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Title: Proto-Italic  
Author: World Heritage Encyclopedia
Language: English
Subject: Latin spelling and pronunciation, Urheimat, Grassmann's law, Shuadit language, Italo-Celtic, History of Latin, Phonological change
Publisher: World Heritage Encyclopedia


Ethnicity: Italic peoples
Originally Italy, today mainly southern Europe, maximum extent world-wide intermittent (most of America. Official languages of half the countries in Africa and parts of Oceania).
Linguistic classification: Indo-European
  • Italic
Ethnologue code: ISO 639-5: itc
Italy during the sixth century BC. (Note: most of these are not Italic languages.)

The Italic languages are a subfamily of the Indo-European language family originally spoken by Italic peoples. They include the Romance languages derived from Latin (Galician, Italian, Spanish, Catalan, Portuguese, French, Romanian, Occitan, etc.); a number of extinct languages of the Italian Peninsula, including Umbrian, Oscan, Faliscan, South Picene; and Latin itself. At present, Latin and its daughter Romance languages are the only surviving languages of the Italic language family.

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 the ancient Veneti), 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.

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, 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:[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:

In addition, Aequian (spoken by the Aequi just east of Rome) and Vestinian (spoken by the Vestini in northeast Italy) are Italic but too poorly known to be further classified. Sicel in Sicily was reported to have been similar to Latin, but too little is known of it to verify that claim.

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 historical linguistics, language families are often considered to be descended from proto-languages. The comparative method is used for reconstructing a given proto-language from its descendants.


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
    • ɡʷɡ or w
  • Voiced aspirates become first unvoiced, then fricativize
    • ɸ
    • θ
    • ɡʱx
    • ɡʱʷkʰʷ
  • ... except after a nasal, where voiced aspirates lose their aspiration, becoming b d g gʷ.
  • p before in following syllable (e.g. Latin quinque 'five' from PIE *penkʷe); unchanged elsewhere
  • t → k when before l within a word;[6] unchanged elsewhere
  • Remaining plosives (b d ɡ k kʷ) are unchanged.


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


  • Vocalization of syllabic resonants, l̥ → ol, r̥ → or[4]
  • Syllabic m̥ n̥, and nonsyllabic resonants (l r m n w), are unchanged


The laryngeals are a class of hypothetical PIE sounds h1, h2, h3 that disappeared in late PIE, leaving coloring effects on adjacent vowels. Their disappearance left some distinctive sound combinations in Proto-Italic. In the changes below, the # follows standard practice in denoting a word boundary; that is, # at the beginning denotes word-initial.[7] H denotes any laryngeal. The simpler Italic developments of laryngeals are shared by much of Indo-European:

  • #h1e → #e, #h2e → #a, #h3e → #o
  • Ceh2C → CāC, Ceh3C → CōC
  • CHC → CaC

More characteristic of Italic are the interactions of laryngeals with resonants. R represents a resonant.

  • #HRC → #aRC and CHRC → CaRC, but #HRV → #RV
  • CRHC → CRāC but CRHV → CaRV
  • CiHC and probably CHiC → CīC; Ch2ei̯C → Cai̯C



  • 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 individual Italic languages. In Latin, for example, fb and θd between vowels, and θf at the beginning of a word.

See also



  • .
  • .

External links

  • , Leiden Indo-European Etymological Dictionaries Series, Brill Academic Publishers, 2008, 826pp. (part available freely online)

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