The rarest of words engraved in stones

The Etruscan Language
April 4, 2003

The first edition (1983) of this fascinating book demolished misconceptions that still lurked in many otherwise well-informed quarters. It showed the English-speaking world that the Etruscan language, far from being either undeciphered or mysterious, could provide substantial and reliable information about the most important inhabitants of pre-Roman Italy. No attempt was made to conceal the limited conceptual range of the evidence: Etruscan literature undoubtedly existed, but none has survived; extant Etruscan writing, which ranges in date between the 7th century BC and the 1st century AD, consists of several thousand short inscriptions (names in mainly funerary or votive formulas) on durable surfaces, along with a few longer religious or legal texts.

Nevertheless, much of what Etruscan has to tell us about its users is not available in any other way. For whatever reason, the Etruscans wrote in a non-Indo-European language in an area where everyone else's language was Indo-European. Regional variations, preserved in the alphabet brought to Italy in the 8th century BC by the first western Greeks, indicate that the Etruscans were not recent arrivals. And names are more informative than artefacts on matters such as personal mobility and the progressive assimilation of foreigners.

This extensively revised edition reflects the steady progress of Etruscan studies as a whole during the past 20 years. Of the findings that have emerged from new research, the most interesting is the revelation that most of the earliest inscriptions come from women's graves, and that many occur on items needed for spinning and weaving. In addition, our understanding of the myths that belong to both the Greek and Etruscan traditions has greatly improved in recent years, so that the rewritten and expanded list of mythological figures serves as a valuable introduction to current concerns that go far beyond language. Meanwhile, the patient teamwork that registers newly discovered occurrences of Etruscan words in their linguistic and archaeological contexts has made it possible to revise and extend the glossary, and to increase the number of sources from 55 to 68.

Throughout, the emphasis is on writing in its material and cultural setting, with a preference for hard facts that has no truck with the kind of obstinate eccentricity from which Etruscan studies has often suffered in the past. While the advantages of this approach outweigh the disadvantages, I do not think I will be the only non-linguist with an interest in Etruscan affairs who was surprised to find only tactful mentions (as distinct from critical appraisals) of authoritative alternatives to a few of the interpretations relayed here. Thus, in the case of the new long text known as the Tabula Cortonensis, no more than a laconic reference is provided to the archaeologically plausible view of a distinguished specialist that differs radically from that summarised as source no. 65. Guidance on the issues at stake in this growing controversy is not yet available elsewhere, and would have been welcome.

On the other hand, the handsome new edition of this established classic will enable even more new readers to form opinions for themselves that will be far better informed than ever before: an achievement for which this unique father-daughter team deserves the warmest thanks.

David Ridgway is reader in classics, University of Edinburgh.

The Etruscan Language

Author - Giuliano Bonfante and Larissa Bonfante
ISBN - 0 7190 5539 3 and 5540 7
Publisher - Manchester University Press
Price - £49.99 and £17.99
Pages - 253

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