, Helmut. 2002. Handbuch der italischen Dialekte. Vol. 5, Sabellische Texte: Die Texte des Oskischen, Umbrischen und Südpikenischen. Indogermanische Bibliothek. Heidelberg, Germany: Winter.
  • Stuart-Smith, Jane (2004). Phonetics and Philology: Sound Change in Italic. Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-925773-7.
  • Silvestri, Domenico (1995). "Las lenguas itálicas" [The Italic languages]. Las lenguas indoeuropeas [The Indo-European languages] (in Spanish). ISBN 978-84-376-1348-2.
  • Tikkanen, Karin. 2009. A Comparative Grammar of Latin and the Sabellian Languages: The System of Case Syntax. PhD diss., Uppsala Univ.
  • Villar, Francisco (1997). Gli Indoeuropei e le origini dell'Europa [Indo-Europeans and the origins of Europe] (in Italian). Bologna, Il Mulino. ISBN 978-88-15-05708-2.
  • Wallace, Rex E. 2007. The Sabellic Languages of Ancient Italy. Languages of the World: Materials 371. Munich: LINCOM.
  • Watkins, Calvert. 1998. "Proto-Indo-European: Comparison and Reconstruction" In The Indo-European Languages. Edited by Anna Giacalone Ramat and Paolo Ramat, 25-73. London: Routledge.

External links

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