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Name Origin. The Romans called the inhabitants of the ancient region of Etruria, in the north-central Italic Peninsula, etrusci or tusci, but the Etruscans called themselves rasna or raśna.

Overview. The Etruscans were an indigenous people of pre-Roman Italy of unknown origin. Their homeland was in the west of the north-central region of the peninsula, between the Tiber and Arno rivers. They controlled upper and central Italy until the beginning of the fifth century BCE when their decline started. Towards the end of the millennium they were absorbed by the Romans and their language eventually died. Thanks to a number of inscriptions, it is possible to trace an outline of the Etruscan tongue and to know a basic vocabulary of about three hundred words. So far, Etruscan seems to be unrelated to any major language.

Classification. Etruscan is an isolate that is unrelated to any well-known language. Nevertheless, it is closely related to two badly documented ones: Lemnian, spoken in the Northeast Aegean, around the sixth century BCE and Rhaetic, spoken in the Alps region, between the fifth and first centuries BCE. Neither of these languages belong to the Indo-European family which was prevalent in the Italic Peninsula at the time.

Distribution and Speakers. Etruscan was originally spoken in northern central Italy, in the region of modern Tuscany, between the Arno and the Tiber Rivers and the Tyrrhenian Sea. It later spread into Emilia, Latium and Campania.

Status. Extinct. It is attested from the 7th century BCE until the 1st century CE.



Archaic Etruscan (from 7th to 6th c. BCE) coincides with the acme of Etruscan power.

Late Etruscan (from the 6th century BCE to the 1st century CE) is distinguished from Archaic Etruscan by phonological changes and the progressive influence of Latin.

Main Documents. Etruscan is attested by some 10,000 inscriptions, most of them brief. They include:

  1. Funerary engravings on tombs or sarcophagi most of which are short formulae.

  1. Short texts on everyday life objects with the name of the owner or the manufacturer.

  1. Set of three gold tablets (in Etruscan and Phoenician), discovered at Pyrgi, recording the dedication of a shrine to a Phoenician goddess by the local Etruscan ruler.

  1. The clay tablet of Capua (Tabula Capuana) is a ritual calendar of close to 400 words which constitutes the second longest Etruscan text.

  1. The bronze tablet of Cortona (Tabula Cortonensis) discovered in 1992 seems to be an inventory of wine vessels, salt and other goods, possibly related to a sale of real state or to an inheritance.

  1. The longest Etruscan text, 1200 words long, is a linen book (Liber Linteus Zagrabiensis) preserved as wrappings of an Egyptian mummy, harbored now in the Archeological Museum of Zagreb. It is some kind of ritual calendar.

  1. Glosses of Etruscan words provided by Classical writers, and Latin loanwords of Etruscan provenance.


Vowels. The vowel system of Etruscan had four simple vowels and four diphthongs:

  1. monophthongs: i,  e, a, u

  1. diphthongs: ei, ai, au, ui (in Late Etruscan also eu)

Before another vowel, the vowels i and u were realized, respectively, as the consonantal allophones y and v. Vowels may be lengthened in word-final position but vowel length is not phonemic in Etruscan.

Consonants. According to the traditional view, Etruscan had unaspirated and aspirated voiceless stops. It did not have voiced stops. Another view holds that instead of aspirated stops, Etruscan had two palatalized stops pj, tj, while a former palatalized velar *kj became the affricate ts. Besides the three fricatives listed here, an interdental (θ) and a velar fricative (x) may have existed. Glides occur as allophones of high vowels (i and u) before another vowel.


Stress. Though it is not represented in the Etruscan script, it falls usually on the initial syllable.

Script and Orthography.

     The various types of Etruscan alphabets derive from that brought to Italy by early colonists from the Greek island of Euboea in the eighth century BCE.  Adapted to Etruscan phonetics, it served as model for other alphabets of northern Italy. Some archaic texts were written from left to right and others from right to left. Later, the right to left direction became standard.

    The most archaic versions of the script had a number of characters which did not correspond to any Etruscan phoneme and were later dropped. Both versions are shown below with their standard transliteration and, for the sake of conveniency, from left to right.



Etruscan nominal morphology is better known than the verbal system. The main markers of grammatical forms are suffixes. Suffixing is also the main mechanism to derive new words from preexisting ones.

