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Transmission of the alphabet to and within Italy

To Italy

In the 8th century BC, the island of Pithekoussai (modern Ischia) off the coast of Campania was colonized by Greeks from Euboia. While it is not quite clear whether the settlement was a proper colony or just a trading post, it spawned the foundation of historically important Kyme around the middle of the 8th century on mainland Italy. Pithekoussai itself seems to have lost importance at the turn of the century. The alphabet used by the colonists was that of the Euboic mother-cities Chalkis and Eretria. – Indeed, one of the oldest testimonies of early Greek writing is from Pithekoussai: the so-called Cup of Nestor, dated to the last quarter of the 8th century. (Jeffery 1990: 235) The Etruscans would have been in contact with the Greek settlers from the beginning, and the acquisition of their script was not a long time coming: The oldest document of written Etruscan, a kotyle from Tarquinia (Ta 3.1), is dated to about 700 (Wallace 2008: 17).

As the oldest Etruscan abecedarium on an ivory tablet from Marsiliana d’Albegna (ET: AV 9.1; about 650) shows, the Etruscans adopted the Greek alphabet, in its Eastern Greek "red" variety as used in Euboia, without any changes with regard to the different phonemic systems of the two languages. (For details see Jeffery 1990: 236 ff.) Only by and by do the documented abecedaria reflect a process of adaptation to writing practice. Etruscan had a plosive system consisting of two rows, written with the Greek characters for the unvoiced unaspirated (Pi, Tau, Kappa (/Gamma/Qoppa)) and unvoiced aspirated (Phi, Theta, Khi) rows. A phonetic realisation very much like the Greek is communis opinio among Etruscologists (see Wallace 2008: 30 f.). In any case, the obsolete characters for the mediae dropped out – all except Gamma, which together with Kappa and Qoppa became part of a curious orthographic rule for writing allophones, and only later replaced both the other characters as the exclusive one for the velar stop. Due to the lack of /o/ in Etruscan, Omikron fell away. In the 6th century, an additional sign addF1 s was created for /f/, after a phase of writing the sound with a digraph <vh> or <hv>, and added to the end of the row. As concerns the writing of sibilants, a certain confusion on the part of the Greeks (see Jeffery 1990: 25 ff., Swiggers 1996: 266 f.) appears to have been propagated to the Etruscans: The Etruscan language seems to have had – apart from a dental affricate written with Zeta – two sibilants /s/ and probably /ʃ/ which were written with Sigma and San – in the South Sigma for /s/, San for /ʃ/, the other way round in the North. In the Southern cities Caere and Veii, where a number of divergences from general Etruscan writing practice can be observed over the course of time, a Sigma with more than three strokes appears instead of San. Finally in Cortona, a monophthongised, possibly long /e/ was consistently written with the character addE1 s. As is customary in archaic Greek inscriptions, Etruscan inscriptions are generally sinistroverse, apart from a short phase around 600 in Caere and Veii. Unlike Greek practice, boustrophedon writing is rare. While word separation is consistently executed on Nestor's Cup, the archaic Etruscan texts often dispense with it, until it establishes itself in neo-Etruscan time (after 470). (For details see Wallace 2008: 17 ff.; a collection of Etruscan abecedaria in Pandolfini & Prosdocimi 1990: 19–94.)

As things present themselves to us now, the Etruscan script has found its way to the peoples north of the river Po more than once, but not from the Etruscan settlements in Padania. Etruscan inscriptions in the very North (find places in pink on the map) are known from Liguria (Li), the Reggio Emilia and the area around Mantova (Pa), the environs of Bologna (ancient Felsina, Fe), and from Adria (Ad) and Spina (Sp). The oldest testimonies come from the Reno valley (Fe 2.1, Fe 3.1, Fe 6.1, Fe 2.2, Fe 2.3, from around 600) and from Rubiera (the stelae Pa 1.1 and 1.2, dated to the end of the 7th century). In both cases, the traditions only start again some hundred years later, i.e. at the end of the 6th century in Marzabotto, in the 5th century in the Reggio Emilia and Mantova. The great ports and commercial cities Adria and Spina only became relevant as Etruscan settlements around 500. A number of gravestones from Liguria, especially around the Magra river and its tributaries, are dated to the 2nd half of the 6th century; most of them are filed as being written in a North Italic alphabet in the Lexicon Leponticum (sigla MS and SP). For the question of whether the inscription(s) of Feltre (Pa 4.1) are linguistically and/or epigraphically Etruscan, see here.

