Punic language

Region (coastal parts of) Tunisia, Morocco, Algeria, southern Iberia, Libya, Malta
Era c. 800 BC to AD 500
Early forms
  • Punic
Language codes
ISO 639-3 xpu
Linguist list
Glottolog puni1241[1]

The Punic language, also called Carthaginian[2] or Phoenicio-Punic, is an extinct variety of the Phoenician language, a Canaanite language of the Semitic family. It was spoken in the Carthaginian empire in North Africa and several Mediterranean islands by the Punic people throughout classical antiquity, from the 8th century BC to the 5th century AD.


The Punics stayed in contact with Phoenicia until the destruction of Carthage by the Roman Republic in 146 BC. While Punic was spoken, it underwent many changes under foreign influence. At first, there was not much difference between Phoenician and Punic, but as time went on and Punic began to become influenced less by Phoenicia but more by the Berber languages spoken in and around Carthage by the ancient Libyans.

The term Neo-Punic is used in two senses: one pertaining to the Phoenician alphabet and the other to the language itself. In the present context, Neo-Punic refers to the dialect of Punic spoken after the fall of Carthage and after the Roman conquest of the former Punic territories in 146 BC. The dialect differed from the earlier Punic language, as is evident from divergent spelling compared to earlier Punic and by the use of non-Semitic names, mostly of Libyco-Berber origin. The difference was due to the dialectal changes that Punic underwent as it spread among the North-African peoples.[3] Neo-Punic works include Lepcis Magna N 19 (92 AD).

By around the fourth century AD, Punic was still spoken in Tunisia, parts of North Africa, and the Mediterranean. The Neo-Punic alphabet also descended from the Punic language. By around 400, the first meaning of Punic was used mainly for monumental inscriptions, replaced by the cursive Neo-Punic alphabet elsewhere.[4] Examples of Punic literary works cover the topic of Mago, a Punic general with great notoriety, who spread Carthage's influence as much through writing books as he did fighting. Mago wrote 28 volumes about animal husbandry.

The Roman Senate appreciated the works so much that after taking Carthage, they presented them to Berber princes who owned libraries there. Mago's work was translated into Greek by Cassius Dionysius of Utica. The Latin version was probably translated from the Greek version. Further examples of Punic works of literature include the works of Hanno the Navigator, who wrote about his encounters during his naval voyages around Africa and about the settling of new colonies.[5]

A third version of Punic would be Latino-Punic, a Punic written in the Latin alphabet, but all of the spellings favoured the North African pronunciation. Latino-Punic was spoken until the 3rd and the 4th centuries and was recorded in seventy recovered texts. The surprising survival of Punic under Roman rule was because the people speaking it did not have much contact with Rome, and so did not need to learn Latin.

Latino-Punic texts include the 1st-century Zliten LP1, or the second-century Lepcis Magna LP1. They were even written as late as the 4th century, Bir ed-Dreder LP2. Classical sources such as Strabo (63/4 BC – AD 24), mention the Phoenician conquest of Libya.

There is evidence that every form of Punic changed after 146 BC according to Sallust (86 BC – AD 34), who claims Punic was "altered by their intermarriages with the Numidians". That account agrees with other evidence found to suggest a North-African influence on Punic, such as Libyco-Berber names in the Onomasticon of Eusebius. The last known testimony reporting Punic as a living language is that of Augustine of Hippo (d. 430).


Punic is known from inscriptions (most of them religious formulae) and personal name evidence. The play Poenulus by Plautus contains a few lines of vernacular Punic (see § Examples), which have been subject to some research because unlike inscriptions, they largely preserve the vowels.[6]

Augustine of Hippo is generally considered the last major ancient writer to have some knowledge of Punic and is considered the "primary source on the survival of [late] Punic". According to him, Punic was still spoken in his region (Northern Africa) in the 5th century, centuries after the fall of Carthage, and there were still people who called themselves "chanani" (Canaanite: Carthaginian) at that time.[3]:4 He wrote around 401:

Quae lingua si improbatur abs te, nega Punicis libris, ut a viris doctissimis proditur, multa sapienter esse mandata memoriae. Poeniteat te certe ibi natum, ubi huius linguae cunabula recalent.

