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Originally Italy, today mainly southern Europe, maximum extent world-wide intermittent
Osco-Umbrian, formerly Sabellic
ISO 639-5: itc
Iron Age Italy.svg

Approximate distribution of languages in Iron Age Italy during the sixth century BC.

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Indo-European studies

The Italic subfamily is a member of the Indo-European language family. It includes the Romance languages derived from Latin (Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, French, Romanian, etc.), and a number of extinct languages of the Italian Peninsula, including Umbrian, Oscan, Faliscan, and Latin itself.

In the past various definitions of "Italic" have prevailed. This article uses the classification presented by the Linguist List:[1] Italic includes the Latin subgroup (Latin and the Romance languages) as well as the ancient Italic languages (Faliscan, Osco-Umbrian and two unclassified Italic languages, Aequian and Vestinian). Venetic (the language of ancient Venice), as revealed by its inscriptions, was also closely related to the Italic languages and is sometimes classified as Italic. However, since it also shares similarities with other Western Indo-European branches (particularly Germanic), some linguists prefer to consider it an independent Indo-European language, despite its influence on the modern Italian of the region.

In the extreme view, Italic did not exist, but the different groups descended directly from Indo-European and converged because of geographic contiguity. This view stems in part from the difficulty in identifying a common Italic homeland in prehistory.[2]

In the intermediate view, the Italic languages are one of the ten or eleven major subgroups of the Indo-European language family and might therefore have had an ancestor, common Italic or proto-Italic, from which its daughter languages descend. Moreover, there are similarities between major groups, although how these similarities are to be interpreted is one of the major debatable issues in the historical linguistics of Indo-European. The linguist Calvert Watkins went so far as to suggest, among ten major groups, a four-way division of East, West, North and South Indo-European. These he considered "dialectical divisions within Proto-Indo-European which go back to a period long before the speakers arrived in their historical areas of attestation."[3] This is not to be considered a nodular grouping; in other words, there was not necessarily any common west Indo-European serving as a node from which the subgroups branched. The West Indo-European dialects are Celtic, Italic and Tocharian. By the time of any written language, Tocharian was geographically remote from the other two.



The main debate concerning the origin of the Italic languages is the same as that which preoccupied Greek studies for the last half of the of the 20th century. The Indo-Europeanists for Greek had hypothesized (see Dorian invasion, Proto-Greek language) that Greek originated outside of Greece and was brought in by invaders. Analysis of the lexical items of Mycenaean Greek, an early form of Greek, raised the issue of whether Greek had been formed in Greece from Indo-European elements brought in by migrants or invaders, mixed with elements of indigenous languages. The issue was settled in favor of an origin of Greek in Greece.

A proto-Italic homeland outside of Italy is equally as elusive as the home of the hypothetical Greek-speaking invaders. No early form of Italic is available to match Mycenaean Greek. The Italic languages are first attested in writing from Umbrian and Faliscan inscriptions dating to the 7th century BC. The alphabets used are based on the Old Italic alphabet, which is itself based on the Greek alphabet. The Italic languages themselves show minor influence from the Etruscan and somewhat more from the Ancient Greek languages. The intermediate phases between Italic and Indo-European are still in deficit, with no guarantee that they ever will be found. The question of whether Italic originated outside of Italy or developed by assimilation of Indo-European and other elements inside of Italy, approximately on or within its current range there, remains. Sylvestri says:[4]

"...Common Italic ... is certainly not to be seen as a prehistoric language that can largely be reconstructed, but rather as a set of prehistoric and proto-historic processes of convergence."

Bakkum defines Proto-Italic as a "chronological stage" without an independent development of its own, but extending over late PIE and the initial stages of Proto-Latin and Proto-Sabellic. Meiser's dates of 4000 BC to 1800 BC (well before Mycenaean Greek) he describes as "as good a guess as anyone's."[5]


The Italic family has two known branches and two further unclassified languages:

As Rome extended its political dominion over the whole of the Italian Peninsula, Latin became dominant over the other Italic languages, which ceased to be spoken perhaps sometime in the 1st century AD. From Vulgar Latin the Romance languages emerged.