Eastern Transpadania


The Veneti are speakers of an Indo-European language settling in the Veneto (find places in blue on the map). Their inscriptions are collected in Pellegrini & Prosdocimi 1967; for supplementation see Prosdocimi 1988 and numerous publications by Anna Marinetti, esp. Marinetti 2004b. For the "traditional" view on the origin of the Venetic alphabet (from the Etruscan alphabets of Adria and Spina) see Pellegrini 1959. According to the more recent theory of Prosdocimi, a first, archaic version of the Venetic script ("phase 1"), attested securely only in one inscription (*Es 120, dated to the beginning of the 6th c. at the latest) and arguably in two further inscriptions (Es 1, *Es 122), was based on a model from Northern Etruria, while a separate tradition lies at the basis of most of the younger locally diverse alphabets (Este, Padua, Cadore, etc., "phase 2"). The archaic Venetic alphabet seems to have featured a rare form of Theta, Θ2 s, which is found in a handful of inscriptions from 6th-century Chiusi and Volsinii (Cl 2.8, Cl 2.6, Cl 2.5, Vs 1.23 and Vs 1.14, see Colonna 1972: 470), as seen in *Es 120. *Es 122 shows that the digraph <vh> was used to write /f/, rather than the new character addF1 s, which was introduced no sooner than the middle of the 6th century. The table shows the characters contained in the abovementioned inscriptions (disregarding minor variants). Pi is missing, but note that *Es 122 has L s, read l by Prosdocimi; cp. Pi in the form L s in Chiusi. Syllabic punctuation is absent.

The younger alphabet of Este is unusually well documented on a number of votive writing tablets from a sanctuary-cum-writing school and distinguished by syllabic punctuation, both of which phenomena, together with the actual content of the inscriptions, connect it with the 6th century writing tradition of the Portonaccio sanctuary in Veii in the South of Etruria. The background of syllabic punctuation is debated.

Syllabic punctuation became the key feature of Venetic script, even though alphabet variants from other parts of the Venetic realm deviate from the Este alphabet, most prominently in the writing of the dental stops. Prosdocimi argues that the younger phase 2 alphabets represent different solutions for reconciling the archaic Venetic alphabet with the younger Etruscan one and particularly the theoretical grid on which the writing instruction was based. Whether the Veneti still had access to the characters for mediae (as lettres mortes through Etruscan teaching) is hard to judge, but they did not use them to write their voiced stops (Prosdocimi's considerations on p. 331 ff.). Instead, they employed the superfluous letters for the Etruscan aspirated row. While in the case of labials and velars, this transition appears to have happened smoothly (Pi = /p/, Phi = /b/; Kappa = /k/, Khi = /g/), the characters for the dentals were shifted around. *Es 120 clearly demonstrates the use of Tau for /d/; the abovementioned Chiusi-style Theta Θ2 s (Θ s in Es 1 and *Es 122) must be expected to stand for /t/. This distribution is also documented for phase 2 Vicenza on a stela (Vi 2). In the younger Este alphabet (and also in the sanctuaries of Làgole (Calalzo di Cadore) and Auronzo di Cadore), /t/ as in the archaic inscriptions is written as a (large) St. Andrew's cross, but Zeta is employed to write /d/. A third combination is used in Padua, where first Etruscan Tau, later St. Andrew's cross are in use for /d/, while /t/ is written with a more traditional framed form of Theta addΘ3 s (rounded or angular).

