Etruscan writing has the reputation of being elusive. It attracts amateur sleuths from around the world hoping to decipher the texts. But Etruscan is not mysterious or in need of decipherment. The texts can be read; they always could be read because the Etruscan alphabetic script is derived from a West Greek model.

The problem is that we do not know much about how the Etruscan language works. This is primarily because there are no well-understood related languages with which Etruscan can be compared to help us to determine word meanings and syntactic features.

There are approximately 9,000 Etruscan inscriptions, mostly from Etruria. Others have been found in Latium and in Campania in southern Italy. A handful have been discovered at sites scattered throughout the Mediterranean. The inscriptions cover a chronological span of 750 years—from the end of the eighth century B.C.E. to the middle of the first century C.E., when Etruscan ceased to be spoken as a native language. Epitaphs on sarcophagi, cinerary urns, funerary stelae and the walls of tombs make up about 90 percent of the corpus. Other inscriptions—signatures of artisans, votive dedications and ownership labels—are found on pottery.

The most important and longest Etruscan text (about 1,200 words) is the Liber Linteus, now in the National Museum in Zagreb, Croatia. This text was written on linen; it was preserved only because it was transported to Egypt and used to bind a mummy. A ritual calendar, the Liber Linteus specifies the dates and features of important Etruscan religious festivals as well as prayers and rituals performed at them.

A small number of Etruscan texts have parallels in other languages. There are almost 30 Etrusco-Latin bilingual epitaphs, which give the name of the deceased in both Etruscan and Latin. Sensational bilingual texts were discovered in the Etruscan port city of Pyrgi in 1964. These texts are incised on three gold tablets in both Etruscan and Phoenician. Two of these tablets are shown below, with the Phoenician text at left and the Etruscan text at right. The tablets’ text describes the dedication of the sanctuary of the Etruscan goddess Uni (identified as Astarte in the Phoenician text) by the ruler of Caere, Thefarie Velianas.

By the last quarter of the eighth century B.C.E., Etruscans were in commercial contact with Euboean Greeks who had established emporia in the gulf of Naples. Greek goods and ideas flowed into Etruria, among the most important of which was the alphabet. The oldest form of the Etruscan alphabet, which was borrowed from the Greek alphabet, appears on a miniature ivory writing tablet discovered in a tomb at Marsiliana d’Albegna. At the top of this tablet, the 26-letter Etruscan alphabet is inscribed from right to left (as are most Etruscan inscriptions).

The earliest texts were written without word dividers, in scriptio continua. Later inscriptions have the words separated by interpuncts (dots) positioned at midline.

Etruscan is a case language. In languages of this type, information about how words function in sentences is conveyed by means of suffixes called cases. Etruscan nouns, adjectives and pronouns have different case forms depending on their function in a sentence. Nouns have one form for subject and direct object, another form for indirect object, yet another to indicate possession, and still others to signify origin and place (see table, below).

Etruscan nouns are split into two large classes: Nouns referring to animate beings—humans, animals—form their plurals differently from nouns referring to inanimate objects, such as stones and clouds.

When plural suffixes and case suffixes are added to the same noun stem, they are attached in the order:


Thus aiseras (of the gods) = ais (god) + er (plural) + as (possessive); and avilcal (of years) = avil (year) + cva (plural) + l (possessive).

Pronouns differ from nouns and adjectives by having a distinct form for subject and direct object. The first person singular pronoun, for example, has the form mi for the subject “I” and the form mini for the direct object “me”.

The affix sa functions as the Etruscan definite article (the). But it also serves another purpose: to indicate the patronymic, as in MacDonald (son of Donald) in Gaelic or Petrovich (son of Peter) in Russian. It is used in funerary inscriptions to specify the father of the deceased: velusa = velus + sa (the [son] of Vel).

