Italic languages

The Italic languages form a branch of the Indo-European language family, whose earliest known members were spoken in the Italian peninsula in the first millennium BC. The most important of the ancient languages was Latin, the official language of the Roman Empire, which conquered the other Italic peoples before the common era. The other Italic languages became extinct in the first centuries CE as their speakers were assimilated into the Roman Empire and shifted to some form of Latin. Between the third and eighth centuries CE, Vulgar Latin (perhaps influenced by language-shift from the other Italic languages) diversified into the Romance languages, which are the only Italic languages natively spoken today.

EthnicityOriginally the Italic peoples
Originally the Italian peninsula, parts of today's Austria and Switzerland, today southern Europe, Latin America, and the official languages of half the countries of Africa.
Linguistic classificationIndo-European
ISO 639-5itc

Besides Latin, the known ancient Italic languages are Faliscan (the closest to Latin), Umbrian and Oscan (or Osco-Umbrian), and South Picene. Other Indo-European languages once spoken in the peninsula, whose inclusion in the Italic branch is disputed, are Aequian, Vestinian, Venetic and Sicel. These long-extinct languages are known only from inscriptions in archaeological finds.

In the first millennium BC, several (other) non-Italic languages were spoken in the peninsula, including members of other branches of Indo-European (such as Celtic and Greek) as well as at least one non-Indo-European one, Etruscan.

It is generally believed that those 1st millennium Italic languages descend from Indo-European languages brought by migrants to the peninsula sometime in the 2nd millennium BC. However, the source of those migrations and the history of the languages in the peninsula are still the matter of debate among historians. In particular, it is debated whether the ancient Italic languages all descended from a single Proto-Italic language after its arrival in the region, or whether the migrants brought two or more Indo-European languages that were only distantly related.

With over 800 million native speakers, the Romance languages make Italic the second-most-widely spoken branch of the Indo-European family, after Indo-Iranian. However, in academia the ancient Italic languages form a separate field of study from the medieval and modern Romance languages. This article focuses on the ancient languages. For the others, see Romance studies.

All Italic languages (including Romance) are generally written in Old Italic scripts (or the descendant Latin alphabet and its adaptations), which descend from the alphabet used to write the non-Italic Etruscan language, and ultimately from the Greek alphabet.

History of the concept

Historical linguists have generally concluded that the ancient Indo-European languages of the Italian peninsula, that were not identifiable as belonging to other branches of Indo-European such as Greek, all belonged to a single branch of the family, parallel for example to Celtic and Germanic. The founder of this theory is Antoine Meillet (1866–1936).[4]

This unitary theory has been criticized by, among others, Alois Walde (1869–1924), Vittore Pisani (1899–1990) and Giacomo Devoto (1897–1974), who proposed that the Latino-Faliscan and Osco-Umbrian languages constituted two distinct branches of Indo-European. This view gained acceptance in the second half of the 1900s,[5] though proponents such as Rix would later reject the idea, and the unitary theory remains dominant.

History of the languages

The languages of Italy in the Iron Age

At the start of the Iron Age, around 700 BC, Ionian Greek settlers from Euboea established colonies along the coast of southern Italy.[6] They brought with them the alphabet, which they had learned from the Phoenicians; specifically, what we now call Western Greek alphabet. The invention quickly spread through the whole peninsula, across language and political barriers. Local adaptations (mainly minor letter shape changes and the dropping or addition of a few letters) yielded several Old Italic alphabets.

The inscriptions show that, by 700 BC, many languages were spoken in the region, including members of several branches of Indo-European and several non-Indo-European languages. The most important of the latter was Etruscan, attested by evidence from more than 10,000 inscriptions and some short texts. No relation has been found between Etruscan and any other known language, and there is still no clue about its possible origin (except for inscriptions on the island of Lemnos in the eastern Mediterranean). Other possibly non-Indo-European languages present at the time were Rhaetian in the Alpine region, Ligurian around present-day Genoa, and some unidentified language(s) in Sardinia. Those languages have left some detectable imprint in Latin.