The origin of St. Andrew's cross is somewhat obscure: Prosdocimi (p. 332), regarding the archaic distribution, explains Tau for /d/ and Theta for /t/ by a developing homography of T s and Θ2 s / Θ s. The phonetic values were swapped before the characters were differentiated again, leading to Θ s being used for /t/ henceforth. He points to the Lepontic alphabet and the Este alphabet tablets for evidence of a tendency of Tau to tend towards a cross-shape. To further avoid homography in this area, Tau was substituted by Zeta in Este; in Padua, the form of Theta was changed to addΘ3 s, which allowed Tau to turn into Θ s. In other words, according to Prosdocimi, Θ s has two separate origins. On the Este writing tablets, where the letters can be unambiguously identified by their position in the row, Tau appears – with Prosdocimi: is retained as a lettre morte – in the shape of a cross, similar to, but clearly distinct from, Theta: While the latter is a large Θ s, Tau is smaller and sometimes lopsided (e.g. in Es 23, see table). The individual letters being written in rectangular fields formed by a grid, with the grid lines regularly being used as hastae, it might be argued that the entire frame around the St. Andrew's cross representing Theta, whose tips reach into the corners of the field, is supposed to be part of the letter, forming a large, but otherwise inconspicuous addΘ5 s. Theta would then have come to be reduced to only the cross through reinterpretation. This explanation, however, predating Prosdocimis distinction of older and younger Venetic alphabet, does not account for the early appearance of Θ s and its apparent connection with Chiusi; note also that of six preserved tablets, a third (Es 24 and Vi 3) lack grid lines and yet feature Theta without a frame. On Es 25, where the grid lines are not used as parts of the letters, Theta is missing due to object damage, but the tablet serves to corroborate Prosdocimis theory by having Zeta in the place of Tau, probably due to a scribal error.

The Venetic script features Omikron, which in the younger Este alphabet is situated not in its ancestral place, but at the very end of the row, as evidenced by the votive tablet Es 23, the only one bearing a complete row (in addition to the usual consonant-only). While Omikron is usually assumed to have been acquired directly from the Greek alphabet, probably through contact with Greeks settling in and south of the Po delta, Prosdocimi (p. 329) favours the theory that it was taken as a lettre morte (through writing instruction) from the Etruscan alphabet before its ultimate reduction. The Venetic use of Sigma vs. San follows the South Etruscan use, Sigma being the character used for the default sibilant and San leading a marginal existence. This is also the case in the archaic inscriptions; for possible explanations see Prosdocimi on p. 330 f. Finally, one of the distinctive features of the Venetic script is the frequent inversion of Lambda and Upsilon.


The Raeti (find places in green on the map) appear to have learned the art of writing from the Veneti rather than the Etruscans (Schumacher 2004: 312–316). While Raetic inscriptions are only known from the 5th century onward, at a time when Etruscan inscriptions have appeared in the very North (see above), some features of the Raetic script strongly suggest a Venetic source.
1. Employment of Phi, Khi and Tau for mediae or phonemes interpreted as mediae by speakes of Indo-European languages: Tau can be argued to write ~d in Magrè and Steinberg.
2. St. Andrew's cross for /t/.
3. Non-employment of Zeta: Raetic, like Etruscan, had a dental affricate /z/ (or similar). While Etruscan used Zeta to write this phoneme, Raetic inscriptions feature two graphically distinct special characters, which appear to have been newly created. The fact that Zeta was not used to write /ts/ in Venetic can explain this discontinuity. There is, however, at least one exception (see Z).
4. Rudimentary syllabic punctuation in Magrè context.
5. Orientation of Lambda and Upsilon in the Magrè alphabet.

As in Venetic, different alphabet variants are used for writing the Raetic language. Some of the similarities with Venetic can only be demonstrated for the Magrè alphabet, which appears to be close to the Archaic Venetic alphabet, although the use of (somewhat idiosyncratic) syllabic punctuation indicates an acquaintance with a phase 2 Venetic source. It is not yet clear whether or inhowfar all Raetic alphabet variants are derived from the same model. It cannot be excluded that different Venetic varieties, and maybe to some extent also Etruscan or even Celtic writing practice, have influenced Raetic writing. For details see below sub "The Raetic Script" and here. One common feature of the Raetic alphabets, three-bar Mu M s, is reminiscent of the Venetic Vicenza alphabet, unfortunately represented by only three documents: All three testimonies have Mu with three bars; the lengthy inscription Vi 2 demonstrates the archaic use of use of Θ s and T s.

Western Transpadania

While, in the East, language groups and script provinces can, save a couple of problematic exceptions, be brought into correspondence surprisingly well, the situation west of the river Adige is less evident.