The Etruscan verb system is much less well understood. Still, it seems certain that Etruscan verbs have two tense forms specified by different suffixes, one for the past tense (amce, was) and another for both present and future (ame, is/will be). Verb forms without suffixes indicate commands, like the word tur (give!). There is also a distinction between active (menace, made) and passive (menace, was made). The suffix ri, when added to a verb stem, conveys a sense of obligation; the word qezeri, for example, means “must be X-ed” (one possible meaning of qezeri is sacrificed).

Our knowledge of the Etruscan lexicon is limited in large part to vocabulary used in funerary inscriptions. We know, for example, important words for familial relationships, such as clan (son), sec (daughter), puia (wife), ati (mother), apa (father), ati nacna (grandmother), apa nacna (grandfather), nefts (grandchild) and ruva (brother). We know that svalce means lived and lupuce died. We’ve identified some numerals specifying the age of the deceased (macs sealcls, 45) and a small set of words referring to the resting places of the deceased: suqi (tomb), muqna (sarcophagus) and hupnina(funerary couch). Inscriptions detailing the achievements of deceased Etruscans yield a word for an official: zilaq mecl Rasnal (president [?] of the commonwealth). From other inscriptions it is possible to discern the meanings of a handful of verbs and nouns: alice (gave), zinace (made or possibly fashioned [out of clay]), zicuce (was written), cericance (constructed), cver (gift), spura (community) and meqlum (city), among others.

A significant number of identifiable Etruscan words were borrowed from other languages, most prominently ancient Greek. The mythological scenes incised on Etruscan mirrors are Greek in origin, and the names of many of the mythological figures were borrowed along with the myths: aivas = Ag”a, and hercle = VHraklh]—the characters Ajax and Herakles from Greek myth. In the seventh and sixth centuries B.C.E., Etruscan potters were trained by Greek immigrants. Many of the styles produced in local Etruscan workshops followed Greek models, and the names for these different types of pottery were also borrowed: qutum = kwvqwn (drinking cup), lectum = lhvkÙqo (oil-flask) and prucum = provcoo (water-jug).

Every freeborn Etruscan had a two-part name: a prenomen and a gentilicium; for example, laris velkasna. The prenomen is the personal name; the gentilicium indicates the clan, or gens, to which an individual belonged. Most of the gentilicia in Etruscan are formed using the suffixes na or ie.

Etruscan funerary inscriptions often list only the deceased’s name, but many inscriptions specify the familial relationships of the deceased in some detail. The following inscription gives a deceased woman’s patronymic, matronymic and gamonymic (wife of) as well as the patronymic of her husband!

larqi [.] einanei . seqres . sec . ramqas ecnatial puia . larq(a)l . cuclnies . velquruqla avils . hucs . ce(a)lcls

Larthi Einanei, daughter of Sethre (and) Ramtha Ecnati, wife of Larth Cuclnie, the (son) of Velthur, (died) at age 36.1

Considerable time and energy have been spent exploring possible linguistic connections between Etruscan and other languages, but without much success.

The only language that has been securely identified as Etruscoid up to this point is Lemnian, which is attested by a funerary stela and a handful of vase inscriptions from the island of Lemnos in the eastern Aegean. Despite the geographical distance between Etruria and Lemnos, linguistic similarities shared by Etruscan and Lemnian cannot be attributed to chance. Even so, the precise linguistic relationship has not yet been determined. Are Lemnian and Etruscan two different but related languages descended from a common source? Or is Lemnian a dialect of Etruscan?

The linguistic relationship between Etruscan and another language, Rhaetic, which is attested by some 100 inscriptions from the Alpine area of northern Italy, is currently the object of intense study. Preliminary reports suggest that the two languages may be related to one another, but a final determination cannot yet be made.

So our knowledge of Etruscan is limited by the kinds of texts that we have and by the procedures that can be employed to study them. But we have learned a great deal about Etruscan during the last 30 years. It is time to get rid of the adjective “mysterious” in describing this ancient tongue.