Italic languages

Ethnicity: Italic peoples
Originally Italy, today mainly southern Europe, maximum extent world-wide intermittent (most of the Americas. Official languages of half the countries in Africa and parts of Oceania).
Linguistic classification:


  • Italic
Proto-language: Proto-Italic
ISO 639-5: itc
Glottolog: ital1284[1]


Approximate distribution of languages in Iron Age Italy during the sixth century BC. (Note: many of these – especially Etruscan and Raetian, which are classified as Tyrsenian languages, and Greek – are not Italic.)

The Italic languages are a subfamily of the Indo-European language family, originally spoken by Italic peoples. They include Latin and its descendants (the Romance languages) as well as a number of extinct languages of the Italian Peninsula, including Umbrian, Oscan, Faliscan and South Picene.

With over 800 million native speakers, the Italic languages constitute the second most widely spoken branch of the Indo-European family, after the Indo-Iranian languages.

In the past, various definitions of "Italic" have prevailed. This article uses the classification presented by the Linguist List:[2] 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 the ancient Veneti), as revealed by its inscriptions, shared some similarities with the Italic languages and is sometimes classified as Italic. However, since it also shares similarities with other Western Indo-European branches (particularly Celtic languages and Germanic languages), some linguists prefer to consider it an independent Indo-European language.

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.[3]

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."[4] 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, but rather a hypothesized similarity between the dialects of Proto-Indo-European which developed into the recognized families.


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 20th century. The Indo-Europeanists for Greek had hypothesized (see Dorian invasion, Proto-Greek language) that Greek originated outside 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 within Greece from Indo-European elements brought in by migrants or invaders, mixed with elements of indigenous languages. The issue was settled in favour of the origin of Greek being that of a language which had both developed from all of these elements and then also taken its recognisable form all within Greece.

A proto-Italic homeland outside Italy is just 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 alphabets themselves show minor influence from the Etruscan and somewhat more from the Ancient Greek alphabet. 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 Italy or developed by assimilation of Indo-European and other elements within Italy, approximately on or within its current range there, remains. Silvestri says:[5]

...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."[6]

Gray and Atkinson come up with using their Bayesian phylogenetic model is that the italic branch separated from the proto germanic branch, 5500 years before present, ie, roughly the start of the Bronze age.[7]


The linguistic landscape of Central Italy at the beginning of Roman expansion

The Italic family has two known branches:

Some other languages belong to the Italic branch, but are too little known to be further classified: Aequian, spoken by the Aequi just east of Rome, and Vestinian, spoken by the Vestini in northeast Italy. It is unknown whether the language spoken by the Sicels in Sicily was Italic or not.

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.

It has also been proposed that the Lusitanian language belonged to the Italic family.[8]

Characteristics of Italic languages

From the point of view of PIE, the Italic languages are fairly conservative. In phonology, the Italic languages are centum languages, merging the palatals with the velars – thus Latin centum with a /k/ –, but keeping this combined group separate from the labio-velars. In morphology the Italic languages preserve six cases in the noun and adjective (nominative, accusative, genitive, dative, ablative, vocative) with traces of a seventh (locative), but the dual of both the noun and verb has completely disappeared. From the position of both morphological innovations and uniquely shared lexical items, Italic shows the greatest similarities with Celtic and Germanic, with some of the shared lexical correspondences also being found in Baltic and Slavic.[9]

See also


  1. Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin; Bank, Sebastian, eds. (2016). "Italic". Glottolog 2.7. Jena: Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History.
  2. See under External links below.
  3. Silvestri 1998, pp. 322–323.
  4. Watkins 1998, pp. 31–33
  5. Silvestri 1998, p. 325
  6. Bakkum 2009, p. 54.
  7. Gray & Atkinson 2003.
  8. Francisco Villar (2000) Indoeuropeos y no indoeuropeos en la Hispania prerromana, Ediciones Universidad de Salamanca, Spain ISBN 84-7800-968-X
  9. Douglas Q., Adams (1997). Encyclopedia of Indo-European Culture. Taylor & Francis. pp. 316–317.


For a list of words relating to Italic languages, see the Italic languages category of words in Wiktionary, the free dictionary.
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