And if the Punic language is rejected by you, you virtually deny what has been admitted by most learned men, that many things have been wisely preserved from oblivion in books written in the Punic tongue. Nay, you ought even to be ashamed of having been born in the country in which the cradle of this language is still warm.[7]

Besides Augustine, the only proof of Punic-speaking communities at such a late period is a series of trilingual funerary texts found in the Christian catacombs of Sirte, Libya: the gravestones are carved in Ancient Greek, Latin and Punic. It may have even survived the Muslim conquest of the Maghreb, as the geographer al-Bakri describes a people speaking a language that was not Berber, Latin or Coptic in Sirte, where spoken Punic survived well past written use.[8] However, it is likely that Arabization of the Punics was facilitated by their language belonging to the same group (both were Semitic languages) as that of the conquerors and so they had many grammatical and lexical similarities.[3]:71

The idea that Punic exerted an influence on Modern Maltese was first raised in 1565.[9] That theory has been mostly discredited; mainstream theories hold Maltese to be derived from Siculo-Arabic, with a large number of loanwords from Italian.[10] Punic was indeed spoken on the island of Malta at some point in its history, as evidenced by both the Cippi of Melqart, which is integral to the decipherment of Punic after its extinction, and other inscriptions that were found on the islands.

Like its Phoenician parent, Punic was written from right to left, in horizontal lines, without vowels.[4]


Punic has 22 consonants.

Punic phonology[11]
Orthography Name Transliteration Pronunciation Notes
𐤀 Alp later Alf ʾ /ʔ/ Sometimes also used for the indication of vowels.
𐤁 Bet b /b/
𐤂 Gaml g /g/
𐤃 Delt d /d/
𐤄 He h /h/ Under Roman influence often elided but was still pronounced in certain Carthaginian words.
𐤅 Waw later Wow w /w/ Sometimes also used for the indication of the vowel "u".
𐤆 Zen z /z/ In a few names attested as "sd", like in Hasdrubal for "ʿazrubaʿl", "esde" for heze ("this", used in some Punic dialects), but most texts show a simple "s": "syt" for zut ("this", in Late Punic)
𐤇 Ḥet /ħ/ Seldom used as a vowel for "a, e, i, o, u", the sound of Het was weakened, and words written usually with it were often instead written with the letter Alf in Late Punic inscriptions.
𐤈 Tet /tˤ/
𐤉 Yod y /j/ Sometimes also used for the indication of the vowel "i" but mostly in foreign names.
𐤊 Kap later Kof k /k/ Some words in Latin transliterations, which ended with final Kof, show a spirantization as [χ], written indicated by "h" instead of the usual "ch".
𐤋 Lamda l /l/
𐤌 Mem m /m/
𐤍 Nūn n /n/
𐤎 Semka s /s/
𐤏 Eyn later En ʿ /ʕ/ Often used for the vowel "a" and "o" in late Punic, mostly for foreign Latin names.
𐤐 Pey later Fey p
In Late Punic and in Late Phoenician, p (/p/) underwent a fricativization to f (/f/) in the 3rd century BC.
𐤑 Sade // Attested in some Latin texts as "st" and in one case as "ts" but represented mostly as "s" in Latin and Ancient Greek and Hittite, Lydian and Etruscan texts.
𐤒 Qop later Quf q /kˤ/
𐤓 Rosh later Rush r /r/
𐤔 Shin š /ʃ/
𐤕 Taw t /t/


Act V of Poenulus opens with Hanno speaking in Punic, his native language. The language of the next few lines (italicized) is uncertain but is believed to be "Lybic" [sic] (likely a misspelling of Libyc, a reference to one of the Berber languages) or Hebrew, if not Punic. Plautus then provides a Latin translation of the preceding lines:[12]

