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date: 05 March 2021

Sabellic languagesfree

  • John Penney

Updated in this version

Bibliography updated.

Sabellic (or Sabellian) is the name given to a group of languages in ancient Italy, including Oscan and Umbrian, that belongs to the Italic branch of Indo-European (see italy, languages of for the use of “Italic” as a label for this group alone). An alternative name, still widely employed, is Osco-Umbrian, but the less cumbersome label Sabellic is increasingly to be found. It is based on what seems to have been the native term for the peoples of this linguistic community (see SABELLI): an element sab-/saf- may be recognized in such names as Samnium (Oscan safinim) and Sabini. (It is clear from recorded glosses and from personal names that the Sabini spoke a form of Sabellic, but there are virtually no inscriptions that can be assigned to them, apart from an unintelligible text on a vase from Poggio Sommavilla.) An older usage, still employed by some scholars, reserves the label Sabellic for the so-called minor dialects, such as Paelignian and Volscian.

Oscan was spoken over a large part of S. Italy down to the 1st century bce. The best evidence comes from Campania, where it was the language of the Samnites who took over the region in the 5th century. From the 4th century onward, after the creation of the Oscan alphabet, there are found inscriptions of many kinds—coin legends, building inscriptions, texts painted on walls at Pompeii, dedications, curses, funerary inscriptions, religious texts (the iúvilas from Capua). Oscan inscriptions in the same alphabet are also found inland, right across from Apulia—some dialectal variation might be expected within such a large area, but there are only limited traces of this. There are more striking differences in the Oscan of Lucania, written with the Greek alphabet and eventually—a sign of advancing Romanization—the Latin alphabet, as in the tabula Bantina, the longest Oscan text, a compilation of laws from the early 1st century bce. Sample text: avt púst feíhúís pús físnam amfret, eíseí tereí nep abellanús nep núvlanús pídum tríbarakattíns (“but behind the walls that surround the temple, on that land neither the Abellani nor the Nolani are to build anything”) (from Nola, ST Cm 1, B18–21); amongst features shared with Umbrian (see umbrians) one may note the nominative plur. in -ús, inherited in nouns and extended to pronouns (pús), while characteristically Oscan is the perfect stem in -tt-.

Umbrian is known principally from the tabulae Iguvinae, a collection of bronze tablets with texts relating to religious rituals, partly in the Umbrian alphabet, partly in the Latin alphabet, dating from c. 200 to the early 1st century bce. There are in addition some two dozen miscellaneous short inscriptions from various places in Umbria, again in both alphabets; the earliest is dated to c. 400 bce. Sample text: este persklum aves anzeriates enetu pernaies pusnaes preveres treplanes iuve krapuvi tre buf fetu. . . (“Begin this ceremony by observing the birds, those in front and those behind. Before the Trebulan gate sacrifice three oxen to Jupiter Grabovius. . .”) (TI 1a. 1–3); a characteristic difference from Oscan is the elimination of diphthongs, cf. preveres beside Oscan prai and veruís.

Between Umbria and the Oscan-speaking south there is relatively meagre evidence (some inscriptions in the Latin alphabet from the last three centuries bce) for a number of related languages: Paelignian, Marrucinian, Vestinian, Volscian, Marsian, Aequian. Precise identification and classification of these is difficult, and the conventional labels rest essentially on geographical correlation with peoples of ancient Italy, but in the case of Marrucinian there is internal confirmation from a bronze tablet from Rapino (ST MV 1) that proclaims a toutai maroucai lixs (“a law for the Marrucinian people”) (see marrucini). These languages show features in common with both Oscan and Umbrian and cannot be regarded simply as variants of one or other of them. In the mountainous central region there had no doubt always been several varieties of Sabellic spoken, and regular contact between dialectal groups combined with frequent population shifts resulted in a complex pattern of linguistic relationships.

The earliest substantial remains of any Sabellic language are the so-called South Picene inscriptions from east central Italy (and inland as far as Cures, in Sabine territory). These are mainly epitaphs on stone, written in a distinctive alphabet and dated to the 6th and 5th centuries bce. They are imperfectly understood, but there is no doubt that the language belongs within the Sabellic group: characteristic features are seen, for instance, in the phrase safinas tútas (genitive sing.; “of the Sabine people”) where a form of the sab-/saf- word occurs, and with Sabellic internal -f- (see below), and also the word for “people” t(o)úta that is found in Oscan touto, Umbrian tota (and cf. Marrucinian toutai above).