Proto-Italic language features

In the comparative method of historical linguistics language families descended from proto-languages.



A partial list of regular phonetic changes from Proto-Indo-European to Proto-Italic follows. An arrow denotes that the sound after it descended from the sound before it. Enclosure within slashes indicates a phoneme. An asterisk denotes a following reconstructed (unattested) form. A number sign indicates a word boundary; at the beginning, that the sound following is word-initial.


  • Palatovelars merged with plain velars, a change termed centumization.
    • k
    • ɡʲʱɡʱ
    • ɡʲɡ
  • Voiced labiovelars unround or lenite
    • ɡʱʷɡʱ
    • ɡʷɡ or w
  • Voiced aspirates become first unvoiced, then fricativize
    • ɸ (f)
    • θ
    • ɡʱx
  • p before in following syllable (e.g. Latin quinque 'five' from PIE *penkʷe); unchanged elsewhere
  • tl → kl within a word[6]
  • Remaining stops (b d ɡ k kʷ) are unchanged.


  • sθ before r
  • s → z between vowels[6]
  • unchanged elsewhere


  • Vocalization of resonant, l → ol[4]
  • Vocalization of resonant, r → or
  • Remaining Resonants (m n w) are unchanged


The laryngeals are a class of hypothetical PIE sounds that disappeared in late PIE leaving a zero vowel (h1), an a (h2) or an o (h3). Their disappearance left some distinctive sound combinations in Proto-Italic. As there are a larger number of them, only a few representative are listed below. The # follows standard practice in denoting a word boundary; that is, # at the beginning denotes word-initial. The * denotes a reconstructed form.[7]

  • */#h1e/ → */#e/
  • */#h2e/ → */#a/
  • */#h3e/ → */#o/



  • eu → ou within a word[4]



  • Retention of masculine, feminine and neuter genders[8]
  • Retention of singular and plural; reduction of the dual to a few instances[8]
  • Retention of the nominative, genitive, dative, accusative, ablative, locative and vocative cases, but loss of the instrumental[8]
  • ā-declension endings (same order as in preceding item); singular: -ā, -ās, -āi, -ām, -ād, -āi, -a; plural: -ās, -āsōm, -āis, -āns, -āis, -ā, none, none[9]


Post-proto phases

Further changes occurred during the evolution of the individual Italic languages, in Latin for example f, θb, d between vowels and θf at the beginning of a word.


  1. ^ See under External links below.
  2. ^ Silvestri 1998, pp. 322-323.
  3. ^ Watkins 1998, pp. 31-33
  4. ^ a b c Sylvestri 1998, p. 325
  5. ^ Bakkum 2009, p. 54.
  6. ^ a b sylvestri 1998, p. 326
  7. ^ Bakkum 2009, pp. 58-61.
  8. ^ a b c sylvestri 1998, p. 332
  9. ^ sulvestri 1998, p. 333


  • Bakkum, Gabrël C.L.M. (2009). The Latin Dialect of the Ager Faliscus: 150 Years of Scholarship:Part I. University of Amsterdam. ISBN 978 90 5629 5622.  
  • Pulgram, Ernst (1958). Tongues of Italy, Prehistory and History. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.  
  • Rix, Helmut (2003), "Ausgliederung und Aufgliederung der italischen Sprachen", in Bammesburger, Alfred; Vennemann, Theo (in German), Languages in Prehistoric Europe, Indogermanische Bibliothek 3, Heidelberg: Winter, pp. 147-172, ISBN 3-8253-1449-9  
  • Silvestri, Domenico (1998), "The Italic Languages", in Ramat, Anna Giacalone; Ramat, Paolo, The Indo-European languages, Taylor & Francis Group, pp. 322-344  .
  • Watkins, Calvert (1998), "Proto-Indo-European: Comparison and Reconstruction", in Ramat, Anna Giacalone; Ramat, Paolo, The Indo-European languages, Taylor & Francis Group, pp. 25-73  .

See also

External links


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