Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2015.03.02 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2015.03.02

Giovanni Rapelli, Il latino dei primi secoli (IX-VII a.C.) e l'etrusco. ItaliAteneo.   Roma:  Società Editrice Romana​, 2013.  Pp. x, 229.  ISBN 9788889291214.  €18.00 (pb).  

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

[The Table of Contents is listed below.]

According to Giovanni Rapelli the earliest Latin language spoken by Roman herdsmen was poor and heavily influenced by Etruscan, both in its lexicon and its phonology. He holds that the culturally superior Etruscans lived in the region of Rome before the Latins arrived from the north after c. 850 BC. The Sabine and Umbrian languages also would have been influenced by Etruscan. He further presumes that the Etruscans were immigrants from northwest Anatolia. Their language there would have been influenced by Anatolian languages (see also BMCR 2014.11.06), especially by non-Indo-European Hittite words (168-170). It would probably even show influences of Caucasian languages, e.g. Ubykh. Rapelli is further convinced that the Indo-European and non- Indo-European, Basque, Semitic, Altaic, Korean and Japanese languages all have their roots in a common, so-called Nostratic language.

Rapelli’s knowledge of the Etruscan language is primarily based on nine publications of Massimo Pittau, especially his Dizionario comparativo latino-etrusco of 2009. Unfortunately Rapelli does not pay attention to modern archaeological and linguistic studies.1 Not one article in the periodical Studi Etruschi has been used. From the material point of view there is no evidence that Proto-Etruscans, bearers of the Villanova culture, were present in Rome before the Latins. The presumed Latin immigration around 850 B.C. is incorrect, since the Latial culture had already emerged in the 11th and 10th centuries BC.2 As for Etruscan immigration(s) into Italy based on Herodotus and the non-Greek, Etruscoid Lemnian inscriptions, there is now evidence to the contrary: Etruscan pirates from Southern Etruria may have settled on Lemnos, around 700 BC or earlier and had been responsible for the inscriptions. Moreover, Carlo de Simone has definitely shown that Etruscan is not an Anatolian language.3 The Etruscan numerals, very characteristic elements of any language, do not have any parallels in Anatolian or other languages. In addition, there are no lexical comparanda in Caucasian languages. The idea that the language families mentioned above have a common root (around 40,000 BC) is highly speculative.

What remains is the question whether early Latin underwent Etruscan influence in prehistory. This cannot be proven since the oldest Etruscan and the very few oldest Latin inscriptions date from the seventh century BC. Gertrude Breyer (not quoted by Rapelli) has elucidated which Latin words may be of Etruscan origin.4 Even her impressive study cannot indicate in which period Romans borrowed a particular Etruscan word.

The core of Rapelli’s book, and its most imaginative part, is the etymological section. The author presents an unsystematic, non-alphabetic list of Etruscan, Latin and other words with comparanda in Greek, Anatolian or Caucasian languages. For example, he assumes that Etruscan farthana (girl, virgin, marriageable) is akin to Greek parthenos (virgin). Both words would go back to I.E. *per- (to generate) which he sees as a substratum of non-Indo-European origin (25, 50-51, 171). In fact, however, farthana, is the adjective of farthan which means genius, progenitor, begetter.5 There is no reason to translate farthana as virgin, let alone as marriageable. In addition, there are no other comparanda for a shift from an initial Greek p to an Etruscan f. An initial Greek p may become Etruscan ph but not f.

Curiously, in spite of the title of the book, few Latin words of presumed Etruscan origin are discussed. Those which are dealt with are unconvincing. I give an example: Latin loquor and eloquor are said to derive from Etruscan iluc ”probabilmente lamento, cantata, iscrizione di lamento, canto funebre, epitaffio” (61-62). Yet it is known that the lexeme ilucve in the Tabula Capuana means “on the feast”,6 which excludes a derivation of eloq- from iluc-. (In addition, the i in iluc- is not a prefix like the e in eloq-.)

Many comparisons are products of fantasy, for example the idea that Latin ferrum would be akin to or derive from Rhaetic *sersu and Etruscan *fersu or *phersu (87). It has long been known that Latin perso(na) derives from Etruscan phersu (an existing word) which means mask. It has nothing to do with iron. Most comparanda are reconstructions of Etruscan words (marked by an asterisk) made by Rapelli (often following Pittau) which do not exist in Etruscan; e.g. Latin fornicare/fornix is said to be akin to Greek pornē (prostitute), whilst Etruscan *phurne would be, Rapelli claims, the intermediate stage between the Greek and Latin word (53). There are no references to scientific Etruscan dictionaries that would enable the reader to check contexts and dates of word forms.7 Fortunately, the author is well aware that his etymologies might turn out to be illusory in the future (50). They already are. Although inexpensive, Rapelli’s book is a source of disinformation about the influence of Etruscan on Old Latin.

Table of Contents

Preface (of M. Pittau)
I. Il latino delle origini
II. I primi Latini a Roma
III. Gli Etruschi primi abitatori della zona di Roma
IV. La geminazione delle consonanti
V. La sonorizzazione
VI. La fonetica etrusca
VII. L’impatto della cultura etrusca su quella latina
VIII. Etrusco e ittito
IX. Etrusco e indoeuropeo
X. Il popolo “nostratico” e i Caucasini
Considerazioni finali
Indice delle voci trattate
Lingue caucasiche
Altre lingue


1.   Helmut Rix, “Etruscan”, in The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the World’s Ancient Languages, edited by R.D. Woodard, Cambridge 2002, 943-966. Giuliano Bonfante, Larissa Bonfante, The Etruscan Language, Manchester 2002. Rex Wallace, Zikh Rasna. A Manuel of Etruscan Language and Inscriptions, Ann Arbor/New York 2008.
2.   See now Francesca Fulminante, The Urbanization of Rome and Latium Vetus: From the Bronze Age to the Archaic Era, Cambridge/New York 2014. Reviewed in BMCR 2014.12.30).
3.   Carlo de Simone, “La nuova iscrizione ‘Tirsenica’ di Lemnos (Efestia, teatro): considerazioni generali”, Rasenna 2011, 1-34.
4.   Gertrude Breyer, Etruskisches Sprachgut im Lateinischen unter Ausschluss des spezifisch onomastischen Bereiches, Leuven 1993.
5.   Giovanni Colonna, “Note di lessico etrusco (farthan, huze, hinthial)”, Studi Etruschi 48, 1980, 161-179.
6.   M. Cristofani, Tabula Capuana. Un calendario festive di età arcaica, Firenze 1995.
7.   Helmut Rix (ed.), Etruskische Texte. Editio minor. I-II, Tübingen 1993; Thesaurus Linguae Etruscae (ThesLE), Roma 1978 and 2009 (revised edition); see now also Gerhard Meiser (ed.), Etruskische Texte. Editio minor. I-II, Hamburg 2014 (revised edition of Rix 1993). For recent discoveries of inscriptions see ‘Rivista di epigrafia etrusca’ (REE) in Studi Etruschi. ​

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