Yth alonim ualonuth sicorathi symacom syth 930
chy mlachthi in ythmum ysthyalm ych-ibarcu mysehi
li pho caneth yth bynuthi uad edin byn ui
bymarob syllohom alonim ubymysyrthohom
byth limmoth ynnocho thuulech-antidamas chon
ys sidobrim chi fel yth chyl is chon chen liful 935
yth binim ys dybur ch-innocho-tnu agorastocles
yth emanethi hy chirs aelichot sithi nasot
bynu yid ch-illuch ily gubulim lasibithim
bodi aly thera ynnynu yslym min cho-th iusim
iulecantheconaalonimbalumbar dechor
bats . . . . hunesobinesubicsillimbalim
donobun.huneccilthumucommucroluful 945

deos deasque veneror, qui hanc urbem colunt, 950
ut quod de mea re huc veni rite venerim,
measque hic ut gnatas et mei fratris filium
reperire me siritis, di vostram fidem.
[quae mihi surruptae sunt et fratris filium.]
sed hic mihi antehac hospes Antidamas fuit; 955
eum fecisse aiunt, sibi quod faciundum fuit.
eius filium esse hic praedicant Agorastoclem:
ad eum hospitalem hanc tesseram mecum fero;
is in hisce habitare monstratust regionibus.
hos percontabor qui hinc egrediuntur foras.

  1. ^ Plautus. "Poenulus". The Latin Library. 

An English translation is as follows:

I worship the Gods and Goddesses who preside over this city, that I may have come hither with good omen as to this business of mine, on which I have come; and, ye Gods, lend me your aid, that you may permit me to find my daughters and the son of my cousin; those who were stolen away from me, and his son from my cousin. But here lived formerly my guest Antidamas. They say that he has done that which he was doomed to do. They say that his son Agorastocles lives here. To him am I carrying with me this token of hospitality. He has been pointed as living in this neighbourhood. I'll make enquiry of these who are coming hither out of doors.[12]


  1. Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin; Bank, Sebastian, eds. (2016). "Punic". Glottolog 2.7. Jena: Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History.
  2. Adams, James Noel (2008). Bilingualism and the Latin Language. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0-5217-3151-5.
  3. 1 2 3 Jongeling, Karel; Kerr, Robert M. (2005). Late Punic Epigraphy: An Introduction to the Study of Neo-Punic and Latino-Punic Inscriptions. Mohr Siebeck. ISBN 978-3-1614-8728-6.
  4. 1 2 "Punic". Omniglot. Retrieved 25 October 2015.
  5. Rollin, Charles, Ancient Carthage
  6. Sznycer, Maurice (1967). Les passages puniques en transcription latine dans le Poenulus de Plaute [The Punic passages in Latin transcription in Poenulus by Plautus]. Paris: Librairie C. Klincksieck.
  7. Augustine of Hippo, Monteverde, Franco, ed., "Epistola 17" [Letter 17], Sant'Agostino — Nuova Biblioteca Agostiniana
  8. Jongeling, Karel. "Latino-Punic texts from North Africa". Dept of Comparative Linguistics, Leiden University. Archived from the original on 9 November 2005.
  9. Cassar, Mario. "L-Istorja tal-Ilsien Malti" [The History of the Maltese language] (in Maltese). Akkademja tal-Malti.
  10. Vella, Alexandra (2004). "Language contact and Maltese intonation: Some parallels with other language varieties". In Braunmüller, Kurt; Ferraresi, Gisella. Aspects of Multilingualism in European Language History. Hamburg Studies on Multiculturalism. John Benjamins Publishing Company. p. 263. ISBN 90-272-1922-2.
  11. Segert, Stanislav (1976). A Grammar of Phoenician and Punic. Munich: Beck. ISBN 3-406-00724-4.
  12. 1 2 Riley, Henry Thomas. "The Comedies of Plautus". Perseus Digital Library, Tufts University.

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