Illyrian language

Last updated
Region of Illyria, Southeast Europe
(Modern Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Serbia)
Linguistic classification Indo-European
  • Illyrian
ISO 639-3 xil
Glottolog illy1234  (Illyrian)

The Illyrian language ( /ɪˈlɪriən/ ) was a language or group of languages spoken in the western Balkans in Southeast Europe during antiquity. The language is unattested with the exception of personal names and placenames. Just enough information can be drawn from these to allow the conclusion that it belonged to the Indo-European language family.


In ancient sources, the term "Illyrian" is applied to a wide range of tribes settling in a large area of South-Eastern Europe, including Ardiaei, Delmatae, Pannonii, Autariates, Taulantii and others (see list of ancient tribes in Illyria). It is not known to what extent all of these tribes formed a homogeneous linguistic group, but the study of the attested eponyms has led to the identification of a linguistic core area in the south of this zone, roughly around what is now Albania and Montenegro, where Illyrian proper is believed to have been spoken.

Little is known about the relationships beteween Illyrian and its neighboring languages. For lack of more information, Illyrian is typically described as occupying its own branch in the Indo-European family tree. A close relationship with Messapic, once spoken in southern Italy, has been suggested but remains unproven. A relationship with Venetic and Liburnian has also been discussed but is now rejected by most scholars. Among modern languages, Albanian is often conjectured to be a surviving descendant of Illyrian, although this too remains unproven.

In the early modern era and up to the 19th century, the term "Illyrian" was also applied to the modern Southern Slavic language of Dalmatia, today identified as Serbo-Croatian. This language is unrelated to ancient Illyrian.


Illyrian tribes in the western Balkan Peninsula. Illyrian Tribes (English).svg
Illyrian tribes in the western Balkan Peninsula.

Illyrian was part of the Indo-European language family. Its relation to other Indo-European languages—ancient and modern—is poorly understood due to the paucity of data and is still being examined. Today, the main source of authoritative information about the Illyrian language consists of a handful of Illyrian words cited in classical sources, and numerous examples of Illyrian anthroponyms, ethnonyms, toponyms and hydronyms. Given the scarcity of the data it is difficult to identify the sound changes that have taken place in Illyrian; the most widely accepted one is that the Indo-European voiced aspirates /bʰ/, /dʰ/, /ɡʰ/ became voiced consonants /b/, /d/, /ɡ/. [1] [2]

A grouping of Illyrian with the Messapian language has been proposed for about a century, and reintroduced recently by Joachim Matzinger. [3] The theory is based on classical sources, archaeology and onomastics. The material culture of the Messapians bears a number of similarities to Illyrian material culture. Some Messapian anthroponyms have close Illyrian equivalents. Another grouping with the Venetic language and Liburnian language, once spoken in northeastern Italy and Liburnia, respectively, has also been proposed. The consensus now is that Illyrian was quite distinct from both. [4] [5]

Centum versus satem

In the absence of sufficient lexical data and texts written in Illyrian, the theories supporting the centum character of the Illyrian language have been based mainly on the centum character of the Venetic language, which was thought to be related to Illyrian, in particular regarding Illyrian toponyms and names such as Vescleves, Acrabanus, Gentius, Clausal etc. [6] The relation between Venetic and Illyrian was later discredited and they are no longer considered closely related. [7] Scholars supporting the satem character of Illyrian highlight particular toponyms and personal names such as Asamum, Birzinimum, Zanatis etc. in which these scholars see satem-type reflexes of Indo-European roots. They also point to other toponyms including Osseriates derived from /*eghero/ (lake) [8] or Birziminium from PIE /*bherǵh/ [9] or Asamum from PIE /*aḱ-mo/ (sharp). [10] [11]

Even if the above-mentioned Venetic toponyms and personal names are accepted as Illyrian in origin, it is not clear that they originated in a centum language. Vescleves, Acrabanus, Gentius and Clausal are explained by proponents of the hypothesis that Illyrian had a centum character, through comparison with IE languages such as Sanskrit or Ancient Greek, or reconstructed PIE. For example, Vescleves has been explained as PIE *wesu-ḱlewes (of good fame). [2] [12] Also, the name Acrabanus as a compound name has been compared with Ancient Greek /akros/ with no signs of palatalization, [1] or Clausal has been related to /*klew/ (wash, rinse). [13] In all these cases the supporters of the centum character of the Illyrian language consider PIE *ḱ > /*k/ or PIE *ǵ > /*g/ followed by an /l/ or /r/ to be evidence of a centum character of the Illyrian language. However, it has been shown that even in Albanian and Balto-Slavic, which are satem languages (with some uncertainty surrounding Albanian), the palatovelars have been generally depalatized (the depalatization of PIE *ḱ > *k and *ǵ > *g before /r/ and /l/ regularly in Albanian) in this phonetical position. [14] The name Gentius or Genthius does not help either as there are two Illyrian forms for it, Genthius and Zanatis. If Gentius or Genthius derives from *ǵen- ("to be born"), this is proof of a centum language, but if the name Zanatis is similarly generated (or from *ǵen-, "know") then Illyrian is a satem language. [10] Another problem related to the name Gentius is that it cannot be stated whether the initial /g/ of the sources was a palatovelar [15] or a labiovelar. [16]

Taking into account the absence of sufficient data and sometimes the dual nature of their interpretation, the centum/satem character of the Illyrian language is still uncertain and requires more evidence. [1] [2] [9]


The Greeks were the first literate people to come into frequent contact with Illyrian speakers. Their conception of "Illyrioi", however, differed from what the Romans would later call "Illyricum". The Greek term encompassed only the peoples who lived on the borders of Macedonia and Epirus. Pliny the Elder, in his work Natural History, still applies a stricter usage of the term Illyrii when speaking of Illyrii proprie dicti ("Illyrians properly so-called") among the native communities in the south of Roman Dalmatia.

For a couple of centuries before and after the Roman conquest in the late 1st century BC, the concept of Illyricum expanded towards the west and north. Finally it encompassed all native peoples from the Adriatic to the Danube, inhabiting the Roman provinces of Dalmatia, Pannonia and Moesia, regardless of their ethnic and cultural differences.

An extensive study of Illyrian names and territory was undertaken by Hans Krahe in the first decades of the twentieth century. He and other scholars argued for a broad distribution of Illyrian peoples considerably beyond the Balkans, [17] though in his later work, Krahe curbed his view of the extent of Illyrian settlement. [18]

The further refinements of Illyrian onomastic provinces for that Illyrian area included in the later Roman province were proposed by Géza Alföldy. [19] He identified five principal groups: (1) "real Illyrians" south of the river Neretva and extending south of the provincial boundary with Macedonia at the river Drin to include the Illyris of north and central Albania; (2) the Delmatae who occupied the middle Adriatic coast between the "real Illyrians" and the Liburni; (3) the Venetic Liburni of the northeast Adriatic; (4) the Japodes who dwelt north of the Delmatae and beyond the Liburni, where names reveal a mixture of Venetic, Celtic and Illyrian; and (5) the Pannonian people north in Bosnia, Northern Montenegro, and western Serbia.

These identifications were later challenged by Radoslav Katičić [20] [21] who on the basis of personal names which occur commonly in Illyricum distinguished three onomastic areas: (1) South-Eastern Illyrian, extending southwards from the southern part of Montenegro and including most of Albania west of the river Drin, though its demarcation to the south remains uncertain; (2) Central Illyrian consisting of most of ex-Yugoslavia, north of southern Montenegro to the west of Morava, excepting ancient Liburnia in the northwest, but perhaps extending into Pannonia in the north; (3) Liburnian, whose names resemble those of the Venetic territory to the northeast.

The onomastic differences between the South-Eastern and Central areas are not sufficient to show that two clearly differentiated dialects of Illyrian were in use in these areas. [9] However, as Katičić has argued, the core onomastic area of Illyrian proper is to be located in the southeast of that Balkan region, traditionally associated with the Illyrians (centered in modern Albania). [22] [23]

Traditionally Illyrian has referred to any non-Celtic language in the northwestern Balkans. Recent scholarship from the 1960s and on tends to agree that the region inhabited by Illyrian tribes can be divided into three distinct linguistic and cultural areas, of which only one can be properly termed "Illyrian". [24] No written texts regarding self-identification exist from the Illyrians [25] and no inscriptions in Illyrian exist, with the only linguistic remains being place names (toponyms) and some glosses. [24]


Since there are no Illyrian texts, sources for identifying Illyrian words have been identified by Hans Krahe [18] as being of four kinds: inscriptions, glosses of Illyrian words in classical texts, names—including proper names (mostly inscribed on tombstones), toponyms and river names—and Illyrian loanwords in other languages. The last category has proven particularly contentious. The names occur in sources that range over more than a millennium, including numismatic evidence, as well as posited original forms of placenames. [18] There are no Illyrian inscriptions (Messapian inscriptions are treated separately, and there is no consensus that they are to be reckoned as Illyrian). The spearhead found at Kovel and thought by some to be Illyrian [26] is considered by the majority of runologists to be Eastern Germanic, and most likely Gothic, while a votive inscription on a ring found near Shkodër which was initially interpreted as Illyrian was shown to actually be Byzantine Greek. [27]


Illyrian proper went extinct between the 2nd and 6th centuries AD, [28] [29] with the possible exception of a branch that may have survived and developed into Albanian.

It has also been posited that Illyrian was preserved and spoken in the countryside, as attested in the 4th-5th century testimonies of St. Jerome. [30] [31]

See also

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The Illyrians were a group of Indo-European speaking tribes, who inhabited the western Balkan Peninsula in ancient times. They constituted one of the three main Paleo-Balkan populations in the Balkans, along with the Thracians and Greeks.