Lepontic / Cisalpine Gaulish (Lugano alphabet)

Inscriptions in a Cisalpine Celtic language begin to appear in Western Transpadania around 600. The Lepontic core area lies between the Lago di Como and the Lago Maggiore; on the Celtic presence south of the Alps and the distinction between Lepontic and Cisalpine Gaulish see Uhlich 1999 and 2007. The inscriptions are collected in the Lexicon Leponticum, including all testimonies which may contain Celtic language material, as well as all inscription finds from west of the Adige even if ascription is dubious: A considerable number of documents, mostly short/fragmentary inscriptions of a low date, cannot be shown to be linguistically Celtic, or even to be written in the so-called Lugano alphabet (find places in yellow on the map). The "Lepontic" corpus being accordingly large and varied, it is hard to determine how the usual schibboleth characters – those for stops and fricatives – are used. Pi, Kappa and St. Andrew's cross are the standard letters, and can be shown to be used for both tenues and mediae. While Phi does not occur at all, Khi is employed for /g/ in one of the oldest inscriptions, as well as in three younger ones (TI·13, PV·4, VC·1.2) and in coin legends (NM·6.1, NM·6.1). In the latter, Khi appears together with Theta addΘ2 s in the name Segetu or Segedu, which is also attested on four ceramic bowls from Prestino – here with Kappa for /g/ and Zeta Z s for the dental. Theta appears two more times, in the shape addΘ3 s, in archaic VA·3 (possibly Etruscan) and the Inscription of Prestino. The latter, a lengthy inscription on a stela, is the only Lepontic text in which a systematic use of the characters for dentals can be observed: St. Andrew's cross is absent, Theta appears to stand for /t/. Tau in the shape addT4 s demonstrably stands for /d/, while Zeta addZ4 s represents the affricate. Pi and Kappa are used for /p/ and /g/. Tau appears twice in later inscriptions (TI·36, NO·21.1), both times in the shape addT4 s, and both times together with St. Andrew's cross. While this strongly suggests that Lepontic St. Andrew's cross must, like its Venetic equivalent, be identified with Theta, the combined use of the two characters cannot be shown to be systematic (/t/ vs. /d/). Tau-, Zeta- and Khi-like shapes crop up a number of times in dubious and/or uninstructive contexts (see LexLep); another instance of lexical use of Zeta in NM·16. Beta, Delta and Gamma are absent until the appearance of Latin(oid) inscriptions from the Roman imperial time, but Omikron is present from the earliest inscriptions. On the use of San see LexLep and Stifter 2010.

Pi and Lambda are distinguished systematically as L2 s vs. P2 d; Upsilon appears tip-down U2 s, though inverted forms U s do occur. Alpha is closed (A14 s and similar) in the older inscriptions, later changing into V s. All in all, the Lugano alphabet is decidedly more similar to its Etruscan source than the Venetic. It is hard to determine whether individual inscriptions displaying divergent features are influenced by the Venetic writing tradition. The fact that both the Celtic and the Venetic languages are Indo-European may be the cause of parallel independent developments. Verger 1998 argues for a transmission of the alphabet to Western Transpadania via the area of Genova and the Scrivia valley. Note that a number of inscriptions from the area of La Spezia / Massa-Carrara displayed as Etruscan on the map are filed as linguistically and/or epigraphically Celtic / North Italic in the LexLep (sigla MS and SP).

Camunic (Sondrio alphabet)

The corpus of the so-called Sondrio alphabet ("Camunic script“), conspicuous for its obvious graphic peculiarities, comprises the rock inscriptions of the Valcamonica, and a handful of testimonies from other places whose characters bear resemblance to those of the rock inscriptions, though the alphabets cannot be said to be identical (find places in grey on the map). Indeed, different systems seem to have been employed in the Valcamonica itself. The sigla system is not standardised, but useful collections are provided by Mancini 1980 and Tibiletti Bruno 1990. The language written in the rock inscriptions, called "Camunic" after the demonym Camunni documented by the ancients, has not yet been deciphered or convincingly connected to any of the surrounding languages; the other testimonies have been argued to write diverse languages: While the two inscriptions on stelae from Montagna in Valtellina (PID 252) and Tresivio (PID 253) feature endings similar to those commonly found in Camunic rock inscriptions, the non-Latin part of the Voltino bilingua has been read Etruscan as well as Raetic and Celtic. Celtic has also been suggested for the inscription on the Castaneda flagon, datable to the 5th–4th c. The dubious inscription AV-1, included in the TIR as linguistically Raetic, appears to be written in a variant of the Sondrio alphabet. Finally, the fragmentary inscription on a stela from Cividate Camuno in the Valcamonica itself is utterly enigmatic.

