A wealthy civilization once spread across Italy, founded ancient cities and may have
left us words like "person" and "Rome" and even the alphabet.
No, no, not them.
I mean an earlier people whose language was almost lost to us.
Almost... but not quite.
Let me take you back to Egypt in the mid 1800s.
A European traveler has been touring the local sights, and now he's shopping for a souvenir.
Wandering the streets he chances upon the perfect bargain: a sarcophagus, with the mummy
still wrapped up inside.
He hauls it back to Vienna and sets it up as a creepy showpiece in his home.
After his his death, it's donated to a museum where something odd is found.
The mummy's bandages are filled with letters.
And not a few letters either.
A whole book.
A puzzling book.
It wasn't Egyptian at all.
The ink read like inscriptions from Italy made by an ancient civilization the Romans
called Etrusci or Tusci.
Today we still call their homeland Tuscany.
And now here was this mummy wrapped in the longest Etruscan text ever seen.
It was precious, but this Linen Book had a problem.
A problem it shared with thousands of other Etruscan inscriptions: the language looked
nothing like any other.
Mysterious... but not undeciphered.
These letters go from right to left, but flip them and you'll see they are basically
See, the popular story goes that the ABCs spread from the Phoenicians, to Greece, to
Italy where Rome inherited them.
We're missing a piece though: it was the Etruscans who spread the alphabet in Italy.
It seems the Greek alphabet they inherited had too many sounds for them.
Etruscans were fine with voiceless p, t, k but they didn't need the voiced b, d, g.
In an inscription, they even wrote the word Greek as "Creice".
This is why the Romans, when they borrowed the alphabet, originally pronounced C as both
k and g.
Looking at the Greek alphabet, it should've only made the sound "g".
In my video on Latin letter modding, this is why we met a vexed Roman who added a tail
to that C to create our letter G.
But Etruscan did make use of sounds that might be harder for you to distinguish.
Get your ears ready: p, t, k versus aspirated ph, th, kh.
Like phersu, mask, a word that lives on right in the heart of our English vocabulary.
Ancient reports tell us that they were also missing the vowel "o".
Or, linguistically, we'd say that they didn't distinguish o from u.
If we believe the claim that Rome took its very name from Etruscan, one interesting example
is the word Ruma.
So this book was missing letters, but it also added letters.
Like this curious 8-looking symbol, earlier written /v/ plus /h/.
The Romans cut out the H and left us with F. So this is a /f/.
Etruscans also had many letters for s-sounds but only used two of them at a time, a hint
that they distinguished s from sh.
But what do these letters mean?
The answers lie in an ancient dictionary written by the last known speaker, Emperor Claudius!
Whose work was lost.
And find after find after find frustratingly never uncovered an Etruscan Rosetta Stone.
The experts turned to "guessology": pull words out of the text and guess.
Is this by chance Indo-European?
No, clearly Semitic!
Wait, it's like Basque!
No, no, Hungarian!
Fed up with this circular approach, Etruscologists took a new path.
Don't pull words out of artifacts; leave them in.
Then, like a code without a key, try out combinations.
Look at each inscription in its context.
Combine different meanings in different contexts until you find
meanings that unlock every text.
It was brute force, but slowly this "Combinatory technique" yielded results.
We caught glimpses of a language with real grammar.
It had singular and plural nouns: "clan", "clenar", "ais", "aiser".
There were case endings, like nominative -e on Creice.
Pronouns like mi, mini.
And verb tenses: "tur" had a past tense "turuce".
We uncovered a language with dynamic and changing sounds.
Vowels were trending simpler over time.
The hero Ajax was once Aivas but later became Eivas or Evas.
The word for the gods, the highest Etruscan concern, was aiser and later eiser.
They used nucleic consonants where we might expect vowels: lautn.
Or maybe faint vowels, like Atlnta.
These smashed Etruscan words suggest the language underwent a big shift.
Centuries into its written history, inscriptions start to drop vowels after the first syllable.
The Etruscan name for themselves was once Rasenna but became Rasna, and in one inscription
a Latin word gets chopped down to preśnts.
It's a major clue that Etruscan words started with a heavy accent on their first syllable:
not /ra'senna/ but /'rasenna/.
Comparing translations and glosses yielded even more results.
Take quasi-bilinguals, these inscribed Etruscan artifacts with a Latin or Greek doppelgänger.
My favorite are "talking objects", aristocratic gifts that speak for themselves: mini muluvanice
It's very quirky, but it's plausible when we find out that objects also talk like this
in Latin and Greek and Venetic.
We were even finding hints of a context for the language itself, a language so unlike
A fascinating stone from the Greek island of Lemnos features a soldier surrounded
by letters and words that really resemble Etruscan.
Is this a lost sister language?
Perhaps Etruscan wasn't so alone.
Did it belong to a larger family of Tyrrhenian languages?
The language of that Linen Book is still mysterious.
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: "celi huθiś zaθrumiś flerχva
neθunsl śucri θezric".
It's almost like if you close your eyes I can 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.
Stick around and subscribe for language.