The languages of the South Picene group

Lead Research Organisation: UNIVERSITY OF EXETER
Department Name: Classics and Ancient History


South Picene, which was first fully deciphered in the 1980s, remains one of the least understood languages of ancient Italy. Representing the expression of a civilisation that reached its peak c. 500 B.C. in Central Italy, it produced mysterious texts, written mainly on stones, which furnish an almost unmatched wealth of information about the local language and culture. The first goal of my research is a new, more accurate linguistic analysis of the inscriptions belonging to the South Picene group (including both the South Picene inscriptions proper and the related Pre-Samnitic ones). In the light of my analysis, I will then (a) identify new isoglosses instrumental for the internal classification of the Sabellian languages; (b) examine the relationship between South Picene, on the one hand, and Sabine as well as other minor dialects of Central Italy previously identified as closely linked to South Picene, on the other; (c) take a fresh look at South Picene consonantism.

My contribution consists, first and foremost, in arriving at a novel understanding of the aforementioned points, but also, through them, in peering into the history and customs of peoples whose precise identity continues to elude us. That classical sources provide, at times, a skewed picture of these cultures further complicates the problem, thus making the need for a thorough review of the evidence available all the more inescapable. The research I am undertaking aspires to do exactly that, by letting the inscriptions speak for themselves. More specifically, it aims at reaching entirely new conclusions not simply on the nature of the texts and the language(s) in which they are written, but also, more generally, on the ties between South Picene and the other Sabellian varieties (old and more recent alike) spoken in Central Italy.

In order to interpret these texts, I am adopting an interdisciplinary approach that is primarily linguistic, but also draws from other disciplines (including Classics, archaeology, ancient history and epigraphy). Using these methods, I am gaining a very good understanding of the texts themselves at the level of phonology, morphology and syntax. In the process, I am also fine-tuning the already existing hermeneutic methods, some of them already applied in my paper 'The sacred law from Tortora', which will be published in the peer-reviewed journal Latomus in the next few months.

Although my journey as a PhD student in Classics and Ancient History at the University of Exeter began recently, a whole host of data is already emerging. It is becoming increasingly clear, for example, that most South Picene inscriptions are either funerary dedications to individuals of noble extraction who were deified after their passing or sacred laws. In some cases, the deceased mentioned there are addressed, in keeping with a system also employed by the Romans, by a formula consisting of two different designations, the praenomen plus the gentilicium. Furthermore, contrary to the communis opinio, it seems highly likely that none of these texts is identifiable as a 'speaking inscription'.


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