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.”
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.