  1. Nominal

  2. case: nominative-accusative (subject, nominal predicate, direct object), genitive (possession), locative (place, time, instrument), ablative (origin, agent in passive constructions), and pertinentive. The latter has a variety of functions: to express the locative of a genitive (e.g., "in the house of"), an indirect object or a beneficiary. Cases are marked by suffixes governed by postpositions.

  1. gender: Etruscan has no grammatical gender. Female sex is indicated by a suffix (-θa, -θu, -i).

  1. number: singular, plural. There are two pluralizing suffixes: -r (variants -ar, -er, -ir, -ur) used for humans and -χva for non-humans.

  1. pronouns: personal, demonstrative, interrogative-relative, relative, indefinite.

  2. Pronouns are inflected like nouns with the exception that they have separate nominative and accusative case forms.

  3. Personal pronouns have first and second singular forms; plurals are rare.

  4. Etruscan has two demonstrative pronouns which can act independently or as enclitics serving as articles: ica and ita in Archaic Etruscan, ca and ta in Late Etruscan. A third demonstrative pronoun (śa) is only used as enclitic.

  5. The pronoun ipa has a dual role serving as an interrogative and a relative. Two other pronouns, an and in, function only as relative and have only nominative and accusative forms.

  6. Two indefinite pronouns are known. One of them (heva) refers to an indefinite quantity, the other (ena) has been found up to now in just one text.

  1. Verbal. Verbal forms attested are fewer than nominal forms and our knowledge of the verbal system is scant. Verbs can be derived from nouns (denominatives) and nouns from verbs (verbal nouns). Moreover, nominal and verbal forms are not always easily separable.

  1. person and number: are not distinguished.

  1. tense: present and past. The present tense is used rarely and is marked with the suffix -e. The preterite active is formed with the suffix -ce. The suffix of the preterite passive is -χe.

  1. mood: indicative, imperative, subjunctive, necessitative. The imperative is identical to the stem. The subjunctive, which expresses intention or obligation and has a future connotation, is marked by the suffix -a. The necessitative, which indicates that an action must be carried out, is marked by the suffix -ri added to the stem; it has a passive sense.

  1. voice: active and passive. The latter has been found in the past tense.

  1. verbal nouns: are formed by adding one of four possible suffixes to the verbal root or stem. Verbal nouns formed by adding the suffix -u may express a past action whose effects are still felt (stative aspect). Verbal nouns in indicate that an action is ongoing and simultaneous with another action. Verbal nouns in -as indicate that a past action occurred before another. Verbal nouns in -e function as infinitives.                                     


         In Archaic Etruscan, word order was Subject-Object-Verb (SOV), in Late Etruscan it changed to SVO. When an object has a deictic pronoun it appears at the beginning of the clause, and as it precedes the verb, the order is OVS. Etruscan has postpositions which are typical of SOV structure.

    The order in nominal sentences changes also with time. In Archaic Etruscan, demonstratives, genitives and numerals precede the noun they modify while the position of the attributive adjective is variable. In Late Etruscan, demonstratives still precede their nouns but genitives, numerals and attributive adjectives follow their nouns. When adjectives and pronouns are placed immediately next to the noun they modify, they do not agree in number with it, except in case of ambiguity when adjectives can take the plural. Adjectives and pronouns agree with their nouns in case.


About three hundred Etruscan words are known. The majority of them are native. Some are loanwords from Lemnian or Rhaetic. Other borrowings come from Greek, specially terms related to religion, trade and crafts. Latin loanwords are surprisingly few.

Basic Vocabulary (long vowels are indicated by a macron)

one: θu

two: zal

three: ci

four: śa

five: maχ

six: huθ

seven: semϕ

eight: cezp

nine: nurϕ

ten: śar

father: apa

mother: ati

son: clan

daughter: sec/śec

god: ais

day: tin

month/moon: tiu

year: avil

city: spur/śpur

tomb: θaur

  1. © 2013 Alejandro Gutman and Beatriz Avanzati                                                                               

Further Reading

  1. -'Etruscan'. H. Rix. In The Ancient Languages of Europe, 141-164. R. D. Woodard (ed). Cambridge University Press (2008).

  2. -The Etruscan Language. An Introduction. G. Bonfante & L. Bonfante. New York University Press (1983).

  3. -The Etruscans. G. Barker & T. Rasmussen. Blackwell (1998).

  4. -Etruscan Civilization. A Cultural History. S. Haynes. J. Paul Getty Museum (2005).

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