Another early form of Sabellic, known as Pre-Samnite, is attested in Campania and adjacent regions in the late 6th5th centuries, before the Samnite takeover. There are some twenty inscriptions, in a variety of alphabets—Greek, Etruscan, and something very like the South Picene script—mainly on vases, but also including a fragmentary decree on stone from Tortora. The language shares a number of features with South Picene, which may suggest that there was once a dialect continuum that was disrupted by the incursions of the Oscan-speaking Samnites.

Characteristic phonological features that distinguish the Sabellic languages from Latin include the treatment of inherited labiovelars as labials (cf. Oscan pís, Umbrian pisi: Lat. quis) and of internal voiced aspirates as fricatives (cf. Oscan tfei, Umbrian tefe: Lat. tibi). These features allow the recognition of loan-words: Sabellic forms in Lat. popina beside native coquina, rufus beside ruber, or conversely Lat. quaestor borrowed as Oscan kvaísstur, Umbrian kvestur. Distinctive morphological features include the o- stem genitive sing. in Oscan -eis, Umbrian -es (later -er) and the future perfect in -us-. See ALPHABETS OF ITALY; italy, languages of.

Primary Texts

  • Crawford, Michael H. Imagines Italicae: A Corpus of Italic Inscriptions, 3 vols., London: Institute of Classical Studies, 2011.
  • Franchi de Bellis, Annalisa. Le iovile capuane. Florence: Leo S. Olschki, 1981.
  • Lazzarini, Maria Letizia, and Paolo Poccetti. L’iscrizione paleoitalica da Tortora. Naples, Italy: Loffredo, 2001.
  • Marinetti, Anna. Le iscrizioni sudpicene: I, Testi. Florence: Leo S. Olschki, 1985.
  • Morandi, Alessandro. Epigrafia italica 2. Rome: L’Erma di Bretschneider, 2017.
  • Poccetti, Paolo. Nuovi documenti italici. Pisa, Italy: Giardini, 1979.
  • Poultney, James Wilson. The Bronze Tables of Iguvium. Baltimore: American Philological Association, 1959.
  • Rix, Helmut. Sabellische Texte. Heidelberg, Germany: Universitätsverlag C. Winter, 2002.
  • Rocca, Giovanna. Iscrizioni umbre minori. Florence: Leo S. Olschki, 1996.
  • Vetter, Emil. Handbuch der italischen Dialekte. Heidelberg, Germany: Carl Winter, Universitätsverlag, 1953.


  • Wallace, Rex E. “Sabellian Languages.” In The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Ancient Languages, ed.Roger D. Woodard, 812–839. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2004.
  • Weiss, Michael L. Language and Ritual in Sabellic Italy: The Ritual Complex of the Third and Fourth Tabulae Iguvinae. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2010.
  • Buck, Carl Darling. A Grammar of Oscan and Umbrian, 2nd ed. Boston: Ginn & Company, 1928.
  • Dupraz, Emmanuel. Sabellian Demonstratives: Forms and Functions. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2012
  • McDonald, Katherine. Oscan in Southern Italy and Sicily: Evaluating Language Contact in a Fragmentary Corpus. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2015.
  • Meiser, Gerhard. Lautgeschichte der umbrischen Sprache. Innsbruck, Austria: Institut für Sprachwissenschaft, 1986.
  • von Planta, Robert. Grammatik der oskisch-umbrischen Dialekte, 2 vols. Strassburg, Germany: Karl J. Trübner, 1892–1897.
  • Tikkanen, Karin. A Sabellian Case Grammar. Heidelberg, Germany: Universitätsverlag Winter, 2011.
  • Zair, Nicholas. Oscan in the Greek Alphabet. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2016.
  • Untermann, Jürgen. Wörterbuch des Oskisch-Umbrischen. Heidelberg, Germany: Universitätsverlag C. Winter, 2000.