An insatiable appetite for ancient and modern tongues

Classification: Indo-European, Italic, Sabellian. Oscan belongs to a group of related languages, called Sabellian, that were prevalent in pre-Roman Italy. Oscan is the best attested of them. It was quite similar to Umbrian and Volscian (other Sabellian languages), and more distantly related to Latin and Faliscan.

Overview. Oscan was one of a number of Indo-European languages existent in the Italic peninsula at the beginning of the historical period (700-600 BCE). It was spoken by the Samnites located in the southern half of the peninsula who where the most formidable early enemies of the Romans but were obliterated by them in the end. Their language is, thus, known (imperfectly) only by inscriptions.

Distribution and Status. Oscan is an extinct language that was spoken in southern and central Italy, in the regions of Samnium, Campania, Lucania and Bruttium. It is attested from the 6th century BCE until the 1st century CE when it was displaced by Roman expansion.

Documents. Oscan, like other Sabellian languages, is known almost exclusively by inscriptions. Around 650 of them have been found. Many come from Capua and Pompeii, in Campania. Two important inscriptions are:


  1. The Cippus Abellanus, a limestone plaque dating from the 2nd c. BCE, discovered in Campania, which records an arbitration between the cities of Nola and Abella regarding the use of a sanctuary of Heracles.

  2. The Tabula Bantina, a bronze tablet from the town of Bantia in Lucania, contains the longest Oscan text. It dates from 150-100 BCE and in it are inscribed, in Latin letters, the laws of the town.



Vowels. Oscan had 11 simple vowels and 5 diphthongs.

  1. a)Monophthongs (11): All vowels, except [o], occur short and long.



  1. b)Diphthongs (5): ei, ai, au, oi, ou.

Consonants (15). All consonants, except f, s, w, were palatalized before y.


Script and Orthography

Oscan was written in three different scripts:

  1. a)Oscan alphabet. Inscriptions from Campania and Samnium used a native alphabet derived from Etruscan in the last half of the 5th century. They were generally written from right to left, but some were written from left to right and even some were laid out in boustrophedon (alternating in direction).


  1. the vowels [ɛ] and [o], placed at the end of the alphabet, are transliterated í and ú, respectively.

  2. long vowels are sometimes indicated by duplication.

  3. [w] is transliterated v.

  4. [y] has no independent letter, it employs the same letter as [i].

  5. [z] is an allophone of [s] in intervocalic position.

  6. palatalization was marked by gemination (i.e. duplication) of the palatalized consonant.

b) An alphabet derived from the East Greek type was used in inscriptions from Lucania and Bruttium.

c) Some late inscriptions, including the Tabula Bantina, employed the Republican Latin alphabet.

Morphology. Oscan, like other Italic languages, was inflective, adding suffixes to nominal and verbal stems to mark a variety of grammatical categories.

  1. Nominal. Nouns, adjectives and pronouns were inflected for case, gender, and number.

  1. case: nominative, vocative, accusative, dative, ablative, genitive, locative.

  1. gender: masculine, feminine, neuter.

  1. number: singular, plural.

  1. pronouns: personal, reflexive, demonstrative, emphatic, interrogative, indefinite, relative.

  2. Personal pronouns were genderless and had forms only for the first and second persons; for the third person demonstrative pronouns were used.

  1. Verbal.

  2. person and number: 1s, 2s, 3s; 1p, 2p, 3p.

  1. tensepresent, imperfect, future, perfect, future perfect.

  2. The finite verb system is divided into two groups, the infectum and the perfectum. Present, imperfect and future tenses are built on the stem of the infectum while the perfect and future perfect on that of the perfectum.

  1. aspect: imperfective that corresponds with the infectum of the present system and perfective that corresponds with the perfectum of the perfect system.

  1. mood: indicative, imperative, subjunctive.

  1. voice: active, medio-passive.

  1. non-finite forms: present infinitives, both active and medio-passive, present and past participles, gerundive.


Word order is predominantly Subject-Object-Verb, but permutations are frequent. Adjectives occupy postnominal position. Numerals and pronominal modifiers are almost invariably placed before the noun. Adjectives and nouns agree in number, gender and case. Verbs agree with their subject in person and number.


Oscan incorporated loanwords from Greek, Etruscan and Latin.

Basic Vocabulary

four: petora

five: pompe

eight: uhto

father: pater (nom. masc. sg)

mother: maatreís (gen. fem. sg)

son: puklui (dat. masc. sg)

daughter: futír (nom. fem. sg)

foot: pedú (gen. masc. pl)

water: aapa

community: touto (nominative, feminine sg)

to be: súm

  1. © 2013 Alejandro Gutman and Beatriz Avanzati                                                                               

Further Reading

  1. -'Sabellian Languages'. R. E. Wallace. In The Ancient Languages of Europe, 96-123. R. D. Woodard (ed). Cambridge University Press (2008).

  2. -A Grammar of Oscan and Umbrian. C. D Buck. Evolution Publishing (2005, reprinted from Ginn 1928).

  3. -Wörterbuch des Oskisch-Umbrischen. J. Untermann. Carl Winter (2000).

  1. Top   Home   Alphabetic Index   Classificatory Index   Largest Languages & Families   Glossary



Address comments and questions to: