BMCR 2021.05.11

Tense, aspect and modality in the Sabellic languages

, Tense, aspect and modality in the Sabellic languages. Langues et cultures anciennes (LCA), 31. Bruxelles: Safran éditions, 2020. Pp. 212. ISBN 9782874571107 €43,00.

This short book is a welcome contribution to the grammar of the Sabellic languages of ancient Italy (of which the best attested are Oscan, Umbrian and South Picene). As Pitts rightly stresses, the major general works on the Sabellic languages date to the mid twentieth century or earlier, and both the approaches taken and the inscriptional evidence available are now often rather outdated. Over the last decade or so, however, there has been a mini boom in works focussing on (aspects of) these languages (e.g. Weiss 2010; Crawford et al. 2011; Tikkanen 2011; Dupraz 2012; McDonald 2015; Zair 2016; Zamponi 2021). The present work does a good job of filling in one of the (many) remaining gaps, the question of tense, aspect and mobility (TAM) in the verbal system.

The book consists of a brief introduction, followed by Chapter 2 ‘A methodological background’ (largely on the question of using fragmentary inscriptional evidence and on how we understand Sabellic texts); Chapter 3 ‘Sabellic verbal morphology’; Chapter 4 ‘Approaches to TAM in the literature’; Chapter 5 ‘The analaysis of the data’; Chapter 6 ‘Conclusions’ (very brief). There is a bibliography and three appendices: a list of the texts cited, giving Trismegistos number, a concordance with the edition of Crawford et al. (2011), and information on the date, script and what the inscription is written on; a list of the abstract ‘Common Sabellic’ forms which Pitts uses (on which see more below) along with the actually attested forms (unfortunately without giving information on which language they are from or which inscription they can be found in); and a morphological analysis of each form which was analysed for the book (in arbitrary order, as far as one can tell, which lowers its utility). This last appendix takes up around half the book.

The key section is Chapter 5, in which Pitts explains, and demonstrates with examples, the attested uses of the following verbal categories in the Sabellic languages: indicatives based on the present and perfect stem, future indicatives based on the present and perfect stems, subjunctives, imperatives, and, briefly, ‘other TAM-related categories’, i.e. gerundives, participles, and infinitives. Pitts takes a synchronic descriptive approach, eschewing the overt comparison with Latin that characterises earlier grammars. He uses a modern linguistic framework, although without overburdening the fairly limited data with too much theoretical baggage. The results are highly sensible, clearly expressed, and will be extremely useful as a reference work. There are no great surprises in the analyses, but this is to be expected, given the relative paucity of the data, and the absence of many long or complex texts.

The book started life as an MA thesis (at KU Leuven), which makes its quality all the more impressive, but its origin does show through in the amount of methodological throat-clearing involved (taking up 76 pages) before reaching Chapter 5 (itself only 24 pages). In particular, using twelve pages on the sub-grouping of the Italic languages is arguably excessive to justify the author’s position of treating the Sabellic languages as a single entity for analysis of the verbal system. However, all of this material is laid out clearly and sensibly, with plentiful references, so I did not resent reading it. And in itself it can act as a useful introduction to the study of fragmentary languages and the Sabellic languages in particular, a topic which is still difficult to access, especially in English.

Given the fairly short presentation and analysis of the data, I think there was room for a more expansive approach, even if ultimately no conclusion can be drawn with absolute certainty for a given usage. This is particularly obvious in the case of the non-finite forms, which have less than a page dedicated to them, and only two example passages, despite our being told that there are many instances of them and that their relationship to tense is less fixed than their finite counterparts.

More detail on individual passages themselves would also have been appreciated. For instance, I would have liked some discussion of the use of tenses in suae pis censtomen nei cebnust dolud mallud in(im) eizeic uincter esuf comenei lamatir (Tabula Bantina 20-21) ‘if anyone has failed to come to the census with malice aforethought and is convicted of this, he himself shall be whipped (?) in the assembly’, where cebnust ‘(s)he will have come’ is future perfect, uincter ‘(s)he is convicted’ is present, and lamatir ‘(s)he is to be whipped’ is present subjunctive. We might expect that uincter would either be in the future perfect as well (having happened prior to lamatir), or in the future (happening after cebnust). While the present can be used as the future, this is the only instance in the Tabula Bantina: is its use here connected to the fact that we have two conjoined protases, and/or the fact that lamatir is the only instance of a present subjunctive (as opposed to an imperative) used as a command in the apodosis of a conditional clause?

I also wonder whether the phrase inuk ukar: pihaz fust (Iguvine Tables Ib 7) ‘then the mound will have been purified’ necessarily involves future anteriority, as Pitts claims (p. 87). While pihaz fust can be understood as an analytic future perfect passive, an alternative translation could be ‘then the mound will be purified’, i.e. taking fust as future of ‘to be’, and the past participle pihaz as adjectival. It would be interesting to be told if there are examples of main clause future perfect actives with the anterior sense.

Pitts also misses what would be the only example of a conditional clause with a perfect subjunctive, in the form of South Picene suai pis ehuelí (Asculum Picenum 3/TE 1) ‘if anyone should destroy…’, as argued by Weiss (2002: 358-62). While Pitts is in general cautious and avoids contentious examples (not easy with the Sabellic languages), in this case more engagement with the arguments around meaning and etymology would have been useful to making the most of the fragmentary evidence.

One aspect of the book that I find unfortunate is the use of what Pitts calls “common Sabellic” forms as a means of abstracting away from the major differences in phonology and orthography between and within the Sabellic languages. This is a serious problem, and it is reasonable to try to solve it, but the term “common Sabellic” is more usually used to refer to a period when the Sabellic languages formed a more or less mutually comprehensible dialect continuum. And the forms given often bear only the sketchiest relationship to what would be reconstructed for this period. None of this really matters for Pitts’ purposes, but I fear that these may end up filtering into the literature as though they were true reconstructions.

On the whole, the book is attractively laid out and the use of maps and graphs is mostly appealing and helpful (although the use of greyscale rather than colour occasionally makes these a little difficult to read). Typos are few, except that, unfortunately and irritatingly, the word ‘aorist’ appears throughout as ‘30arist’.

This book will deserve its place on the shelves of all specialists in the Sabellic languages, and may also help to make them more accessible to Classicists and those who come to the texts from other perspectives. I will keep my hopes up for a second edition in which the author’s careful analysis and good sense is applied at greater length.


Crawford, Michael, W. M. Broadhead, J. P. T. Clackson, F. Santangelo, S. Thompson, and M. Watmough. 2011. Imagines Italicae. A Corpus of Italic Inscriptions. (London: Institute of Classical Studies).
Dupraz, Emmanuel, 2012. Sabellian Demonstratives. Forms and Functions. (Leiden: Brill).
McDonald, Katherine. 2015. Oscan in Southern Italy and Sicily. Evaluating Language Contact in a Fragmentary Corpus. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).
Tikkanen, Karin. 2011. A Sabellian Case Grammar. (Heidelberg: Universitätsverlag C. Winter).
Weiss, Michael. 2002. “Observations on the South Picene inscription TE 1 (S. Omero)” in Mark R. V. Southern (ed.), Indo-European Perspectives, 351-66. (Washington D.C.: Institute for the Study of Man).
Weiss, Michael. 2010. Language and Ritual in Sabellic Italy. The Ritual Complex of the Third and Fourth Tabulae Iguvinae. (Leiden & Boston: Brill).
Zair, Nicholas. 2016. Oscan in the Greek Alphabet. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).
Zamponi, Raoul. 2021. South Picene. (Abingdon & New York: Routledge).