The following language groups, which were (or may have been) subgroups of the Italic languages, have their existence attested in the Italian peninsula in the 1st millennium BC, by inscriptions and historical sources. The classification follows mostly F. Villar.[2]

  • Latino-Faliscan or Western Italic languages: These languages were spoken in a fairly small territory west of the Apennines, spanning from about 50 km north to about 40 km south of Rome, and west from it to the coast.
    • Faliscan, which was spoken in the area around Falerii Veteres (modern Civita Castellana) north of the city of Rome
    • Latin, which was spoken in west-central Italy. It is the only ancient Italic language that survived into the common era. It was originally used (from the 8th century BC) by the tribe of the Latins, which inhabited the region of Latium around Rome. By the 5th century BCE, it was still confined to that territory. It was closely related to the Faliscan language spoken just north of Rome.

The following languages are believed to be part of the Italic branch or branches, but their classification is uncertain:

  • Venetic was spoken in the northeast of the peninsula, the present Veneto region, by the Adriatic Veneti. It survives in a couple hundred short inscriptions that were written from the sixth century BC until the first century BC. It is definitely Indo-European, but its place in the family is still debated, since it has similarities to the Germanic as well as to other Italic languages. Some linguists classify as Italic, while others see it as a separate branch of Indo-European.[7] There is toponymic evidence linking the Veneti with the Liburnian tribes of the Adriatic in the Balkans.

The following languages may be Italic, but there is too little data to tell:

  • Sicel was a language spoken in eastern Sicily by the Sicels, known only from a few inscriptions. Connections to the Latin languages have been proposed.
  • Sicanian spoken in western Sicily by the Sicani
  • Elymian.

Many other Iron-Age peoples of Italy are known from historical sources, but nothing is known about their languages:

The differences between Latin and Osco-Umbrian are as obvious as its similarities.

The largest language in southern Italy, except Ionic Greek spoken in the Greek colonies, was Messapian, known due to some 260 inscriptions dating from the 6th and 5th centuries BC. There is a historical connection of Messapian with the Illyrian tribes, added to the archaeological connection in ceramics and metals existing between both peoples, which motivated the hypothesis of linguistic connection. But the evidence of Illyrian inscriptions is reduced to personal names and places, which makes it difficult to support such a hypothesis.

It has also been proposed that the Lusitanian language may have belonged to the Italic family.[8][9]

Timeline of Latin

In the history of Latin of ancient times, there are several periods:

As the Roman Republic extended its political dominion over the whole of the Italian peninsula, Latin became dominant over the other Italic languages, which ceased to be spoken perhaps sometime in the 1st century AD. From Vulgar Latin, the Romance languages emerged.

The Latin language gradually spread beyond Rome, along with the growth of the power of this state, displacing, beginning in the 4th and 3rd centuries BC, the languages of other Italic tribes, as well as Illyrian, Messapian and Venetic, etc. The Romanisation of the Italian Peninsula was basically complete by the 1st century BC; except for the south of Italy and Sicily, where the dominance of Greek was preserved. The attribution of Ligurian is controversial.

The period of late Latin (2nd to 6th centuries) is characterised by a gap between written and folk-spoken language: the regional differentiation of the people's Latin was accelerated, the formation of Romance languages, finally separated by the 9th century, began on its basis; written Latin continued to be used for a long time in the administrative sphere, religion, diplomacy, trade, school, medicine, science, literature, and remains the language of the Catholic Church and the official language of the Vatican City.


Prehistory of Italy

The Italian peninsula has been inhabited by tool-making hominids since at least 730,000 BC, by Neanderthals since 120,000 BC, and by anatomically modern humans since about 35,000 BC.[6]

The Pleistocene glaciations caused the human populations of central and northern Europe to migrate southwards. At the height of the last Ice Age (about 35,000 to 13,000 BC), the sea level was about 120 meters below its present state, which radically changed the geography of the Mediterranean.[6]

Agriculture reached the peninsula from the Middle East between 7000 and 6000 BC, marking the start of the Neolithic. The seminomadic hunter-gathering lifestyle was replaced by a sedentary society, with large fortified villages and an economy based on agriculture and animal husbandry. While raised primarily as a source of meat, by 3000 BC domesticated animals were being exploited for traction (of plows and carts) and other product such as milk and wool. The making of wine and olive oil was learned from Greece by about that time.[6]

Metallurgy also spread though the Mediterranean at this time, first of copper around 3000 BC, then bronze around 2300 BC. Use of the latter for weapons, armor, and other artifacts marks the beginning of the Bronze Age. Around 700 BC, the development of iron smelting and steelmaking marked the beginning of the Iron Age in the region.[6]

Origin theories

The main debate concerning the origin of the Italic languages mirrors that on the origins of the Greek ones,[10] except that there is no record of any "early Italic" to play the role of Mycenaean Greek.

All we know about the linguistic landscape of Italy is from inscriptions made after the introduction of the alphabet in the peninsula, around 700 BC onwards, and from Greek and Roman writers several centuries later. The oldest known samples come from Umbrian and Faliscan inscriptions from the 7th century BC. Their alphabets were clearly derived from the Etruscan alphabet, which was derived from the Western Greek alphabet not much earlier than that. There is no reliable information about the languages spoken before that time. Some conjectures can be made based on toponyms, but they cannot be verified.

There is no guarantee that the intermediate phases between those old Italic languages and Indo-European will be found. The question of whether Italic originated outside Italy or developed by assimilation of Indo-European and other elements within Italy, approximately on or within its current range there, remains.[11]

An extreme view of some linguists and historians is that there is no such thing as "the Italic branch" of Indo-European. Namely, there never was a unique "Proto-Italic", whose diversification resulted in those languages. Some linguists, like Silvestri[12] and Rix[13], further argue that no common Proto-Italic can be reconstructed such that (1) its phonological system may have developed into those of Latin and Osco-Umbrian through consistent phonetic changes, and (2) its phonology and morphology can be consistently derived from those of Proto-Indo-European.

Those linguists propose instead that the ancestors of the 1st millennium Indo-European languages of Italy were two or more different languages, that separately descended from Indo-European in a more remote past, and separately entered Europe, possibly by different routes and/or in different epochs. That view stems in part from the difficulty in identifying a common Italic homeland in prehistory,[14] or reconstructing an ancestral "Common Italic" or "Proto-Italic" language from which those languages could have descended. Some common features that seem to connect the languages may be just a sprachbund phenomenon — a linguistic convergence due to contact over a long period,[15] as in the Italo-Celtic theory.

Bakkum defines Proto-Italic as a "chronological stage" without an independent development of its own, but extending over late Proto-Indo-European and the initial stages of Proto-Latin and Proto-Sabellic. Meiser's dates of 4000 BC to 1800 BC, well before Mycenaean Greek, are described by him as "as good a guess as anyone's".[16]


General and specific characteristics of the pre-Roman Italic languages:

  • in phonetics: Oscan (in comparison with Latin and Umbrian) preserved all positions of old diphthongs ai, oi, ei, ou, in the absence of rhotacism, the absence of sibilants, in the development of kt > ht; a different interpretation of Indo-European kw and gw (Latin qu and v, Osco-Umbrian p and b); in the latter the preservation of s in front of nasal sonants and the reflection of Indo-European *dh and *bh as f; initial stress (in Latin, it was reconstructed in the historical period), which led to syncopation and the reduction of vowels of unstressed syllables;
  • in morphology: 5 declensions and 4 conjugations; reduplication and lengthening of the root vowel; preservation of the locative in Osco-Umbrian; differences in the formation of the future tense, perfect tense and the infinitive; the use of postpositions in Osco-Umbrian;
  • in the syntax: many convergences; In Osco-Umbrian, impersonal constructions, parataxis, partitive genitive, temporal genitive and genitive relationships are more often used;
  • in the lexicon: a significant number of lexemes inherited from Proto-Indo-European; the presence of words unique to the western area of the Indo-European linguistic community; the presence of Osco-Umbrian lexemes, which do not have a correspondence in Latin; borrowing from Etruscan, etc., unknown pre-Indo-European languages of Italy, a large number of borrowings from Greek.


