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Italic Languages

The Italic languages are a subfamily of the Indo-European language family, originally spoken by Italic peoples. They include Latin and its descendants (the Romance languages) as well as a number of extinct languages of the Italian Peninsula, including Umbrian, Oscan, Faliscan, South Picene, and possibly Venetic and Sicel. With over 800 million native speakers, the Italic languages are the second most widely spoken branch of the Indo-European family, after the Indo-Iranian languages. In the past, various definitions of "Italic" have prevailed. This article uses the classification presented by the Linguist List: Italic includes the Latin subgroup (Latin and the Romance languages) as well as the ancient Italic languages (Faliscan, Osco-Umbrian and two unclassified Italic languages, Aequian and Vestinian). Venetic (the language of the ancient Veneti), as revealed by its inscriptions, shared some similarities with the Italic languages and is sometimes classified as Italic. However, since it also shares similarities with other Western Indo-European branches (particularly Celtic languages), some linguists prefer to consider it as an independent Indo-European language. In the extreme view, Italic did not exist, but the different groups descended directly from Indo-European and converged because of geographic contiguity. That view stems in part from the difficulty in identifying a common Italic homeland in prehistory. In the intermediate view, the Italic languages are one of the ten or eleven major subgroups of the Indo-European language family and might therefore have had an ancestor, Common Italic or Proto-Italic from which its daughter languages descended. Moreover, there are similarities between major groups, but how the similarities are to be interpreted is one of the major debated issues in the historical linguistics of Indo-European. The linguist Calvert Watkins went so far as to suggest, among the ten major groups, a four-way division of East, West, North and South Indo-European. He considered them to be "dialectical divisions within Proto-Indo-European which go back to a period long before the speakers arrived in their historical areas of attestation". It is not to be considered a nodular grouping; in other words, there was not necessarily any common west Indo-European serving as a node from which the subgroups branched but a hypothesised similarity between the dialects of Proto-Indo-European that developed into the recognised families. Although generally regarded as a single branch that diversified from a Common or Proto-Italic stage, after the Proto-Indo-European period, some authors doubt this common affiliation. All the Italic languages share a number of common isoglosses; thus, all of them are centum languages that do not present palatalization of the Indo-European (palatal) velars /*k, *kʷ, *g, *gʰ, *gʰʷ/. The Romance languages present a later palatalization of Latin phonemes /k, g/, although only before phonemes /ɛ, e, i/.

historical linguistics palatalization faliscan

1. History

Languages of pre-Roman Italy and nearby islands: N1, Rhaetian; N2, Etruscan: N3, North Picene (Picene of Novilara); N4, Ligurian; N5, Nuragic; N6, Elymian; N7, Sicanian; C1, Lepontic; C2, Gaulish; I1, South Picene; I2, Umbrian; I3, Sabine; I4, Faliscan; I5, Latin; I6, Volscian and Hernican; I7, Central Italic (Marsian, Aequian, Paeligni, Marrucinian, Vestinian); I8, Oscan, Sidicini, Pre-Samnite; I9, Sicel; IE1, Venetic; IE2, Messapian; G1-G2-G3, Greek dialects (G1: Ionic, G2: Aeolic, G3: Doric); P1, Punic.

By the end of the 8th century BC, the Greek settlers in the south of the Italian Peninsula had introduced the alphabet that would later be spread to the Iron Age cultures on the peninsula. The inscriptions have preserved evidence of a variety of languages that for the most part are extinct.

When beginning the linguistic history of Italy, it is first necessary to deal with the evidence of non-Indo-European languages. The most important example of these languages is Etruscan, evidenced by more than 10,000 inscriptions and some short texts that served to conclude that this language was a non-Indo-European language and not even related to any other language except some inscriptions on the island of Lemnos in the eastern Mediterranean.

The problem of the origin of the Etruscans has generated many debates and there is not yet a definitive solution, but the tendency is to believe that the Etruscans were a non-Indo-European people native to Italy who adopted many customs and styles of the eastern Mediterranean through trade. The similarity between Etruscan and the Lemnos inscriptions leads one to understand the existence of a continuum of non-Indo-European languages that spread throughout the central and eastern Mediterranean before the Indo-European invasions.

Perhaps one of the reasons to easily conclude that Etruscan is a native language of Italy is the fact that there are other non-Indo-European languages in the region. There is evidence that place names, especially in the Alpine region and Sardinia, and many of the words in Latin and the Romance languages are irreducible from the Indo-European point of view, and derive from a non-Indo-European substrate.

Some have suggested that Ligurian, a language evidenced to the north of the Etruscans in some inscriptions and local names, was also non-Indo-European, although strongly influenced by the Celts. Similarly in the eastern Alps was Rhaetian, weakly evidenced, but also leads us to believe that it is another non-Indo-European language by having elements such as tinake in Etruscan zinake, which are distinctively non-Indo-European, but the evidence is scarce.

