Osco-Umbrian languages

The Osco-Umbrian, Sabellic or Sabellian languages are a group of Italic languages, the Indo-European languages that were spoken in Central and Southern Italy by the Osco-Umbrians before being replaced by Latin, as the power of Ancient Rome expanded. They developed from the middle of the 1st millennium BC to the early centuries of the 1st millennium AD. The languages are known almost exclusively from inscriptions, principally of Oscan and Umbrian, but there are also some Osco-Umbrian loanwords in Latin.

Sabellic, Sabellian
Ancient south and central Italy
Extinct1st millennium BC-1st millennium AD
Linguistic classificationIndo-European
Approximate distribution of languages in Iron Age Italy during the sixth century BC

Relationship with the Italic languages

Following an original theory by Antoine Meillet (1866–1936), the Osco-Umbrian languages were traditionally considered a branch of the Italic languages, a language family that grouped Latin and Faliscan together with several other related languages.[2] However, this unitary scheme has been criticized by, among others, Alois Walde (1869–1924), Vittore Pisani (1899–1990) and Giacomo Devoto (1897–1974), who proposed a classification of the Italic languages into two distinct Indo-European branches. This view has gained acceptance in the second half of the 1900s, although the exact processes of formation and penetration into Italy remains the object of research.[3]

Historical, social and cultural aspects

Oscan was one of the many languages spoken in the heart of the Italian peninsula, such as Umbrian and other languages belonging to the Sabine languages, such as Volscian, Sabine, South Picene, Marsian, Paeligni, Hernican, Marrucinian, Pre-Samnite and Sidicini.

Aequian and Vestinian may also have been part of the group.

They have traditionally been ascribed to either an Oscan group or an Umbrian group. However, they are all poorly attested, and such a division is not supported by evidence. It appears that they may have formed a continuum, with Umbrian in the north, Oscan in the south and the 'Sabellic' languages in between (see next section) having features of both.[4]

However, there were also colonies that spoke Oscan, scattered throughout Southern Italy and Sicily. Oscan was the language of the Samnite tribes, powerful enemies of the Romans, who took years to subdue them (the Samnite wars took place from 370 BC to 290 BC).

These languages are known from a few hundred inscriptions that are between 400 BC and the 1st century. In Pompeii there are numerous Oscan inscriptions, such as dedications in public buildings and signs.

Umbrian began a process of decline when the Umbrians were subdued by the Romans and the process of Romanisation led to its demise. Of all the Osco-Umbrian languages, it is the one that is the best known, mainly because of the Iguvine Tablets.


These languages were spoken in Samnium and in Campania, partly in Lucania and Bruttium, as well as by the Mamertines in the Sicilian colony of Messana (Messina).

Past usage

Sabellic was originally the collective ethnonym of the Italic people who inhabited central and southern Italy at the time of Roman expansion. The name was later used by Theodor Mommsen, in his Unteritalische Dialekte to describe the pre-Roman dialects of Central Italy that were neither Oscan nor Umbrian.

The term is currently used for the Osco-Umbrian languages as a whole. The word "Sabellic" was once applied to all such minor languages, Osco-Umbrian or not. North Picene was included even if it has always been known to have been unrelated.


The Osco-Umbrian languages or dialects of which testimony is preserved are:[5]

  • Oscan, with spoken languages in the southern central region of the Italian peninsula, which includes.
    • Oscan is the best documented language of the group, along with other varieties that are poorly known and considered related to Oscan:
    • Marrucinian
    • Paeligni
    • Sidicini
  • Umbrian, with languages spoken in the northern central region of the peninsula.
  • Picene-Pre-Samnite
    • South Picene
    • Pre-Samnite, a language documented in the south, but which seems to contain characteristics closer to South Picene than to Oscan.
  • Unknown

Little-documented variants collectively known as "Sabellic dialects" are ascribed without much evidence to the two main groups. Some authors doubt such traditional classification placing, for example, Aequian and Vestinian in opposite branches instead of grouping them together.[6]

Linguistic description

The Osco-Umbrian languages are fusional inflected languages with about 5 different morphological cases in the singular, similar to those of Latin.

Differences from Latin

Although the Osco-Umbrian languages are far more poorly attested than Latin, a corpus of a few thousand words' worth of inscriptions has allowed linguists to deduce some cladistic innovations and retentions. For example, while Proto-Indo-European aspirates appear as b, d and h/g between vowels in Latin (medius < *medʰyos), the aspirates all appear in Sabellic as f (Oscan mefiai). In addition, while Latin retained the Proto-Indo-European labiovelar series ("Q-Italic"), the Osco-Umbrian languages merged them with the labials ("P-Italic"): Latin quattuor, Oscan petora.

See also


  1. Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds. (2017). "Sabellic". Glottolog 3.0. Jena, Germany: Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History.
  2. Francisco Villar, Gli Indoeuropei e le origini dell'Europa, pp. 474-475.
  3. Villar, cit., pp. 447–482.
  4. Rex Wallace, 2008, "Sabellian Languages", in Woodard, ed., The Ancient Languages of Europe, CUP, p 98
  5. Vetter, 1953; Adiego-Lajara, 1992; Rix, 2000.
  6. Coleman, 1986


  • Villar, Francisco (1997). Gli Indoeuropei e le origini dell'Europa [Indo-Europeans and the origins of Europe] (in Italian). Bologna, Il Mulino. ISBN 88-15-05708-0.

Further reading

  • 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, 314–19. Chicago: Fitzroy Dearborn.
  • Baldi, Philip. 2002. The foundations of Latin. Berlin: de Gruyter.
  • Beeler, Madison S. 1952. "The relation of Latin and Osco-Umbrian." Language 28: 435–43.
  • ————. 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.
  • Buck, Carl Darling. 1928. A grammar of Oscan and Umbrian, with a collection of inscriptions and a glossary. 2nd edition. Boston: Ginn.
  • Clackson, James. 2015. "Subgrouping in the Sabellian Branch of Indo‐European." Transactions of the Philological Society 113 (1): 4–37.
  • Coleman, Robert. 1986. "The Central Italic languages in the period of the Roman expansion." Transactions of the Philological Society 84(1): 100–131.
  • de Vaan, Michiel. 2008. Etymological dictionary of Latin and the other Italic languages. Leiden Indo-European Etymological Dictionary Series 7. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill.
  • Dupraz, Emmanuel. 2012. Sabellian Demonstratives: Forms and Functions. Leiden: Brill.
  • Mercado, Angelo. 2012. Italic Verse: A Study of the Poetic Remains of Old Latin, Faliscan, and Sabellic. Innsbruck: Institut für Sprachen und Literaturen der Universität Innsbruck.
  • Poultney, James. 1951. "Volscians and Umbrians." American Journal of Philology 72: 113–27.
  • Tikkanen, Karin. 2009. A comparative grammar of Latin and the Sabellian languages: The system of case syntax. PhD diss., Uppsala Univ.
  • Weiss, Michael L. 2010. Language and Ritual In Sabellic Italy: The Ritual Complex of the Third and the Fourth Tabulae Iguvinae. Leiden: Brill.
  • Woodard, Roger D. 2008. The Ancient Languages of Europe. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
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