What Did Etruscan Sound Like? An Animated Video Pronounces the Ancient Language That We Still Don’t Fully Understand

Read­ers of Open Cul­ture no doubt have more pro­nounced poly­glot ten­den­cies than aver­age web-surfers, and per­haps even toward rel­a­tive­ly unlike­ly lan­guages, but let us ask this: how many Etr­uscan speak­ers do you know? You’ve prob­a­bly heard that name, which refers to the civ­i­liza­tion that exist­ed in ancient Italy between rough­ly the eleventh and third cen­tu­ry BC and in rough­ly the era of mod­ern-day Tus­cany. The Etr­uscans had their own lan­guage, but it did­n’t sur­vive their civ­i­liza­tion’s assim­i­la­tion into the Roman Repub­lic in com­plete enough shape for us to under­stand it today. But even if we can’t under­stand texts com­posed in Etr­uscan, we’ve at least deter­mined what spo­ken Etr­uscan sound­ed like.

The ani­mat­ed NativLang video above tells the sto­ry of the Etr­uscan lan­guage’s redis­cov­ery, from its appear­ance on the linen wrap­pings of a mum­my in a sar­coph­a­gus pur­chased by a Euro­pean in the mid-1800s; to the deter­mi­na­tion that many of the let­ters Euro­pean lan­guages use descend­ed from it (first passed down from the Phoeni­cians and then to the Greeks); to the frus­trat­ed search for an “Etr­uscan Roset­ta Stone.”

It also breaks down sev­er­al Etr­uscan words : cre­ice, mean­ing “Greece”; ruma, mean­ing “Rome”; and pher­su, mean­ing “mask,” but which “lives on right at the heart of our Eng­lish vocab­u­lary as per­son.” Along the way, the video’s nar­ra­tor pro­vides exam­ples of quite a few Etr­uscan sounds and how we now know they were pro­nounced.

Lin­guists have fig­ured all this out with a rel­a­tive pauci­ty of sources, mak­ing each and every arti­fact inscribed with Etr­uscan writ­ing invalu­able to their quest for full com­pre­hen­sion: the Cip­pus Perus­i­nus, for exam­ple, a legal con­tract lit­er­al­ly etched in stone, or the afore­men­tioned mum­my wrap­pings, the mean­ing of which remains obscure. “We don’t know how this text got to Egypt. But thanks to all this work, we can tell it’s a kind of rit­u­al cal­en­dar, and some­times we can fol­low whole threads of text.” The nar­ra­tor pro­nounces a few of them, and “it’s almost like, if you close your eyes, I could take you right back to the days of flu­ent Etr­uscan. But ask how to say a sim­ple yes or no, and we’re lost again.”

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Hear What the Lan­guage Spo­ken by Our Ances­tors 6,000 Years Ago Might Have Sound­ed Like: A Recon­struc­tion of the Pro­to-Indo-Euro­pean Lan­guage

Hear the Epic of Gil­gamesh Read in its Orig­i­nal Ancient Lan­guage, Akka­di­an

Learn Latin, Old Eng­lish, San­skrit, Clas­si­cal Greek & Oth­er Ancient Lan­guages in 10 Lessons

What Ancient Latin Sound­ed Like, And How We Know It

Hear What Homer’s Odyssey Sound­ed Like When Sung in the Orig­i­nal Ancient Greek

The Evo­lu­tion of the Alpha­bet: A Col­or­ful Flow­chart, Cov­er­ing 3,800 Years, Takes You From Ancient Egypt to Today

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall, on Face­book, or on Insta­gram.

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