Italic languages

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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 classification Indo-European
Proto-language Proto-Italic
ISO 639-5 itc
Glottolog ital1284 [3]
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 Carthaginians coexisted with the indigenous and non-Italic Paleo-Sardinian, or Nuragic. Iron Age Italy.png
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 Carthaginians 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 most important of the ancient languages was 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 CE as their speakers were assimilated into the Roman Empire and shifted to some form of Latin. Between the third and eighth centuries CE, 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 BCE, 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 BCE. [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 (1866–1936). [7]

This unitary theory has been criticized by, among others, Alois Walde (1869–1924), Vittore Pisani (1899–1990) and Giacomo Devoto (1897–1974), 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 1900s, [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, although some scholars have recently rejected the position of Venetic within the Italic branch. [10] [11]


Bronze Age

Proto-Italic was originally spoken by Italic tribes north of the Alps. Early contacts with Celtic tribes and Proto-Germanic speakers is also suggested by linguistic evidence. [5] Italic people eventually 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 Villanovan cultures (900–700 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. Italic-map.png
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. [26] 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] [27]

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. [26]

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. [26]

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. [26]

Metallurgy also spread though 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. [26]

Origin theories

The main debate concerning the origin of the Italic languages mirrors that on the origins of the Greek ones, [28] 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. [29]

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 [30] and Rix [31] , 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.

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, [32] 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, [33] as in the Italo-Celtic theory.

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". [34]


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


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

*bʰréh₂tr 'brother'
*dʰeh₁lyo 'son'
filea 'sister'


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

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 -bho, -bhis, -bhit, .... 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 crās carēbo).

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'*ounosūnus*unʊs, acc. *unu*𐌖𐌉𐌍𐌖𐌔
'2'du*duōduō*dos, f. *duas𐌃𐌖𐌔
'3'tristrēs (m.f.)
tria (n.)
𐌕𐌓𐌉𐌚 (m.f.)
𐌕𐌓𐌉𐌉𐌀 (n.)
trif (m.f.)
triia (n.)
*trēs (m.f.)
*trjā (n.)

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. Centum Satem map.png
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. [35]

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 *. In the languages of the Osco-Umbrian branch, * gave p, whereas the languages of the Latino-Faliscan branch preserved it (Latin qu[kʷ]).

See also

Related Research Articles

Indo-European languages Large language family originating in Eurasia

The Indo-European languages are a large language family native to western Eurasia. It comprises most of the languages of Europe together with those of the northern Indian Subcontinent and the Iranian Plateau. A few of these languages, such as English, have expanded through colonialism in the modern period and are now spoken across all continents. The Indo-European family is divided into several branches or sub-families, the largest of which are the Indo-Iranian, Germanic, Balto-Slavic and Romance groups. The most populous individual languages within them are Spanish, English, Hindustani (Hindi/Urdu), Portuguese, Bengali, Punjabi, and Russian, each with over 100 million speakers. German, French, Marathi, Italian, and Persian have more than 50 million each. In total, 46% of the world's population speaks an Indo-European language as a first language, by far the highest of any language family. There are about 445 living Indo-European languages, according to the estimate by Ethnologue, with over two thirds (313) of them belonging to the Indo-Iranian branch.

The Old Italic scripts are a set of similar ancient writing systems used in the Italian Peninsula between about 700 and 100 BCE, for various languages spoken in that time and place. The most notable member is the Etruscan alphabet, which was the immediate ancestor of the Latin alphabet currently used by English and many other languages of the world. The runic alphabets used in northern Europe are believed to have been separately derived from one of these alphabets by the 2nd century AD.

Oscan language Extinct language of southern Italy

Oscan is an extinct Indo-European language of southern Italy. The language is also the namesake of the language group to which it belonged. As a member of the Italic languages, Oscan is therefore a sister language to Latin and Umbrian.

Umbrian language Ancient Italic language

Umbrian is an extinct Italic language formerly spoken by the Umbri in the ancient Italian region of Umbria. Within the Italic languages it is closely related to the Oscan group and is therefore associated with it in the group of Osco-Umbrian languages. Since that classification was first formulated a number of other languages in ancient Italy were discovered to be more closely related to Umbrian. Therefore, a group, the Umbrian languages, was devised to contain them.

Samnium a Latin exonym for a region of Southern Italy anciently inhabited by the Samnites.