The main problem about the reading and interpretation of the inscriptions lies in the identification of the letters: Rock inscriptions from different localities, alphabetaria, and the (possibly idiosyncratic) testimonies from abroad appear to exhibit substantial differences in the use of some characters, which could so far be neither conclusively sorted out individually, nor reconciled. The picture presented by the twelve alphabetaria, or fragments of such (first edited in Tibiletti Bruno 1990; see also Tibiletti Bruno 1992), from the Valcamonica in particular demonstrates the Sondrio alphabet to be the odd one out among the North Italic alphabets. The table shows the characters as they appear in two distinct groups of alphabetaria: The first line gives the alphabet row PC 10 from Piancogno, with letters slightly standardised where their shape deviates from Camunic standard (Nu, Qoppa). The positions of Mu and Nu as well as of Gamma and Delta are interchanged in the original, Delta being written in ligature with Beta (sharing its last hasta). The ligature and possibly the inversion of the nasals also occur in the very similar row PC 27. The other alphabetaria or fragments of such from Piancogno are PC 6, PC 12 and probably PC 28. The second line gives an ideal alphabetarium from rock 24 of the Foppe di Nadro, based on FN 3, FN 4, FN 5 and FN 6, where only FN 3 and FN 6 are complete. Here also the nasals are interchanged. The two other alphabet fragments FN 1 and FN 2, also on rock 24, both end with Digamma (?) and display a variant form of Gamma P2 s. The presence of a complete Greek row suggests that the Sondrio alphabet came to Transpadania directly from a Greek source, without Etruscan mediacy. More than that, the Greek model can be argued not to have been of the "red" variety like the Euboic alphabet from which the other Italic alphabets ultimately derive. Even under such a premise, the shapes of the letters are highly unusual, not to mention the question of how such a script could have found its way into the remote Oglio valley.

There are two notable similarities between the Camunic and Raetic corpora, i.e. that both graphic variants of the Raetic special character appear in the context of the Sondrio alphabet: The character taking the position of San in PC alphabetaria is reminiscent of the Magré special character Þ s / Þ2 s (but note that Magré has standard San); an arrow-shaped character like the Sanzeno special character Þ3 s appears in the problematic end sequences of the PC alphabetaria and on the Castaneda flagon.


Nestor's Cup 725–700 A14 s addD1 s E s addH1 s I s K2 s L2 s addM1 s N s addO1 s addP1 s addR1 s S d T s addU1 s addΦ1 s
Kyme 2 (alphabetarium) 700–675 A3 d addB1d s addG1 s addD1d s E d Vd s Z3d s addH2 s
AV 9.1 (alphabetarium) ~650 addA2 s addB2 s addG1 s addD2 s E s V s Z3 s addH3 s addΘ1 s I s K2 s L2 s addM1 s N s addΞ1 s addO1 s addP1 s Ś s addQ1 s addR1 s S d T s addU1 s addΧ1 s addΦ2 s Χ s
Clusium (statistical) 7th–6th c.
A14 s addG3 s E s V s addZ2 s addH1 s addΘ3 s Θ2 s I s K2 s L2 s addM1 s N s P2 s Ś s addR2 s R2 s T s U2 s Χ s (addF1 s)
Archaic Venetic 6th c. A14 s E s V s addZ2d s addH1 s Θ2 s I s K2 s L2 s addM1 s N s addO1 s Ś s addR2 s R2 s S d S s addT1 s U2 s Χ s
Portonaccio (statistical) 6th c. A13 s addG2 s E s V s addZ1 s H3d s addΘ1 s I s K2 s L2 s addM1 s N s P5 s  ? addQ2 s addR1 s R s S s T s addU1 s U2 s Χ s
Es 23 (votive plaque)  ?? addA1 s E s V s addZ1d s H4 s Θ s [I s] K2 s L s addM1 s [N s] addO2 s addP1 s Ś s R2 s S s addT3 s U s Φ2 s Χ s
Vi 2  ?? addA4 s E s Θ s I s K s M s N s addO4 s R2 s S d S s addT2 s U s
Magrè alphabet (standardised) A3 d E s V s Z s H3 s Θ s I s K s L s M s N s P s Ś s R s S d T s T4 s U s Φ s Χ s Þ s
Sanzeno alphabet (standardised) A d E s V s H2 s Θ s I s K s L2 s M s N s P2 s Ś s R s S d T3 s U2 s Φ2 s Χ s Þ3 s
CO·48 (stela) ~500 A3 s E s V s addZ4 s addΘ3 s I s K2 s L2 s addM1 s N s addO1 s P2 s Ś2 s R2 s S2 d addT4 s U2 s
NO·21.1 (gravestone) ~100 addA3d s E d Θ s I s K d L2 d N d addO3 s P2 s addŚ3 s R2 d S d addT4 s U2 s
PC 10 (alphabetarium)  ?? A d addB3 s addG4d s addD3d s E d addV1d s Χ s H s addΘ4 s I s addK1 s L d addM2d s addN2d s Χ3 s addO1 s addP5d s Þ2 d Φ4 s R2 d addS3 s  ? U s
Foppe di Nadro (alphabetaria)  ?? A s addB4 s addG4d s addD4 s E s addV2 s Χ2 s H s addΘ4 s addI2 s addK2 s L s addM2 s addN2 s addΞ2 s addO1 s addP6 s Þ2 s Φ4 s R2 s addS3 s addT1 s U s


