THE ETRUSCAN LANGUAGE

The Etruscan language is not like Latin, Italian, or any of the other languages of Italy. These are Indo-European, as are most modern European languages, including English. Etruscan may instead represent a prehistoric language spoken in Italy before the invasions of the Italic tribes, including the Latins, sometime before the first millennium BC.

Nenfro Lintel, Museum Object Number: MS3200Knowledge of the Etruscan language was once considered "lost." It has not been spoken since the Roman empire, and for long before that it was spoken only by priests. Yet contrary to popular belief, we can—and do—read and understand Etruscan. Our knowledge is constrained only by the limited nature of the surviving inscriptions: we have tomb markers and votive dedications, cryptic calendars and incantations, but no diaries or literature. Literary works on papyrus and linen have not survived.

The Etruscans were a highly literate people. Because their religious teachings were written and shared over many centuries, they have sometimes been called "people of the book." Many men and women, both aristocrats and artisans, could read and write, to judge from the inscribed objects that have been found. These "talking objects" seem to express magically the power that ancient peoples felt came from the ability to read and write. It was a power of which Etruscan men and women were justly proud.