Now that term is over in Cambridge, one of my next challenges is to learn some more about Etruscan. One of my main research interests is early adaptations of the Greek alphabet, and the Etruscans were among the very first to adapt the Greek alphabet to write their own language. The Etruscan alphabet is also important because it was then used and altered by speakers of various other languages, not least the Romans. So Etruscan is very much part of the story of the languages and alphabets of ancient Italy, and ultimately represents one stage in the development of our own alphabet.
Although I already know the alphabet and a few basics, I’m not yet that familiar with the Etruscan language. Sometimes people are surprised when I say I want to learn Etruscan, because they’ve heard it’s an undeciphered language. Actually, this isn’t exactly the case. It’s true that Etruscan is not Indo-European and is not related to any languages that we can already understand well. But we can read the vast majority of the thousands of existing Etruscan inscriptions. Unfortunately, most of the texts produced are gravestones or sarcophagi. Some are very decorative and include images of the deceased, as in the famous “Sarcophagus of the Spouses” pictured (though this particular example does not include an inscription). Typically, gravestones don’t contain much vocabulary or syntax beyond a few formulaic phrases and personal names – if you think of the relatively small range of words and phrases commonly used on gravestones today, you’ll see how this might be a problem.
There are a few longer inscriptions, and some of them even give us clues to what they mean. The most beautiful are the Pyrgi tablets, written in Etruscan and Punic (Phoenician). Punic is a bit easier for us to understand than Etruscan, and the two versions say similar things, and so these can help us a lot. Other useful texts include dice, which obviously give us the numbers one to six. Overall, we understand a few hundred Etruscan words, and plenty of names, which is definitely enough to read a lot of the writing that survives.
In case you’re wondering, my favourite Etruscan word so far is a borrowing from Greek – phersu “theatre mask” which Latin borrowed as “persona”, giving us the words “person” and “persona”. I’ll try to come up with some more during the vacation using Zikh Rasna by Rex E. Wallace – currently sitting on my desk next to a mince pie.