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Prof.

Smit
11/17/09
JaredEliason
PortfolioB:CulturalChronologicalContext
EtruscanCulturalTransmissionandtheRomanAlphabet
Onedifficultyandasignificantdistinctionariseintheattempttocharacterizethe
culturalframeworkofthegenesisoftheRomanAlphabet.First,isthepointtodistinguish
thenameofthemaintrunkofEuropeanlanguages,theRomanalphabet,fromthe
primarymilieuofitsinvention.WhileitmayseempeculiartoemphasizeanEtruscan,
ratherthanRomanorLatin,culturalexamination,ItakemycuefromStevenFischerwho
maintainsthatfromtheEtruscancivilization,originatinginwhatismoderndayTuscany,
TheGreekalphabetsmostsignificantborrowingoccurred(137).Similarly,David
Sacksnotes,fromtheWestGreekalphabet,theEtruscanletterswouldprovidethe
modelandinspirationfortheRomanalphabet.(74).AstheEarlyLatinalphabet,witha
fewomissions,wasalmostentirelyderivedfromtheEtruscancollectionofletters
(Fischer138,Sacks81),Itakethispreponderantborrowingtobeakintoinventioninits
ownright.
ThetranslationoftheGreekalphabeticandwritingsystemtotheRoman
constructionwasaccomplishedprimarilythroughtheintermediaryofthisEtruscan
adoptionandadaptation(Robinson152).AlthoughthelaterRomancivilizationabsorbed
(yetalsolargelyoriginatedfrom)theEtruscancultureandalphabetinitspolitical
dominanceoftheItalianpeninsulabytheendofthe2ndcenturyB.C.,theroleofthe
Etruscansintheprogressionofthehistoryofwritingcannotbeoverestimated.
(Diringer386).WhileIwillhighlighttheEtruscantransmissionoftheGreekalphabetto
rudimentaryLatinforms,Romancivilization,emerginginpoliticaldominanceduringthe
300sB.C.,wasinnowayaperipheralforceinadvancingthealphabettoA.D.versions.
Acomplicationarisesindeterminingadefinitetimeperiodwhetheradecade,
halfcenturyormoreforwhichtheinventionoftheRomanalphabetcanfindits
approximatelocus.Asmanyinventionsthroughouthistoryaremoreorlessextendedin
theirdevelopmentandfluidintermsofculturaldefinition(theinventionofthe1980s
computerversustodaysreinventions,redefinitions),sowastheRomanalphabetnot
bornofonemindandapairofhandsduringashortsuccessionofmomentsordays.Inits
contemporarilyrecognizable,ModernEuropeanform,theLatinsystemoflettersisrather
anaggregationofmultiplecultures(Phoenician,Greek,Etruscan,Roman,European)
overtwomillennia(Robinson169,Sacks81).
Nonetheless,aspacetimerangecanbeassignedtotheemergenceoftheLatin
alphabet:aroundtheshinofItalysboot(centralItalynearNaples)andfromthelate
seventhcenturytotheendofthethirdcenturyB.C.Trackingthealphabetsprogress
throughGreekcolonization,Etruscanculturaladoption,andRomanpoliticaldominance
willprovideaculturalhistorythatincorporatesimportantgeographical,political,and
linguisticfactors.