Of course, the most famous Indo-European language in Italy is Latin, whose diffusion coincided with the expansion of Roman power. It must be recognized that the Romance languages ended up imposing themselves on the vernacular languages in many of the territories that were occupied by the Roman Empire, making the Italic branch the second most spoken in the world among the Indo-European languages, with about 550 million speakers.

In the fifth century BC, Latin is no more than a language confined to the territory of Rome with its linguistic neighbour to the north, the Faliscan dialect. More dubious is the relationship with Sicel, a language spoken in eastern Sicily and evidenced by three inscriptions and a few sentences.

Across the backbone of Italy was the great Osco-Umbrian group. Oscan was the language of the Samnites and was probably not yet extinct until the first centuries of our era. There are 200 boisterous inscriptions, along with some personal names.

Umbrian is best evidenced by the "boards of Gubbio", which consist of religious texts inscribed in bronze around 200 BC. The differences between Latin and Osco-Umbrian are as obvious as its similarities, which leads us to think in common Proto-Italic.

The largest language in southern Italy, except 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.

To the north of Messapian was Picene, which comprises two different languages under the same name. Some of the Picene inscriptions date from the 7th century BC and are among the oldest written evidence of Italy. Unfortunately these inscriptions are easy to decipher, but not to translate. South Picene was at least clearly Indo-European; for example, matereif patereif = Latin matribus patribus, "mothers and fathers", while North Picene inscriptions show more problems. Some linguists consider them Indo-European (although no single word can be translated safely), while others see it as non-Indo-European. Those who accept their Indo-European identity are derived, as in the case of Messapian, from the eastern Adriatic coast.

Finally in Veneto to the northeast, we have Venetic, the language of the Eastern culture of the Iron Age in the Italian Peninsula. There seems to be no doubt of its relationship with Indo-European because it has similarities with the Germanic and Italic languages, although some linguists see it as a separate group within the Indo-European languages. There are more than 200 short inscriptions that were written from the sixth century BC until the first century BC, there being toponymic evidence linking the territory of the Veneti with the Liburnian tribes of the Adriatic in the Balkans.

The Italic peoples came from the north to the Italian Peninsula in the 2nd millennium BC. There were two waves - an earlier one (the Latino-Faliscan languages, including Sicel, which has gone far to the south) and later (the Osco-Umbrian languages). Previously, it was customary to identify the first wave with the Terramare culture, and the second one with the Proto-Villanovan culture; modern archaeologists point to more complex processes.

Latin was originally used by the tribe of the Latins, which inhabited the region of Latium (Latin: Latium) in the middle of Italy with their centre (from the 8th century BC) in Rome. This 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. Romanisation of the Italian Peninsula (except for the south of Italy and Sicily, where the dominance of Greek was preserved) basically ended by the 1st century BC. Further conquests of slave-owning Rome led to the spread of Latin in North Africa, Spain , Gaul, the Germany Rhineland, Raetia, Pannonia and Dacia, to the Romanisation of many peoples who inhabited these territories.

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

  • From the archaic period, several inscriptions of the 6th to the 4th centuries BC, fragments of the oldest laws, fragments from the sacral anthem of the Salii, the anthem of the Arval Brethren were preserved.
  • In the pre-classical period (3rd and 2nd centuries BC), the literary Latin language (the comedies of Plautus and Terence, the agricultural treatise of Cato the Elder, fragments of works by a number of other authors) was based on the dialect of Rome.
  • The period of classical ("golden") Latin (1st century BC, the development of vocabulary, the development of terminology, the elimination of old morphological doublets, the flowering of literature: Cicero, Caesar, Sallust, Virgil, Horace, Ovid) was particularly distinguished.
  • During the period of classical ("silver") Latin, the phonetic, morphological and spelling norms were finally formed.

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.

General and specific characteristics of the Italic languages:

  • in phonetics: the greatest archaism of Oscan (in comparison with Latin and Umbrian), manifested in the preservation in 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 force (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 the Osco-Umbrian;
  • in the syntax: many convergences; In Osco-Umbrian, impersonal constructions, parataxis, partitive genitive, genitive of time and genitive relationships are more often used;
  • in the lexicon: a significant number of lexemes from the Indo-European fund; the presence of words unique to the western area of 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.

2. Phylogenetics

Strictly speaking, the label of "Italic languages" can be applied to any language spoken in the Italian region in antiquity, whether or not of Indo-European stock.[1] In this broad sense, the languages that are commonly considered non-Indo-European, such as Etruscan, Rhaetian and the language of Stele di Novilara (North Picene), are also considered to be Italic; the attribution of Ligurian is controversial, while too little is known about Sicanian and Elymian to allow reasonably founded hypotheses.[2] Traditionally, however, it reserves the expression of "Italic languages" only for Indo-European languages spoken in ancient times in Italy and not those belonging to other Indo-European families, thus excluding Messapian, Illyrian, Gaulish and Lepontic, the last two Celtic.

