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Umbrian
Quick Facts
TypeC&V Alphabetic
GenealogyProto-Sinaitic > Greek
LocationEurope
Time350 BCE to 50 BCE
DirectionRight to Left

The Umbrians were one of the many nations that inhabited the Italic Peninsula before being absorbed into the growing Roman state. Their language, Umbrian, belonged to the Italic branch of the Indo-European family of languages. It was most closely related to Oscan and more distantly to Latin and Faliscan.

Like other ancient people of the Italic Peninsula, the Umbrians adopted the Etruscan alphabet to write their own language. This meant that Umbrian inherited the right-to-left writing direction. It also meant that certain pecularities of Etruscan was adopted as well. For one, the Etruscan language did not have the sounds [b], [g], [d], and [o], and as such they never used the letters for these sounds. With the exception of [b], the Umbrian script did not use these letters either, but surely the language had these sounds because comparisons with Latin and other Indo-European languages expect the existence of these sounds. In other words, some level of ambiguity might have existed in the reading of words.

The following is the Umbrian alphabet.

In addition, a colon-like symbol (:) was used to separate words. However, breaks in sentence or paragraph were not represented by any special signs or punctuation.

Umbrian is known primarily from seven bronze tablets called the Iguvine Tablets, so named because they were from the town of Iguvium (modern Gubbio). They date to about the 2nd century BCE, and describe Umbrian religious rituals. The length of their texts helped linguists to understand the Umbrian language greatly.

The following is an excerpt from an Iguvine Tablet.

Note that the direction of reading of Umbrian words is from right to left. Transliterated Umbrian words and English translations are spelled from left to right, but words are read from right to left. I apologize for this somewhat confusing reading order, but once you get accustomed to it, it works fairly well to convey Umbrian's original reading order without sacrificing clarity.

The prose translation would be:

Begin this ceremony by observing birds,
those in front and those behind. Before the Trebulam Gates
sacrifice three oxens. Offer grains,
put ribs on a tray, with wine and with mead
sacrifice for Mount Fisian, for nation of Iguvium.

You may recognize some words that are similar to Latin or even English. For example, Umbrian aves is very close to Latin avis, meaning "bird", although the equivalent declension should be avibus, the plural dative declension. Other similar words include: Umbrian vinu, Latin vinō ("wine", singular dative); Umbrian tre, Latin tres ("three"); and Umbrian buf, Latin bovēs ("oxen", plural accusative).

Like other pre-Roman Italic nations, the Umbrian were assimilated into the Roman state, and lost their identity, language, and script. No trace of Umbrian inscriptions after 50 BCE has been found. Most likely, the Umbrian people have disappeared in history by that time, leaving us only scant evidence of their way of life.

You can also find a copy of the Umbrian script I used to create this page in the Downloads section.

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