PreparingthegroundfortheEtruscanalphabeticbridgewereGreeksailors
(Pallottino81)whosettledinPithekoussai(moderndayIschia)around775B.C.
(Robinson152).AsEtruscanpoliticalcontrolmovedsouthfromtheTiberRiver(and
ancientRome)inthesixthcentury(Salmon27),itsculturalsphereoverlappedwith
Greekcolonistinfluence,themostimportantinteractionbetweenEtruscanoralculture
andtheGreeksPhoenicianbornalphabet.ThemainreasonwhytheEtruscanalphabetis
amarkeddeparturefromtheGreek(Western/Euboeanform)isthattheEtruscanshadno
comparablespeechcousinsintheGreekempireorontheItalicpeninsula(Haynes1).
Themostlikelyexplanationforitsdifferentiationfromneighboringtonguesisthat
EtruscanhadnonIndoEuropeanorigins(Salmon26).TheEtruscanlanguagebehindthe
Greekborrowedalphabetisstillshroudedinmysterytothisday(Sacks78,Fischer137);
itsdecipherment,Robinsonnotes,issaidtobeliketryingtolearnEnglishbyreading
nothingbut(oldandworn,Ipresume)gravestones.(9).
AsGreektradingportswereestablishedfarthernorthandinland,mostnotablyat
Neapolis(Naples),theEtruscanscontactwiththeseestablishmentsledtocultural
identificationwiththeimportedreligiousandsocialcustoms,art,literature,architecture,
andmilitarymethodsofGreekcivilization.WhilethewordEtruscanisrootedinthe
RomannamingEtrusciorTusci(Haynes52),EtruscansbecameverymuchGreekintheir
societalstructure,values,andartisticexpressions(Sacks76).TheearliestGreekletters
usedbytheEtruscansappearonthetombsofpoliticalleadersandforinscriptionson
pottery(Haynes67,Sacks77).
Attheturnofseventhtothesixthcentury,theEtruscanflowofwritinggenerally
followedtheolderSemiticandPhoeniciandirectionofrighttoleft,ortheoddserpentine
methodcalledboustrophedon,wherelinesofwritingalternaterighttoleft,thenleftto
right.However,laterEtruscanalphabetsrevealaswitchtolefttorightorientation,most
likelyaLatininfluence(Fischer140).AnothersignificantEtruscanadaptationofthe
GreekalphabetcamewiththeabandonmentofpreviousSemiticnamingoflettersthat
signifyobjectwordrelationshipstoaphoneticallyderivedalphabet.Oneexamplethat
canilluminatetheEtruscanshifttosoundletterassociationisthejourneyoftheletter/L/.
InPhoenicianandHebrewalphabets,Lwaspronouncedlahmed,meaningoxgoad.
WhentheGreeksadoptedtheletterintotheirnovel,vowelsupplementedalphabet,they
calleditlambda,droppingtheoxgoadassociation(Sacks218).Holdingthe12thposition
asintodaysalphabet,LwasincorporatedintotheEtruscancollectionoflettersbutagain
experiencedareductioninitspronunciation.WhereasbeforeLwaspronouncedlahmed
orlambda,theEtruscanspareditdowntoelaccordingtothevowelsystemoftheir
speech(Fischer140).Thisadaptationhascarriedthroughtotodaywhenwehear
recitationsofourtwentysixletters,jay,kay,el,em,en.AcenturyafterGreek
maritimesettlementscreptupthecoastofcentralItaly,theEtruscanshadvirtually
inventedanewalphabet.AlthoughmanyEtruscanlettersfollowedPhoenicianandGreek
antecedents,thisintermediaryculturehadtransformedthealphabetthroughtheir
archaeologicallyenigmaticoraltradition.
AstheearlyRomanrepublic(established509B.C.)grewinpoweroverthe
Etruscancivilization,themorphingalphabetcontributedgreatlytoliteracyandthe
unificationofRomancitystates(Salmon122).AlthoughtheEtruscanswereeclipsed

politicallyby264B.C.,theirwritingsystemservedasasocialcatalystforthegrowing
Romanworldpower.ExceptforthefivelettersJ,V,W,Y,andZ,andexcludingfive
lettersfromtheEtruscantwentysix(Sacks81),theLatinalphabetshapesassumeda
formthatwewouldbeablereadandwritewithtoday.
WorksCited:
Diringer,David.TheAlphabet:AKeytotheHistoryofMankind.Vol.1.NewYork:
FunkandWagnalls,1968.Print.2vols.
Fischer,StevenR.AHistoryofWriting.London:ReaktionBooks,2001.Print.
Haynes,Sybille.EtruscanCivilization.LosAngeles:TheJ.PaulGettyMuseum,2000.
Print.
Pallottino,Massimo.TheEtruscans.Bloomington&London:IndianaUniversityPress,
1975.Print.
Robinson,Andrew.TheStoryofWriting.London:ThamesandHudson,2007.Print.
Sacks,David.LetterPerfect:TheMarvelousHistoryofOurAlphabetFromAtoZ.
NewYork:BroadwayBooks,2004.Print.
Salmon,E.T.TheMakingofRomanItaly.Ithaca:CornelUniversityPress,1982.Print.