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Raetic script

The Raetic alphabets

Linguistically Raetic inscriptions are written in two alphabets. These alphabets differ from each other in the use of graphic variants of a handful of letters, but share certain features which set them apart from the other North Italic alphabets and can therefore be considered typically Raetic. They are traditionally named after the most important find places, i.e. Magrè and Sanzeno. The latter was formerly termed "Bozen alphabet" after some early finds from the area; Sanzeno has replaced Bozen as the eponymous site after the discovery of the Casalini bronzes.

  Pi Lambda Upsilon
Magrè alphabet P s L s U s
Sanzeno alphabet P2 s L2 s U2 s

Pi, Lambda and Upsilon are the schibboleth characters which primarily distinguish the Magrè and Sanzeno alphabets. The Magrè alphabet employs Venetoid forms: Pi with an angle P s (sometimes opened P5 s or similar), Lambda with a bar on top L s, Upsilon tip-up U s. The Sanzeno alphabet bears a closer resemblance to the Lugano and Etruscan alphabets: Pi with a single bar P2 s, Lambda with the bar on the bottom L2 s and tip-down Upsilon U2 s correspond to the forms in those groups. The two systems are never mixed. The only inscription in which Sanzeno-forms co-occur with Magrè-forms is MA-6, which has U4 s in combination with P s – this may be attributed to the tendency to invert letters (esp. Alpha and Epsilon) observable in the Magrè inscriptions. While the forms of Pi, Lambda and Upsilon clearly connect the Magrè alphabet with the Venetic alphabets, it is unclear whether the peculiarities of the Sanzeno alphabet are due to influence from Western Transpadania or even Etruria.

In addition to the abovementioned ones, three other letters appear consistently in different graphic variants in the two alphabets. Tau always appears with the bar rising in writing direction in Sanzeno (T3 s). Heta, though not common, always features three bars H3 s in Magrè context, but two H2 s in Sanzeno context (H s is as yet undocumented). The Raetic special character has the form Þ3 s in Sanzeno context (not only in Sanzeno itself), whereas it appears as Þ s exclusively in Magrè, being otherwise absent from Magrè-type inscriptions. The use of the character T4 s can be argued to be tied to the Magrè alphabet (see Φ). Lastly, vestiges of Venetic syllabic punctuation are found only in Magrè context.

The most prominent feature unifying the Raetic alphabets is a negative one: the absence of Omikron. Seeing as it is linguistically motivated, it does not provide a strong argument for the epigrahical correlation of the two groups. Purely epigraphical characteristics connecting the two are M s with only three bars, as well as two characteristics pertaining to writing direction: ←A d with the bar slanting downwards against writing direction, and ←S d with the upper angle opening against writing direction. Both the latter features are prevalent in Magrè context, and almost exclusive in Sanzeno context.

The areas in which the Magrè and Sanzeno alphabets are used are neatly separated: Magrè-type inscriptions come from the South and the North of the Raetic realm, more precisely the valleys of the Alpine foothills connecting the area of Trento with the Padan plain, and the Wipp, Puster and Inn valleys of North Tyrol plus the Northern Limestone Alps. The Sanzeno alphabet is used in the central area, i.e. the Nonsberg, the upper Etsch valley (including the Unterland and the Vinschgau) and the Eisack valley, with tributary valleys and the surrounding highlands. See Property:alphabet for a map.

