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Etruscan language


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The Etruscan language is no longer obscure and mysterious, even if there are still large gaps in our knowledge of its grammar and lexicon and in our understanding of the texts—larger than is the case with other languages of comparable attestation. For access to Etruscan is made harder by its genealogical isolation. The only language that has so far been shown to be ‘related’ to Etruscan, i.e. to be descended from a common source, is the pre‐Greek idiom of Lemnos, and the evidence even for this is limited to just a few texts. It may at best provide some support for the Lydian claim reported by Herodotus that the Etruscans came from Lydia.

Our sources for Etruscan are: (a)c.9,000 epigraphic texts, dated c.700–10bc; (b) a linen book, two‐thirds of which (c.1,500 words) is preserved in the binding of an Egyptian mummy; (c) 40–50 glosses, i.e. meanings given for Etruscan words in Latin or Greek texts; (d) a series of Etruscan loanwords in Latin and of Latin or Greek loanwords in Etruscan. The number and usefulness of the glosses is limited. The Etruscan–Latin bilingual inscriptions contain almost nothing but personal names. Beyond this, only an indirect approach to Etruscan is possible, consisting of three steps: (1) deducing the ‘message’ of the text from the archaeological context—possible only with context‐bound texts such as captions to images, signatures, or epitaphs; (2) breaking down the ‘message’ into its parts, to be correlated with parts of the text—possible only with short texts, and made easier by comparing similar texts in better‐known languages from the same cultural milieu; (3) checking the hypotheses thus produced by applying the values to all instances of a word or form; by this means access may also be gained to parts of longer context‐independent texts. Naturally this procedure does not provide an explanation of every detail.

(a)c.9,000 epigraphic texts, dated c.700–10bc; (b) a linen book, two‐thirds of which (c.1,500 words) is preserved in the binding of an Egyptian mummy; (c) 40–50 glosses, i.e. meanings given for Etruscan words in Latin or Greek texts; (d) a series of Etruscan loanwords in Latin and of Latin or Greek loanwords in Etruscan.

(1) deducing the ‘message’ of the text from the archaeological context—possible only with context‐bound texts such as captions to images, signatures, or epitaphs; (2) breaking down the ‘message’ into its parts, to be correlated with parts of the text—possible only with short texts, and made easier by comparing similar texts in better‐known languages from the same cultural milieu; (3) checking the hypotheses thus produced by applying the values to all instances of a word or form; by this means access may also be gained to parts of longer context‐independent texts.

The Etruscan script is an alphabet, taken over (before 700) from a (west) Greek school‐alphabet, and in its turn the source of the Latin script. It can therefore be read, i.e. we know roughly how the letters were pronounced. Etruscan is an agglutinating language. So in the noun, for instance, number and case are each marked by an individual affix: clan ‘son’, genitive clen‐s, pl. clen‐ar, gen. pl. clen‐ar‐as.

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Subjects: Classical Studies.


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