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date: 04 December 2022

alphabets of Italyfree

alphabets of Italyfree

  • John Penney


  • Linguistics

Updated in this version

Bibliography and cross-references updated.

There is no evidence for any form of writing in Italy before the arrival of Greek colonists in the 8th century bce. The Euboean alphabet brought by settlers at Pithecusae (mod. Ischia) and Cumae was borrowed by the Etruscans, who acted as intermediaries for the spread of writing throughout much of the peninsula. Only in southern regions adjacent to other Greek settlements was the Greek alphabet again borrowed directly, as in Lucania (for writing Oscan see Sabellic languages) and the Sallentine peninsula (with some modifications, for writing Messapian). Greek cities, of course, continued to write in the Greek alphabet throughout antiquity.

An alphabet learnt as such (the theoretical alphabet) may contain more letters than are used in practice. So a number of 7th-century Etruscan abecedaria (written-out alphabets) adhere to the Greek model and include letters such as b, d, or o that are not found in texts: abcdevzhθ‎iklmnsopśqrstuṡφχ. (Here c is the Greek gamma but with the value /k/; v is the sign ϝ, the Greek digamma, with the value /w/.) Later abecedaria show a reduced inventory corresponding to the letters actually in use (acevzhθ‎iklmnpśqrstuφχ‎f), but when the Etruscan alphabet was adapted for writing other languages, there would often still have been the fuller resources of the original theoretical alphabet to draw on. New alphabets were created by selection from the available letters, sometimes with revised values, and by invention of further letters (normally added at the end).

There are several versions of the Etruscan alphabet. Many differences concern the shapes of letters, but more important are the variations in the system. The notation of /f/ changes with time: in the absence of an appropriate sign in the Greek alphabet, at first a digraph vh was used, but from the mid-6th century, this was displaced by a single letter 8 = f, of disputed origin, added at the end of the alphabet, as abecedaria show. There is also regional variation, especially between northern and southern alphabets. In the south, /k/ was represented by different letters distributed according to the quality of the following vowel, so ce, ci, but ka and qu, with later generalization of c; in the north, k was used to the exclusion of c and q. Etruscan distinguished two sibilants that were written with the letters s and ś, but the values of these are reversed between north and south. Exclusively southern is the syllabic punctuation in use from the late 7th century through to the mid-5th century.

The Latin alphabet, first attested in the 7th century, shared several developments with the Faliscan (see Faliscans) alphabet. It was based on a southern Etruscan type, as shown by the use of c for /k/ (and in early inscriptions, the alternation c~k~q before different vowels, reflected in the letter names , , ). This use of c meant that, while b and d (as well as o) could be recovered from the theoretical alphabet with their Greek values, there was no sign for /g/: in the 3rd century the letter G, a modification of C, was invented for the Latin alphabet and, unusually, was not added at the end but took the place of otiose z, attested in a 4th-century abecedarium. (The addition of y and z in final position took place only in the 1st century bce, as an aid to the proper rendering of Greek words.) The letter X, the rarely used of the Etruscan alphabet, regained its Euboean value /ks/. A very early Latin innovation was the use of F alone, by simplification of the original digraph vh, to write /f/ (in the Faliscan alphabet a sign ↑ is found); this was accompanied by the use of u for /w/ as well as /u/. The Latin alphabet was thus: abcdefghiklmnopqrstux(yz). Several peoples of Italy in due course adopted the Latin alphabet for writing their own language, which could involve alterations: for instance, the Umbrians used a diacritic to distinguish between s and ś, the latter representing a sound resulting from the palatalization of /k/; in Paelignian inscriptions there is a letter Đ, differentiated from D, but of uncertain value.

The South Picene alphabet, first attested in the 6th century, is derived from an early Etruscan alphabet but shows a number of idiosyncrasies. Some letter shapes are drastically modified (O and 8, for instance, are reduced to • and :), and some new letters are created especially to write additional vowels.

The Oscan alphabet was created in Campania, probably in the late 5th century bce; a few mainly fragmentary abecedaria give the order: abgdevzhiklmnprstufíú. The letter forms show that its basis was the local version of the Etruscan alphabet, but the presence of b, g, d in their original position indicates knowledge of the theoretical alphabet, or, it has been suggested, the South Picene alphabet. There is, however, no o, and u does duty for both /u/ and /o/. The alphabet once ended with f, and the earliest inscriptions are written with this set of letters, but in the 4th century two new signs were added at the end:

├ = í, to write a front vowel distinct from those written with e and i, and V̇ = ú with the value /o/.

The Umbrian alphabet (as attested at Iguvium, see tabulae Iguvinae) is derived from a northern Etruscan alphabet and consists of: abřevzhiklmnprstufç (there are no abecedaria to confirm the number of letters or their order). As with the early Oscan alphabet, u stands for both /u/ and /o/. Original d is still used for /d/ in the earliest inscription of c.400 bce (from Todi), but d acquired a new value after a change affecting intervocalic /d/ gave a sound represented by rs in the Latin alphabet, whence the conventional transcription of the Umbrian letter as ř; henceforth, /d/ was written with t, which also stood for /t/. Perhaps by analogy with this, p could be used in place of b for /b/; there is no trace of a separate letter for /g/. A new letter form d, conventionally transcribed ç, was created to indicate the sound arising from the palatalisation of [k], represented in the Latin alphabet by ś (see above).

There is evidence from the 6th century for the Venetic alphabet, which derives in the first instance from a northern Etruscan source, early enough for /f/ to be still written with the digraph vh rather than 8. Southern Etruscan influence, however, is to be seen in the subsequent introduction of syllabic punctuation. From the outset o is present, presumably taken from the theoretical model; its surprising position at the end of the alphabet, according to later abecedaria, would then be the result of secondary reordering. Unusually, φ and χ are used for /b/ and /g/; in the earliest texts θ stands for /t/ and t for /d/, but there are later local variations in the notation of dentals; for example, at Este z is used for /d/. Dedications in the form of writing tables give abecedaria, as well as lists of letter groups, etc. that reveal methods of scribal training.

Amongst other alphabets of Etruscan derivation in northern Italy, the Lepontic alphabet, devised for writing a Celtic language and attested from the 6th century on, resembles the Venetic alphabet in having o and in using φ~t to mark the opposition /t/~/d/ in early inscriptions. For /g/, χ‎ is found, but not consistently; there is no early evidence for /b/. In later inscriptions, p stands for /p/ and /b/, and t is used for both /t/ and /d/, yielding a remarkably reduced alphabet (the order of letters is not known): aeiklmnpšrstuχ‎o.

See also Italy, languages of


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