Samnium is a Latin exonym for a region of Southern Italy anciently inhabited by the Samnites. Their own endonyms were Safinim for the country and Safineis for the people. The language of these endonyms and of the population was the Oscan language. However, not all the Samnites spoke Oscan, and not all the Oscan-speakers lived in Samnium.

The Samnites were an ancient Italic people who lived in Samnium in south-central Italy. They became involved in several wars with the Roman Republic until the 1st century BC.

Venetic language language

Venetic is an extinct Indo-European language, usually classified into the Italic subgroup, that was spoken by the Veneti people in ancient times in northeast Italy and part of modern Slovenia, between the Po River delta and the southern fringe of the Alps.

Faliscan language Language

The Faliscan language is the extinct Italic language of the ancient Falisci who lived in Southern Etruria. Together with Latin, it formed the Latino-Faliscan languages group of the Italic languages. It seems probable that the language persisted, being gradually permeated with Latin, until at least 150 BC.

Etruscan alphabet The alphabet used by the Etruscans of central Italy

The Etruscan alphabet was the alphabet used by the Etruscans, an ancient civilization of central Italy, to write their language, from about 650 BCE to sometime around 100 BCE.

Volscian language language

Volscian was a Sabellic Italic language, which was spoken by the Volsci and closely related to Oscan and Umbrian.

Osco-Umbrian languages language family

The Osco-Umbrian, Sabellic or Sabellian languages are a group of Italic languages, the Indo-European languages that were spoken in Central and Southern Italy by the Osco-Umbrians before being replaced by Latin, as the power of Ancient Rome expanded. They developed from the middle of the 1st millennium BC to the early centuries of the 1st millennium AD. The languages are known almost exclusively from inscriptions, principally of Oscan and Umbrian, but there are also some Osco-Umbrian loanwords in Latin.

Latino-Faliscan languages Language family

The Latino-Faliscan or Latino-Venetic languages are a group of languages spoken by the Latino-Faliscan people of Italy beginning 1200 BC, belonging to the Italic languages, and are a group of the Indo-European languages.

In historical linguistics, Italo-Celtic is a grouping of the Italic and Celtic branches of the Indo-European language family on the basis of features shared by these two branches and no others. There is controversy about the causes of these similarities. They are usually considered to be innovations, likely to have developed after the breakup of the Proto-Indo-European language. It is also possible that some of these are not innovations, but shared conservative features, i.e. original Indo-European language features which have disappeared in all other language groups. What is commonly accepted is that the shared features may usefully be thought of as Italo-Celtic forms.

Italic peoples peoples who are or were native speakers of an Italic language, and are or were related to one of them

The Italic peoples were an Indo-European ethnolinguistic group identified by their use of Italic languages.

History of Latin aspect of history

Latin is a member of the broad family of Italic languages. Its alphabet, the Latin alphabet, emerged from the Old Italic alphabets, which in turn were derived from the Greek and Phoenician scripts. Historical Latin came from the prehistoric language of the Latium region, specifically around the River Tiber, where Roman civilization first developed. How and when Latin came to be spoken by the Romans are questions that have long been debated. Various influences on Latin of Celtic dialects in northern Italy, the non-Indo-European Etruscan language in Central Italy, and the Greek of southern Italy have been detected, but when these influences entered the native Latin is not known for certain.

South Picene language Ancient Italic language

South Picene is an extinct Italic language belonging to the Sabellic subfamily. It is apparently unrelated to the North Picene language, which is not understood and therefore unclassified. South Picene texts were at first relatively inscrutable even though some words were clearly Indo-European. The discovery in 1983 that two of the apparently redundant punctuation marks were in reality simplified letters led to an incremental improvement in their understanding and a first translation in 1985. Difficulties remain.

Latins (Italic tribe) historic Italic tribe

The Latins, sometimes known as the Latians, were an Italic tribe which included the early inhabitants of the city of Rome. From about 1000 BC, the Latins inhabited the small region known to the Romans as Old Latium, that is, the area between the river Tiber and the promontory of Mount Circeo 100 kilometres (62 mi) SE of Rome.

Proto-Italic language Ancestor of Latin and other Italic languages

The Proto-Italic language is the ancestor of the Italic languages, most notably Latin and its descendants, the Romance languages. It is not directly attested in writing, but has been reconstructed to some degree through the comparative method. Proto-Italic descended from the earlier Proto-Indo-European language.


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  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."
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Further reading