Writing of dentals

Writing direction

About three quarters of Raetic inscriptions whose writing direction can be determined are sinistroverse, the rest is dextroverse. Dextroverse inscriptions occur more frequently on rocks, as well as in Magrè. Real boustrophedon writing, i.e. the lines of one inscription being written alternately running towards the right and the left, is not attested, but a handful of inscriptions are written in so-called reverse boustrophedon, which means that all lines have the same orientation, but are inverted in relation to each other (e.g. WE-3). For a few inscriptions it can be demonstrated that the writer changed the way they held the object during the application of the characters, which lead to a change in writing direction. This implies that the choice of writing direction was not something that a user of Raetic writing regarded as important. On the other hand, single letters turned against writing direction are rare. Where they do occur, it is most usually Alpha or Sigma.

Word separation and syllabic punctuation

Word separation by punctuation mark is only employed in a handful of inscriptions from Sanzeno context (SZ-30, NO-3, NO-10, BZ-3, BZ-26, SL-2.1), using one to (most often) three vertically arranged dots or short vertical lines. PU-1 would be the only Magrè-alphabet inscription with separators, but the existence of the respective scratches is highly doubtful. A space is used to separate words on some of the Sanzeno bronzes (SZ-1.1, SZ-2.1, SZ-2.2, SZ-4.1, SZ-11), as well as in other inscriptions from Sanzeno context (BZ-10.1, BZ-12, CE-1.3, CE-1.5), and once in Magrè (MA-1). See also Non-script notational systems on para-script elements in inscriptions from the Vinschgau.

Apart from the space in MA-1, word separation does not exist in inscriptions from Magrè context. Instead, syllabic punctuation is employed in some subcorpora. The practice of syllable punctuation is a speciality of Venetic writing, where the rules are highly complex and the letters are usually marked on both sides (for details see Prosdocimi 1988: 336 ff.). In Raetic inscriptions (as indeed in some marginal Venetic traditions), the rules appear to have been somewhat relaxed – for example, isolated vowels in the beginning of inscriptions are not punctuated, and neither are the second elements of diphthongs. In the same vein, the letters are marked with a single punct placed behind (or inside) it.

  • Serso: SR-4, SR-6, SR-7 and SR-10 have correct punctuation according to the supposed Raetic rules. For example: SR-6 a ru se θa r· na te ri s· na. It is not sure that SR-1 has punctuation at all, but note the similarity with the fragmentary SR-7. If line 1 is punctated, the punct is situated before rather than after Mu. In line 2, note that the not-punctuation of Khi would be in line with the Venetic special rules for consonant clusters (kv being one of the clusters which is not punctuated). On the status of s as the first element of clusters, see below. SR-8 also has a dubious element, but the punctuation of final s is correct. In SR-2, the punct appears to mark the genitive ending rather than a phonetically determined element (see below).
  • Magrè: All of the five (or six) inscriptions with syllabic punctuation can be argued to be correctly executed. MA-14 is exemplary, as is MA-17 according to the Venetic rule excluding clusters whose second element is l (here kle). In MA-16, the dubious element resembling Phi must be treated as Rpunct2 d. MA-12 and MA-13 are correct if clusters with s as first element (here st/sθ) are assumed to be exempt from punctuation, which is not in line with the Venetic rules, but phonetically apprehensible. Finally, in MA-6, the punct after final s in line 2, if it is intentional, is the only punct necessary in the entire inscription, the cluster θr being covered by the Venetic rules of exception.
  • In the petrographs, the situation is more complex. ST-4 is punctuated correctly according to the rules deductible from the Serso and Magrè inscriptions. In ST-5, ST-6 and AK-1.11, on the other hand, what appears to be marked is not phonetically, but grammatically determined elements, most strikingly the suffixes of the syntagma -nu-ale. In fact, considering that the letters of the suffix -nu are in the present cases written in ligature, the puncts might even advert to that. While the punct in ST-6 sa?al·esta- may well be a word separator (if estanuale is connected with estua(le)), those in ST-5 ker·akve and AK-1.11 ker·anu- might be either word separators or suffix markers, and ST-5 (h)e·stula- would even qualify as syllabic punctuation. The single punct in ST-8 might be any of the three.
  • In the area of Verona, we find a number of inscriptions where puncts in the shape of short verticals, often in the upper or lower area of the line rather than in the middle, appear not so much to mark bothersome consonants, but to replace vowels (VR-2, VR-4, VR-10, VR-11, VR-14). Whether this phenomenon is linguistical or graphical is unclear. VR-17 seems to display syllabic punctuation according to Venetic rules (with marked i in a diphthong), which together with its four-barred Mu indicates Venetic writing. See also VR-6.
  • Currently incomprehensible punctuation practices were employed on the Ganglegg and in Trissino, where a number of inscriptions, some of dubious linguistic relevance, are gayly punctuated without obvious signification. In VN-11, at least, the puncts appear to separate the inscription per se from para-script elements.
  • Isloated finds with potential syllabic punctuation are TV-1.1 (highly irregular), CE-1.3 (correct syllabic punctuation), and PA-1 (probably the same), for which see the inscription pages.