The Italic languages share a certain number of isoglosses and common phonetic changes with respect to the common Proto-Indo-European:

  • Evolution of labial stops: *p > p, *b > b, *bʰ- > f-, -*bʰ- > -b-, (-f-)
  • Evolution of alveolar stops: *t > t, *d > d. Latin, for example, has *d > l, as in PIE *dngʰʷa > lingua or archaic Latin *odor > olor, olere.
  • Evolution of aspirated stops at the beginning of a word: *bʰ- > f-, -*dʰ- > f-.
Proto-Indo-European Venetic Faliscan Latin Oscan Umbrian
*bʰréh₂tr 'brother'
*dʰeh₁lyo 'son'
filea 'sister'
  • Evolution of velars: *k > k (c), *g > g, *gʰ- > h-
  • *kʷ > kʷ (qu) / k (c), *gʷ > v/g/f
  • Evolution of liquids: *l > l and *r > r.
  • Evolution of non-syllabic nasals: *Vm > Vm, *mV > mV, *Vn > Vn, *nV > nV (here V denotes any vowel) and the syllabic nasals: *Cm(C) > Cem(C) and *Cn(C) > Cen(C) (here C represents any consonant).
  • Evolution of semivowels: *w > v, *y > i.


In grammar there are basically three innovations shared by the Osco-Umbrian and the Latino-Faliscan languages:

  • A suffix in the imperfect subjunctive *-sē (in Oscan the 3rd person singular of the imperfect subjunctive fusíd and Latin foret, both derivatives of *fusēd)
  • A suffix in the imperfect indicative *-fā- (Oscan fufans 'they were', Latin has -ba- instead as in portabant 'they had').
  • A suffix to derive adjectives from verbs *-ndo- (Latin operandam 'which will be built'; in Osco-Umbrian there is the additional reduction -nd- > -nn-, Oscan úpsannam 'which will be built', Umbrian pihaner 'which will be purified').

In turn, these shared innovations are one of the main arguments in favour of an Italic group, questioned by other authors.

In addition, Latin and other Italic languages have an innovative future form derived from -bho, -bhis, -bhit, .... This form appears for example in the Latin form amabo et amabis 'I shall love and you shall love' and in the Faliscan form cra carefo ('tomorrow I will not have', Latin crās carēbo).

Lexical comparison

Among the Indo-European languages, the Italic languages share a higher percentage of lexicon with the Celtic and the Germanic ones, three of the four traditional "centum" branches of Indo-European (together with Greek).

The following table shows a lexical comparison of several Italic languages:

Gloss Latino-Faliscan Osco-Umbrian Proto-
'1'*ounosūnus*unʊs, acc. *unu *𐌖𐌉𐌍𐌖𐌔
'2'du*duōduō*dos, f. *duas 𐌃𐌖𐌔
'3'tristrēs (m.f.)
tria (n.)
*tres 𐌕𐌓𐌝𐌔
𐌕𐌓𐌉𐌚 (m.f.)
𐌕𐌓𐌉𐌉𐌀 (n.)
trif (m.f.)
triia (n.)
*trēs (m.f.)
*trjā (n.)
'4'quattuor*kʷattɔr 𐌐𐌄𐌕𐌖𐌓𐌀
'5'*quiquequinque*kinkʷɛ 𐌐𐌏𐌌𐌐𐌄-
'6'śex*sexsex*sɛks *𐌔𐌄𐌇𐌔
'7'*śeptenseptem*sɛpte 𐌔𐌄𐌚𐌕𐌄𐌍
'8'oktuoctō*ɔkto *𐌖𐌇𐌕𐌏
'9'*nevennovem*nɔwe *𐌍𐌖𐌖𐌄𐌍
'10'decem*dɛke 𐌃𐌄𐌊𐌄𐌍

The asterisk indicates reconstructed forms based on indirect linguistic evidence and not forms directly attested in any inscription.

From the point of view of Proto-Indo-European, the Italic languages are fairly conservative. In phonology, the Italic languages are centum languages by merging the palatals with the velars (Latin centum has a /k/) but keeping the combined group separate from the labio-velars. In morphology, the Italic languages preserve six cases in the noun and the adjective (nominative, accusative, genitive, dative, ablative, vocative) with traces of a seventh (locative), but the dual of both the noun and the verb has completely disappeared. From the position of both morphological innovations and uniquely shared lexical items, Italic shows the greatest similarities with Celtic and Germanic, with some of the shared lexical correspondences also being found in Baltic and Slavic.[17]

P-Italic and Q-Italic languages

Similar to Celtic languages, the Italic languages are also divided into P- and Q-branches, depending on the reflex of Proto-Indo-European *. In the languages of the Osco-Umbrian branch, * gave p, whereas the languages of the Latino-Faliscan branch preserved it (Latin qu [kʷ]).