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This article contains information about Illyrian vocabulary. No Illyrian texts survive, so sources for identifying Illyrian words have been identified by Hans Krahe as being of four kinds: inscriptions, glosses of Illyrian words in classical texts, names—including proper names, toponyms and river names—and Illyrian loanwords in other languages. The last category has proven particularly contentious. The names occur in sources that range over more than a millennium, including numismatic evidence, as well as posited original forms of placenames. The Messapian language, which may or may not be related, does have a small attested corpus, but it is not in this page's scope due to the uncertainty about its relationship to Illyrian.


  1. 1 2 3 Mallory & Adams 1997.
  2. 1 2 3 Christidis, Arapopoulou & Chritē 2007.
  3. Joazhim Matzinger (2016). Die Altbalkanischen sprachen, p. 19 Link
  4. Wilkes 1995 , p. 183: "We may begin with the Venetic peoples, Veneti, Carni, Histri and Liburni, whose language set them apart from the rest of the Illyrians."
  5. Wilkes 1995 , p. 81: "In Roman Pannonia the Latobici and Varciani who dwelt east of the Venetic Catari in the upper Sava valley were Celtic but the Colapiani of the Colapis (Kulpa) valley were Illyrians (north Pannonian), exhibiting names such as Liccaius, Bato, Cralus, Lirus and Plassarus."
  6. Boardman 1982 , Polomé, Edgar C. "Balkan Languages (Illyrian, Thracian and Daco-Moesian), pp. 866-888; Birnbaum & Puhvel 1966 , Hamp, Eric P. "The Position of Albanian", pp. 97-121.
  7. Andersen 2003 , p. 22.
  8. Christidis, Arapopoulou & Chritē 2007 , p. 746.
  9. 1 2 3 Woodard 2008.
  10. 1 2 Mallory & Adams 1997 , p. 288
  11. Christidis, Arapopoulou & Chritē 2007 , p. 748.
  12. Blench 1999 , p. 250; Woodard 2008 , p. 259; Fortson 2004 , p. 35.
  13. Boardman 1982 , p. 874: "Clausal, river near Scodra, may be derived from an IE theme *klew- 'wash, rinse (: Gk. κλύζω, Lat. cluō, 'purge')."
  14. Kortlandt 2008; Hamp 1960 , pp. 275–280; Demiraj 1988 , p. 44; Demiraj 1996 , p. 190.
  15. Krahe 1955 , p. 50
  16. Mayer 1957 , p. 50.
  17. Krahe 1925.
  18. 1 2 3 Krahe 1955.
  19. Alföldy 1964 , pp. 55–104.
  20. Benać 1964 , Katičić, Radoslav. "Suvremena istrazivanja o jeziku starosjedilaca ilirskih provincija – Die neuesten Forschungen über die einheimische Sprachschicht in den illyrischen Provinzen", pp. 9-58.
  21. Katičić 1965 , pp. 53–76; Katičić 1976.
  22. Katičić 1976 , pp. 179–180.
  23. Suić and Katičić question the existence of a separate people of Illyrii. For them, Illyrii proprie dicti are peoples inhabiting the heartland of the Illyrian kingdom; Suić, M. (1976) "Illyrii proprie dicti" ANUBiH 11 gcbi 11, 179-197. Katičić, R. (1964) "Illyrii proprie dicti" ZAnt 13-14, 87-97 Katičić, R. (1965) "Nochmals Illyrii proprie dicti" ZAnt 16, 241-244. This view is also supported in Papazoglu, F. (1989) "L'organisation politique de l'Illyrie meridionale (A propos du livre de P. Cabanes sur "Les Illyriens de Bardylis a Genthios")" ZAnt. 39, 31-53.
  24. 1 2 Fortson, Benjamin W. (2011). Indo-European Language and Culture: An Introduction. John Wiley & Sons. p. 465. ISBN   9781444359688.
  25. Roisman, Joseph; Worthington, Ian (2011). A Companion to Ancient Macedonia. John Wiley & Sons. p. 279. ISBN   9781444351637.
  26. Gustav Must, reviewing Krahe 1955 in Language32.4 (October 1956), p. 721.
  27. Ognenova 1959 , pp. 794–799.
  28. Fol 2002 , p. 225: "Romanisation was total and complete by the end of the 4th century A.D. In the case of the Illyrian elements a Romance intermediary is inevitable as long as Illyrian was probably extinct in the 2nd century A.D."
  29. Eastern Michigan University Linguist List: The Illyrian Language.
  30. Fortson 2004 , p. 405: "Although they were to play an important role in the Roman army and even furnished later Rome with several famous emperors (including Diocletian, Constantine the Great and Justinian I), the Illyrians never became fully assimilated Romans and kept their language."
  31. Wilkes 1995 , p. 266: "Alongside Latin the native Illyrian survived in the country areas, and St Jerome claimed to speak his 'sermo gentilis' (Commentary on Isaiah 7.19)."


Further reading