Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2013.09.09 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2013.09.09

Massimiliano Canuti, Basco ed etrusco: due lingue sottoposte all’influsso indoeuropeo. Studia erudita, 7.   Pisa; Roma:  Fabrizio Serra editore, 2008.  Pp. 249.  ISBN 9788862270496.  €58.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by L. Bouke van der Meer, Leiden University (

The key question of Canuti’s book is the influence of Indo-European (hereafter IE) languages on Basque, an isolated language but still spoken by 714,136 people in Spain and France (according to the Ve Enquête Sociolinguistique, 2011), and on Etruscan, a dead language. Both languages are non-IE, nor are they genetically related to each other. No Basque written texts are older than the tenth century AD. Etruscan is preserved in c. 11,000 inscriptions; the oldest ones date from c. 700 BC, the one that is probably most recent from AD 15. The reason for the anachronistic comparative research is that both languages are non-IE and morphologically mainly agglutinative. Canuti surmises that IE pressure on Etruscan happened in a way similar to that on Basque. Because BMCR is focused on the classical world, my comments are mainly limited to Etruscan.

The first chapter offers concise histories of the Etruscans and the Basques. In the following chapters the influences of IE languages on the phonology, morphology, syntax, and lexicon of both languages are investigated. The last chapter deals with genetic aspects of Etruscan: the relationship with Lemnian (on Lemnos) and with Raetic (in Northern Italy), both very close to Etruscan or vice versa, and the—unlikely— connections with Sumerian and Caucasian languages. After general conclusions appendices list similarities between Etruscan and IE words, IE loanwords in Basque, and one rather concise index mentions names of authors and subjects, and another refers to sources, i.e. Etruscan dictionaries.

Chapter I “Elementi preliminari” sets the stage. Since Basque has many dialects, euskera batua (standard Basque) is taken as the point of departure. Canuti further pays attention to diachronic developments within Etruscan and Basque. An important change in Etruscan was the appearance of syncope in the first half of the fifth century BC (e.g. achile > achle(Achilles)). As for history, Canuti speaks about ‘the Etruscan nation’ (26). In fact, this never existed; there was only an anti-Roman federation between 434 and 389 BC.1

Chapter II discusses phonetic changes caused by Italic languages, though Canuti is not able to offer many convincing cases. Plausible examples are the de-aspiration from th to t in word endings, and the alternative use of f and h in word beginnings. Canuti could also have mentioned the alternating chi and gamma (cf. *chaire/*caisra (Latin Caere)). He suggests (71, 78) that under Latin influence the vowel e in the lexeme cezrtial written in the Etruscan alphabet would have changed into the diphthong ae as is visible in the lexeme Caezirtli written in the Latin alphabet (compare e.g. Latin Caesar). Thefariei and Thefarie in the famous Pyrgi inscriptions (c. 500 BC) may both be nominatives (73), but that does not imply that in the Liber linteus zagrabiensis (c. 200 BC) faśe and faśei are identical (70). The syntagm tei faśei (< *ete-i < *eta-i faśe-i) is evidently written in the locative/instrumental case (‘with this faśe’, a liquid, see below).

For morphology, Canuti presents in Chapter III a long list of possible IE influences, for example locatives in -thi (as in Greek) and -i (as in Latin domi). He holds, following L. Agostiniani, that the ending -um instead of -un in loanwords from Greek which indicate inanimate things like qutum (from Greek koothoon) are due to Latin influence. Contrary to C. de Simone he does not exclude that the third person perfect verbal ending in -ce is akin to Greek -ke although the Etruscan passive form -che is absent in Greek (125).

IE influence on Etruscan syntax is demonstrated in Chapter IV by formulas of Greek origin in inscriptions on so-called speaking artifacts (e.g.: mi squlias thina…: ‘I (am) of Squli the vase…’) (142). Tripartite onomastic formulas mentioning a praenomen, nomen gentilicium and cognomen would have been influenced by Latin ones (150). However, this cannot be proved, due to the inequality of the sources— Etruscan inscriptions on the one hand and later Latin literature on the other.

The Etruscan lexicon is discussed in Chapter V. Evidently names of Greek vases, materials (e.g. eleiva- from Greek elaiFa), and mythological names, as well as Italic words, names of gods like Selvans and personal names like Mamarce were taken up in Etruscan. Canuti admits that in many cases the direction of non-personal loanwords is uncertain. Examples are Etruscan tular and Umbrian tuder (‘boundary’) and Etruscan munth-and Latin mund- (‘elegance’). Appendix 1 fully confirms this problem. It seems that far more Etruscan words were adopted in Latin than vice versa. Recently, John Penney independently came to similar conclusions. 2 A difficulty in comparative lexical research is that the meanings of a rather limited number of Etruscan words are known. In addition, even many non-Latin Italic words are still untranslatable.

In discussing genetic relations between Etruscan, Raetic and Lemnian in Chapter VI Canuti keeps all options open. This is wise, since a recent discovery of a non-Greek Lemnian inscription on a base may show that the third person verbal perfect ending in -ke did exist. (heloke probably means ‘he/they placed/erected/dedicated’; in Etruscan: *heluce). Earlier only the third person verbal perfect ending -ai was known in Lemnian (e.g. aomai; in Etruscan: amuce: ‘x was’). Since the -ai morpheme is absent in Etruscan verb endings, Lemnian is supposed to be more archaic than Etruscan. The new discovery is a tiny indication that Etruscans may have settled on Lemnos in the archaic period, as C. de Simone has argued for decades.3 Still, serious objections are possible: there are no Villanovan or Etruscan artifacts on the island; all Lemnian inscriptions and graffiti (c. 550-510 BC) show the vowel o instead of u (Etruscan has only u); and the Lemnian alphabet is local and ancient authors do not mention migrations of Etruscans from Etruria to Lemnos.4 In addition, Greek has non-Greek so-called substrate words like opuioo (‘I take as wife’) and maybe prytanis which are also present in Etruscan (puia ‘wife’, purth (a kind of magistrate)). These congruences are difficult to explain if Lemnian was a form of exported Etruscan.