See also


  1. Prósper, Blanca Maria; Villar, Francisco (2009). "NUEVA INSCRIPCIÓN LUSITANA PROCEDENTE DE PORTALEGRE". EMERITA, Revista de Lingüística y Filología Clásica (EM). LXXVII (1): 1–32. Retrieved 11 June 2012.
  2. Villar, Francisco (2000). Indoeuropeos y no indoeuropeos en la Hispania Prerromana (in Spanish) (1st ed.). Salamanca: Ediciones Universidad de Salamanca. ISBN 978-84-7800-968-8. Retrieved 22 September 2014.
  3. Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds. (2017). "Italic". Glottolog 3.0. Jena, Germany: Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History.
  4. Villar, cit., pp. 474–475.
  5. Villar, cit., pp. 447–482.
  6. "history of Europe : Romans". Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved 28 October 2012.
  7. Gvozdanović, Jadranka (2012). "On the linguistic classification of Venetic. In Journal of Language Relationship." p. 34.
  8. Francisco Villar (2000) Indoeuropeos y no indoeuropeos en la Hispania prerromana, Ediciones Universidad de Salamanca, Spain ISBN 84-7800-968-X
  9. Francisco Villar, Rosa Pedrero y Blanca María Prósper
  10. Leppänen, Ville (1 January 2014). "Geoffrey Horrocks,Greek: A History of the Language and its Speakers (2nd edn.). Wiley-Blackwell, Chichester, 2010. Pp. xx + 505". Journal of Greek Linguistics. 14 (1): 127–135. doi:10.1163/15699846-01401006. ISSN 1566-5844.
  11. Silvestri 1998, p. 325
  12. Silvestri, 1987
  13. Rix, 1983, p. 104
  14. Silvestri 1998, pp. 322–323.
  15. Domenico Silvestri, 1993
  16. Bakkum 2009, p. 54.
  17. Douglas Q., Adams (1997). Encyclopedia of Indo-European Culture. Taylor & Francis. pp. 316–317.


  • Adams, Douglas Q., and James P. Mallory. 1997. "Italic Languages." In The Encyclopedia of Indo-European Culture. Edited by James P. Mallory and Douglas Q. Adams, 314–319. Chicago: Fitzroy Dearborn.
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  • Baldi, Philip. 2002. The Foundations of Latin. Berlin: de Gruyter.
  • Beeler, Madison S. 1966. "The Interrelationships within Italic." In Ancient Indo-European Dialects: Proceedings of the Conference on Indo-European Linguistics held at the University of California, Los Angeles, April 25–27, 1963. Edited by Henrik Birnbaum and Jaan Puhvel, 51–58. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.
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  • Pulgram, Ernst. 1968. The Tongues of Italy: Prehistory and History. New York: Greenwood.
  • Rix, Helmut. 2002. Handbuch der italischen Dialekte. Vol. 5, Sabellische Texte: Die Texte des Oskischen, Umbrischen und Südpikenischen. Indogermanische Bibliothek. Heidelberg, Germany: Winter.
  • Silvestri, Domenico. 1998. "The Italic Languages." In The Indo-European Languages. Edited by Anna Giacalone Ramat and Paolo Ramat, 322–344. London: Routledge.
  • Tikkanen, Karin. 2009. A Comparative Grammar of Latin and the Sabellian Languages: The System of Case Syntax. PhD diss., Uppsala Univ.
  • Wallace, Rex E. 2007. The Sabellic Languages of Ancient Italy. Languages of the World: Materials 371. Munich: LINCOM.
  • Watkins, Calvert. 1998. "Proto-Indo-European: Comparison and Reconstruction" In The Indo-European Languages. Edited by Anna Giacalone Ramat and Paolo Ramat, 25-73. London: Routledge.
  • Silvestri, Domenico (1995). "Las lenguas itálicas" [The Italic languages]. Las lenguas indoeuropeas [The Indo-European languages] (in Spanish). ISBN 978-84-376-1348-2.
  • Stuart-Smith, Jane (2004). Phonetics and Philology: Sound Change in Italic. Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-925773-7.
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