Initially, the Indo-Europeanists had been inclined to postulate, for the various Indo-European languages of ancient Italy, a belonging to a unitary linguistic family, parallel for example to that of Celtic or Germanic; the founder of this hypothesis is considered Antoine Meillet (1866-1936).[3] Starting from the work of Alois Walde (1869-1924), however, this unitary scheme has been subjected to radical criticism; decisive, in this sense, were the arguments put forward by Vittore Pisani (1899-1990) and, later also by Giacomo Devoto (1897-1974), who postulated the existence of two distinct Indo-European (probably one of Aryo-European origin) branches in which it is possible to inscribe the Italic languages. Variously reformulated in the years following the Second World War, the various hypotheses concerning the existence of two different Indo-European families have definitively imposed themselves, even if the specific traits that separate or close them, as well as the exact processes of formation and penetration into Italy, remain the object of research by historical linguistics.[4]

3. Branches

Languages of Central Italy at the beginning of Roman expansion.

Generally shared, today, it is a scheme that identifies two linguistic families traditionally gathered under the label of "Italic languages":[4] The Italic family has two known branches:

  • Latino-Faliscan, also known as the Western Italic languages:
    • 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. The Roman conquests eventually spread it throughout the peninsula and beyond, in the Roman Empire.
      • Romance languages, the descendants of Latin (evolved dialects of Latin)
    • Venetic, spoken in northeastern Italy by the Veneti.
  • Osco-Umbrian or Sabellian, or Eastern Italic languages:
    • Oscan, which was spoken in the south-central region of the Italian Peninsula
      • Marrucinian
      • Paeligni
      • Sidicini
    • Umbrian (not to be confused with the modern Umbrian dialect of Italian), which was spoken in the north-central region
    • Volscian
    • Hernican
    • Marsian, the language of the Marsi
    • South Picene, in east-central Italy
    • Sabine in Lazio and the central Apennines
    • Pre-Samnite
  • Unknown classification
    • Aequian
    • Vestinian
  • Unknown
    • Sicel, spoken in eastern Sicily by the Sicels (limited attestation).

The relationship of the Venetic language to other Indo-European languages is still debated, but the majority of scholars agree that Venetic shared some similarities with the Italic languages, and so is often classified as Italic or as a separate branch transitional to Italic. It was spoken in northeastern Italy.[5]

Some other languages belong to the Italic branch, but too little is known for further classification: Aequian, spoken by the Aequi just east of Rome, and Vestinian, spoken by the Vestini in northeast Italy. It is unknown whether Sicel, the Indo-European language spoken by the Sicels in eastern Sicily was Italic or not.

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.

It has also been proposed that the Lusitanian language may have belonged to the Italic family.[6][7]

4. Origins

The main debate concerning the origin of the Italic languages is the same as one that preoccupied Greek studies for the last half of the 20th century. The Indo-Europeanists for Greek had hypothesized (see Dorian invasion, Proto-Greek) that Greek originated outside Greece and was brought in by invaders. Analysis of the lexical items of Mycenaean Greek, an early form of Greek, raised the issue of whether Greek was formed within Greece from Indo-European elements brought in by migrants or by invaders, mixed with elements of indigenous languages. The issue was settled in favour of Greek being a language that developed from all of these elements but then also took its recognisable form all within Greece.[8]

A Proto-Italic homeland outside Italy is just as elusive as the home of the hypothetical Greek-speaking invaders. No early form of Italic is available to match Mycenaean Greek. The Italic languages are first attested in writing from Umbrian and Faliscan inscriptions from the 7th century BC. The alphabets used are based on the Old Italic alphabet, which is itself based on the Greek alphabet. The Italic alphabets themselves show minor influence from the Etruscan alphabet and somewhat more from the Ancient Greek alphabet. There is no guarantee that the intermediate phases between Italic 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. Silvestri says:[9]

...Common Italic... is certainly not to be seen as a prehistoric language that can largely be reconstructed, but rather as a set of prehistoric and proto-historic processes of convergence.

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".[10]

Gray and Atkinson come up by using their Bayesian phylogenetic model that the Italic branch separated from the Germanic branch 5500 years ago, roughly the start of the Bronze Age.[11]

5. Common Characteristics

Currently the term Italic languages is used to refer to a set of Indo-European languages that share a certain number of common features and that after a long period of common coexistence suffered a certain process of convergence.[12]

However, authors such as Silvestri[13] and Rix[14] argue that there was no reconstructable common Proto-Italic, which meets these two conditions:

  1. It should have a phonological system that explains the Latin and the Osco-Umbrian languages simultaneously through later phonetic changes.
  2. It should represent a phonology and morphology that presents changes regarding the common Indo-European state.