Canuti’s main conclusion is that Basque was far more influenced by Latin and Romance languages than Etruscan was by Greek and Italic languages. Both Basque and Etruscan, however, kept their core structure. Around 75% of IE loanwords in Basque are considered to be of Latin, c. 16% of Spanish, and c. 3% of French origin (165). According to Canuti, Basque would have survived because of its adaptability; Etruscan, however, would have become extinct because of its static nature and sclerosis (85). The extinction was caused by Rome’s gradual conquest of Etruria between 396 and 240 BC, but especially by the fact that some Etruscan cities and the elites who ruled in the name of Rome took the side of the plebeian consul Marius, after which they were punished by Sulla and lost their relative independence in 82 BC (25).

A problem is Canuti’s use of the word Indo-European, since for Etruscan, only borrowings and influences from Italic languages and Greek are shown, not from pre- or Proto-Indo-European itself or from Proto-Italic. An example may be the Etruscan vase name putlumza (‘little putlum’), which probably derives from early Italic *pôtlom (cf. Sanskrit pâtram, Latin poculum).

The book has some inconsistencies, e.g. the correct word division zil-ath (24) versus the incorrect zi-l-ath (99). S(i)anś is translated as ‘deity, numen’ (62, 64) but elsewhere tentatively as ‘integer’ (from Latin sanus; 221); it means ‘father’, as is shown by *maris sanś (compare Latin Marspiter).5

The translations of several other Etruscan words are out of date. For example, faśena (faśe-na) cannot mean ‘bread-basket’ (94) since it is the name of a vase, an askos, which can only have contained a liquid.6 The lexeme ampneri in the Liber linteus is a necessitative (‘x must be ampn-ed’); it cannot mean ‘in May’ (99) since this is known as anpilie in the Tabula Capuana (c. 470 BC) and transmitted as a gloss (Ampiles = May). The lexeme ufle does not mean ‘alone’ (75) but derives from Latin ofla/offula (‘a piece/piece of cake’). The phrase mi malak vanth does not mean ‘I (am) good fortune’ (142) but ‘I (am) a good Vanth’, meant as a euphemism since Vanth is a female deity of death. The appendix of similarities between Etruscan and Italic words could have had more lexemes like alpan (cf. Latin Albunea), lur (cf. Latin luridus), sul (cf. Italic sullum/sollum and Latin sollemne), and the deity Śuri (cf. Faliscan Soranus). As for Etruscan loanwords in Latin see G. Breyer, Etruskisches Sprachgut (Leuven 1993).

Canuti’s book is a courageous study and, apart from some failures in semantics, is based on modern linguistic research, especially that of H. Rix and L. Agostiniani. It includes short grammars of two interesting and unique languages, and, although highly specialist is quite readable (though not without typos). Canuti constantly realizes that analogies may be accidental. What happened to Etruscan may in some cases be similar to what happened to Basque, but the analogies are never identical because of the enormous differences between the morphological, especially verbal, structures of both languages. E.g.: Basque nouns have fifteen cases, Etruscan only five. Canuti’s book may interest linguists and Etruscologists. His bibliography is useful. His conclusions are very tentative and will therefore invite further research.


1.   One should speak rather of independent city states in Etruria (until c. 240 BC), the Po valley (until c. 350 BC) and Campania (until 423 BC), polities which had different relations with their Italic neighbors, Faliscans in Etruria itself, Veneti and Celts in the Po valley, Umbrians, Sabines, Latini and Romans along the Tiber, and Greeks, Samnites and Lucanians in Campania.
2.   J. Penney, “The Etruscan Language in its Italic context”, in Judith Swadling and Phil Perkins, eds., Etruscan by Definition. Papers in Honour of Sybille Haynes, MBE. London 2009, 88-94.
3.   C. de Simone, “La nuova iscrizione ‘Tirsenica’ di Lemnos (Efestia, teatro): considerazioni generali”, Rasenna: Journal of the Center for Etruscan Studies 3.1, (2011): 1-34 (found here). See now also H. Eichner, “Neues zur Sprache der Stele von Lemnos (Erster Teil)”, Journal of Language Relationship 7 (2012), 9-32.
4.  ] Contra C. de Simone’s hypothesis: L. Agostiniani, “Sulla grafia e la lingua delle iscrizioni anelleniche di Lemnos”, in V. Bellelli, ed., Le origini degli Etruschi. Archeologia storia antropologia. Roma 2012, 169-194.
5.   See also G. Colonna, “Il dio tec sanś; il Monte Tezio e Perugia”, in S. Bruni, ed., Etruria e Italia preromana: studi in onore di Giovannangelo Camporeale. Pisa/Roma 2009.
6.   L.B. van der Meer, Liber linteus zagrabiensis. The Linen Book of Zagreb. A Comment on the Longest Etruscan Text. Louvain 2007, 65-6, fig. 18.

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