In two inscriptions (IT-5, RN-2), the text is written into a grid. For delimitation signs, see Non-script notational systems.

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Marker C Maroon.png grid lines (2); Marker C Chocolate.png word separation (punctuation2 s, punctuation3 s, punctuation4 s, punctuation5 s) (6); Marker C Goldenrod.png word separation or syllabic punctuation (punctuation s, punctuation7 s) (24); Marker C Gold.png syllabic punctuation (punctuation8 s, punctuation9 s, punctuation11 s) (7); Marker C Khaki.png ligatures with punct (11); Marker C DarkKhaki.png space (19)


Ligatures are rare in Raetic, but considering that none (to our knowledge) are known from Venetic and Lepontic inscriptions, they might almost be considered a speciality of Raetic. We know both actual ligatures of letters, and inscribed punctuation marks (which are treated as ligatures in TIR).

Inscribed punctuation marks are exclusively syllabic puncts (as opposed to word separators). The practice is well known from Venetic, e.g. ???. In Raetic, they occur in the inscriptions of Magrè (MA-12, MA-13, MA-14, MA-16, MA-17) and Serso (SR-1, SR-6, SR-7, SR-10) as well as in PA-1 and possibly TV-1.1. The letters into which puncts are inscribed are Mu M s, Lambda L s and Rho R s; the punct can be either a dot punctuation s or a short stroke punctuation7 s. In the cases of Mpunct s and Lpunct2 s, the punct is essentially just placed under the bar(s) of the letter, which must not necessarily be considered an inscribed punct, but may in some cases simply be due to space-saving or chance. Rpunct2 s being attested at both Magrè and Serso, Mpunct s and Lpunct2 s are also filed as ligatures in TIR. As concerns the two isolated inscriptions, they both have only Lpunct2 s – while in PA-1 the punct seems quite deliberately placed inside the angle formed by hasta and bar, its position in TV-1.1 is probably accidental (N s is twice followed by a punct in the inscription rather than having it inscribed).

Ligatures of letters occur in the petrographs of Steinberg and maybe Achenkirch, and in the Non valley. ST-5 and ST-6 both have an element NU s = inverted and turned Nu N2 d + Upsilon U5 s writing nu, more precisely the patronymic suffix -nu. In AK-1.11, the reading is doubtful. (See also AK-1.17 for another possible ligature.) It is not clear why just these two letters should be ligated, as other consecutive pairs of letters in the mentioned inscriptions would lend themselves to being combined in the same manner, i.e. the bars of the first letter being attached against writing direction to the hasta of the second one. The same is true for the ligature LT s = turned Lambda L2 d + Tau T4 s writing lt, attested only once in NO-3. The manner of forming the ligature is the same, and again there are other letter pairs in the inscription which might well be ligated in the same way.

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Marker C Indigo.png NU ligature (1); Marker C MediumPurple.png LT ligature (1); Marker C Thistle.png ligatures with punct (11)

Note that Marchesini reads ligatures with inverted Alpha in VR-2 (MLR 45) and VR-6 (MLR 291), and a ligature of Pi and Sigma in VR-13 (MLR 123). These are ad hoc-readings of epigraphically difficult inscriptions without linguistical rationale, and are therefore at this point not filed in TIR.


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