In the same way as the theory of the Italo-Celtic relationship, many authors have rejected the idea that all the similarities of the Italic languages are due to the existence of a linguistic stage called common Italic, whose diversification emerged languages. In fact, several authors have proposed to explain some of the common characteristics as a sprachbund phenomenon that would affect the so-called medium-Italic linguistic area.

5.1. Phonology

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

  1. Evolution of labial stops: *p > p, *b > b, *bʰ- > f-, -*bʰ- > -b-,(-f-)
  2. 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.
  3. Evolution of aspirated stops at the beginning of a word: *bʰ- > f-, -*dʰ- > f-.
Faliscan Latin Oscan Umbrian
*bʰréh₂tr 'brother'
  frāter fratu frater
*dʰeh₁lyo 'son'
filea 'sister'
fīlius   fel
  1. Evolution of velars: *k > k (<c>), *g > g, *gʰ- > h-
    • kʷ > kʷ (<qu>)/k (<c>), *gʷ > v/g/f
  2. Evolution of liquids: *l > l y *r > r.
  3. 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) y *Cn(C) > Cen(C) (here C represents any consonant).
  4. Evolution of semivowels: *w > v, *y > i.

5.2. Grammar

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

  1. 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)
  2. A suffix in the imperfect indicative *-fā- (Oscan fufans 'they were', Latin was given a sound in -ba- as in portabant 'they had').
  3. 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 love you and shall love' and in the Faliscan form cra carefo ('tomorrow I will not have', Latin crās carēbo).

5.3. Lexical Comparison

Among the Indo-European languages, the Italic languages share a higher percentage of lexicon with the Celtic and the Germanic ones.

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

GLOSS Latino-Faliscan Osco-Umbrian PROTO-
Faliscan Old
Oscan Umbrian
'1'   *ounos VNVS
*un(o) *uinus uns *oinos *oinos
'2' du *duō DVO
*dos/*doi 𐌃𐌖𐌔
-duf *dwō (m. nom.)
*dwōs (m. ac.)
'3' tris   trēs (m.f.)
tria (n.)
*tres/*trei 𐌕𐌓𐌝𐌔
trif (m.f.)
triia (n.)
*treyes (m.f.)
tria (n.)
'4'     QVATTVOR
*kwatro 𐌐𐌄𐌕𐌖𐌓𐌀
petur *kʷetwor- *kʷetwar-
'5' *kʷikʷe   QVINQVE
*ʧiŋkwe pompe- *pumpe *kʷenkʷe *kʷenkʷe
'6' śex *seks SEX
*seis *sehs 𐌔𐌄𐌇𐌔
*seks *sweχ
'7' *śepten   SEPTEM
*sɛte 𐌔𐌄𐌚𐌕𐌄𐌍
  *septem *seχtam
'8' oktu   OCTO
*ɔćto *uhto   *oktō *oχtū
'9' *neuen   NOVEM
*nɔwe *nuven *nuvim *nowen *nawan
'10'     DECEM
*dɛʧe 𐌃𐌄𐌊𐌄𐌍
*desem *dekem *dekam

The asterisk designates reconstructed forms on indirect linguistic evidence and not forms directly witnessed in any inscription.

6. Characteristics

Map showing the approximate extent of the centum (blue) and satem (red) areals.

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.[15]

6.1. P-Italic and Q-Italic Languages

Similar to Celtic languages, the Italic languages are also divided into P- and Q-branches, depending on the fate of the pre-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]) or simplified it into w (Latin uapor 'steam' < PIE *kʷapor-).


  1. Francisco Villar, Gli Indoeuropei e le origini dell'Europa, pp. 473-474.
  2. Villar, cit., p. 474.
  3. Villar, cit., pp. 474-475.
  4. Villar, cit., pp. 447-482.
  5. Gvozdanović, Jadranka (2012). "On the linguistic classification of Venetic. In Journal of Language Relationship." p. 34.
  6. Francisco Villar (2000) Indoeuropeos y no indoeuropeos en la Hispania prerromana, Ediciones Universidad de Salamanca, Spain ISBN:84-7800-968-X
  7. Francisco Villar, Rosa Pedrero y Blanca María Prósper
  8. Leppänen, Ville (2014-01-01). "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. 
  9. Silvestri 1998, p. 325
  10. Bakkum 2009, p. 54.
  11. Gray & Atkinson 2003.
  12. Domenico Silvestri, 1993
  13. Silvestri, 1987
  14. Rix, 1983, p. 104
  15. Douglas Q., Adams (1997). Encyclopedia of Indo-European Culture. Taylor & Francis. pp. 316–317. 
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